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Brady Wolf: One of Them

Summary

A unique, mostly cliché-free story where the good does not always win, and where important and even many unimportant characters are three-dimensional and complex. A story written in a clear, direct manner as to prevent lengthy, tiring sections. A story that can be loved by both avid, casual, and even non-readers. The first book in a saga that will hopefully one day turn into a breeding ground for theories, fanfiction, and ships.


16-year-old, scatterbrained, social inept Brady Heliot lives a quiet life in the fictional town of Yatawa, Washington, dealing with the average problems of a socially awkward teen, until one day, he is attacked by something unearthly. 

In the evening of the day where he is discharged from the hospital, he is visited by grumpy man named Tunstall Allister, who informs him of the packs of Morus - a different species of human, home to a distant, secretive planet stuck in the Middle Ages, called Caliptus, who have the ability to retract and extend claws from their knuckles – travelling Earth in secret. Most of these packs consist of murderers, thieves and other scum that fled Caliptus to escape their sentences, and joined the Anolors of Great God Noah to roam Earth anonymously in the hopes of one day being allowed to integrate into Earth’s society by Markus Thorren, leader of the Anolors, and start anew. 
Tunstall Allister not only tells him of that, but he also informs him that there are two ways for people to turn into Morus as well; one of them being a rare, extra gene that mutates around someone’s seventeenth year, and the other being bitten by a Morus who is a Beast, the latter having befallen to Brady.

Brady now has two options. He can either join Tunstall Allister his pack, travel to Mount Adams, to the House of Great God Noah and become one of them, or stay at home, and await an assassin from Caliptus sent to silence him in order to keep their planet and everything about it a secret.

The following days, his life takes drastic changes. All of a sudden, girls take a liking to him and he quickly finds himself in an awkward love triangle while at the same time being blackmailed by a lonely, young woman suffering from an extreme, irrational fear of loneliness, and not only that, but his jealous best friend, Logan Coleman, is now trying his best to ruin Brady’s sudden popularity.

Brady quickly realizes what the right choice is, and when he meets the people in Tunstall Allister his pack, the decision seems a lot better than awaiting death at home, but before he can join them, he has to cut the new ties to his old life, and make sure that his family won’t try to track him down.

Brady Wolf: One of Them

Chapter 1

Green Light

 

 

“Vora, it is time.” A tall, tall man shadowed by darkness stood near the edge of a large square plateau of brown-red stone hovering high up in the sky.

He had his hands folded behind his back and he was holding his head high, and while he looked arrogant, he was not.

It was a defense mechanism. A mask.

Ancient Chikame was overlooking an endless green forest – mountains in the distant. The dark night sky made him blend in perfectly.

“I am here, Sire,” said Vora, whose time on Nepuliltir had not done him much good. Vora was pale, bald, emaciated, hollow-eyed, and if Ancient Chikame would have bothered to turn around, he would have had to look Vora into his white, soulless eyes.

He heard Vora, a traitor to his own kind, kneeling down behind him.

“You know what to do,” said Ancient Chikame apathetically.

“Of course, Master.”

Ancient Chikame listened to the footsteps of Vora’s bare feet dying off into the distance.

Silence returned. Chikame felt confident that his plan would work this time. If Vora would manage to turn the human into a Morus, it would all begin.

Chikame took a deep breath before he pressed the palms of his hands together, closed his eyes and disappeared with a noise that sounded like a thousand cries of agony.

A small heap of black matter was all that remained.

 

It was a cloudy Monday morning in the quiet part of Yatawa, Washington, better known as Yatawa Town.

An avenue led from left to right – from Downtown Yatawa to Yatawa Town – and a peaceful intersection separated these two parts of Yatawa from one another. If you were to follow the avenue from the intersection for about three hundred yards and then took a right and a right again, you’d arrive at the second-quietest street in Yatawa.

This asphalt street was usually only used to pass through to Downtown Yatawa by those living in Yatawa Town who didn’t have

a car. The street was about twenty houses long, and the houses were only standing on the left side of the street. This was because the right side was sloped, and at the top of the slope, trees were standing, trees that were part of the avenue.

There was a grassland behind the houses, and behind that grassland, there was a highway.

But out story doesn’t begin in this street, and neither does it in any of the houses standing in this street either.

You see, if you follow the avenue from the intersection, take the same route previously described and then, just before entering the second-quietest street in Yatawa, take a left, you’d arrive at the quietest street in Yatawa, only three houses long.

Not only was it but three houses long, but the street also ended in a dead end.

These three houses didn’t look anything like each other. The one farthest to the left – near the dead end, near the four, black, plastic poles separating the dead end from a short, a very short stretch of grass beside the road – was an old, large farmhouse, and behind it stood a dairy, as well as a large garage where months ago, the farmers who’d lived there kept their tractors.

Now, the farmhouse, as well as the dairy, the large garage, a smaller garage wherein the cats of the farmers used to sleep, and a small plot of land fenced off by chicken wire adjacent to a garage belonging to the family living in the middle of the street, were left empty, uninhabited.

The house farthest to the right, opposite of a very short road of aged bricks, which connected the quietest and second-quietest streets in Yatawa to each other, was smaller and had only one floor. The walls where white and mossy, the roof tiles black and mossy, and the old, cranky widow living in it had a large tree planted on the side of her gravel driveway closest to her mossy house.

The house in the center of the street, home to most notably our friend, Brady Heliot, the hero of this story, or well, hero… Let’s just say that Brady isn’t the hero type, and that he will also never become a hero.

Either way, the house standing in the center of the street, home to most notably our friend, Brady Heliot, was a pretty normal house. It was made of red bricks primarily, three floors high – the third floor was an attic – and it had white window frames. Like the house to the right of it, its roof tiles were black, but not nearly as mossy.

Overall, the house looked neat, and the fact that it was old was barely noticeable. Beech hedges fenced off the house and its grounds – the brick driveway to the left and the stretch of grass to the right.

Diagonally behind the house, stood a large, wooden garage, and the backyard was also above average in comparison to the backyards of most houses in the area.

Half of it – the lower part – consisted of grass and was separated into two separate areas by a winding brick path. The other half of it – the upper part, near the backdoor of the house and the garage – consisted of bricks, and in-between the lower part and the upper part was a small, extra garden that had a couple of small conifers standing in, next to an adult beech.

Four people lived in this house – it used to be five – and one of them was Brady. Brady Heliot.

 

Brady was standing in the orange-tiled bathroom, brushing his teeth and looking at himself in the large mirror above the white sink. Condensation had formed on the mirror, and the bathroom was still wet and humid because his younger brother, Brian, had just taken a shower.

“Did you pack your stuff?” called Janson Heliot, Brady’s father, from the kitchen, sounding as if he was in a rush.

“Mm-hmm,” Brady replied distractedly.

His attention had been drawn to his eyebrows.

They were rectangular, like a gentle roof on a house. While he had received many compliments regarding his eyebrows, he had always wanted to shave off the tips. He believed that this would make his resting face appear a bit friendlier.

He was growing tired of comments like ‘Why do you always look angry?’ and ‘Did something happen?’.

No. Nothing had happened.

It was just that his eyebrows made his resting face seem either frowny or hateful, scowling, sullen, while in reality, all Brady

wanted was to look inviting and make some more friends.

Brady was slightly taller than average for a sixteen-year-old boy like himself.

He stood five feet and ten inches tall. His hair was almond brown, and he kept it in a textured modern quiff – not short on the sides. He put a lot of work into it each morning as to look as presentable as possible to other people.

He had large, honey brown eyes, and overall, he was in okay shape. If he were to lift up his shirt, a hint of a six-pack would become visible.

Oddly enough, he hadn’t put any work into it apart from doing a couple of pushups each evening.

Brady spat out the toothpaste, rinsed his mouth and then inspected his teeth.

He cleaned his toothbrush and then put it back and after that, he left the bathroom, entering the back hallway which floor consisted of shiny, square tiles ranging from blue ones to red-brown ones.

He saw his father – a six-foot-four, forty-six year old man with dark blond hair that he kept in short spikes – standing in the kitchen, hurriedly putting butter on a couple slices of bread.

Janson Heliot’s eyes were cornflower-blue, and he was broad-shouldered and slightly overweight.

Brady sat down on the step forming the border between the kitchen – a square room with white cabinets, a brown, laminated floor and chocolate brown stucco walls – and the back hallway. There was a large window in the right wall of the kitchen, which overlooked the driveway.

Brady put his right leg over his left leg and put on his dark brown shoes.

“Looking forward to school?” his father asked him while he put his bread into his red lunch box.

“Hm.”

His father gave a snort of laughter. “Is that a yes or a no?”

“A little bit of both, I guess,” replied Brady sullenly, tying his right shoe.

He grabbed his black jacket with the gray hood and put it on before picking up his black backpack and putting that on as well.

He heaved a sigh.

“More of a no than a yes, it sounds like,” his father remarked humorously.

“Yep. Gotta go. See you next week,” Brady approached the black back door before turning back to his father. “Or this evening, depending on what time you’re planning on dropping off the bags.”

“Around seven, so I’ll probably see you. Good luck at school.”

“And you, with work, that is.”

His father worked at a demolition company in Yatawa Town called ‘J. West Demolitions’. He was the engineer there, the only engineer.

Brady closed the back door and stepped onto the bricks. Noah, a female German shepherd, came out of her doghouse and charged at him, glad to see him again. Brady petted her, and as always, Noah pushed herself between his legs, coming out the other way before doing the same thing over again, her tongue hanging out of her mouth.

If Brady recalled it correctly, Noah was six years old. She was born in either July or June.

His father – resourceful as he was – had already put their bikes outside, so all Brady had to do was grab his bike – the light black one – open the fence gate in the tall, wooden fence connected to the house, and take it outside, all and all while making sure that Noah wouldn’t escape.

He climbed onto his bike and cycled down the driveway, passing his dad’s champagne-colored Saab.

Cars didn’t interest Brady that much.

Honestly, he only remembered the brand of his dad’s car like, half the time, if even.

As Brady cycled past his neighbor’s house, he was thinking about his warm bed, but as soon as he took a left, cycling past the houses on his left, he was focused on the wind.

The only thing worse than leaving his warm bed was cycling to school with headwind. Sometimes it would frustrate him so much that he sat on his bike grinding his teeth angrily and squeezing his handlebars so hard it hurt.

Not only did the wind oppose his forward motion, but it also disheveled his hair.

Fortunately, the wind wasn’t strong today.

Only slightly annoyed, Brady reached for his phone, looking at the time.

Five past eight, which meant that he had twenty-five minutes to get

to school.

Should be enough, Brady thought.

Looking at the sky, he saw that the clouds were starting to become darker. He already saw the upcoming intersection in the distance, along with the short cycle track, which he had to follow in order to get to it.

A few cars were waiting in line at the intersection for the lights to turn green.

“Damn,” Brady whispered as the first rain drops landed on his scalp.

The traffic lights weren’t in his favor either; red. He stopped next to a short, black pole in the grass and leaned on it after pressing the yellow button.

He couldn’t keep himself from looking through the windshields of some of the cars waiting in line, causing him to have some awkward eye contact with the people inside.

His expression went neutral when a bald, broad man in a yellow Kenny Loggers van locked eye contact with him.

He heard someone stopping behind him, and after unsurely turning his head twice, he recognized the boy behind him.

It was Jamie; one of his classmates.

Jamie was of African descent and a year younger than his sixteen-year-old self was. Jamie was also a couple of inches shorter, standing at around five feet and seven inches tall.

“Hey man,” Jamie said before wiggling forward on his bicycle and coming to a stop next to him.

Jamie had big brown eyes and he had a very short afro.

“Hi,” replied Brady shortly, not knowing what else to say.

It wasn’t like Jamie was a friend of his, but they’d known each other for quite some time.

A raindrop landed on Brady’s eyelid and he had to look away for a second in order to wipe it off.

Jamie didn’t live that far away from him.

They’d been classmates years ago, and were again now. To break the awkward silence, Brady decided to start about school.

“Did you -- study for that economics test?”

“No. Did you?”

Brady hated how each time he had a conversation like this, it sounded really forced.

It was probably just him.

He’d been introduced to Jamie in kindergarten, and they’d been good friends for around seven years, but their friendship had died off rather quickly when Jamie failed school and had to redo a year.

This year was the first time they were in the same class again, and that was because Brady hadn’t been able to pass last year because of his poor grades.

He blamed it on the struggles with his parents’ divorce, but deep inside, he knew that it was his own fault, but who liked to admit to that? The traffic light turned green and they continued their journey to school.

“I haven’t either,” Brady replied, and after cycling next to each other surrounded by an awkward silence for several seconds, Brady finally found another subject to talk about. “So, how is the new Fidelity game?”

They had crossed the intersection and were now cycling over a bicycle track. On their left, there was a cultivated field with in the center a large, abandoned factory made of red bricks.

Jamie shrugged. “I’d say it’s kind of good, but not as good as I’d expected it to be. The Agility-Suits really suck.” With a brief snort and a smile, Jamie added, “The only thing you see in multiplayer nowadays is people jumping and wall-running around the map. It’s like -- a circus, you know?”

Brady squinted. “I don’t think they wall-run in circuses,” he said before biting on his lip, realizing that he had done it again. Quickly, he added, “Well, they said that the last Fidelity game was too good to be true, right? It’s obvious -- to me, that the new one will have trouble living up to its predecessors’ standards.”

Jamie cocked his head slightly as if he hadn’t completely understood what Brady had just said. Brady couldn’t blame him. He was a quick talker and he would often stumble over his own words.

“So I -- shouldn’t buy it?” Brady asked.

“Nah. I’d wait for the next Fidelity if I were you. Almost every Fidelity fan hates the new Agility-Suits thing. You’d think the developers of the game would listen to their fans and not add it into their next game, right?”

 

Downtown Yatawa Senior High School was a quiet school located in the center of Downtown Yatawa near a peaceful park with a lake. It was built opposite a small apartment complex and it housed around two hundred students.

The school was three stories high, constructed of light-brown bricks and shaped like a steel square.

The right part of the school grounds consisted of bicycle racks on cement gravel tiles. It was the left part where people hung out during recess, but most students preferred to spend their time in the canteen.

The weather had changed little. It wasn’t drizzling anymore, but the frequent gusts of cold wind remained, as did the cloudy sky.

A couple dozen students were standing in packs near and not-so-near the glass double door that formed the entrance to the school, and more particularly, one of the three entrances to the canteen.

Brady and Jaime split up just before cycling onto the school’s grounds. While Jaime put his bike somewhere in the back, Brady put his in one of the racks closest to the school.

He locked it, turned around and walked before showing off an expert-level display of clumsiness by nearly tripping over his own feet, and then nearly tripping over his feet again just seconds after.

Feeling his face turning strawberry-red, Brady kept his head down and looked to the left and to the right awkwardly, hoping that nobody had seen him.

He walked across the school grounds, totally forgetting about Jamie, and he felt relieved when he realized nobody had seen his double blunder.

Logan was standing by the double glass doors of the school, waiting for him, like he did every morning.

“Hey,” said Brady softly.

“Sup?” Logan smiled. Together, they entered the school.

Logan was a little bit taller than Brady was, and he was strong too, yet not broad or anything.

Logan had light-blue eyes and short, light-blond hair, which he kept in a fringe cut.

Usually, Logan wore white or light-blue, just like today – a plain, white shirt and light blue sneakers along with a blue pair of jeans.

Logan went to the gym almost every single day, and he was a kickboxer. He had failed last year too, just like Brady had.

“What subject do we have now?” Brady wondered aloud. 

“English, I think,” Logan said, sounding confident, so Brady trusted his answer. “Classroom A-six or something.”

When he had first met Logan and in the first couple of months of their friendship, Logan had seemed like such an amazing guy. Their friendship had been something Brady hadn’t experienced in a while. They’d talked about their common interests on a daily basis, and they’d laughed, but since a couple of months, Logan’s behavior

towards him had changed for the worse.

Logan thought that he was a big deal. He thought that he was strong and oh so smart.

Basically, Logan had revealed his true side to him, and after doing some research on the internet, Brady had concluded that Logan must be a narcissist.

Brady didn’t like Logan nearly as much as Logan thought he did, but Brady didn’t have any other true friends to sit next to in class, and he

dreaded sitting alone, so staying with Logan was really his only option.

Brady and Logan had been introduced to each other last school year, and while they hadn’t been in the same class that year, they’d been friends ever since – meeting during recess and free hours and such – but over the last couple of months, their friendship had become… quite odd.

“Homework?” Brady asked as they walked through the crowded canteen, which always made him feel uncomfortable.

“Nope, I didn’t do it,” Logan responded without looking at him. “I don’t mean to brag, but I score high grades without studying. Come on, you should know that.”

There was not nearly enough space for each student in the rather colorful canteen, which was why you’d see lots of students spending their recess on the school grounds, no matter what the weather was like.

They headed to classroom A-six, which was located on the first floor in the hallway to the right of the canteen, just past the staircase leading up to the second floor.

The floor of the canteen was the only floor consisting of wood. The rest of the floors in the school consisted of black carpet floor tiles.

“Guess who messaged me again?” Logan asked, the corners of his mouth turning up into a smile.

“Ehhm, that girl from economics?” Brady replied, faking interest.

“Yeah. She keeps on messaging me, man.”

They entered the hallway – forest-green lockers on either side of them.

Just when they took their third step, they saw Mark Barton descending the staircase to their right.

“Yo, Mark,” said Logan in his cool voice.  

Mark jumped down the last stair and looked up at them with that cheeky smile he always had on his face.

Mark was short, standing at around five feet and four inches tall, but he made up for his short stature with his strength and expertise in MMA. His voice was deep for his age, and it was also gravelly. His eyes were dark-brown and his hair – which he kept in a slicked back style – was orange-red. Most of Mark’s friends called Mark redhead or Barty. Logan especially.

Like many red-haired people, Mark had a pale skin, and he had numerous freckles on his cheeks.

Mark’s facial features were very masculine, and his strong jaw was the most prominent of his physical traits.

“What’s up, boys?” said Mark loudly and energetically before he placed his arm around Logan’s neck. Logan accepted it, but he didn’t seem to like it.

Brady didn’t like most excessively loud people, and Mark was one of those people. It seemed like Mark could only speak loudly, except for when he was talking to a teacher, because then his voice would be softer and respectful.

“How is this day starting?” Mark asked.

“With your mother on the table,” Logan responded humorously. “Legs spread.”

 “Nah, man,” said Mark, stretching his words and tittering. “I mean what subject, dude.”

Yeah, Brady didn’t like Mark all that much. Mark always hit him on the back of his head when he wasn’t paying attention. It was annoying and quite frustrating, especially because he always just let it happen and didn’t do anything back. He just couldn’t.

“Oh,” said Logan. “English. A-six.”

Seconds later, they arrived at classroom A-six, located near the end of the hallway. Opposite of the door, there was another hallway, which led to the principal’s office. Logan tried to open the red door – each door leading to a classroom was red in Downtown Yatawa

High – but it was locked. “What? She’s not here yet?”

They then heard sounds coming from inside of the classroom

The door opened. Miss Jones was on the other side, sitting on a desk chair.

Miss Jones was a pretty thirty-year-old with curly, orange-red hair, large, light-blue eyes and a smile that seemed to be everlasting. While only thirty-years-old, the chain-smoking had taken a toll on her face, and while she was still pretty, she looked a lot older than she actually was.

If Brady hadn’t known her age, he would’ve said she was around her mid-fifties.

“Good morning, Miss Jones,” said Mark politely. “Why did you lock the door?” They entered the classroom while Miss Jones rolled back to the light brown office standing in the far right corner of the room near a window overlooking a small park behind the school. “Were you doing some naughty stuff?”

“Perhaps,” she said mysteriously before adding a snort of laughter.

“That’s not how you are supposed to talk to teachers, Barton.”

Miss Jones was one of the only teachers on this school to whom one could say stuff like that. Miss Jones loved to play this online role-playing game of which Brady didn’t know the name. The game seemed fun, but he didn’t have the guts to ask her what it was called, fearing that he’d be judged by his classmates.

Brady and Logan favored the seats near the door, and that was exactly where they were going to sit again this hour.

They took a seat on the creaky chairs behind the school desks. Logan sat next to the white wall and Brady next to him. This were basically their standard seats in each classroom.

While Brady and Logan discussed the weekend, the classroom slowly filled up with his classmates.

Like them, most of them were talking about what they had done this weekend. Usually, many of the conversations were about The Triangle, which was a large, triangular-shaped area in the center of Downtown Yatawa. The Triangle was filled with bars and pubs. Most of the bars in the Triangle rarely checked their customers’ age and served alcohol to nearly everyone, which was why the Triangle was so popular amongst young teens over the age of fourteen.

Brady had tasted alcohol before, namely beer, and even though it hadn’t tasted that bad, he just didn’t like it.

What he disliked even more was how most of the children who were younger than he was and even many of the children who were of around the same age as him – fifteen, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds – went to the Triangle to drink alcohol in a feeble attempt to look cool and impress others.

As the latecomers entered the classroom moments after the school bell had rang – which signified either that class has begun or that class had ended. Had begun in this case – Miss Jones got up, ready to begin class.

“Look at Bar-bot,” said Logan, chortling softly.

Brady looked at the girl where his friend – probably his only friend – was referring to. It was Barbara Ralston.

Barbara Ralston had light-brown hair, shoulder-length, and she rarely spoke, but when she did, she always had to repeat herself over and over again because she spoke so softly and so unclearly. Her face was covered in pimples, and her dark-brown eyes, accompanied by her eyebrows, always made her look anxious.

Barbara was fifteen years old, just like most of his classmates.

Logan called her ‘Bar-bot’. Brady didn’t know why he did, but he did know that Logan had nicknames for most people, like ‘Barty’ for Mark Barton.

“Alright, class,” said Miss Jones. “Today, we will be discussing the grammar of chapter four.”

“Here we go again,” Logan murmured. He didn’t like English class as opposed to Brady, who found it to be one of his favorite subjects.

 

The school bell rang. It was raining heavily outside, even though it was mid-March. The door of classroom A-six opened and Brady and Logan were the first two to come out, followed by their classmates.

“Wanna go to the canteen?” Logan asked him, knowing what Brady’s answer would be.

“Nah, let’s go to the second floor,” Brady replied. “We’ve got a free hour now, right?”

Logan nodded. “But we’re going to the canteen,” he added.

Brady rolled his eyes and didn’t argue with that. He knew Logan long enough to know that Logan wouldn’t be argued with.

Brady didn’t like to be bossed around, but because of the fact that

Logan was really the only friend he had at school, he couldn’t be a chooser.

Continuing their conversation about the weekend, they strolled through the hallway. It was quite busy. In fact, it was so busy that Brady bumped into people repeatedly.

It was only when he bumped into someone fully that he gained the courtesy to apologize.

“Oh – eh – sorry,” Brady stuttered.

He looked up shamefully and then noticed to whom he’d just apologized.

Brady glanced at her neck. Below her mid-back length, wavy, golden-blonde hair hung a golden necklace that had a fake, red ruby as a pendant.

“Sorry, Lisa,” he added, looking the girl uncomfortably into her stunning light-blue eyes.

“You know my name?” she asked, surprised.

Lisa Abernathy was two years younger than he was, as far as he knew. She could as well have been the same age him. Lisa was taller than most of her classmates.

Marlene, Lisa’s almost identical twin sister, grabbed Lisa by the arm.

“Come on, Lisa,” Marlene said pushily as she gently pulled her twin sister with her. “We have a class to attend to.”

Brady looked at Lisa as she walked away with her sister. His heart stopped for a moment when she turned to look at him. She caught his glance and smiled, and Brady instantly knew that this would be the highlight of his week, even though it was only Monday.

He tried to muster up a smile, but he couldn’t, and then Lisa looked away.

Man, thought Brady wondrously. Her eyes –  

“What was that about?” Logan asked, one of his eyebrows raised. “How’d you know her name?” he gave a snort. “Who was that even?”

Awkwardly, Brady turned to his friend. “Guessed it, obviously,” he lied.

“Pff.” Logan shook dismissively.

The two made their way to the canteen.

Lisa Justine Abernathy, Brady recalled.

He had liked Lisa ever since the first time he’d seen her in one of the first weeks of this schoolyear. At first, he hadn’t know which one of the twins was Lisa, but when he’d compared their profile pictures on DailyFunz – an immensely popular social networking website – he had noticed a tiny difference between the two girls. Marlene had a mole above the right corner of her mouth while Lisa had not.

Because it was a rather small mole, he had not been able to tell who was who from a distance, which was why he had given Lisa the necklace last Valentine’s Day, along with a poem he’d written himself. He’d been too afraid to give it to her in person, but fortunately, there was this event going on at school; if you’d give the Valentine’s Day presents to the man standing behind the counter in the canteen, along with a small note that had the name of the receiver written on it, that man or one of the volunteers would give it to whom was meant to receive it.

A month later, this month, Lisa still wore the necklace.

Logan sat down on the sofa in the far right corner of the room at a table while Brady sat down opposite of him on a chair.

Almost instantly, Logan reached for his phone while the canteen slowly filled up with their classmates. They were currently the only class with a free hour, and after that free hour, there would be twenty minutes of recess.

Brady didn’t grab his phone.

Instead, he opened his black backpack, grabbed his lunch box and ate some bread, thinking about not only the next class, but also about Lisa and how in the world he was ever going to make the first move, because – according to the internet – the guy was supposed to make the first move.

“What level is your castle?” asked Logan after several moments of silence.

Logan was referring to the mobile game they both played. It was an online, medieval city-building game. Brady rarely played it. He wasn’t that much of a mobile gamer.

“Level three.” Brady took a bite from his peanut butter sandwich. “I’m upgrading everything to the max and I’m going to upgrade the castle after that.”

Logan shook and grinned. “Oh – oh – oh – oh – oh,” he said. “My castle is level five, which means that I’m better than you.”

Brady heaved a sigh and felt his heartrate increasing. Logan was in the provocative mood again.

“I was better than you,” Brady responded, piling up the anger rather than unleashing it onto his only friend. “My castle was level nine.”

Logan chuckled without even looking at him. “You were better, yeah.”

Brady had trouble expressing his anger. This was the umpteenth time he’d chosen to pile it up rather than to express it and be done with it.

In these moments, his stupid brain could never come up with a witty reply to provocative and negative comments such as the ones Logan had just made, and that only made Brady become even more frustrated. Clenching his jaw, Brady looked at the trees through the window to his right. A second or two later, Logan looked up from his phone.

“The hell are you doing?”

Brady ignored him, prompting Logan to snap his fingers right in front of his eyes.

“What?” said Brady curtly.

“Did you hear what I just said?”

“No.”

Logan closed his eyes and shook in a disdainful manner. “Kay said I could join his basketball team because I’m good. We have PE tomorrow and he said that Mark, Mike, he and I have to be in the same team so that we can start coming up with strategies for the basketball competitions, you know? They’re in two weeks.”

Brady tilted his head and narrowed his eyes, “In two weeks?”

“Yeah, in two weeks,” a smile appeared on Logan’s face. “Too bad for you that there is only one more team left for you to join.”

Brady looked away for a second before turning back to his friend, already suspecting what the answer was to the question he wanted to ask.

“Which team?”

“Bar-bots team,” Logan chuckled. “For your information, her team consists of fat ol’ Julia, Freckled Vick and that weird emo guy, Kevin or something.” With a guffaw, Logan added, “You’ll fit right in.”

“No, no no no no no. Not gonna happen. I already know what I’m going to do. I’ll just find a way to stay home,” said Brady lightly. “I’ll -- break my ankle or something.”

Logan gave a snort of genuine laughter before he shook and focused on his phone again. “Good luck with that, weirdo.”

Brady turned his gaze down to the floor and continued eating his bread.

 

The school bell rang again. Brady and Logan went to the second floor. There were classrooms spread all over that floor, but the windows were covered up with plastic so that one couldn’t see anything through them. In the center of the second floor stood a bunch of tables and chairs that were meant to be used by those who wished to study in peace during a free hour or during recess. Brady looked through the window of a classroom opposite of him. He didn’t see a thing but a few hazy silhouettes of people, tables and chairs.

“Castle level six,” announced Logan triumphantly as if it were a big deal.

Brady got his phone out of his pocket. “Okay, cool. Cool,” he said dismissively.

Logan looked at him and hit him on his thigh.

Brady didn’t do anything back. He just turned red and looked at his phone, hoping that this feeling of embarrassment would be quick to fade.

“You really think you’re the best, don’t you?” said Logan spitefully.

Brady attempted to ignore Logan’s insult and opened his backpack, searching for his bottle of ice tea and hoping to be able to suppress his emotions that way.

A small group of girls, each of them about a year older than them, rounded the corner from a hallway of the second floor and walked past the other side of the table where Logan and he were sitting. They were talking and laughing, but not too loudly.

Oblivious of their presence, Brady closed his backpack with the bottle of ice tea in his hand and only then noticed them, as he sat upright. They stopped talking and some looked at him as they passed by, making Brady feel rather self-conscious.

Luckily, they kept on walking.

“Why does everyone always look at you?” Logan asked, sounding almost jealous.

“What do you mean?” Brady replied, glad that the topic had changed.

“I don’t know -- people just always seem to look at you more often than they do at others.”

A hint of a smile appeared on Brady’s face, but thinking about it, he realized that they might as well be looking at him because they thought he looked weird, which instantly made him feel bad again.

 

Chapter 2

Unreal Reality

 

 

The biology classroom was filled with fake animal organs and posters of plants, hearts and lungs.

It was always very warm in the biology classroom, and this was because the biology teacher always turned the thermostat to three hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit because she was such a cold frog. Brady was leaning with his chin on his hand, looking at the whiteboard at the other end of the classroom.

The biology teacher was talking about the human heart. This topic didn’t really interest him. He liked biology, but he had already learned this last year. The fact that he was being taught the same stuff for the second time accompanied by the warmth inside of the classroom made him drowsy, which didn’t help him stay focused on this now tedious subject. He allowed his mind to wander off, and for a moment, countless of random thoughts seeped in.

Hearing his name all of a sudden snapped him back to reality.

“Brady, can you at least try to pay attention?” Miss Martins asked. “You didn’t fail last year for no reason. Do you want that to happen again?”

Some of his classmates turned to look at him from over their shoulders, which made him anxious. “Eh, what?” he said, confused.

He heard Logan chuckling next to him.

“I’m not going to repeat myself again,” Miss Martins said. “Just pay attention.”

She turned back to the whiteboard and continued the lesson.

“So, the pulmonary circulation starts here.” Miss Martins pointed at a poorly drawn heart on the whiteboard.

Repeat myself again, Brady thought. Technically, she hadn’t repeated herself even once, so how could she possibly repeat herself again without repeating herself first?

Usually, Miss Martins was nice. She was in her late twenties, had shoulder-length, curly, dark-brown hair and was obsessed with her obese cat. She dedicated at least ten minutes a week to showing new and old pictures of her cat to the class. Brady wasn’t sure whether his classmates were actually interested in Miss Martins obese cat or if they were just doing a plausible job at faking it.

While Miss Martins was nice, she wasn’t very appealing to look at.

Her dark-brown eyes were pretty, but her chin was covered in pimples and her forehead was greasy and shiny.

Logan tapped him on the shoulder. “Look at Bar-bot,” he whispered, giggling.

“Yeah, ha-ha,” Brady replied sarcastically.

“No, you didn’t even look, man,” said Logan.

Brady froze when Miss Martins shot him an angry look.

He placed a trembling finger against his lips and shushed Logan.

“Brady,” said Miss Martins. “Could you go to the principal’s office? I want you back here once school is over.”

“But -- wha – ” Brady tried.

“In your face,” Logan whispered humorously. “In your face.”

Miss Martins frowned at Brady’s weak attempt to try and change her mind.

This really isn’t my day, he thought sullenly.

Brady got up, leaving his backpack and his books behind. He felt everyone watching him as he walked the two yards to the exit of the classroom.

He closed the door behind him, his heart thumping in his chest.

 

Brady arrived at the first floor and headed towards the principal’s office. He walked past the English classroom and followed the hallway to the right.

The hallways were deserted and it made him feel as if he was only one in school.

He followed the hallway to the left and could already see the principal’s office in the distance.

The walls inside of the school consisted of bricks, but these bricks were a little larger and had a warmer color than those that formed the outer walls of the school.

Overall, at least on the inside, the school looked cozy and warm.

When Brady looked up, he noticed that there was somebody else standing by the door, or actually, leaning against the wall beside the door, arms folded, his expression smug.

It was Kay Chandler.

Kay Chandler was a popular kid here in Downtown Yatawa Senior High School, and he was one of his classmates.

No wonder Kay hadn’t been there during biology. He probably had to report himself to the principal as well.

Kay’s big mouth always got him in trouble, and it had again today,

undoubtedly.

Brady couldn’t comprehend why people like Kay didn’t think before they spoke.  

“Yo,” said Kay disinterestedly, barely acknowledging Brady’s presence.

“Hi,” said Brady shyly. Brady realized that he was currently in an active conversation with one of the most popular guys in school.

He had to watch his mouth very carefully because if he were to make a fool of himself during this conversation, tomorrow, everyone would know.

“Wh – wh – wha – at are you doing here?” Oh no.

Kay squinted at him before looking down at the black carpet floor again. “I was sent here,” he said coolly.

Not only did Kay talk cool, but he also looked cool. Kay had these shark-like eyes along with a badass glance that made eight out of ten girls get a crush on him instantly. His light-brown hair was short and spiky, and while Kay was a year younger than Brady, he was as tall, if not slightly taller, but not taller than Logan.

If it wasn’t for the face and his impeccable self-confidence, his clothing sure made him stand out. Kay’s father was a tailor, and a successful one, so naturally, Kay’s clothing was made to fit him perfectly. Currently, he wore a light-gray combat shirt with dark-gray sleeves and a ripped and faded pair of moss green jeans.

“W – ” Brady gulped. “Why?”

“For such a dumb reason.” Kay shook. “Man, I was thinking about just leaving, you know?” Kay looked up at him, a crooked smile on his face.

Brady looked rather interested all of a sudden. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d play truant. Even though he was a quiet kid and worried about literally everything, he would do this, even if it only was to proof himself to Kay Chandler.

Brady tilted his head a little. “You mean -- playing truant?”

 “Yeah.” Kay beamed. “You in?”

Brady gave a nod. He hadn’t been this excited in a while.

 

It was four pm, and while it was still cloudy outside, the raining had stopped. Brady rode into an alley with seamless cement tiles and wooden fences on both sides. Ninety-nine percent of the houses in this neighborhood were townhouses.

Each townhouse was constructed out of yellow-brown bricks and

light-black roof tiles of stone.

He got off his bike, stopped near the fourth fence gate and opened it, entering his mom’s backyard. The backyard wasn’t that large. Last year, his mom and stepfather had planted a garden alongside the left fence, and those same plants were blooming yet again. Even though most of the plants were green, they added a certain feeling of life to the backyard, which was more than you could say for most houses in this neighborhood.

His mother was a very caring person, which was reflected in the backyard. A low roof with black metallic tiles was attached to the house and the wooden fence separating this back yard from those of the neighbors to the right. The low, metallic roof shielded a large portion of the far right corner of the backyard. A sitting area consisting of a metallic table with a glass tabletop and some metallic patio chairs was standing below the roof.

They’d sit there sometimes, on sunny days.

Brady placed his bike in the small brick garage, which – like the townhouses – was constructed out of yellow-brown bricks and light-black roof tiles of stone.

Brady didn’t look through the large window on his way to the back door. The window allowed him to see what was going on in the conjoined living- and dining room, and he didn’t want to risk making eye contact with anyone sitting inside. He opened the dark-green back door and walked through the cramped-but-neat kitchen, taking a right near the end of the kitchen where he then entered the living- and dining room.

Because the rooms were conjoined, there was quite some space left in the center of the room, where nothing was standing. Near the large window, a birch dining table was standing, its color matching perfectly with that of the light brown walls and the black dining chairs – three standing on either long side of the table.

Opposite of him, standing on the birch laminate and against the light brown wall, a large, rectangular cabinet was standing. Like the table, it was constructed of birch wood.

The living room part of the conjoined living- and dining room was located in the left part and consisted of a large, light-brown corner sofa, which stood in the far left corner opposite a large TV hanging at the wall. A glass coffee table stood in the center, on a white carpet.

While his stepfather was sitting on the corner sofa – one hand resting

on the black remote control lying on the armrest – his mother stood near the cabinet.

She was on the phone with somebody, and judging by her expression, it was serious.

His mom was, like his father, forty-six years old.

She had short, dark-brown hair, which she kept in a tapered bowl cut. Brady had inherited his honey-brown eyes from her, and in general, he was told that he looked more like his mother than like his father.

His mom stood five-seven tall, and while not thin, she wasn’t on the heavy side either.

Honestly, he couldn’t have wished for a better mother.

She was supportive, forgiving, and, along with his stepfather, the only two people who had comforted him when they had heard the news that he had failed last schoolyear. His stepfather – or rather just the boyfriend of his mom considering they weren’t married – was of Asian-American descent. He was an inch shy of six feet. Norman – that's what he was called – kept his short, black-grayish hair in a side-swept manner, making him look smart and sharp at all times. He also sported a short stubble.

The television was on and Norman was watching something about cars.

“Yes,” his mom said, meeting his eyes solemnly as he entered the room. “Yes -- yes, I’ll tell him.”

Brady felt sick to his stomach when he realized who could be on the other end of the line; school.

He turned his head to Norman, who greeted him non-verbally. Brady quickly changed the worried expression on his face and gave Norman a short nod in return.

“Okay. I will do that. Bye.”

She hung up the phone and faced him before she cocked her head. “What’s this they told me? How could you forget your backpack?”

Brady breathed an inner sigh of relief and within a heartbeat, he

came up with a lie. “I – I was talking with Logan when we left, and –

and I just – forgot.”

“Well, go pick it up,” his mom said, pointing into the general direction of Downtown Yatawa High. “They told me to tell you that the janitor has it.” She gave a nod to the backyard. “Come on. I’ll have tea ready when you’re back.”

Brady rolled his eyes.

He didn’t feel like going back through the cold just to get his backpack.

I’ll have to, though. What a waste of time.

 

Within minutes, dusk had fallen, and it was only when Brady was brought back to reality by cycling over a branch lying on the road that he realized it.

Squinting, he got his phone out of his pocket and pressed the physical ‘home’ button to see what times it was.

A quarter past four pm and already dark, Brady thought, confused.

He began cycling a little faster. He was nearly there now.

Brady crossed an intersection and then took a right and a left, cycling past the small apartment complex standing on the right side of the road.

Brady cycled onto the school grounds and put his bike near the entrance before getting off of it and locking it. Most of the bicycle racks were empty, which was odd, considering some classes were still ongoing. He pushed open the doors and heeding his surroundings, he suspiciously crossed the deserted canteen.

He arrived at the center of it and didn’t know where to go. He knew that the janitor had his backpack, but where was the janitor?

Voices, coming from the hallway to his right. Brady instinctively turned his head. While the lights in the canteen were on, he didn’t feel what one could call ‘comfortable’.

The voices were definitely female, and he recognized them. They were coming from the hallway to the right, near the English classroom.

Brady always had been curious, and because he didn’t know where the janitor was anyways, he decided to go and check it out.

He doubted he would have done this if the voices wouldn’t have sounded familiar.

He walked through the hallway, past classroom A-six and then turned right. It was cold in school, which was odd. Brady never thought it was cold in school, and that was because it never was, at least, to people who weren’t cold frogs.

Rounding the corner, Brady arrived in the hallway where he had spoken to Kay earlier this day.

He saw three girls standing in the hallway near the principal’s office. They were conversing.

Brady recognized two of them. It were Marlene, and – and Lisa!

What were they doing here?

As far as he knew, school had ended for them at one.

Brady was about to return to the canteen, but then Lisa turned to him and met his eyes.

She smiled, and there was something shy about her smile.

Brady raised his hand uncomfortably, and he even managed to muster up a cheesy smile.

Lisa’s smile made him feel as if his heart had just jumped out of his body. He had this weird sensation in his chest.

The sensation was hard to describe, but each time he breathed in, it felt like he inhaled glitter, which then left a slight tingling in his chest.

Marlene turned around and saw Brady too. Even though he hadn’t properly met her, she gave him this feeling as if she didn’t like him.

With his head lowered and a bit nervous, he left the hallway, approached the staircase near classroom A-six and climbed up.

Ever since it had become dark outside, Brady had this feeling which he usually only experienced when he was lost in deep thoughts.

Perhaps he was just tired.

He hadn’t slept that well over the last couple of days, and that was because he had started watching those scary top tens again, which greatly amplified his fear of the dark.

He reached the second floor and approached the Biology classroom. It was awfully quiet in school, and it made him feel rather unnerved. Peering through the windows of the classrooms where he passed by, Brady noticed that each classroom was as dark and empty as the other.

At least the lights in the hallways are on, Brady thought.

He arrived at the biology classroom in the center of the hallway and it was only when he placed his hand on the steel door handle that he realized he had subconsciously walked this way.

Why here?

He squinted and took a moment to remember why he had come to school in the first place.

Oh, yeah. Backpack.

He attempted to open the door to the biology classroom, but it was locked.

“Ugh.”

He hoped that he could find a teacher who could tell him where the janitor was, or better yet, the janitor himself.

 

Slightly irritated, Brady turned, but when he saw the thing that was standing on the other side of the hallway, his eyes widened and his heart skipped a beat.

It looked like a young girl, too young to be studying at this school.

The girl was staring at the ground and her long black hair hung like a curtain in front of her face, which prevented Brady from being able to properly identify her.

She wore a white, dirt-stained dress and her pale skin glistened weakly.

“Why – what?” Brady whispered to himself.

The girl looked like the one from the movies, only she was shorter.

A couple of years ago, he’d seen those movies with his nephew, and Brady remembered that the girl had given him nightmares for weeks.

He gulped, staring at the girl while she just stood there, motionless, as if she were a lifeless prop.

Brady startled when the lights flickered and he felt his muscles tense up when they suddenly didn’t turn on anymore.

He stood there, in the darkness, listening to his own breathing and using the weak light that entered the building through the windows to keep an eye on the silhouette.

Although the lights only blinded him for a fraction of a second when they suddenly turned on again, the girl was gone.

“This is a dream,” Brady said, and for a moment, he felt pretty damn sure about his statement. To acknowledge the confidence he had in his conclusion, he reannounced it. “This is a dream.”

The sudden sound of wet feet on the floor made him turn, and Brady uttered a yelp when he was suddenly standing face-to-face with the young girl.

Brady didn’t move, he didn’t breathe. The fact that he hadn’t seen her face only made this experience scarier, and the colder he began to feel, the more he started to realize that this wasn’t a dream.

This was reality. Somehow, this was happening. Somehow, this was his reality.

He looked anxiously at the girl, and just when he was preparing to leave, the lights began to flicker again.
Carefully, using the brief moments of light to confirm that the girl hadn’t moved yet, Brady slipped away to the staircase on the other side of the hallway as lightly as he could.

Then the lights remained off again, prompting Brady to stop moving

at that instance. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness, he saw a black mist slowly descending onto the floor right where the little girl had been. Instead of running like he knew he should have, he waited.

He was frozen in fear.

Standing in the middle of the hallway, both stairs at about equal distances away from him, he waited, hearing only his own breathing.

Then she appeared again, silently, only a couple of yards away from the staircase leading down to the hallway that had the English classroom in it, but pretty far away from him.

She then looked up and stared at him, her ink-black hair now hanging in curtains beside her head.

The lights turned on again and he caught a glimpse of her face before it started to spin and move uncontrollably as if she was being possessed by a demon. Then the lights turned off again, but she kept on doing it, and in silence. His heart was racing, his brain was pounding, and just when he was about to make a dart for the glass double door separating him from the landing leading to the other staircase, the girl uttered a blood-curling scream.

Instinctively, Brady screamed in horror and ran as fast as he could towards the double door.

He heard the sound of bare feet on the ground – soft but quick – and when he looked at the little girl from over his shoulder, he noticed that she was running.

Her head was crooked inhumanly far to the right, and her shoulders didn’t appear to be connected to their respective joints anymore.

He ran into the glass double door, both of which then flew open, and without taking another second to look at the little girl chasing him, he rushed down the wide staircase and jumped down the last couple of steps before landing awkwardly on the landing. He looked at the top of the staircase and to his relief, the girl wasn’t there yet, or anymore, since there was a lack of sound coming from the second floor.

Anxiously and still quite disturbed from the experience, Brady followed the stairs to the first floor – his hand on his chest – where he then ran into the janitor – a man in his early sixties. The janitor wore a pair of rectangular glasses and he had short, white hair.

“Hey hey ho. Who was screaming?” the janitor asked him, eyeing him blamefully with his lips pursed.

The janitor was dressed in a dark-blue overall, and honestly, Brady

had never seen him before, and he could only look at the man in shock, as if he had only just realized what had happened on the second floor of Downtown Yatawa High.

“Well, spit it out, boy. Have you seen a ghost or something?”

“I forgot my books,” Brady stammered. “I nee – thought – you had them, right? You’re the janitor?”

Brady looked at the janitor’s chest and saw a tag dryly stating in red letters the word ‘janitor’.

“No, I’m here because I like cleaning empty hallways at twenty minutes past four. Yes, I’m the janitor.” The man scratched his chin as if he wasn’t sure what to do with him. “Your books are in my office. Anna told me you forgot them. Now, calm down, I’ll return them to you. Just follow me.”

Still on edge, Brady followed the janitor back to the canteen, constantly checking his six to make sure the little girl wasn’t following him. They approached the counter, which was located in the far left corner of the canteen, and Brady waited by the counter as the man disappeared behind it and opened the door.

Trying to get his thoughts straight and off whatever supernatural stuff he had just seen, he wondered whether he could steal a bar of candy or a can of pop from behind the counter while the janitor was searching in the room behind it for his books and his backpack.

He just couldn’t understand that he had never seen this janitor before, and that, accompanied by what he had just witnessed – whether it had actually happened or not, Brady wasn’t sure now – made Brady just want to get the heck out of here.

He gulped as he leaned on the counter, staring longingly at the can of pop behind the glass as he tried to think of something different.

The janitor smiled as he got back out with Brady’s black backpack and the biology books in his hands.

Brady put the books in his backpack as the janitor locked the room.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” The janitor then left the canteen as Brady put on the backpack.

Then suddenly, Brady noticed something happening outside. It was hard to see because of the lack of light.

Through the plentiful windows and the glass doors in the canteen, he saw a tall and broad figure, dressed entirely in black.

Brady squinted as he was trying to make something out of whatever was going on outside.

The man was standing by a bike. He was standing by his bike!

Brady carefully took a couple of steps closer to the windows and watched as the man dressed in black crouched beside his bike.

Brady wasn’t the type of guy to walk outside and chase the man away. Instead, he waited to see what would happen because he didn’t want to risk getting himself in trouble.

A second later, the man got up and just ran away, leaving Brady’s bike behind.

What’d he do? If he had attempted to steal the bike, he had obviously failed miserably.

He made sure the man was gone first before he headed outside to see what had happened. At first sight, his bike appeared to be okay, but then, as he climbed onto it, he felt what had happened.

The tires were flat, empty.

He got off the bike and crouched beside it, squeezing both wheels.

The man, whoever it was, had flattened his tires.

Why? thought Brady miserably. “Oh man.”

Why had that man done that? There was just no proper reason as to why the man would flatten his tire other than to pull some annoying, unfunny prank.

Now he had to ask his father to put new tires on his bike, and to make things worse, he had to walk home, through the darkness.

Brady heaved a sad sigh before he got up, grabbed his bike by the saddle with his right hand and by the handlebar with his left hand and then took it with him.

As he walked past the empty bike racks, he looked at the school from over his shoulder, only to notice something that chilled him to the bone.

There were no lights on in the school, not even in the canteen where he’d only just been.

It almost seemed… abandoned. Too confused to say anything, Brady decided to check and see whether the doors were locked or not, and they were locked.

Had the janitor just done that?

As he took a step back and squinted, trying to figure out what was going on, he noticed something standing on the second floor. It was looking outside through a window in the biology classroom. It took Brady several seconds to figure out what he was currently seeing, but once he did, a cold, cold shiver ran down his spine.

It’s her.

The girl had a smile carved into her face, and the blood looked like it was still fresh.

Her eyes were completely white and only had small, black dots in the centers.

The fact that the little girl stood there motionlessly and just looked at him with her dead eyes made him turn and run.

 

He was over halfway there. He recognized the trees, the ditch, and the bushes to his left across the avenue that had bicycle tracks on both sides of it. He was walking on the sidewalk past tall, wooden fences – some covered in vines – that were fencing off the backyards of the single, detached homes. His mom lived near the center of Downtown Yatawa, which was a busy and crowded place. His father lived closer to the center of Yatawa Town, a rural area where it was far more peaceful. Brady preferred Yatawa Town to Downtown Yatawa. There was much more nature in Yatawa Town.

He couldn’t get the face of that girl out of his head. He was still scared and disturbed by the sight of it, and he constantly felt like she was behind him, which made him check every so often.

Brady noticed a group of guys – five of them – sitting on the sidewalk near one of the streetlights in front of an ivy fence.

Brady gulped nervously.

Groups of guys – these guys could have been aged anywhere in-between eighteen and twenty-two – hanging around on the streets in the dark was often not a good thing.

He put one of his hands in his pocket and tried to look as tough as possible while the distance between him and the group of guys was getting smaller and smaller.

It were a couple of African-Americans. He knew they didn’t always mean trouble, but Brady had heard of the gang with the Latin name that terrorized Southern Yatawa. This wasn’t Southern Yatawa, but still.

Then he saw it; bottles of beer. Alcohol.

This was trouble. He could sense it.

They were sitting there, talking and laughing loudly, probably annoying the inhabitants living in the houses on the right side of the street.

One of them looked his way.

Because they were partly blocking the sidewalk, Brady got off of it and attempted to walk past them using the road.

It was important to not make direct eye contact.

Suddenly, the talking was reduced to whispers, and then they slowly got up. He just passed them, and he could hear them following him.

“Hey, what you want man?” asked one of them toughly.

“These are our streets, man,” said another one of them.

Brady felt his fight-or-flight response kicking in as his heart rate and his breathing both increased. This really isn’t my day.

“Stop walking, dude, or I’ll kick you to the ground.”

Reluctantly, Brady came to a halt and before he knew it, the five of them surrounded him.

“I’m just trying to get home,” Brady explained, stuttering, trying to hide the fear, but unsuccessfully.  

It was like they could sense his fear, so for a moment, he looked the one standing opposite of him into the eyes, only to avert his gaze back to the ground again not even a second later.

“Wrong place, wrong time, man. What you got?” asked another one.

Most of them were dressed in purple. One of them didn’t wear a shirt.

The darkness made him unable of properly identifying these men.

“We’ll let you go if you give us something,” the shirtless one, who was standing opposite of him, said. “There has to be some in your wallets or in your pack, so get it out.”

Brady searched around in his pockets, felt his phone and froze.

He didn’t want to lose that phone, and he tried to look as innocently as possible, hoping that they wouldn’t notice what he was hiding, but the shirtless one already had.

“Right pocket, Max.”

One of the guys, probably the one called Max, put his hand into Brady’s pocket. He pulled the phone out and then examined it.

Brady shockingly realized that Max was around his age – Fifteen, sixteen.

“The Comet-B6, right?” Max said, sounding far more confident than that he actually looked.

“That’s some expensive shit,” said the shirtless one before snatching it out of Max’s hands and throwing it away. Without averting his gaze, Brady heard his phone landing on the road. “Too bad it’s outdated. Now open up your backpack.”

The thought of having to pick up his now broken phone in a second made the corners of his mouth pull down repeatedly.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

He wanted to scold them so badly, but he knew what would happen if he would, and he didn’t have the guts for it anyways.

Brady was about to open up his backpack, but then he saw headlights in the distance.

Hopefully, he looked up.

It was a car. It was a police car!

The guys harassing him had noticed as well, and whoever was driving the police car only had to sound the siren once and that very briefly for all of them to run.

Brady felt so relieved and thankful that he could kiss the officer or officers sitting inside of the police car.

They had just saved his stuff.

Brady put his backpack on and picked up his phone before the police car stopped right next to him.

The window of the passenger’s seat rolled up and he found himself staring into the eyes of a slightly overweight police officer.

“Thank you,” Brady said, his voice quivering.

“What you doin’, kid?” the police officer asked sternly. “This is not the perfect spot to hang out when it’s dark.”

The officer nonchalantly fished into his pocket and got a cigar out of it before looking at his colleague in the driver’s seat. “You got a lighter?”

The one in the driver’s seat – African-American, and also slightly overweight – smacked the cigar out of his hand. “You gotta quit that stuff man,” he chuckled. “It’s not good fo’ yo’ ass.”

Both officers laughed all of a sudden.

Brady looked at the police car as it drove off into the distance.

“Watch yourself, kid!” the white police officer called before the car

took a right and disappeared out of sight.

Brady watched in awe before he averted his glance back to his bike.

Jesus, he thought before breathing a deep sigh of relief.

He placed his right hand on the saddle, his left hand on the handlebar and took several steps before he heard a sound coming from the bushes on the other side of the avenue.

He didn’t stop, but he did turn his head and kept an eye on the bushes as he tried to figure out what the sound was.

It sounded like soft growling, and he could see something, but it was too dark for him to be able to see what exactly it was.

Hesitantly, while he kept on moving, he reached for his phone and activated the flashlight app before he shone the light on the bushes.

There was something hiding in there, and judging by the growling, it was a dog.

“Hello?”

The light fell on the large silhouette, and it was then that Brady concluded that it couldn’t be a dog. It was simply too large to be a dog.

A wolf, maybe?

It’s too large to be a wolf.

This was starting to scare him. The beast growled again, softly, threateningly, and then Brady saw it slipping out of the bushes, keeping its head low and staring at him with its blood-red eyes, teeth showing.

Brady increased his pace as he realized that the wolf was coming for him.

This really isn’t my day.

The wolf jumped out of the bushes and Brady yelped.

“Shit!”

 

 

Chapter 3

Infected and Cured

 

 

Brady ran. He ran as hard as his legs could carry him. He dropped his bike and while he ran, he put his phone back into his pocket.

Brady knew that he could never outrun it. It was only a matter of time.

Hastily, he looked at the beast from over his shoulder.

It sure looked like a wolf. It was large and covered in night-black fur.

The wolf ran on all fours, but judging by its weird arms and legs, Brady wouldn’t be surprised if it would be able to run and stand on just its hind legs while using its strong forelegs to fight. 

If it were to stand upright, the wolf had to be around ten feet tall and at least three times as wide as your average person was.

Its blood-red eyes along with its night-black fur made the wolf look almost demonic.

Panting heavily, the wolf closed in, and it was only when Brady looked at the wolf from over his shoulder again that the wolf jumped forward and slashed his legs.

Brady uttered a cry of pain before falling hard onto the asphalt and turning around defenselessly, preparing himself for the end.

Before he knew it, the wolf was on top of him.

“Aaah!” Brady exclaimed as he felt the wolf’s sharp teeth penetrating the skin on his hand. The wolf turned to his face and tried to bite a chunk out of his neck, but Brady moved his head aside just in time.

The pain was excruciating. He felt blood seeping out of his leg, out of his hand. Was his hand still attached to his arm?

Brady clocked and cuffed desperately at the wolf’s head, but to no avail. The wolf moved forward to bite him in the shoulder, growling in anger.

It was a direct hit, but rather than biting him there and letting go, the wolf pulled and pulled. Brady screamed for help as he felt the immense pressure on his shoulder and the joints.

Were this the last moment of his life? Was he, Brady Samuel Heliot, really going to die like this; a random wolf attack at the edge of the city?

He felt light in his head all of a sudden, and that wasn’t because of

the loss of blood.

Brady closed his eyes. He was in so much pain, he wanted it to end.

“Kill me then! Kill me!” he hissed through gritted teeth, but it kept on hurting and hurting, and the pain tenfolded when the wolf let go of his shoulder, only to drive its teeth back into it.

“Aah!” Brady attempted to hit the wolf with his other hand, but he was too weak. He was simply too weak.

He felt his consciousness slowly slipping away as the wolf began mauling his other shoulder. Time passed slowly, and Brady was kept awake only because of the stabbing pain he felt each time the wolf put its teeth back into his shoulders.

Brady feared that even if he were to survive this, the scars and the damage would be permanent, and he would have to get something amputated.

Tears filled his eyes as he looked up at the dark, starless sky, praying for the pain to end.

Through the sounds of his own flesh being brutalized, Brady heard something.

It were footsteps, quick and light ones, accompanied by a strong scent of barbeque.

Through the splatters of blood in his vision, he could see a silhouette appearing out of thin air several feet behind the wolf.

The silhouette was dressed in night-black rags entirely, and it even wore a cowl, shrouding its face in darkness.

It was about six-foot-two and appeared to be rather confused by its surroundings. Then the thing in black turned around and approached the wolf as if it had been its target all along. He grabbed the wolf by its back hair – causing the wolf to yelp – and then threw the beast over its shoulders as if it was an empty can of beans.

The person turned to him calmly, and when Brady saw its face, he was shocked.

Brady was in immense pain, and his shoulders were ravaged – it was a miracle that the wolf hadn’t opened any major arteries in his neck yet. A painful, unfair miracle – and he was paralyzed, yet he was in shock at what he saw.

The face of the thing was merely a black cloud of smoke with two white slits in it that served as eyes. It was almost as if the black cowl he wore was holding the smoke together in a human head-sized clump. With its emotionless slits, the smoke person studied him.

Behind the thing, Brady saw the wolf crawling up, obviously in pain.

Brady raised a weak finger, pointing at the wolf.

It growled before charging at the smoke person, eliminating its own element of surprise.

The thing dodged the incoming bite attack deftly and grabbed the tail of the beast before it had even landed. It pulled hard at the tail and the wolf flew back like a yo-yo before landing behind the thing on its back.

The thing turned to the wolf quickly. “Za ohhr! Vora!” The thing appeared to be scolding the beast, judging by how it was pointing at it.

The wolf growled and climbed up yet again, but with considerably more effort.

Something whizzed through the air and hit the wolf right in its back. It was an arrow, and a long one.

The wolf cried out in pain and then ran away, yelping.

Brady slowly moved his head to where the arrow had come from. On top of a roof to his left, a thing similar to whatever it was that had just saved him was standing, only it was slightly shorter.

This one wore a cowl as well. The being disappeared in a cloud of black smoke soon after Brady had made eye contact with it, leaving Brady in confusion as he clasped at his left shoulder.

The other thing was looking at the wolf as it was fleeing.

“Who are you?” asked Brady weakly. He was bleeding out. He knew it.

The thing turned to him, examining him with its white slits. “A is i lokmans de Chikame,” it said.

 Its voice, it was so horrifying. It sounded like cries and screams of agony.

“Who – who,” Brady mumbled before everything turned dark and all he could hear was the thing approaching him.

“Dothma Chikame gove vuhz haall. Eg maz silake vuh.”

 

“Brady?” a man said carefully, his voice echoing.

“Brady!” he heard again, louder this time, but the words sounding as if they had left the woman’s mouth hours later.

BeepBeepBeep

 

Suddenly, a sound as if he were emerging from the water.

Then nothing.

Light, blinding him.

Then nothing.

He felt weightless, and when he opened his eyes, he was falling.

Waving his arms around, Brady screamed, but no sound left his mouth.

Looking down, he saw a vast desert approaching quickly.

He hit the ground quietly. There was no low thud, no sickening crunches signifying that he had just broken all the bones in his body, and neither did he feel the sand in his eyes, in his mouth.

He woke up with a start and sat upright with his eyes spread wide open.

He saw his father, and his mother.

Looking around, Brady realized that he was in a hospital.

The white room he lay in was small. The single hospital bed took up half the space, and his mother – sitting by the footboard – and his father – sitting on his left – took up another quarter combined.

Something was pushing down on his mouth, just below his eyes. He placed a hand on it, and from the corners of his eyes he saw his father getting up.

“Doctor, he is awake!” his father called before striding past his mother, opening the door of the little hospital room and disappearing into a hallway behind it.

Brady’s hand hand touched something made of plastic. He could hear his own breathing very clearly.

It was an oxygen mask.

With little effort he pulled it over his head and put it down beside him on the mattress of the single bed.

“Brady? Brady,” said his mother carefully. “How are you feeling? Are you alright? Can you put the mask back on? I don’t think it’s safe to – ”

“Mister Heliot, how are you feeling?” a short, bald, middle-aged doctor with round glasses and a walrus mustache entered the hospital room with Brady’s father following him.

“What happened?” Brady asked, confused.

His hand was wrapped in bandages and he could feel the dressing underneath it. Both of his legs felt like they were covered in bandages as well, and he could see the bandages wrapped around his

shoulders from the corners of his eyes.

“You were attacked by… something,” the doctor explained, his eyes narrowed. “Do you remember what it was?”

His mother looked genuinely concerned.

His father stood behind her, frowning. He was clenching his jaw, which was something he often did in stressful situations. “Was it that scum from Southern Yatawa?”

His father was quick to judge, and if there was anything he hated, it were the gangsters in Southern Yatawa, a.k.a. the southern part of Downtown Yatawa, which had simply been renamed because the gang operated there and only there, most of the time.

Gang members, which one could easily identify by their purple shirts and their black pants, were sometimes sighted in Downtown Yatawa, only they rarely committed crimes there.

“Are you referring to the Purple Snakes?” the doctor asked, turning to Janson and looking at him with his squinty eyes.

While short, the doctor was of heavy weight.

“Yes,” said Janson brusquely. “I am.”

“Hm.” The doctor considered that for a moment, tapping on his lower lip. His voice had a calming effect. “I can tell you two things that will proof to you that they weren’t behind this attack. One: these wounds are bite marks, and – ”

“They could have let a dog loose on him,” Janson said as if it were common knowledge.

The doctor considered that, too. “Hm, I have to admit that you do have a point there. I would like to remind you though, that – ”

“ – they are probably too poor to buy a pet because they put all their money in guns, bullets and the corrupt police in Yatawa,” his father finished.

The doctor winced at that. “Precisely.”

Janson exchanged a glance with Brady and his mother before continuing. “It’s disgusting how the police allows the Yatawa Desert to be used as a battlefield for gangs.”

“The members of the Purple Snakes are stupidly obstinate, Mister Heliot. If I were you, I’d be glad that the police allows them to fight it out with other gangs. At least it keeps them away from the civil parts of Yatawa.”

Janson gave a snort.

“What could it have been? Do you remember, Brady?” his mother asked him.

She usually wore black or white as opposed to his father, who often wore different shades of blue underneath his heavy leather jacket. His father was rarely seen outside without the jacket, even if it was warm outside.

Brady thought hard and managed to recall some small things; school, books, Lisa in the hallway. There was more, though. Brady knew that there was more, only he couldn’t recall it.

“I can’t remember,” said Brady. He had never been very good at keeping eye contact, so he avoided meeting the doctor’s eyes.

“All we know is that it was an animal, Mister Heliot. It’s very important for us to know what exactly maimed you.”

The doctor was talking as if he thought Brady wasn’t completely sane, as if he thought he should be careful with what he said. Brady tried to fill the blank spaces, but he just couldn’t do it. There was nothing to fill the blank spaces with.

A small table stood beside the single hospital bed. It was similar in appearance to the chairs his father and mother were sitting on – lightweight, metal and white. The table had several items lying on it, ranging from boxes with candy to flowers, and even a glass vase with red roses inside of it. It seemed like his parents weren’t the only ones who knew he’d been hospitalized.

“Try to remember it, Mister Heliot,” said the doctor carefully. “You returned to your school, and then?”

“I – I really don’t know. I am trying to think… but – I just can’t.”
The doctor looked at the ground for a second. “Very well. I will allow you rest for now. Perhaps you’ll remember it after a good night of sleep.”

Brady’s father didn’t appear to agree with the doctor.

Brady and his mother watched as his father and the doctor discussed some things about the attack. Janson was visibly irritated with the fact that they hadn’t been able to find out what exactly had maimed his son.

“I cannot help you any further,” the doctor said. “I am sorry, but you will have to come back tomorrow. The visiting hours are coming to an end and Mister Heliot here needs his rest.”

Brady’s mother – Nora Maier – sighed and got up. She placed a hand on Brady’s hand. “We’ll be back tomorrow, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah alright,” Brady gave her a nod. He then turned to his

father, who had this judging look in his eyes.

“Do you have any tests tomorrow?” his father demanded.

Brady chortled but Brady’s mother shook disapprovingly.

Ever since this school year had started, his father had been on top of his homework and grades. His father desperately didn’t want him to fail again.

“Not any that I know of.”

His father gave him a nod before he squinted at him, realizing how that that was a pretty vague answer.

“It’s time for you to go now,” the doctor said. “Your son was lucky to have survived. He needs to rest. We will need to run some more tests on him tomorrow and he will need his strength for that.”

His mom and dad gave him a kiss, wished him a good night and then left the room with the doctor. The door closed.

He lay down in the bed, moved around until he felt comfortable and then placed his hands behind his head, staring up at the white ceiling.

It was then that he noticed a window in the wall behind him. He sat back upright, opened the white shutters and looked outside as he crawled onto his knees.

Oddly, nothing hurt. According to the doctor, he’d been attacked by some animal, and while his legs, hand and shoulders were covered in bandages, he felt like nothing was wrong.

Brady was about to unwrap the bandages to look at his wounds, but then he realized that that would cost him a lot of time and effort.

He leaned on the headboard and peered outside into the darkness.

Brady had an okay view lying in a room on the fifth floor of the Downtown Yatawa Hospital, but sadly, he was lying on the wrong side.

He could see a large portion of the center of Downtown Yatawa, which meant that school was on the other side of the hospital.

Talking about school, he hoped Miss Hutchings wouldn’t visit him.

Miss Hutchings was his mentor. She was nice and caring to the students she mentored, but to an excessive extent.

Miss Jones on the other hand, she could visit him if she wanted to. He would really not mind that, but why would she visit him? She was his English teacher, and because of his reserved nature, he rarely spoke to her.

He lay down on his back and looked at the ceiling for a moment, trying to recall what had happened earlier this day, but to no avail.

The blank spaces would remain blank for now.

Brady closed his eyes for a few seconds in an attempt to sleep, but he quickly came to the conclusion that sleeping wasn’t an option. He was wide awake.

What time is it?

He got up from the bed and approached the door of his room.

Curiously, he opened it ajar to peek outside.

He allowed his gaze to wander across the room.

Apart from a young couple sitting on a dark-green sofa near a water machine standing on a table – the sofa’s color perfectly matched the light-green floor – there was nobody there.

It was quiet, and it made Brady wondered whether there was anybody else lying in the other rooms on this floor.

Just as he was about to close the door, the automatic glass doors on the other side of the room opened and two doctors hurried in. One of them – the one with the walrus mustache – was scribbling something on a notepad.

Two more doctors who were pushing a stretcher came in after the other doctors.

Someone lay on the stretches, and that someone was a she.

She lay under a blanket, and only her head and part of her neck was visible.

The four of them were coming his way with the stretcher, crossing the room. They took a right and walked past his door, continuing down the hallway, the stretcher’s wheels squeaking.

Brady managed to catch a glimpse of the girl who lay on the stretcher. She was unconscious, or kept unconscious – Brady wasn’t sure.

She’s hot.

The girl had mid-back length, jet-black hair and appeared to be around five feet and six inches tall.

One of the two men pushing the table grabbed his attention. He was in his mid-thirties, his hair was pushed back – almost mane-like – and brown, and he had a short Balbo beard. He was a little bit taller than six-one and he had hazel eyes.

“Room one F,” said the doctor with the walrus mustache.

They pulled the table back and then turned it around, pushing it past Brady’s room again.

The doctor with the hazel eyes opened the door of the room farthest to the left, which was the room next to Brady’s room, and the other doctors then pushed the stretcher inside.

He closed the door quietly and returned to his bed before he noticed a white folded hospital gown lying underneath the table.

He didn’t want to lie in bed wearing just his underwear, and because the hospital gown looked more comfortable to sleep in than his own clothes, he pulled those on.

As he crawled into the cold hospital bed and pulled the blankets over

his body, he opened one of the boxes of candies, which were standing on top of the same table.

He remembered these chocolates. It were the type of chocolates his grandmother always used to give him. It made him think about her for a moment. It had almost been a year ago since she had passed away.

He opened the small carton box covered in strawberry printings and then got a candy out of it.

He examined it. The outer layer of the chocolate was hard while the inside had a slimy texture and was red. Strawberry.

He put it into his mouth, knowing from experience that these candies were good, and then reached into the box, ready to take another one as he swallowed the previous one, but just when his index finger and his thumb closed around the chocolate outside, he suddenly felt light in his head.

Carefully, he let go of the chocolate and put the carton box back onto the table, taking a moment to think about why he was feeling this way.

Then, everything went white.

He opened his eyes and noticed that he was back in school.

“Huh? How?” said Brady to himself.

He was standing on the second floor near the biology classroom.

As he tried to figure out what was going on, he noticed a girl standing opposite of him, a couple of yards away, near the end of the hallway and the staircase leading down to the first floor.

Brady’s heart skipped a beat when he saw that the head of the little girl was spinning and shaking uncontrollably, her hair tracing behind it at a much slower pace.

It was as if she was being possessed.

He took a deep breath, but it wasn’t he who had taken it. It had gone automatically.

Then, instantly, he remembered everything from trying to get into the biology classroom to hurrying down the stairs.

He also knew what was to happen next. He knew that he should run away right now. Right now. Brady turned around, or at least, that was what he was trying to do, but nothing happened. He didn’t feel anything. He could only see. He could only hear.

The girl screamed and ran towards him, just like last time.

His body turned around and ran. He would make it out. He remembered this.

He would survive. There was no need to worry.

He didn’t have any control over his body, but it ran, and he was seeing everything through the eyes of his past self.

This reminded him of that time when he was playing a video game and his controller died. His player character had walked straight off a building because he hadn’t been able to connect his controller to the recharger in time.

His body opened the glass double door on the second floor and ran towards the staircase.

Everything went white, and then Brady was back in the hospital bed.

He sat up straight. What… just…

He could remember it now. The creepy little girl, school, and that moment when he had seen her staring at him from the window in the biology classroom on the second floor.

Why had he forgotten those things, and what had caused him to suddenly relive those moments again so vividly?

Were it the chocolates?

While he was glad that some of the blank spaces had now been refilled, there was still a large blank space between the part where he rushed down the stairs and the part where he awoke in the hospital.

He decided to eat another piece just to see if the same thing would happen again, and it did.

As soon as Brady swallowed the piece of chocolate, he grew lightheaded.

Brady could barely put back the carton box before everything turned white again.

When he opened his eyes, he, or rather, his past body, stood in front of the counter in the canteen. The door behind the counter was open and the janitor was in there. Brady could hear him.

The janitor got out and returned to him his books and his backpack. Brady tried to speak, but there were no words coming out of his mouth. He didn’t even feel it opening.

Brady’s body looked outside through the window, and then everything turned white again.

When he opened his eyes, he was back in the hospital bed, still sitting upright.

It wasn’t confusing anymore for him. Chocolate could return to him his lost memories, or was it the slimy strawberry filling?

 

Minutes passed and Brady’s eyes were shut.

He lay in the hospital bed, a sock covering his eyes.

He always covered his eyes with something when he went to sleep, as to block out light.

Brady was starting to doze off and the world around him was spinning.

A soft voice brought him back.

“Ugh, where am I?” he heard coming from the room to his left, but the voice wasn’t very clear. The walls of these rooms blocked out sounds very well, but they weren’t quite soundproof.

Brady sat upright, squinting as he tried to stay awake. He looked like a mole who had just surfaced.

It was dark in his room. It was dark outside. He wondered what time it was.

“You are in the Downtown Yatawa Hospital,” explained a man to the girl whom had just spoken. “You fainted in the swimming pool. You had a swimming contest, remember?”

The girl groaned a little.

“Do you remember?” the man asked again, but carefully this time.

“Who – who are you?”

There was a silence as Brady stretched and rubbed the tiredness out of his eyes.

“My name is Alex Grant. …Doctor Stephens, could you leave us alone for a second?”

“Uhb -- of course.”

Brady heard a door closing and footsteps dying off into the distance.

He listened carefully, but he couldn’t hear the girl and the man talking anymore.

It was like they had disappeared.

Curious as to what had happened to the girl, he turned around in his

bed, sat on his knees, opened the white shutters and then opened the square window above his bed. Almost immediately, he could hear the man again. “ – am like you, Sarah, a Morus.”

Brady looked down at the streets, wondering how long it would take for his loogie to hit the ground.

He would probably never find out considering a wad of phlegm didn’t make that much sound when it hit the ground, not even when it was hawked and spat from the fifth floor of a hospital.

“A Morus? What does that mean?” the girl, Sarah, asked.

“Morus is simply what is referred to as one of the three races of men aside from humans. There’s a whole other world out there that’s

inhabited by people like us. If you come with me to that world, you will be able to learn how to deal with your powers.”

Tss. What? Another world?

“I fainted, like you said. That’s all I can remember,” said the girl peevishly. What are you talking about? I’m really not in the mood for jokes.”

That remark made a smile appear on Brady’s face. He had always had a soft spot for peevish girls.

“Sarah,” Alex whispered carefully, as if he was trying to open her eyes, making her realize. “You and me, we are a different species of human, from another planet.”

It was quiet again for a second.

“Stay with me Sarah. You can’t pass out now.”

Brady cocked his head as he peered at the darkness below him. He suddenly imagined a huge spider crawling out of the darkness and up the building, which made him feel slightly uneasy.

“No, I won’t. I’m just… really tired somehow.”

Alex sniffed. “You are already changing.” Softly, he continued. “We have to get you back home as soon as possible. That won’t be earlier than tomorrow, though.”

Brady realized that this man could be lying in an attempt to take the girl, Sarah, with him.

He clutched at his pockets, but it was then that he realized that he was wearing hospital gown, and also that he didn’t have his phone with him.

Now he couldn’t record the conversation to keep it with him as proof if Sarah were to one day be reported as missing because this man had kidnapped her.

“So, what’s going to happen next?” Sarah asked.

“Well, Sarah, you can choose to either stay here with your family, or wait for further instructions on how to get to Caliptus, the other world.”

Sarah gave a snort of disdain. “If you’ve got proof of that world, I’ll be glad to go there. Honestly. I can’t stand my mom.” Sarah chuckled weakly. “Also, I’m always in for something new, especially if that means I get to skip school.”

Adventurous, hm? He was too.

“That’s the spirit!” Alex laughed, greatly satisfied with such an answer. “I’ll be back here tomorrow to show you something, okay? It’s proof, I assure you. Your doctor will be back soon. I trust you

won’t tell him anything about it. You seem like a trustworthy person. I do hope I’m not mistaken. If I am, you’ll get us both in trouble.

“No one shall know,” Sarah assured him.

A chair creaked. Brady’s eyes widened and he quickly closed the window before lying down on his back and pulling the white hospital blanket over his body.

Brady closed his eyes. If Alex were to find out that he was still awake, he might suspect that he’d heard something, and who knew what Alex would do then?

The door to Sarah’s room closed and Brady startled a little when his suddenly opened.

Not knowing what was to happen next, Brady kept his eyes shut, knowing that by now, Alex was inside and probably standing near the footboard of the single hospital bed, looking at him.

If Alex had been his mother, Brady would have already smiled. He could never fake sleep in front of his mother. He always had to smile then.

“You must be Brady Heliot,” said Alex friendlily. “How are you doing?”

Brady pretended to be fast asleep. He didn’t even open his eyes slightly to see what Alex was doing.

“Are – are you awake? Mister Heliot?”

Seconds past, but to Brady those seconds felt like minutes.

Then the door shut. Brady opened his eyes slightly and found that he was all alone in the little hospital room yet again.

 

Brady woke up. Scared of the dark as he was, he immediately hid below the sheets, and it took him a full two minutes to peek over the edge of his sheets to see whether he truly was alone or not.

Just to make sure, he checked underneath the single hospital bed – without getting out of it, of course – and was relieved to see that there was nothing hiding there.

It was dark, very dark. He reopened the shutters and looked outside through the window.

Judging by how dark it was outside, it was probably midnight.

The streets were lit by streetlights, and he didn’t see anyone outside.

Brady was feeling thirsty as he closed the shutters and sat upright in the bed.

He looked at the table standing next to his bed and saw that someone had placed a bottle of orange juice onto it.

Brady thought about where his phone might be, and that was when he realized that it could still be in his pocket.

He leaned over the edge of the bed and reached for his jeans that lay in a messy hope near the lightweight table.

He felt in the pockets and squeezed something hard before he pulled it out. He was glad to see that it was his phone.

There was a dent in the lower right corner, which hadn’t been there before.

He turned it on and before he could enter the password to unlock it, it vibrated for a full five seconds. It works? What?

A message, probably. He opened the Time2Chat app right after unlocking his phone. Time2Chat was the most popular instant messaging service, at least in the United States. Messaging someone didn’t cost a dime, and the app was also free. It had been downloaded over a billion times, so it was safe to say that it was not only the most popular instant messaging service in the United States, but also in the rest of the world.

Brian, his fourteen-year-old brother, had sent him a message. Brady opened his chat with Brian.

‘Mom asked where you are. Respond soon’. The message was sent at thirty minutes past five pm on March the twenty-third, twenty-fifteen. Brady looked at today’s date. Seventeen past one am, March the twenty-fourth, twenty-fifteen.

Next message. ‘Can I come to the hospital too tomorrow?’

That message was sent three minutes past ten pm on the same day as Brian’s previous message. Brady put his phone back on the table, next to the flowers and the candy. Screw Brian, for now.

He opened the bottle of water standing on the lightweight, steel table, and drank some of it before he got up, stretched – the joints in his shoulders and his back cracked and popped – and approached the door of his room to see whether it was locked or not, and it wasn’t. He hadn’t expected it to be, but he had still wanted to check, just to make sure.

Curiously, he opened the door of his room ajar to peek into the main room of this floor. Using the dim lights, he could see someone sitting on the dark green sofa near the table where the water machine stood.

He narrowed his eyes and noticed that it was the girl in the room next to him; Sarah.

Brady was in two minds whether or not to go to her. He was shy and reserved in public, and it was even worse around girls.

Sarah’s hair was jet-black and she kept it quite long.

Her eyes were baby-blue and she had sharp facial features.

Brady caught himself staring, and just as he did, she looked his way, a cup of water in her hands.

Brady startled a little and then quickly shut the door. He pushed his back against it and hoped Sarah hadn’t seen him staring at her.

Brady’s heart was racing.

After a couple of seconds, once he thought it was safe again, he opened the door ajar again. Sarah was still sitting there, on the bench against the wall right next to the water machine. He figured she hadn’t seen him after all. Brady felt like going to her, but he also didn’t want to risk embarrassing himself.

Brady closed the door again and sat down on his bed, scratching his scalp thoughtfully.

He wanted to go… but… something made him feel like he wasn’t supposed to meet her. It was almost as if something didn’t want him to.

Was the universe at play again? He did like peevish girls, so perhaps it was worth it to at least try and talk to her.

If things were to go south, he could always grab himself a cup, fill it with water and excuse himself to his room.

Brady closed his eyes and lay down on his back, staring at the ceiling.

He felt his eyelids growing heavier, and then they shut…

No. I want to try. I should try it.

This was his chance to talk to a girl, to face one of his many fears.

Brady sat upright deftly and got off his bed.

Nervously, he approached the door and then opened it for the third time in two minutes, but he startled when he saw a silhouette standing only a couple of inches away from his door, looking him directly into his eyes. As he stood there, frozen, his brain was trying to figure out who it was standing before him.

“Don’t be afraid of girls, you creep,” said Sarah jokingly. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“What? I’m – I’m not afraid of girls,” Brady replied, feeling kind of stupid and awkward now that she had pointed out one of his biggest fears.

 “Whoa whoa whoa,” Sarah giggled softly. “Not so loud. There are people sleeping here.”

Brady decided not to talk about the conversation he had been

eavesdropping on. Sarah had sworn to keep it a secret. Alex had even warned her.

Who knew what would happen if Alex or Sarah were to figure out he knew?

“So, who are you?” Sarah asked. “I’ve never seen you in Yatawa before.”

“Haven’t seen you before either,” Brady stammered. “Where – where do you live?”

A smile appeared on Sarah’s stunning face.

“I’m not going to tell you where I live,” she said, sounding slightly weirded out. “You’ll stalk me probably, like you did just now.”

She looked so confident. He admired it.

“I w – I won’t,” Brady said quickly. “I w – won’t.”

She snorted. “I’m just kidding. Jesus, calm down.”

She opened the door a bit farther and the two then shook hands. Her hands were very warm, but everyone’s hands were warm in comparison to his. According to the internet, this meant that he had a problem with the nerves, the tissue or the blood circulation in his hands. It was either that or thyroid disease, according to the internet.

Brady tried to stop thinking and made eye contact, although very

 briefly. “Brady Heliot,” he said, shaking her hand.

“Sarah Mercer,” she said.

 

They were sitting on the green sofa opposite the table where the water machine was standing on.

They were talking as if they had known each other for years. Brady usually felt anxious when conversing with a girl of any age – well, except for his mom, and his grandmother, and his father’s girlfriend, and his father’s girlfriend’s daughters, and his father’s girlfriend’s daughter’s grandmother, and his dog, who was also a female – but the anxiety was not nearly as bad with Sarah.

“So you want to say that we almost share the same birthday?” Sarah asked, surprised.

“It sure looks like it,” said Brady. “Mine’s April the twenty-first, and yours is April the twenty-fourth.”

Brady smiled. Talking to her felt so easy. He barely even stuttered.

“So what happened to you?” Brady asked. “Why are you here? You look healthy.”

“I had a swimming contest in Downtown Yatawa,” Sarah explained. “Everything went black all of a sudden before I could even jump into

the water.”

He looked at her and nodded while she talked. “Where are you from, then?”

“I’m from Uptown Yatawa.”

Uptown Yatawa? Brady knew that a lot of wealthy Yatawans lived in Uptown Yatawa.

“So, I guess your parents must be rich then.”

She shrugged. “Not that I know. However, they don’t exactly have an average income. My mom is an ex-model and my father is a businessperson. I remember asking them if they were rich when I was younger, and I remember that all they said was that they had enough money to buy me a lot of toys.” She then buried her face in her hands before giving a snort of laughter. “That sounded all wrong.”

Brady didn’t get that at all. “What? Why?” he squinted.

Sarah looked up at him. The aura of confidence that seemed to surround her made him break eye contact and avert his glance to the floor. “You know? ‘Toys’.”

Brady narrowed his eyes. He didn’t quite grasp that. Sarah gave a wry smile, showing her bleached teeth.

“I’m sorry. It’s my dirty mind again. How about you? Where do you live? Downtown Yatawa? Yatawa Town, perhaps?”

“Both, actually,” Brady answered. “My parents separated like a year or… two ago. Father stayed on the outskirts of Yatawa Town while my mom moved a few miles up west into Downtown Yatawa. I don’t want to say that my parents are poor or anything, but I know that my father earns enough. We go on vacations, like, twice a year. Once in May and once in the summer vacation.”

“Big deal,” Sarah tittered. “It’s only March and I’ve already gone on vacation once with my parents and my little sister. We’ve got two more vacations planned, the latest which will be in May. We usually go on vacation twice during summer vacation, and on average, four to five times a year.”

“Wow,” said Brady wondrously. He wished he could go on vacation that often.

“How about your mom though? How’s her quote-unquote ‘situation’?”

Brady wasn’t sure.

They had enough to get by, though.

“She isn’t necessarily poor, I think. She and her boyfriend, my

stepfather, or actually just her boyfriend considering they aren’t married, get by well enough. My mom has a job, but he doesn’t.”

“Okay, okay. Well, I really have to get to bed now. If my mom finds out I was still awake at this time -- man.”

They got up and approached their rooms.

“So, see you tomorrow?” Sarah asked as she opened her door.

“Yeah, alright. Well, goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Sarah closed the door behind her as Brady entered his own room, amazed at what he had just done.

He had talked to a girl for a good thirty minutes without turning red. Brady’s self-esteem was pretty low. This was because around the time when he was thirteen, he’d been bullied by a group of classmates of his led by a Spanish guy named Kevin Salinas. They had bullied him because he’d ‘talked slow’ or something. He never even had talked slow. He talked like a normal person.

Brady really abhorred that group of guys for what they had done to him.

It’d been three of them; Kevin Salinas, Jordy Essink and Rick Cox.

When Kevin had moved back to Spain, the bullying had begun to die down until it had stopped completely. Because of the bullying, he was now unconfident and shy. Making friends was so hard for him, let alone getting a girlfriend. When he met Logan last year, Logan had indirectly helped him pick up a bit of his social skills again, and Brady had grown a little less shy over the past year. He could finally talk to people again without turning red all the time, and he was less socially awkward as well now. He still didn’t feel comfortable at all in crowded and public places, though. Now he thought about it, he didn’t even know why Kevin hadn’t like him. Brady had liked Kevin at first.

Five years had passed since he’d last seen Kevin, but he was still afraid to face him again if the guy were to one day return to Yatawa. Brady lay down on the hospital bed and without thinking about the consequences, he popped another chocolate into his mouth.

It was when everything turned white that he realized what he had done.

He was standing on the dark streets of Downtown Yatawa, and he saw a group of African-American guys sitting in the distance.

Then, static, and suddenly, he was lying on the street with a large wolf on top of him.

I remember now! It was a wolf. Wait…was it?

His body was barely fighting the beast. What was his past self doing? It was just lying there while the wolf was ripping at the body.

Everything turned white again and when he opened his eyes, he sat upright in his bed.

He cringed as he glanced around the room carefully, surrounded by darkness, and then he quickly pulled the sheets over his body, hiding himself in the single hospital bed.

Below the sheets he thought about what he had just seen.

He had regained more of his lost memory, and he’d have to tell this to the doctor, or talk about it with that Alex guy. For some reason he thought the latter would be a better idea.

 

Chapter 4

Caliptus, Morus and the Mister

 

 

Brady woke up slowly. A bright light shone on his face. Was it daylight? He opened his eyes and realized that it was. Someone must have opened the shutters again.

He looked outside through the window. The sky was completely blue. There was no cloud to be seen. It was sunny outside, and if it hadn’t been this early in the morning, it would have probably been warm.

He didn’t like this kind of weather. He’d rather have some clouds and cold. Rain, he didn’t like, but snow on the other hand, he loved.

Warm weather always made him feel tired, unmotivated and mildly depressed. He had never figured out exactly why, but the internet said that it could be seasonal affective disorder, which was ironically abbreviated as SAD.

When he turned, he saw his parents sitting on the same spots as yesterday.

Why hadn’t they said anything yet? “Oh, good morning,” Brady sat upright.

“Good morning,” Nora, his mom, said. “How are you feeling? Did you sleep well? Have the doctors found anything while we were gone?”

“Eh – n – no? I’m feeling okay, actually.”

“What bit you?” Brady’s father asked, sounding serious.

Now he could explain it to them. He knew what had bit him. He had found out this night, or had it been this morning? Either way, it had been around one or two am today.

“A wolf. It was a wolf. My… tires were empty and the wolf just came out of the bushes and attacked me.”

Then he thought about the girl he had met yesterday.

“The room on my left. Is it closed?”

“No,” Brady’s mother replied unsurely. “The door was wide open just then. Why are you asking?”

What? She’s gone?

He would’ve liked to talk to her some more. Perhaps they could’ve exchanged phone numbers.

“There was someone I knew in that room. I was just wondering if she was still there.”

The seriousness that had been dominating his father’s expression fainted and made space for a grin “She?”

Brady rolled his eyes, smiling. “It was a friend I made yesterday.”

“Ooh, a friend.”

“Yeah. A friend.”

His father was a good man, but he just couldn’t understand that a guy and a girl could just friends.

She wasn’t my friend, though, Brady realized. I hardly knew her.

“Janson,” said Brady’s mother disapprovingly.

The door opened and the doctor with the walrus mustache walked in. Alex, the man who had told Sarah about all those hard-to-believe-but-hopefully-true things yesterday was there too, but he remained outside with his notepad.

“Mister Heliot, Miss Maier,” the doctor greeted. “Brady, are you already able of remembering what happened yesterday? What exactly attacked you?”

“It was a wolf,” Brady explained with all the certainty in the world. “It was a wolf, and a big one.”

“Did I hear something about a wolf?” Alex asked.

“You heard that correctly.” the doctor with the walrus mustache said.

Alex sighed slowly. The expression on his face grew solemn.

“Alright, Arnold,” he said. “I’ll finish this. You deserve a break.”

“But… yes. Okay. Very well.” Doctor Arnold looked rather confused as he left the room.

“I am sorry to say this, but I think it is time for you two to leave,” Alex said as he walked in. “Brady and I have some things to discuss. Nothing important, but it is something you don’t have to know right now, but will later.”

“But – ” said Brady’s mother.  

“Look, I am really sorry, okay? You can come back in a couple of hours. This is… well, I wouldn’t say important, but it is something I will have to discuss with Brady in private before the two of you may learn about it.”

Alex seemed to have this resting sadface going on.

After a brief a goodbye from his mother and some minor complaints from his father, they both left, leaving him alone with Alex, whom, after closing the door, turned to him.

“Tell me exactly what you saw, okay?” Alex placed his hands on the footboard.

Brady wasn’t sure why Alex was so interested in this.

“It was this big wolf,” Brady explained. Alex looked at him thoughtfully. Then he seemed to have realized what had happened.

“You – you were bitten, weren’t you?” Alex heaved a short sigh, which suddenly made the wolf attack seem a lot more serious. “If that’s the case, than you’re infected, or cured, but that’s simply how you look at it.”

Alex looked at the bandages on Brady’s shoulder. Carefully, he asked, “Can I perhaps… remove those? If the wound has already healed, it will prove that my theory is indeed correct.”

Brady looked at the bandages on his shoulder and for a moment, he worried about the pain the removal of the bandages could cause him. He gulped, but then agreed on the removal of them.

Alex approached him and carefully removed the bandages from Brady’s right shoulder. Surprisingly, he barely felt any pain.

Brady did turn his head away. He only minded gore if it had to do with his own body.

After carefully examining the wound, Alex put the bandages back on their place.

“Well, the wound on your shoulder is nonexistent. This indeed proves what I suspected,” Alex placed a hand on his shoulder, looking at him with this sympathetic expression on his face. “You are infected.”

Alex made sure the door and window were both closed before he began explaining.

“Let me tell you about a world – ”

“I have already heard that part,” said Brady carefully. “The -- window was open when the two of you were talking.”

Alex licked his lower lip pensively. “Yeah, I sometimes forget things. It’s because I’m in my head all the time.” With a crooked smile, he said, “You will become one of us soon, so I guess it doesn’t really matter anymore now. It does save me the usual briefing. Have you also heard about what’s to happen next?”

Brady shook a little.

“Alright,” Alex continued. “Basically, you have three options. You can either wait until you receive a letter with further instructions that will tell you where to go and when to go there to get to Caliptus, where you will attend a school. More about the school later. You can also stay here and join a pack, but this is something that I do not recommend. Then, there’s the third option. You can stay home and wait. You will either be kidnapped and forced to join a pack, or risk

being assassinated by a Caliptian assassin. It’s a messy business, but it rarely happens. Once every ten years or so. That’s what I’ve heard, at least.”

Alex didn’t sound certain about even one of things he said. Alex’s tone of voice suggested he was pulling all of this out of his ass, but his facial expression said quite the opposite.

The last part of what Alex said scared him more than it should have. How could an assassin from Caliptus find me, let alone kill me and get away with it?

Then Brady thought about the bigger picture. He couldn’t just leave his family behind, and he couldn’t leave Lisa either, even though their relationship was – quite bluntly stated – nonexistent.

Alex looked at Brady expectantly, as if he was waiting for him to ask a question.

“Eh – packs?” Brady said, asking a question just to ask a question.

Technically, this isn’t even a question, Brady thought. It’s simply a single word uttered in an interrogative manner.

“Packs, yes. Morus roaming Earth in groups ranging from five to twenty people. These Morus have either travelled from Caliptus to Earth and decided to stay here to roam this planet, or were simply born here, already as a Morus, or, although this rarely happens, infected by a Beast, and decided to stay here, fleeing their houses and lives before the Caliptian assassins could even set out to assassinate them.” Alex gave a snort of laughter. “God, it sounds so horrible, talking about these assassins. Rest assured, though, because while they are assassins, they are quite civil, working for the greater good of keeping the existence of Caliptus and everything even remotely related to it a secret.” Alex shook his head a little before he closed his eyes briefly. He continued seriously. “Mister Heliot, Brady, most of the Morus who travelled to Earth and stayed here to

join those packs were criminals back on Caliptus, and managed to escape their sentences. They are murderers, thieves, rapists, overall

 just scum that deserves to be put behind bars. The ones born on Earth who choose to stay here with the packs usually become quite the same.”

Sounds like an easy choice. Brady didn’t want to join some pack of murderers. It sounded fun and all, to travel Earth, but he didn’t like the idea of spending his time with killers and rapists.

Out of all these options, he wanted to stay with his family the most, though.

Alex must have seen that he was thinking hard, because he changed the subject.

“Do you want to know a couple of benefits about being a Morus?”

Being a Morus?” Brady’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes. A Beast bit you, so you are infected and will become one of us. I know it’s hard to understand at first, but once you are in Caliptus, I can assure you that you will have no regrets, even though it wasn’t your decision, being turned into one of us.”

“What are the benefits?” Brady asked curiously.

Alex pursed his lips before he began. “Okay, so the first one: increased endurance.”

That is cool. Brady had never been sporty, but now one of the benefits of sporting was handed, or actually, forcefully pushed into his hands, on a silver platter.

“Not a talker, hm?” Alex chuckled friendlily. “I like that. Faster regeneration is also a benefit of being a Morus. If you’re wounded, you’ll heal much faster than a normal human being would. If you break a bone, you don’t have to wait for weeks for it to heal. Rather, it would take a day or four, five.”

He liked that very much. There weren’t any disadvantages of regenerative powers. At least, none he could think of. Alex noticed that Brady liked what he heard, and that made him smile. “I mean, we can still die, but our chances of survival are simply greater. Onto the third benefit: claws.” As if he had been looking forward to it, Alex held his fists beside his head in an upwards fashion. Brady eyes widened as Alex made six-inch long, steel-colored blades extend from his knuckles with no effort at all.

Brady couldn’t keep his mouth from dropping open.

Alex retracted the claws. They slowly disappeared into his knuckles.

“When can I do that?” Brady was awed.

Alex seemed to appreciate the enthusiasm. “Using them is frowned upon. People view it as animalistic. Normal claws will extend by themselves around August for new Morus. It doesn’t matter when you’ve been infected. People on Caliptus aren’t as keen on finding things out about the world around them as people on Earth are, so things like this haven’t been researched properly yet.”

This was great. The only downside was that he’d have to make a very hard decision. Thinking about the claws, he suddenly remembered those beings that had saved him. One of them had said something odd. Were those beings the untraceable assassins Alex

had mentioned? If they were, why had they saved him from that wolf?

“I have a question,” Brady said. “When I was attacked by that wolf, some smoke-headed beings saved me. What are they? Were they those assassins you were talking about?”

Alex cocked his head and narrowed his eyes before he jumped up as if Brady had just told him that he was infected with a deadly, highly contagious disease.

“Des – describe those -- beings. What did they say? Their appearance?”

Brady hadn’t expected such a reaction, so he took a moment to think about what this could mean before he answered it.

“They were dressed in black completely and, now I remember it, they spoke in some kind of foreign language.”

Alex placed his hands on his temples and shook. “No. No. This can’t be. You can’t be a – ”

Brady didn’t say a thing. He could only stare at Alex, hoping that whatever the man was trying to say wasn’t as bad as he made it appear to be. Alex turned around abruptly and exited the room, leaving Brady in shock as he grew increasingly more nervous all of a sudden.

What’s going on? A rush of panic soared through his body when he thought of all that could be wrong.

A few minutes passed. Brady sat on the side of his bed, thinking about what had happened. He startled when the door of his room was suddenly opened and the doctor with the walrus mustache waltzed in, a smile from ear to ear.

“Hello Mister Heliot. The doctor told me that you passed the tests and that you have fully recovered. You can go home if you want to, or you can call one of your parents to come pick you up. The doctor also told me that you should keep the bandages on until your wounds are fully healed.”

But they were healed, or was this doctor not supposed to know that?

Now he was thinking about it, it was quite obvious that that information should remain concealed to him. Obviously, such rapid regeneration of skin and flesh would raise question, at least in someone who was qualified to treat people who were wounded or ill.

There was one trivial question that remained unanswered, but that was going to change now.

“Sarah Mercer, where did she go?” Brady asked, but he was only

paying half attention. The other half was in his head, lost in the maze that was his endless stream of thoughts.

“Miss Mercer left the hospital this morning, around six am.”

What? That didn’t make any sense. She had said to him she’d see him tomorrow.

 

It was around eleven am when Brady opened the backdoor to his mom’s house.

He entered the living room, wondering how she’d remark on his swift recovery, but he found that she wasn’t even there.

The only one in the house apart from him was Norman, his stepfather. Norman was sitting on the corner couch with his hand on the armrest, distractedly playing with the remote control as he scanned the street in front of the house. The television was on, but whatever was on didn’t seem to interest Norman that much.

“Hello,” said Brady, a little confused, trying to come up with a valid theory as to why his mother wasn’t home.

“Heh-hey!” said Norman. “I heard you fought a wolf and won.”

Norman was obviously joking, but that was just how he was.

“Yeah.” Brady forced a smile. “But I recovered, and sooner than the doctors had expected.”

“That’s good news,” said Norman. “So you can go back to school tomorrow?”

Brady shrugged. “I could.”

His mother had probably not allowed Norman or Brian to visit him because it would’ve been too noisy.

“Where’s – mother?”

“Doing the groceries,” Norman replied. “Don’t even bother calling her. She’ll be back soon.” Norman’s head turned to the backyard as if he had seen something. “Oh, there she is.”

Brady looked at the backyard through the large window behind the oak wooden table.

He saw his mother closing the fence gate and bringing her bike to the garage before she came out of it carrying a large, white grocery bag filled with groceries. A bag of bread and a fresh carton of breakfast cereal stuck out of the bag.

Brady returned to the kitchen where he then approached the door. His mother looked surprised when she saw him through the glass, and when he opened the door, she quickly put the grocery bag onto the kitchen counter before turning to him to give him a hug.

“Come here,” she said as she wrapped her arms around him. “You’re already back?”

“Nah, I’m just a figment of your imagination,” Brady replied. Hugs made him feel quite uncomfortable.

“Sarcasm?” his mother giggled. “I don’t know you like this.” She let go of him. “I do not say this often, but if you want to stay home from school tomorrow, you have my permission. And if you need somebody to talk to, I’m here, okay? I can’t believe you nearly died, and I can’t even begin to imagine how you must’ve felt.”

“It wasn’t exactly pleasant, no,” said Brady, avoiding eye contact even with his own mother. “Either way, I’ll to go to school tomorrow.”

He wanted to see Lisa.

“That’s the right attitude,” said his mom. “But if you’re feeling sick or anything – “

“Yeah yeah.”

There was a huge difference between the way he acted to his family members and the way he would to his classmates, teachers and other people who weren’t relatives of his. At home, Brady was sort of confident, although he would still avoid eye contact, even with someone like his little brother. He was kind of talkative, but by far not the loudest in the house.

Lisa wasn’t the only reason why he was going to school tomorrow. He remembered one of the benefits of being a Morus; increased endurance. This meant better performance at PE.

There was a basketball tournament coming up, and they were going to train for that.

I’m going to impress some people. At least, I hope I will.

 

It was dark outside.

Bedtime.

Brady was supposed to be in bed by now, sleeping, but he wasn’t. He was sitting at his desk on his dark, dark room. The laptop screen lit up his face as he did some research on the topics ‘Caliptus’ and ‘Morus’, trying to find out whether the internet had to offer any information whatsoever relating to either of the two topics.

The word ‘Caliptus’ brought up little; a Swedish company, the word ‘eucalyptus’ and several pictures of some sort of candy.

The word ‘Morus’ brought up little as well. Apparently, the scientific name of the mulberry was Morus.

The doorbell rang, but Brady was too focused on learning more about the mulberry to even care. This page stated that mulberry leaves – the white ones in particular – were the sole food source of the silkworm.

Simply fascinating.

Brady heard the front door opening, which caused him to briefly gaze out of the large, square window to his left which overlooked the street in front of the house and the houses on the other side of the road.

The window was closed, and even if he were to stand in front of it and look down, he still wouldn’t be able to see who was standing by the door.

“Good evening,” he heard his mother saying.

Brady read that monks of the Khmer Empire of Southeast Asia used to make paper from the bark of mulberry trees during the Angkorian age of said empire. That was something he wouldn’t forget, no matter how trivial it was. 

“Something about school,” he heard a man with a gruff voice saying.

He heard the stairs creaking suddenly. Brady startled. He quickly shut off his laptop and jumped into his bed. His mother opened the door a brief second after he had pulled the blanket over his body and had closed his eyes – his clothes still on.

“Brady,” she whispered. “Mister Rockal, at the door, for you.”

Mister Rockal. That name didn’t sound familiar to him at all. There were plenty of teachers at his school whose names he couldn’t remember, but he was sure that if the name of one of those teachers were to be uttered, he would.

Mister Rockal wasn’t one of those names.

“Uhm… what?” said Brady, opening his eyes slowly, pretending to have been asleep.

“Mister Rockal,” his mother repeated, her voice softer this time. “He is here, at the front door. He wants to speak to you.” She cocked her head. “Is there something you haven’t told me?”

Brady felt his heart skipping a beat all of a sudden when he remembered what Alex had told him about the packs on Earth.

A cold, unpleasant shiver ran down his spine as he realized that whoever was down there might know.

“I – I’ll be right down,” he said unsurely. “Just let me get dressed.”

His mother left the room and Brady climbed out of his bed, his clothes already on.

He usually wore darker colors. They made him blend in and feel safe.

Brady took a deep, shaky breath before he opened the door of his room and cautiously climbed down the creaky, white, spiral staircase leading to the front hallway where a tall man was standing in the doorway, opposite of his mother.

“Ah, Mister Heliot,” said the man disinterestedly.

Nora turned to Brady as Brady walked past the door leading to the toilet and came to a stop next to her and the coat stand to his left.

The hallway was dark. Why had his mother not turned on the light?

The man standing in the doorway had his hands folded behind his back. He was tall – really tall – and slender, standing at around six-foot-six. His hands were folded behind his back and his face was partly shadowed by the darkness of the night. Mister Rockal had this permanent solemn expression on his face, which made Brady feel rather uncomfortable and uncertain about the man’s intentions immediately.

Along with a pair of thick, black eyebrows and dark brown eyes, Mister Rockal had a scruffy, black goatee with sideburns.

His hair was hidden underneath a cowl attached to a dark black cloak, and underneath the cloak, he wore a set of black clothing that looked a lot tougher than any clothing Brady had ever laid his eyes upon. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be some kind of refined leather, judging by the smooth texture.

Mister Rockal looked odd for a teacher, at least for one from Earth.

His mother appeared to have noticed that as well.

Mister Rockal took a sharp breath before he spoke. “Is Brady allowed to come with me for a moment, ma’am?” he asked, his voice calm and serious.

Mister Rockal had an Upper Class English accent.

“Yeah… sure,” said Nora, but she didn’t sound too sure. “Don’t take too long, please. You do know he has school again tomorrow.”

“I do, ma’am. I will be sure to make it brief.”

Brady pulled on his shoes and then stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He nervously followed Mister Rockal away from the safety of his house, not knowing what was to happen next.

 

They walked for about five minutes through the deserted streets, townhouses on either side of them.

Mister Rockal and Brady hadn’t shared a single word, making Brady

more suspicious of Mister Rockal’s intentions.

A single house stood in the distance on the left side of the road in-between two rows of townhouses.

Brady recognized this house. It was one of the few single houses in the neighborhood, and it had been abandoned for several years.  

Mister Rockal walked up front and Brady walked about a yard behind the slender man. Brady had spent most of his time looking at Rockal’s right hand, which he constantly closed as if he were trying to squeeze something.

“By now, you are undoubtedly wondering who I am,” Rockal said without looking at him. “I can answer that question for you. My name is Tunstall Allister, but you will refer to me as ‘Mister Allister’.”

Mister Allister’s voice was gruff but clear.

That’s an odd name, Brady thought. Mister Allister had to be from that other planet.

That meant… that meant that Mister Allister was an alien. He was talking to an alien, or actually listening to it – him.

“How did you know my name?” Brady asked softly.

“I will answer that question later.” Brady followed Mister Allister to the other side of the road, where they then approached the abandoned building. “I am taking you somewhere private. I do not wish to discuss this in the middle of an open road where someone might hear us. God, this area is so populous,” he said hatefully. “If only you would have lived on that farm in the middle of the forest. It

would have made discussing this so much easier.”

Shortly thereafter they arrived at the ruined, abandoned, single story building.

The house had quite some free space around it and it was separated from the other houses by a tall, wooden fence. A wrought iron fence was built around the empty, overgrown front yard, and the gate of it was locked. It was hard to describe the area in detail, as it was dark outside. Mister Allister climbed over the fence agilely. It took Brady some more effort.

“Watch the spikes,” Mister Allister said, showing no interest in waiting for him to climb over.

Brady landed on the soft ground on the other side of the fence and followed Mister Allister along the edge of the brown building.

It was a cold evening and the sky was filled with black clouds. He knew it wouldn’t take long before the rain would start pouring down

on their heads. The windows of the ruined house were boarded up, just like the black front door itself.

He had seen this house before, yet he had never asked himself why it had been left abandoned like this for so long. Apart from some broken windows, the house was in good shape, at least from the outside.

They made their way through the overgrown garden on the left side of the house and arrived at the backyard.

The backyard was surrounded by wooden fences, and the medium-sized, rectangular swimming pool in the center was surrounded by a strip of grass.

The swimming pool looked so dirty and gross, Brady feared coming anywhere near it.

The surface of the water was covered in leaves and garbage.

As they walked alongside of it to the backdoor of the house, a toad jumped into the dirty water, which startled Brady, but only a little.

“Why so jumpy?” Mister Allister asked, sounding as if he didn’t really care about the answer.

It appeared as though there had been a fire in the back of the house. The backdoor, the roof and the walls were blackened.

“Why here?” Brady asked as Allister placed his hand on the door handle and tried to open it.

It was locked as well, yet the fire had severely weakened the wooden

door.

“If you would have listened to what I said, you would have known,” Mister Allister muttered.

The backdoor was locked, but at least it wasn’t boarded up, as opposed to the front door.

Brady peered through a blackened window to the right of the door, seeing what appeared to have been a kitchen.

The darkness inside of the house already gave him the creeps, and he wasn’t even inside yet.

Brady joined Mister Allister’s side curiously before the latter knocked on the blackened door.

“Hollow,” Mister Allister remarked, scanning the door while he stroked his chin. “Hm, I take that back. The fire has obviously compromised the previously solid wooden door, but that does not exactly make the door ‘hollow’.”

Brady wanted to confirm to Mister Allister that he had rightly corrected his conclusion by stating to him that if the door would

have been hollow, it had to be empty on the inside, like a box. He wasn’t sure how Mister Allister would think of him if he would say that, so he kept it to himself and simply awaited Mister Allister’s next move.

Brady startled when Mister Allister kicked open the door despite the fact that he had watched him lifting up his leg.

As they entered the house, raindrops started falling out of the sky. The roof of the single-storied house didn’t exactly protect them against the cold raindrops, for there were many holes in it. Cobwebs were scattered around the place, suggesting that no one had been here in quite some time.

The building was quite open, having a T-shape, with the upper line of the T-shape being the empty, rectangular living room, and the lower line being the ruined hall they were currently standing in.

There were two doors on each side of them, and while the one farther away from them were closed, the one leading to the kitchen to the right of them and the one leading to a dark room to the left of them weren’t.

Brady knew that the kitchen was empty, so he kept a watchful eye on the dark room, fearing the possibility that something might be inside of there.

The part of the roof shielding the living room was intact, but the part of the roof shielding the hallway, the kitchen and the dark room wasn’t.

Broken roof tiles were scattered across the hallway and the kitchen.

The building gave Brady an eerie feeling from the inside. It was dark in the house, very dark.

As Allister made sure that the other two rooms were locked, Brady noticed some human silhouettes sitting in the empty living room on the ruined floor.

Allister didn’t seem to mind them, but because they were sitting so still, Brady couldn’t keep his eyes off of them.

Both doors were locked and Allister walked past him, checking the dark room as Brady tried to figure out from a distance whether these silhouettes actually belonged to people or not.

This wouldn’t be the first time that he imagined something in the dark. If there was anything he dreaded, it was darkness.

“We have to look in the basement to make sure we are alone.”

“The – the basement?” Brady stammered, not even turning to face Mister Allister, who stood in the doorway.

Brady didn’t want to go into the basement, not even with Mister Allister by his side.

While Brady thought about what could be lurking down in the dark basement, Mister Allister was already climbing down the creaky, rotten staircase.

Meanwhile, Brady turned around, startling when he saw a coat hanger beside the door.

He placed his hand on his chest and heaved a sigh of relief.

He startled yet again when he suddenly heard one of the stairs creaking.

Creak. Creak. Creak. Creak. Creak.

Without even looking at him, Mister Allister walked past Brady to the living room.

Nervously, Brady followed him.

It was only when they were standing in the center of the ruined living room that Brady noticed that the silhouettes had never been actual people. The silhouettes didn’t even look like people from here. It was rubble, consisting of roof tiles primarily.

Mister Allister turned to him. “I brought you here because you have an important decision to make. It is about your transformation. I knew you were aware of at least something of it, for you played along with my little act back at your house.”

Brady shivered. It was starting to get colder. “T – teachers don’t

wear cloaks, cowls and – ” Brady gave a nod at the refined leather

Mister Allister wore underneath the cloak. “ – that, in schools here.”

“I do need a lecture about how I should act as an Earthling teacher, boy,” Mister Allister remonstrated. “This is once in a lifetime. Spending any attention on bettering it would be a waste of time and brain cells.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brady before he lowered his head.

Mister Allister winced. “Cheeky cunts aren’t appreciated amongst us, and it could cost you body parts, especially on Caliptus. Now, boy, tell me. Why did you not send me away? Why did you come with me? How did you know?”

 “Someone named Alex told me some things about Caliptus and the Morus,” Brady explained softly.

Allister tilted his head. “I do not know anyone going by the name of ‘Alex’. What exactly did he tell you? Is he from Caliptus?”

“Yeah. At least, I think he is.”

“Then you might grow distrustful of me once I tell you this: I am a

member of a pack. We are temporarily residing in a forest in Yatawa Town, near a farm.”

Brady wanted to say something, but Mister Allister didn’t give him the chance. Hatefully, he said, “This man, this -- Alex, undoubtedly, he distorted your views on packs before you have ever even gotten to see one with your own eyes. I do hope you are open-minded, for I will attempt to correct your views on the packs roaming Earth.” Mister Allister gave a snort of disdain. “I bet ‘Alex’ told you we are murderers, thieves, escaped convicts. This is not true… Look at me when I speak to you!” Brady’s muscles tensed and he looked up at Allister, his eyes widened. “Tsk, Earthlings and their lack of manners.” Allister sniffed loudly before he continued his lecture. “Most of us are civil, although hardened. We live in the real world, and many of us are from a real world, which is why I do not understand why so many of us roam the Earth in the hopes of one day being able to, and being allowed to integrate or reintegrate into this society.”

So his normal life wasn’t completely over. He had the option of reintegrating back into society after some time. That made him feel a lot better.

“So, if I come with you, I can one day see my family again?”

Allister nodded. The way this man kept his face straight was remarkable.

“Isn’t that risky?” Brady asked carefully. “I mean -- what if…?”

“What if what, boy?”

Brady wanted to ask Mister Allister whether Morus killed people on Earth, but he felt like he wouldn’t appreciate that question.

“Come on, spit it out,” he urged.

Brady pursed his lips. “What if a Morus, you know, is bad and kills people on Earth?”

“That happens,” Mister Allister said. “It is rare for a member of a pack to do so, but a reintegrated Morus might. Some never lose the wild hairs grown on Caliptus. Other reintegrated Morus might play it smarter. They will use means only available on Caliptus on Earth for status or capital.”
“What do you mean?” Brady asked softly.

“Speak up, boy,” Mister Allister urged, retracting his lips. “Conversing in this manner will get people to walk over you and treat you like a shit.”

Brady broke eye contact at that moment.

The way in which Mister Allister talked to him made Brady feel like Mister Allister already didn’t like him.

“I mean that people you may know might as well be a Morus. Think of overly charismatic or untalented rich cunts. Government officials who do not know a shit about politics.”

“And none of them, not even the convicted killers, ever reveal something about Caliptus?”

“Nah.”

“How do I re – reintegrate? When?”

“Once High-Councillor Nawot allows you to. More on him later. If he believes in you and you have mentored another flesh and blood, you will be allowed to return to society and pick up your old live, or start anew, elsewhere.”

That made him feel better about everything. Still, Brady feared that having to spend over five years away from his family might already be enough to take a toll on him.

“What’s this – other world like?”

“Aye. Caliptus is a world similar to your ‘Middle Ages’, only better.”

No way. That got Brady pretty hyped up, in his head.

The decision wasn’t hard to make at all now. Learning how to survive and travelling the world sounded cool, but travelling to another planet…

“So what is your choice, boy? Staying on Earth with us or going to

Caliptus with that ‘Alex’,” Mister Allister asked him suddenly.

That was unexpected, but while Brady knew what he wanted, he didn’t want to offend Mister Allister and bluntly state that he wanted to go to Caliptus.

“I need time to think about it,” he stammered.

Mister Allister gave a snort. “I suppose that is a possibility. We leave on the sixth of Kotis. That is on April the sixth.”

April the sixth? That was like, twelve, thirteen days from now. He’d have enough time to think about it and come up with a not-so-harsh way of telling Mister Allister what he wanted.

“Got any more questions? You can ask them now. When I am gone, you will be stuck with them for a while.”

He didn’t have any other questions so he simply shook. He hadn’t enjoyed this conversation. Mister Allister was too blunt, and he had pointed out to him his insecurities, such as his soft voice or the fact that he couldn’t keep eye contact.

“From this conversation, I assume that you are not a halfwit and can independently find your way home. Am I correct?”

Brady nodded unsurely.

“Then our ways will part for now,” said Mister Allister, turning around abruptly before heading for the back door. “I will meet you at your father his house next week at Monday, four pm. Then I will take you to the forest to meet the pack and help you with your decision. Good evening.”

“Just one more thing,” said Brady quickly.

Mister Allister stopped and turned around, his face concealed by the darkness.

“What.”

“How did you know where I live?”

Mister Allister seemed reluctant to answer that question. “I cannot tell you just yet, but you will find out eventually. Monday. Do. Not. Forget.”

I won’t. I definitely won’t.

 

Chapter 5

A Sense of Superiority

 

 

It was six am. A couple of minutes past six am to be exact.

The sun had barely risen, yet Brady was awake.

He was curious, curious as to how this increased endurance worked.

Brady got off his bed and put on his favorite clothes; a black hoodie, a gray Cuba T-shirt and a pair of blue, faded jeans that had scratches on the knees.

Before he left his room, he grabbed his keys – which were attached to a chain – and his phone, which had woken him up this morning.

He had purchased the phone around February. It really wasn’t that old, yet Brady had accidentally dropped it onto the floor a couple of times already.

Fortunately, the screen wasn’t cracked, and neither did it have any scratches on it.

He closed the door to his room and sneaked down the creaky staircase. He was ready, ready to test his endurance.

Brady unlocked the front door, opened it and then closed and locked it behind him. He followed the brick path through the front yard, which – in comparison to the other front yards in this neighborhood – looked quite neat.

While it wasn’t exactly dark outside, the streetlights were still on.

He had decided to do this in the early morning so that nobody would see him.

He began running, slowly at first, but gradually, he increased his pace. He decided to sprint for as long as he could, for that was the most efficient way to test his endurance. He sprinted over the sidewalk and followed it to the other end of the street. He was a bit afraid to be seen by other people, but seeing all those closed curtains made him feel a bit better.

He was going to the forest near his mom’s house, which was an unpopular place in the area about a minutes’ sprint away from his current location. Apart from the occasional runner, the forest was rarely visited by anyone. He didn’t know why. It was a nice forest and it had several points of interest.

Brady jumped over the wooden beam used to prevent cars from getting into the forest, and he landed on the soft dirt. He followed the dirt path – a ditch on each side of the path, and trees on the other

sides of the ditches – to a big tree in a clearing about sixty yards away from the wooden beam that marked the entrance of the forest. The grass here was tall, and as he leaned against the large tree, he looked at his phone for a moment, noticing that he didn’t have all the time of the world anymore. He had to be back home around seven. With only forty-five minutes left, he continued his journey through the forest. First destination: the ruins of the house of the Krestley family. He sprinted deeper into the forest, not feeling particularly energetic or as if he was boosted because he was a Morus now. He dodged several low-hanging twigs, all while making sure to keep on the dirt path because he didn’t want to get his shoes dirty.

The path grew harder to see the closer he got the the ruins of the Krestley house, and once he saw the ruins in the distance, the path was basically nonexistent.

One wall of the house was all that was left standing. The rest of it had turned into piles of bricks and debris. The house hadn’t become like this just because it had been abandoned. There had been an explosion of some kind in the house.

Mister and Miss Krestley survived the explosion and they had told everyone that it wasn’t them who had set it off.

Their only child, Anna, had gotten stuck and the house had collapsed on top of her. They say she’d suffocated, but there was one thing that didn’t support that statement: the body was never found. Anna Krestley was around ten years old at that moment. She would’ve been eighteen by now.

Brady searched through the overgrown ruins for something that looked nice, and after three minutes of searching, he had managed to find some items. It were a couple of blue-green shards that appeared to have been part of a vase once. He took the biggest one with him. The rectangular shard was sharp and about as big as his fist.

He put it into the pocket of his black hoodie and returned to the searching, but after an additional two minutes, he concluded that there wasn’t much interesting lying around anymore; just bricks, wood and other invaluable items.

He returned to the dirt path and sprinted to the second and last destination: a small treehouse.

Not even two minutes later, he could see it, in the distance, off-road.

Brian and Brady had built it around five years ago. Even from here, Brady saw that the wood was rotten and some planks had broken off, making the tree house appear as though it was an unfinished project.

It made him think about his childhood, his real childhood, for a moment. Sometimes, flashbacks were painful. He couldn’t believe that it had already been five years since Brian and he had made this.

Time passed so fast, it was almost depressing sometimes.

 

It was time, time to go. After some cereal and a good talk with his mom, Brady cycled to school. He got off his bike, locked it and after finding his way out of the maze of bikes and bike racks, he approached the entrance of the school. He immediately noticed all the looks he was getting. It was literally like how it went in the movies.

Brady exchanged a couple of awkward glances with some other students before looking at the ground and trying to ignore the attention he was getting.

Logan, whom he had told that he would be returning to school this day, was leaning against the glass near the entrance of the school.

“Hey, man,” said Logan, a grin on his face. He was surprisingly happy to see him again.

“Hey,” said Brady, confused. “Did you – ”

“Man, you do not want to know what people have said about you in the time you were gone. Do you know what kind of position you are in now? If you’d alter the story just slightly, everyone will think you are like -- cool, for a change.”

He ignored the last part. Even though Logan was enthusiastic for him for some reason, the guy still inserted a disparaging comment into what he had to say.

“What do you mean?” Brady, who was starting to feel uncomfortable with all the looks he was getting, asked.

He turned, only to make eye contact with a pretty girl of his age whom was standing near a group of smokers.

“You’ll see, man. Now let’s go. Class starts in a few seconds.”

They entered school. As always, Brady followed Logan.

Brady hated to admit it, but he only now saw that Logan was the dominant one in their friendly relationship, and surprisingly, he didn’t care.

At least he didn’t have to decide how they would have to get to classrooms.

He could just follow Logan and think.

They had geography now, which was his least favorite subject. This was primarily because of the teacher.

As they climbed the stairs to the third floor, he heard a voice behind him, which was fairly easy to recognize. It was Mark Barton, the short redhead.

“Aw shit, he’s back!” Mark announced.

Logan smiled and stopped at the top of the staircase, and then, so did Brady.

Brady grinned awkwardly as the short redhead approached him and patted him on the shoulder.

“Tell me exactly how it went. It sounded so – awesome, dude! You just… survived, man, ha-ha!”

“I’ll – t – t – tell you during r – recess, okay?”

Mark had an unusually deep voice for someone of his age.

“Cool.” Mark placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go to room C-eight. Geography, right? We have a test.”

Brady gasped. “A test?”

He felt a sense of pride. He had just talked to someone who wasn’t a friend or family without the floor having been given to him first.

While it didn’t sound like much, to him, it was.

“Yeah,” said Mark, who appeared to be surprised by his reaction. “You didn’t know? Mister Weaver told Logan to inform you about that.”

Mark and Brady glanced at Logan, who looked away. “Oh, yeah. I… forgot.”

The trio walked through the hallway to classroom C-eight. Even now, he was receiving quite some looks from both sexes. Each time they passed by people and people passed by them, he received looks.

Perhaps it wasn’t that bad. Now he at least knew why they looked at him. The school bell rang all of a sudden, so they increased their pace.

When they entered classroom C-eight – located in about the center of the hallway on the third floor – they saw that Mister Weaver was already handing out the tests.

Logan and Mark entered the classroom, and Brady unintentionally lingered in the doorway, staring with shock at his classmates, each one of them looking at him.

Kay was one of the last to realize he was back, and he immediately raised his hand. “Brady Wolf!” he said. “He’s back!”

“Brady Wolf?” said Mister Weaver, a slender man with a pale complexion, short, spiky, brown hair and squinty eyes. Mister Weaver was the tallest teacher at Downtown Yatawa Senior High,

and he was undoubtedly the tallest person in general at this school, standing six feet and five inches tall. Mister Weaver always reminded him of a vampire. All Mister Weaver needed was pointier canine teeth, some blood in the corners of his mouth, a slightly paler skin tone and perhaps a stereotypical vampire costume just for the looks. Mister Weaver already had the mysterious voice and the cold expression. Mister Weaver didn’t look hundreds of years old, though. More like forty-five.

“Yeah,” Kay replied loudly and energetically. “Didn’t you hear? Brady was attacked by a wolf and beat it up!”

Mister Weaver’s squinty eyes widened slightly as he looked to Brady. “Oh, you did? I heard you were in the hospital. Until now, I didn’t know why.”

“Everyone knows!” Kay laughed.

“Well, good job, Brady. Did you study for the test?”

Brady shook unsurely as he sat down next to Logan on the seat closest to the door.

Logan, who was sitting next to him, looked away. Brady knew why. Mister Weaver was easy to anger, and Logan not keeping his promise to tell Brady about the test was as good of a reason as any for Weaver to explode.

“Why didn’t you study?” the slender man asked suspiciously. “Did someone not tell you?”

This was the perfect opportunity for Brady to get back at Logan for the times he had been a dick to him over the past couple of weeks. He would be a fool not to make use of it, and while Brady was self-conscious about his overall intelligence, he was pretty sure that he wasn’t on the borderline of intellectual functioning.

“Eh – test?” Brady tried hard to sound puzzled. “Logan?”

He had a difficult time suppressing his smile as Mister Weaver turned his head to Logan in a creepy, robotic manner.

 

This day is going pretty alright so far, Brady thought, smiling. Mister Weaver had scolded Logan and he had even allowed Brady to sit outside of the classroom so that he could make the test later. Brady was looking at a brick wall and was sitting with his back facing the closed door of the geography classroom. On his right side, in the wall where he was looking at, there was a glass double-door that led to a wide staircase leading to the second floor.

He was lost in thought, and he was brought back to reality only when

he heard voices coming from the right, which prompted him to turn his head.

Before he knew it, two girls entered the hallway, talking and giggling and coming his way. Brady turned back to his schoolwork and brainstormed about the question in his book.

The giggling stopped when they closed in, and Brady noticed them stopping entirely shortly before one of the two girls asked the other, “Hey, isn’t that…?

“Yeah,” the other one responded.

Even though the girls hadn’t even said a word to him, Brady felt that he was turning red.

When they stopped by his table, he couldn’t keep himself from looking up.

They both appeared to be older than eighteen, so Brady wasn’t sure as to how he should talk to them and refer to them. The legal adult age in the United States of America was eighteen, and when he was younger, he had learned from his parents that he should always refer to adults as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mister’.

“You are Brady, right? The one who beat up a wolf,” the blonde said suggestively.

Brady gulped, his heart in his mouth. Talking to guys he barely knew in his class was one thing, but talking to girls he had never even seen before? His hands trembled a little so he hid them under the table. One of the girls was pretty. She had butter-blond, mid-back length hair and cognac, almond-shaped eyes. She also appeared to be tall, at least in comparison to the average for her age, standing at about five foot and nine inches tall. She wore a coral-pink T-shirt covered in crepe dots underneath a short, blue overall.

The other one wasn’t as pretty, but still a looker. She was on the chubby side and about as tall as her blond friend. Her hair was a light frosted-brown, mid-back length, and she had large, brown eyes. She wasn’t as brightly colored as the blonde, wearing a green-gray flannel shirt along with a pair of ripped and faded jeans.

“I – I am, Miss,” Brady responded, keeping his sentences short so that he wouldn’t risk stuttering and making a fool of himself.

The blonde and the brunette shared a genuine smile with each other before the blonde exclaimed, “Miss?” and they chortled.

“I’m only eighteen years old. Don’t call me ‘Miss’,” said the blonde, adding a quote-unquote gesture. “My name is Ashley. I heard what you did. Sounds impressive. The news spread like wildfire here the

morning after it happened.”

Like the girl he had met in the hospital, Ashley appeared to be very confident and it made him prematurely break eye contact with her regularly as they conversed.

“Thanks,” said Brady uncomfortably before he awkwardly turned back to his schoolwork.

This confident, almost dominant aura that surrounded Ashley made him feel rather small, and he did not like that. Not at all.

He looked back up at her, realizing that she wasn’t planning on leaving him just yet.

“I’m eh – kind of eh – busy, so…”

Ashley locked eye contact with Brady, which made him feel even more uncomfortable up to the point that he broke it again.

“How about you tell me the entire story some time?” Ashley said. “I’m interested in hearing it.”

Brady looked back up at her and just so that she would leave him alone, he nodded.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Can I have your number? So that we can stay in touch?” Ashley asked.

His face turned blank. Girls never asked him for his number. Apart from the occasional looks he got, it felt like they barely knew he existed.

One girl had asked him for his number in the early weeks of this school year, but he had screwed it up by saying ‘yes’ a bit too desperately. The only differences between that girl and Ashley was that that girl hadn’t generated this aura of confidence and dominance.

“Uh – uh – uh alright,” he stuttered, looking at her with large eyes.

“Well, write it down,” she smiled, and for a moment, it felt he and she were the only two people in this school.

“Aw, he’s shy,” said the brunette, who hadn’t even introduced herself to him yet.

With trembling hands, Brady scribbled his phone number onto the upper right corner of a page of his geography book and then tried to rip it out, failing. He looked at the piece of paper, noticing that the

other half of his phone number was still on the paper attached to the book.

“S – sorry, I – ”

Ashley gave a snort of laughter.

“Don’t say sorry. Just try again. We’re on a free hour anyways.”

Brady gulped again before he scribbled down his phone number for the second time, this time on the lower right corner. He grabbed the corner and ripped it out of the book with the same results.

Like a guilty dog, he looked up at Ashley, showing her that he had failed yet again.

Ashley and her brown-haired friend guffawed, and Brady thought that they were ridiculing him until Ashley told him that he was funny, but in a goofy manner, which made him smile shyly.

“Third time. Once you’ve written it down, just grab the corner, cover your phone number with your thumb and then rip it out, okay?”

“O – okay.”

He scribbled down his phone number for the third time. He covered the phone number written on the upper left corner with his thumb, grabbed the lower part of the page with his index finger and then ripped the corner out.

When he saw that he had failed again, he just wanted to die. Awkwardly, he stared at his third failure.

“You’re silly.” Ashley patted him on the head before she walked to the other side of him, copied his phone number on the lower left corner of the soon-to-be cornerless page and then ripped it out, looking at him triumphantly.

“That’s how you do it,” the brunette said.

“Exactly. So, maybe we can hang out some time? Today?” Ashley put the piece of paper in her back pocket.

He didn’t want this. Or rather, he couldn’t. He couldn’t hang out with a girl like her, and especially not this quickly.

“Yeah, ah – ah – ah – alright,” Brady said, figuring that cancelling this appointment over text was always an option. He would just have to avoid her and her friend on school from then on and just say no whenever she asked him to hang out over text.

“Nice. I’ll text you soon.”

The two girls then left through the glass double-door.

As soon as they were gone, Brady heaved a deep sigh of relief before he spent the next ten minutes overanalyzing everything he had said in an attempt to conclude what Ashley’s final thoughts of him had been before she had left with her friend.

The school bell rang. Mark, Kay, and the rest of his classmates left the classroom and headed to the school’s gym. It was time for PE. Although he had looked forward to this, he was beginning to feel

nervous now.

With his backpack on, he waited by the door for Logan to get out so that they could walk to the gym together. Then Brady realized that Logan would probably not be that happy to see him after what Brady had done, which caused Brady to worry even more up to the point where he was beginning to feel guilty for his actions against Logan.

I hope we’ll play basketball today. Brady was almost sure they would, considering there was a school tournament coming up. Brady followed Logan as soon as Logan. Logan didn’t even give him the time of day.

“H – how’d it go?” Brady asked.

“Fine,” Logan responded curtly.

“Were the -- questions hard to answer?”

Logan shook. Brady pulled with the corner of his mouth before looking at the ground, not knowing what to do next.

 

Brady pulled on his sports clothing – a black-blue top, a black-blue bottom and a black-blue pair of shoes.

I’m ready. Brady left the male dressing room arriving at a large chamber with tall, brick walls, a white ceiling and a shiny wooden gym floor.

The gym was large and rectangular, and they were one of the few classes lucky enough to have it all for themselves during PE.

He took a seat next to Logan on one of the four light-brown benches standing on the other side of the room near the radiators.

“Anyone left in there?” asked Mister Flynn, an energetic man with little hair and large brown eyes. Mister Flynn stood six feet and two inches tall, and he wore his light-blue sports clothing even in school and during PTA meetings.

Mister Flynn was one of the younger teachers, being only thirty years of age.

“No,” said Logan seriously. “We’re the last ones.”

It was always cold in the school’s gym. It was one of the reasons why Brady didn’t like PE.

“Okay, let’s begin,” said Mister Flynn, clapping his hands. “Today, basketball. At the end of this class, I’m going to note down the members of each team, so in short, this is the final hour you get to select or create a team. Understood? Go.”

Everyone got up and groups were quickly formed. Brady found

himself standing alone near the right basketball pole of the left field,

looking at the two fields. Each field took up about half the space of the school’s gym.

Brady wanted to join a team very badly, but he was simply too afraid to approach anyone and ask.

Daphne, a pretty girl with dark-brown hair – mid-back length – an amazing body and large, light-brown eyes approached him. She wore all black.

He had had a short crush on her earlier this school year, but it quickly ended when he realized that unfortunately, it was one-sided.

“I’d let you in my team if it weren’t full yet,” sad Daphne with a compassionate tone of voice.

“It’s… it’s okay.”

Then Daphne did something he hadn’t expected her to do. She flirtatiously stroked her hand alongside of his.

“Next time, I’ll be sure to pick you to join my team.”

Brady mustered a weak smile before Daphne turned around and walked away.

What’s happening?

First that Ashley girl had asked for his number, and now he was receiving attention from Daphne.

“Make eight groups of three,” said Mister Flynn. “I know that you need a team of four for the basketball tournament, but eight teams of three means that we can distribute time on the field this hour more efficiently. Four teams, ten minutes, and then I’ll switch those four teams out for the four teams sitting on the benches. Understood?”

Kay, Logan and Mark walked past him onto the field, approaching the left basketball pole of the left field.

Jamie and Mike, a guy of average height that had blond, spiky hair and watery, light-blue eyes also walked past him, but then Mike stopped and turned to him. “Hey Brady, you can join our team for now. We’re one man short. Come on.”

Gladly, Brady joined Jamie and Mike, who were standing only a couple of feet away from him near the right basketball pole of the left field.

“We’re playing against my real team though,” Mike informed him before giving a chuckle. “So don’t get your hopes up.”

Brady showed him a crooked smile.

Mike was popular, but not nearly as popular as Kay or Mark.

Brady always had this feeling that Mike only hung out with those two to gain some more popularity.

Mike wasn’t a looker. Not at all. While light-blue eyes usually looked good on people, Mike’s eyes looked watery, irritated and red.

So we’re playing against Kay’s team.

Logan and Mark were in Kay’s team. Brady would love to beat them at this game, but would his increased endurance allow him to beat three guys who practiced sports on the regular? He highly doubted it.

Two teams, each three large, were standing on the two fields, with the other four teams currently sitting on the benches near the radiators.

Mark, Logan and Kay were standing below the right basketball pole of the left field while Brady, Jaime and Mike were standing below the left basketball pole of that same field, discussing strategies and positions.

Kay walked to the center of the field and clapped to get their attention.

“Okay,” Kay said, amplifying his voice with his hands. “Mark, Logan and I versus Brady, Mike and Jamie.”

Kay’s shark eyes met Brady’s, and Kay gave him a nod before picking up the basketball lying on the sideline.

Kay returned to the center of the field, where Mike stood, ready to begin.

Kay stood opposite of Mike and the two gave each other a friendly hand.

 “I’ll throw the ball straight up into the air,” said Kay seriously. “No need to cheat here. It’s just a game, people. Ready?”

Brady noticed that the other two teams were already playing before Kay threw the ball into the air and slammed it back to Logan.

Logan caught it and dribbled it to the basketball pole belonging to Brady’s team.

“Mike! On him!” Jamie said. As always, Jamie didn’t do much himself when it came to competitive sports, apart from verbally supporting his team.

Brady distanced himself from the basketball pole and joined Jamie near the sidelines.

Logan jumped up and tossed the ball at the hoop, but Mike caught the ball and was quick to toss it at Jamie once his feet had reunited with the floor beneath him.

“Go, go,” Jamie urged to Brady, prompting Brady to run towards the center of the field.

Jamie threw the ball to Brady just before Kay arrived at him.

The ball bounced onto the floor and while Brady was getting ready to catch it, Logan jumped in-between and stole it.

Brady cursed softly, feeling slightly embarrassed. Logan chuckled a little as he dribbled the ball to the basketball hoop and then scored a two-pointer.

“Yea!” clapped Kay.

“Nice job, man!” said Mark.

“Brady!” said Mike loudly, but lightheartedly. “What are you doing? Run to it!”

Jamie grabbed the ball and approached the edge of the field.

He threw the ball at Mike, but Mark jumped in-between and caught it midair.

Wow. Nice.

Mark dribbled it back towards the hoop and then threw it at Kay, who stood closer to it.

However, Brady managed to get in-between and caught it instead. He needed a second to register that he had the ball right now and he could already see Logan running his way, eager to take it from him.

“Come on, Brady!” Mike shouted. “Run!”

Brady dribbled the ball to the center of the field, nearly losing it to Mark. Then he threw it at the opponent’s hoop.

The ball flew through the air and for a moment. Brady thought he’d score a three-pointer.  

The ball hit the white backboard and it did a little too loud, because the sound the backboard made resounded throughout the entire gym, earning them several looks.

“Ho, Brady!” Kay exclaimed with a huge smile on his face.

Logan caught the ball, which had ricocheted off the backboard. He tried to score from the center of the field too, just like Brady had just tried. The ball flew through the air and landed just in front of it. Mark picked it up and scored with ease, even though his short body couldn’t even get near the basketball hoop.

“Redhead, that was my point!” Logan joked.

Mark laughed at that while returning to his side of the field with Kay.

“Brady, Jamie,” said Mike, and this time he was more serious. “I knew I said we shouldn’t count on winning, but this is going even

worse than I’d expected.”

Yeah, it really was time for them to score.

Mike picked up the basketball and threw it at Jamie while Brady ran

farther into the field. Then Jamie tossed the ball at Brady. This time, Brady was prepared. He caught it and dribbled the ball to the opponent’s hoop. Logan attempted to steal the ball from him, but Brady managed to keep it. He threw it at the basketball hoop and missed again. The ball hit the backboard and made a loud sound, just like last time.

“Potato aim,” Logan called before chasing after the basketball.

“Hey! That board doesn’t have to break!” Mister Flynn yelled from the other side of the gym.

Mister Flynn’s tone made Brady’s mouth drop wide open. He met Kay’s eyes, and Kay’s broad grin made him feel a bit better.

Brady chased after the ball as well, hoping to grab it before the unsuspecting Logan could.

Brady ran as fast as he could, taking large steps.

“What the…?” Logan remarked as Brady passed him and picked up the basketball.

“What’s this, Logan?” Kay chuckled. “I thought you were the fastest of our class.”

Logan attempted to steal the ball again, his eyebrows pointing down and together, but Brady managed to throw it to Mike. Mike caught it and wanted to throw it back, but Logan came in-between, causing Brady to be unable to catch the ball if Mike would throw it.

Mike stopped for a second and looked at Brady.

“Quick!” he then said as he threw the ball towards Brady, over Logan. Brady jumped up and caught the ball. Instead of waiting before he landed on the floor again, he threw it at the hoop a lot less hard than he just had.

The ball bounced off the backboard into the net. A three-pointer.

“Wow!” Kay said, sounding genuinely impressed. “Nice job, man!”

Even Mark seemed to be impressed with the throw.

“Yah,” said Logan jealously.

Kay picked up the ball and threw it at Mark from the sideline, but Brady jumped in-between them and caught it instead. He threw the ball to the basketball net and scored again. Mike, Jamie and even Kay cheered, which earned them Mister Flynn’s attention.

Flynn became their spectator.

Brady felt amazing, and about a minute later, when he scored a two-pointer, both teams – except for Logan – and Mister Flynn congratulated him.

The second half of the game, Brady was on a roll.

He kept on scoring and kept on catching almost every ball flying through the air. After five minutes, the score was ten – three. Mister Flynn blew on his whistle, and everybody stopped.

“Brady,” said Flynn, impressed. “Brady Heliot. I didn’t know you had such talent. You can put that to good use in the tournament.”

Oh, I will.

The remaining part of PE flew by. Brady managed to beat every team with great scores. Ten versus three. Twelve versus five. Even seventeen versus five once. The best part was that he had scored most of the points himself. In the last two games, Jaime and Mike had simply thrown each ball they caught at him.

I carried my team. I actually carried my team.

“Alright everyone, gather round,” Mister Flynn shouted.

Brady and his classmates sat down on the benches near the radiators. Brady felt tired, but not nearly as tired as he would’ve normally felt. Surprisingly, Kay sat down next to him. Brady was worried. He hadn’t managed to get into a good team yet, and it probably wasn’t going to happen either. They had literally just reached the deadline. Flynn was about to make it official by writing it down.

Sadly, he’d have to join Bar-bots teams. Barbara Ralston sucked at every sport involving balls. She always jumped aside and avoided the ball in any way possible.

Mister Flynn grabbed a clipboard and a pen. “Alright. I’ll say your name and you say in whose team you are.”

“Hey Brady,” Kay whispered as Mister Flynn started going down the list one by one. “Would you like to be part of our team? We’ll just kick Logan out. The only thing he seems to be skilled at is boasting.”

“What?” Logan whispered, sounding hurt rather than anything else.

“We want to win this year, man. We can win with Brady’s help,” said Kay to Logan. “Have you seen what he did?”

Finally. Brady couldn’t be happier. Logan deserved this. Take that. Screw you.

“Mark! Marky-Barky,” Flynn said.

“Kay’s team,” Mark chuckled. “And Mister Flynn, call me Marky-

Barky once more and I’ll knock your lights out.

“Oh-o you wanna go?” Flynn said jokingly. “You wanna go?”

Kay tapped on Brady’s shoulder to get his attention back. “You’re going to join us, right? Join us,” he urged.

Brady nodded uncomfortably.

“Jamie,” Flynn called.

“Dean’s team!” Jamie said. “Dean, play the Dean’s team theme song.”

An overweight kid with the voice of an eight-year-old named Dean laughed and it didn’t take long until tears of laughter appeared in his eyes. Soon after that, Dean’s contagious laughter had gotten more people to laugh.

Brady broke eye contact with Kay, but Kay did not seem to like that, neither did he seem to appreciate Brady’s non-verbal response to his question.

“Is that a yes or no?” he said, lowering his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Brady said.

“Logan,” Mister Flynn called.

Logan looked at Kay, but Kay didn’t look at Logan. He was looking at Mister Flynn.

“Kay’s team,” said Logan unsurely.

Kay looked at Logan and then at Mister Flynn, who was already writing that down.

Brady froze when he realized that this might’ve been a conspiracy between Logan and Kay to make him feel bad.

“No,” Kay said. “Our team is full already, man. Brady, Mark, Mike and I.”

Mark and Mike turned to Kay, confused, while Brady could only feel relief.

Mister Flynn looked up from the clipboard.

“Ho, guys,” he smiled. “What is going on here?”

“Our team is full, Logan,” Kay repeated. “You’re going to have to find a different one.”

Brady didn’t even dare to look at Logan right now. Even though he knew Logan deserved this, he couldn’t do anything but feel bad now.

“Well, alright. Logan, I’ll give you a couple more minutes to find another team. I have to wrap this up.”

Brady was thankful to Kay. Now he didn’t have to join Bar-bot’s team.

“Brady,” Flynn said.

Brady looked to Kay, who then nodded.

“Kay’s team.”

“No, you are just a bad friend,” said Logan, irritated, but in a low-key kind of way.

They were sitting on the second floor, just the two of them. The classrooms were empty because it was recess.

Brady was trying to keep this argument from escalating, but he couldn’t keep himself from belittling Logan while he could. His cheeks grew warm and his heartbeat increased as he set free some of that pent-up anger.

“You’re such a weak little baby,” said Brady darkly.

He always felt incredibly bad when he argued with somebody. It didn’t matter who it was, he would just feel regretful after it and blame it all on himself after the argument was over.

His phone vibrated all of a sudden and his attention was rechanneled to the electrical device.

He got it out of his pocket as Logan shook his head, failing to come up with an appropriate response.

Brady’s heart started pounding even faster when he saw that it was Ashley who had messaged him.

Brady turned the back of his screen to Logan before he read what Ashley had texted him.

Hey brady want to hang out after school

Brady didn’t want that. Ashley was good-looking, but he was way too nervous to be able to hang out with someone like her.

He had a plan. He would just procrastinate their appointment until Ashley would stop asking him.

It was the only plan he had. Eventually, she’d have to forget about him.

You already told me you would come remember. I dont even know why im asking you this xd

Brady remembered that, yes. He had already agreed on coming to her house after school today. He could still say no, though.

Not today. Sorry.

It took her only a second to come online and start typing.

Just come please. Well watch a movie and talk about your fight with the wolf. The best way to get to know each other is by watching a movie you know

She played her cards right. Brady was bad at saying no when talking

to someone face-to-face. Over text, it was easier, except for when they’d insist.

I can’t promise anything.

Cool. Michelle will be there too. See you later then!

Michelle was probably her friend; the brunette that had been with her when they first met.

Brady put his phone back into his pocket, only to get it back out

because it was vibrating again. His conversation with Ashley had ended, so he wondered who else could’ve sent him a message.

He found out that it was Daphne who had messaged him.

How’d she get my number? Brady thought.

Heyy.

Brady didn’t know how to respond to Daphne’s text. He wasn’t even sure whether he should respond immediately or wait for some time. On the internet, he had read that replying to a girl’s message too fast would make one seem desperate, and he didn’t want to look desperate.

Rather than replying, he thought about what he could say. ‘Hey’ was too similar to the way Daphne had greeted him just a second ago on Time2Chat, and it also sounded girly in his opinion, whereas ‘Sup’ or any other form of that word except for ‘What’s up’ would sound to cool and relaxed. Asking her ‘What’s up’ would probably sound stupid considering this would be the very first message he would send to her, and ‘Hi’ was too curt.

Brady settled for ‘Hello’.

Hello.

When he read what she had just sent to him and compared it to what he had just sent to her, he grew anxious instantly. ‘Hello’ sounded way too cold in comparison to Daphne’s warm and welcoming ‘Heyy’.

Frozen, he sat there as the tick next to his message turned green, which meant that Daphne had read it.

Daphne was typing.

Do you have any plans for this afternoon?

You’re kidding, Brady thought. Two girls want to hang out with me?

It wasn’t often that two girls asked him to hang out on the same day.

This might’ve actually been the first time. I’m pretty sure it is.

The same thing that applied to Ashley applied to Daphne, though. She was simply too good-looking for him to be able to hang out with.

I’m hanging out with a friend. Sorry.

He wanted to hang out with her, but on the other end, he didn’t. It would be way too stressful for him.

With whom?

Damn it, Brady thought. Apart from Logan he didn’t have any friends, and if he would tell Daphne that he would hang out with Logan, she might ask Logan for confirmation.

Obviously, after the things that had happened between them today, Logan wouldn’t back him up. Honestly, Brady doubted that Logan would’ve even if those things hadn’t happened.

Also, not only could he not hang out with Daphne and Ashley because he would feel too uncomfortable around them, but he wanted Lisa.

With my nephew. Marc

Mark Barton?

No. Marc, my nephew.

In reality, Marc and Brady didn’t talk anymore. This was because of a serious dispute between their mothers,

Oh, okay. Wanna hang out tomorrow?

Brady chewed on his thumb; a bad habit.

He couldn’t say no again, but if he were to say yes, there would be two girls he’d have to disappoint, or actually safe considering he knew how awkward he would be around them, which would also make them feel awkward.

Sure.

Good :) I’ll text you later then.

He put his phone back into his pocket, feeling good. While he would never hang out with either of them, it felt great to be wanted for a change.

 

Chapter 6

Issues

 

 

The school bell rang. The day had finally come to an end.

Brady and Logan exited school together. The sun was shining brightly, and while Brady didn’t mind it that much, he would’ve preferred it to be cloudy outside.

He unlocked his bike and waited for Logan on the sidewalk in front of the school. Logan took his sweet time unlocking his bike, as always.

“Have a good afternoon, man,” said Kay as he cycled past Brady.

“You too,” said Brady softly because he was so surprised that Kay had actually wished him a good afternoon. He doubted that Kay had heard him, though.

Logan cycled towards him.

“You ready?” he asked Brady.

Brady looked at the school just when they were about to leave. The doors opened and he saw Lisa and Marlene walking out. They were free too. This was his chance to find out where she lived. He just had to get rid of Logan now.

“Eh, I have to go seem my great-aunt,” Brady lied. “I forgot to tell you.”

“Well – okay. Yo!”

“See ya.”

Brady made sure that Logan was out of sight first before he got off his bike, leaned against it and grabbed his phone, looking at the black screen and acting as if he was texting someone.

About a minute passed and Brady started to grow impatient.

Where is she?

Brady looked at the school’s grounds from over his shoulder and saw that one of Lisa’s friends was slowing her down.

Twenty seconds later, the twins got on their bikes and cycled off into the distance. He knew that Lisa lived in the same neighborhood as he did because he had seen her around a couple of times, from his bedroom window overlooking the street.

When Brady started the pursuit, it got him to think.

Is this considered stalking? No, right?

Lisa liked him too. It was confirmed by how she had smiled at him. If he were certain of anything at all, it would be that Lisa liked him

back.

He slowly followed the Abernathy sisters back to their house. They cycled over the intersection near the school, then through a couple of streets. It was easy to follow them without being spotted. This neighborhood was like a maze.

 

He followed them for about five more minutes before realizing that they were getting awfully close to where he lived. They took a left, and then a right, and before he knew it, the sisters took another left, cycling into the street wherein he lived.

The sisters slowed down a bit as Brady drove onto the sidewalk.

Still on his bike, he leaned with his left hand against the wall of the townhouse on the corner of the street and peeked around the corner carefully.

The sisters stopped in front of his house, on the sidewalk, and Lisa got off her bike. She made sure there was no one in the living room first before walking up the path towards the front door and putting something in the mailbox.

Brady’s mouth dropped open. She had just put something into the mailbox of his house. If it was what he thought it was, he’d just gotten several steps closer to being with her. The best part was that he hadn’t even had to put any effort into her yet. She had into him.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he heard Marlene saying. “Are you sure he is worth it?”

Lisa returned to her bike. Her beauty stunned Brady. Today, she wore gray T-shirt that had the flag of the United States imprinted onto it, as well as a pair of ripped jeans.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” she said nervously.

Brady had trouble swallowing. If this was a dream and he would wake up…

“I’ve warned you though. Don’t blame me if things go wrong between you and him.”

Lisa climbed back onto her pink-white bike and the two sisters turned around, coming his way.

Brady startled and nearly lost his balance before he awkwardly turned his bike around and raced for the street behind the street where he lived in. This street was very short and ended in a dead-end. Only bikers and those on foot could continue. The sidewalk, which was the reason why the road couldn’t continue, went three ways. One path went straight forward, leading past the front yards of

three townhouses standing on either side of it and ending in a dead end. The path to the left led behind the townhouses to an alley, and the path to the right led behind the other townhouses to an alley behind his mother’s house.

He waited for a good three minutes before he jumped back onto his bike and carefully cycled towards the front of his mom’s house. He hurried up the path leading to the front door, opened the mailbox and with trembling hands, got a light-pink envelope out of it, along with a copy of the Yatawa News newspaper.

 

Brady stepped inside through the back, entering the kitchen.

“And how was school?” asked his mom, who was sitting in the backyard along with his stepfather.

Brady placed his backpack onto the ground near the front door and then returned outside, handing his mother the Yatawa News newspaper distractedly.

He had the envelope behind his back. If his mother or his stepfather – who was also sitting at the table below the low, metallic roof –would see it, he’d have to explain himself, especially because the envelope was pink.

“It was alright. I just have to do something for school,” said Brady. “One moment.”

Brady entered the house again and climbed the white, wooden, spiral staircase to the second floor. He sat down on his bed after closing the door of his bedroom and opened the pink envelope. The letter was pink, just like the envelope, only it was a darker shade of pink. With trembling hands he got the letter out of the envelope and read it.

 

Dear Brady,

 

I think you know who sent this and I hope you won’t show this to any of your friends or family. I really like you, but I can’t ask you for your number because I’m just too afraid to do so and I don’t know whether you like me back or not. Saying hi and such is already a big deal for me to be honest. Every time I see you, my heart just melts and then I imagine you and me being together. I know you are at least a year older than I am, but I hope that isn’t a problem for you. If you do like me back, could you perhaps write your number on this letter and bring it back to my house? My address is listed on the back. Just put it in my mailbox and do it quickly because I don’t

want to wait longer.

 

xxx,

 

You know who.

 

Brady had never felt like this before. Or, he had, but it had been a very long time ago.

He felt warm and he had this weird feeling in his stomach. It felt like a mix between nervousness and excitement.

I could have a girlfriend soon. Thinking about hugging and kissing in the hallways and openly displaying affection in other ways with Logan or his other classmates watching was something he wasn’t looking forward to. Also, how could he keep her interested in him? Obviously, once she had his number, she’d want to see him. It would be a date, but how could he make the date fun and interesting? What if she’d lose interest in him once she got to know him? What if they didn’t share any interests? What if she wanted to take him to the club with her friends and he would make things awkward?

His vibrating phone snapped him out if it.

He unlocked it to see who had just sent him a message.

It was Ashley.

Damn it.

He had totally forgotten about Ashley.

Where are you. You were free around five past two right???

While he grew even more nervous, he suddenly got a plan. Soon, he would probably have a date with Lisa, so what if he were to use Ashley to see how he’d do?

Ashley’s friend was there as well, and they both seemed confident enough to make awkward moments for him not awkward for them, just like earlier this day, when he had failed three times in a row at something as simple as tearing a small corner off the page of his

geography book.

Just thinking about it made him cringe.

He had made his decision. He would use Ashley to see how he’d do on a first date. Perhaps that would make him feel more confident about the real deal, which was with Lisa, and hopefully soon.

 

Brady cycled across a short stone bridge and followed the Yatawa River on his left past a pretty large house to his right.

Brady saw a small private harbor in the distance, and on the other side of the Yatawa River stood a large retirement home, which consisted of two buildings.

Next to the house on his right stood an even larger house.

From the outside it looked like the house was at least twice as large as his father’s house. It even had a balcony in the center of the second floor.

The house was square-shaped. While the front yard wasn’t that large – consisting of soil and three sculpted shrubs, two of them representing women and one of them, the one in the center, representing a man – the house looked quite nice. The walls were constructed out of black and red bricks and the roof was constructed black roof tiles of stone. The window frames, the door frame and the two pillars supporting the balcony where white, while the doors were black.

Brady cycled onto the sidewalk and then onto the driveway beside Ashley’s house.

Ashley was already waiting for him in the doorway, and when she saw him, she walked towards him.

Brady didn’t see any cars on the driveway, and while the garage next to Ashley’s house was closed, Brady doubted that her parents were home.

He took a deep breath before he got off his bike and locked it.

“Good, you’re here,” said Ashley. “Michelle is waiting for us inside.” Brady put the key into his pocket. “We downloaded a movie, but we can do something else if you don’t want to watch it.”

Judging by the size of her house, her parents must have well-paying jobs.

“No no, watching a movie is good,” he assured her. “It’s good.”

Ashley chuckled, “You seem nervous. Why is that?”

Brady looked at her, but when his eyes met hers, he immediately

looked away.

“I’m – I’m.” He gulped. “Not. It’s just – ”

Ashley seemed to like it for some reason.

“Come on inside. And it’s a horror movie, by the way. It’s called ‘Days of Dawn’. Do you know it?”

Finally. Familiar grounds. “It’s the one with the haunted mansion, right?” said Brady unsurely.

“Yes. That one. We haven’t seen it yet. Have you?”

“Nah,” he responded as he approached the side door of the house.

She opened the fancy black door and they entered the house. Everything inside looked expensive and new. The floor was lacquered wood and the walls were cream stucco. 

To the right, there was a lacquered wooden staircase that led to a landing on the second floor. Just in front of the staircase stood a coat rack.

There was a kitchen on the other side of the broad hallway, and diagonally opposite of the side door, to the left, the living room.

“What do you think?” Ashley smiled.

“It’s – it’s a big house. Nice.”

Ashley nodded.

Uncomfortably, she turned to him and suddenly, the confidence disappeared from her face.

 “It can get pretty lonely here,” she said, softly rubbing her left hand over her right upper arm, or rather, over the clothing covering it. “Especially considering my parents are gone and won’t return until the end of next week.”

She’s allowed to stay home alone for that long? Why isn’t she happy with that?

Brady would love to be home alone for that long.

“That’s cool,” said Brady, and suddenly he wasn’t feeling very nervous anymore. “I wish I could stay alone for such extended periods of time.”

“Until you’re forced to,” said Ashley, who appeared to disagree with his statement. “And what are you, like, sixteen?” With a teasing smile, she added, “I doubt you can even survive that long by yourself.”

Brady showed her a crooked smile, not knowing whether that was an attack on his maturity level or a harmless joke.

Ashley regained her confident self and gave a nod at the landing on the second floor. “Up the stairs. Michelle is in my room preparing the movie.”

Brady hung his jacket on the coat rack and adjusted the hood of his hoody before he followed Ashley upstairs, looking to the left as he didn’t want to do anything inappropriate. The second floor had a lower ceiling and it looked a lot smaller than the first floor. It wasn’t even what one could call a ‘second floor’, considering it was literally an extended landing giving access to four other doors. One of them, the one leading to Ashley’s room, was located opposite of the staircase, and then there was one more room to the right.

To the left of Ashley’s room, there were two more doors, one of which undoubtedly led to the bathroom.

Ashley opened the white door to her room and Brady was surprised at how small it was.

The room was shaped like a rectangle and her queen-sized bed in the far right corner of the room and a large, low, white desk in the far left corner of the room occupied most of the space. An expensive-looking television hung at the wall above the desk. The ceiling of her room was oblique, decreasing the amount of walking space even more. Her walls were painted pink and a pink roller blind covered the one window in the room. While the walls were painted a hot pink, the floor of her room consisted of a thick, white, furry carpet.

Michelle, Ashley’s friend, was sitting on her knees in front the desk, doing something on a laptop connected to the television screen with an HDMI cable.

“Hi,” said Michelle when they came in.

“Eh – hi,” said Brady, suddenly feeling a wave of nervousness as he realized that he’d have to share this small room with two girls who were each two yours older than him.

“You can sit on my bed,” said Ashley, and so Brady did.

The bed was nice and soft, and like the rest of the room, the blanket was a mix of hot-pink and white.

Her room smelled like perfume. It was a nice, sweet scent, which somehow added to the pinkness of the room. While it smelled nice, it was a little overwhelming, but it didn’t take him long to get used to it.

Ashley sat down next to him and immediately reached for a bottle of cola, which was standing on her desk beside three fancy glasses.

Michelle started the movie and sat down on the other side of him. Okay. This is uncomfortable.

“You like cola, right?” Ashley asked him as she filled the glasses.

“Yea – I… sure.”

They were acting as if they had known him for quite some time now while in reality it had only been a little longer than six hours.

Brady wasn’t sure whether he liked that or not.

Brady focused on the TV in an attempt to get his mind off his nervousness.

The name of the movie appeared on the screen in blood-red letters and the narrator started talking about the history of the mansion.

“Michelle, did you take the chips upstairs?” Ashley asked her friend.

Michelle shook.

“I think watching a movie is a great way to get to know somebody,” said Ashley. “Especially if it’s a horror. You can discuss what you would do in such a situation for instance. Like I said, it’s a good way to get to know somebody.”

She wants to get to know me, huh?

Brady listened to the narrator. According to the narrator, the first owner of the house was a psychopath who got rich playing in movies. He used the dungeon of his mansion to imprison fans whom he invited over, and then he would experiment on them. He would cut their eyes out, transplant their organs or remove their body parts, only to sow them back on to other prisoners. When the man was caught several years and three dozen murders later, the local police department found the bodies – most of which had been maimed beyond recognition. The worst part was that some of the victims were still alive, even though they were missing an organ or two or had arms sown to their heads. At the end of the dungeon, there was this big steel door. Behind it, the police could hear children screaming and laughing hysterically, but when the door was finally opened, they discovered something terrifying; there was none one behind it.

Judging by the opening, this was going to be great movie. Brady already got the chills just listening to the intro.

 

It was nearly half past five am when the credits started rolling.

The credits rolled and it took Ashley a few seconds to realize that the movie had ended. She got up quickly and brushed some chips off her pants. “Michelle.”

Michelle didn’t respond so Ashley tapped her on the shoulder.

Michelle.

Michelle opened her eyes, for a moment puzzled about her surroundings.

“It’s five pm,” Ashley noted. “You had to go home around that time, right? Too bad you can’t stay even though we don’t have school tomorrow.”

“Wha…?” Michelle sat upright, realizing. “Oh, yeah.”

“I’ll unlock the door for you.”

Ashley got up and followed Michelle out of her room.

“Bye, Brady,” said Michelle.

“Eh – bye,” said Brady, fidgeting with his hands.

“You just stay here for a moment,” said Ashley to him.

As soon as he heard the stairs creaking, Brady retrieved his shoes from below the bed and pulled them on.

He couldn’t wait to tell his mom about today.

As he tied his shoelaces together, he thought about this day and realized that all he had to do to get Lisa was to write down his phone number on the letter and deliver it to her house.

The thought of doing so made him nervous, though, but in the end it would be worth it.

Brady heard the backdoor closing and Ashley climbing the stairs. He only smelled the perfume Ashley had sprayed when he got up.

Too sweet.

Ashley had sprayed it across the room a couple of times while they were watching the movie, and it was only when Michelle had fallen asleep that Ashley had jokingly explained to him that she had done that because Michelle didn’t use deodorant and the she didn’t want the room to smell like her.

That had been a huge relief to Brady. At first, he had thought she’d done it because he smelled sweaty, which was impossible because he always made sure that he had used deodorant before he left the house.

Brady stood in the doorway when Ashley reached the top of the stairs.

“Where are you going?” Ashley asked him, stopping him in the doorway.

“I -- have to go home now. I have to be back around five, so that’s why I’m going.” It was then that he remembered what his parents had taught him.

‘Always thank the host when you are given something to eat and drink.’

“Thanks by the way.”

“Thank me in the morning.” A smile flashed about Ashley’s face.

Brady face went blank and he felt blood starting to rush through his cheeks when he realized what was going on.

“But… I’m – I’m going to be late.” Ashley took a couple of steps forward and Brady took some steps back until he bumped against the footboard of Ashley’s bed with his legs.

“My mom – ” Brady continued, but he couldn’t finish his sentence.

Ashley pressed her full lips onto his and they kissed for a good three seconds. She then stopped kissing him and looked him into his eyes.

Brady felt disappointed in himself for not having pushed Ashley away.

He wanted Lisa, but he had just allowed another girl to kiss him.

Brady stared, not knowing what to do but to panic on the inside.

Ashley kissed him again, a bit rougher this time, and she embraced him too, firmly, as if she were afraid he’d try to escape from her.

She gave him a second to breathe but then she kissed him again.

“No,” said Brady softly, turning his head, but she grabbed it and kept on kissing him before pushing him off of her, causing him to trip over the footboard and land on the bed on his back.

“Don’t,” said Brady. “I – ”

In a heartbeat Ashley had positioned herself on top of him and she began kissing him vigorously.

It felt incredible, and Brady was about to give in, but then he thought of Lisa.

Brady jerked his head to the right. “Fucking stop!” He was trembling as if were experiencing an anxiety attack.

Ashley looked him into the eyes again. “What is it?” she demanded, still on top of him, hands closed around his wrists. “Am I not attractive enough?”

“No, that’s not it.” Brady felt guilty all of a sudden. “I – I – I – ”

He couldn’t tell Ashley that he was already crushing on somebody else. Ashley didn’t look like the person who would accept that. She looked like the kind of person who would try to ruin it for him just so that he would be with her.

Brady tried to remember everything Ashley had said and done, and then it dawned on him.

“It can get pretty lonely here,” she said, softly rubbing her left hand over her right upper arm, or rather, over the clothing covering it. “Especially considering my parents are gone and won’t return until the end of next week.”

“You don’t like being alone,” he said, overly glad to have found her

weakness. “You don’t like being alone.”

She seemed flabbergasted by that sudden statement, and before he knew it, he was embraced by a sobbing Ashley.

 

Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz.

Brady opened his eyes, puzzled by his surroundings.

Half asleep still, he grabbed his phone, which lay on the windowsill.

It was vibrating.

Someone was calling him, but the ringtone wasn’t sounding.

Ever since his phone had gone off during an exam last year, he’d kept it on vibrate only.

Opening one eye, he looked at the screen. His mother was calling him.

Brady moved onto his stomach and pulled the green phone icon on the screen to the right before putting the phone to his ear.

“Hel – hello?” said Brady, wondering why his mother was calling him this early in the morning.

“Brady, where are you?” his mom asked, sounding concerned and relieved at the same time. For a moment, he thought he was still dreaming, but the more he woke up, the more he realized that this was reality.

He was lying on a comfy mattress beside Ashley’s bed. Brady remembered that he had kept her company after they had taken an online monophobia test together and Ashley had scored positive.

He had felt sorry for her, and while he had wanted to go home, he had not been able to leave Ashley all by herself after she had explained to him how much this abnormal fear of being alone was affecting her, so here he was.

“Brady? Are you there?”

He wasn’t certain whether his mom would understand it if he were to explain this to her, so he decided to keep it to himself.

“I’m sorry. I’m still in eh – Mike’s house. It’s his birthday and I don’t have any credit so I couldn’t tell you I’d be staying here.”

He was good at lying, yes, but it always remained difficult for him to lie to his mom considering she would either know it instantly or find out later somehow.

“Well, you knew that before you went over to his house, right?” She breathed a short sigh. Then, calmly, she asked, “When will you be back home?”

“After school. I don’t know what time. I’m really sorry, mom. I – ”

It was dark inside of Ashley’s bedroom. It was also dark outside.

Is it still night? I thought it was, like, morning already.

“Ugh. Well, fine then. You’re almost seventeen. I should begin to start trusting you with things like this, and because it rarely happens that you’re outside of the house apart from school, I’ll allow it.”

“Okay,” said Brady softly. “Goodnight, mom.”

“Goodnight.”

Brady hung up and began worrying about last night, overanalyzing

the things he had said and the things they had talked about.

Perhaps he should’ve just left. Perhaps he should’ve never come here in the first place.

He didn’t even know Ashley that well. Why would he waste an evening, a night and a morning by keeping someone company who he didn’t even know very well?

Then he remembered; he hadn’t felt bad for Ashley because she feared being alone, but he had felt bad for Ashley because he had used that fear against her in order to stop her from kissing and nearly groping him.

 

“Hey,” a female voice whispered, tiredness still present in the voice. “Hey. Brady.”

Brady opened his eyes and simply stared at the ceiling. “Whah?” He felt lightheaded, and he just wanted to go back to sleep.

“Good, you’re awake,” Ashley, who lay in her bed, said, looking at him. Her hair was a mess. “Someone is trying to reach you. You better pick up.”

Brady heard his phone. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz.

Only half awake, Brady turned on his belly and reached for the phone. He did not recognize the number.

Brady put it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hello. Miss Hutchings here. Where were you with math?”

His heart skipped a beat as his eyes widened. He was fully awake at that instant.

“Eh – eh – eh – eh – ehhmm.” Brady gulped.

“Where are your parents? I would like to speak with them at once or I will call them myself.” Miss Hutchings didn’t sound angry with him. She sounded like she was in a hurry and just wanted to get this over with.

Ashley seemed to notice what was going on. “Hey,” she whispered, rolling onto her side. She signaled him to give the phone and then mouthed to him the word ‘mother’.

“My p – parents are home,” Brady stuttered. “Here is my… mom?”

With shaking hands, Brady handed Ashley the phone.

Ashley, who then rolled onto her back, looked at the ceiling before she rubbed her right eye and yawned.

“Hello,” she said in a more mature tone of voice. “This is Brady’s mother speaking. I forgot to tell you that my son would be staying home today. He is so ill, he could scarcely get up this morning.”

It was quiet for a second. He heard Miss Hutchings’s voice, but it wasn’t loud enough for him to hear what she said.

Ashley nodded. “Yes. I’ll tell him. I’ll tell him. Goodbye. Yeah -- goodbye.”

She then returned the phone to him. Brady looked at her, expecting Ashley to tell him what Miss Hutchings had told her, but all Ashley did was breathe a short sigh of relief and remarking that she ‘hates that bitch’.

That was an uncalled-for remark. “What did she say?” Brady asked.

“Well, you’re obviously not going to school today,” giggled Ashley. “I’m sorry,” she then said, sounding sincere. “It was the only thing I could think of, and also, I don’t have school today, and Michelle can’t come because her mother wants her to study, so that would mean that I’d be all alone. Mind staying with me today?”

Yes.

“No.”

 

It was Friday. Brady entered school and waited for Logan in the canteen. Logan only had two more minutes to get there before the school bell would ring.

Brady felt okay, yet it was bothering him that he was now friends with Ashley, and that their friendly relationship could possibly get in the way of Lisa and him.

He didn’t want to risk Lisa thinking he was with Ashley – who was, by the way, not at all his type.

He couldn’t believe that it was already a day ago since he had spent the night at her place. Thursday, it had been. Time went so fast.

Daphne had asked him where he’d been.

He had lied to her about being sick and not being able to come to school and fortunately, she had believed him. He would hang out with her today, this afternoon, right after school.

While he could consider himself lucky that a girl like Daphne had finally noticed him, he hoped that her interest in him would fade sooner than later, because Lisa was the only one for him.

Through the windows in the canteen, he saw Logan approaching the entrance of the school. It was about time.

About time.

Logan wore a white polo shirt. The weather was nice, so it was possible to wear items of clothing like that without feeling cold.

The canteen was already slowly emptying.

If it had taken Logan a couple seconds more, Brady would have probably abandoned his spot in the canteen.

“Sup?” Logan said as he entered the canteen.

“You’re -- we’re late. Let’s go.”

They hurried to classroom F-two; the economics classroom.

It wasn’t that far. They could still make it, and they could rush because the hallways were already empty.

They quickly ran up the stairs and finally arrived at the right room on the second floor.

The bell rang just as they entered the classroom.

“There you are,” Miss Walters, a short, peevish, overweight, elderly woman with white, ear-length hair, rectangular glasses and the voice of a crow, said. She was one of the oldest teachers at Downtown Yatawa Senior High.

Brady had once heard that she’d nearly reached her retirement age.

“Where were you yesterday?” Miss Walters demanded.

“I wasn’t – well.”

“Well, sit down and start working. I want you to catch up with the rest of the class before this hour ends.”

Brady and Logan approached their spots in the front row of the classroom, near the door.

Brady opened his black backpack and got his gray economic books out of it, which looked just as depressing and bland as the economics teacher herself.

Reaching for his ballpoint pen, Brady looked up, meeting Daphne’s eyes.

She sat all the way in the back of the classroom. Daphne smiled at him. Brady couldn’t smile back.

 

“What really happened?” Logan asked when they left the classroom at the end of the hour.

“I told you. I was ill. I couldn’t come to school.”

They walked down the stairs, arriving at the hallway leading to both the English classroom and the principal’s office.

“I don’t believe that. You’ve been up to something,” said Logan lightheartedly, as if he saw this as a game.

They entered the canteen.

Brady saw Lisa, Marlene and a couple of their friends standing in the hallway on the other side of the canteen, conversing.

As Brady, Logan and their classmates walked in, he noticed Ashley,

together with Michelle, sitting in the far right corner of the canteen. They both smiled as soon as they took note of him.

Lisa hadn’t seen him yet, and Brady quickly broke eye contact with Ashley and kept on moving, hoping that she wouldn’t come his way.

If she would come his way, he would have some explaining to do to Logan and possibly to Kay and Mark as well.

Logan was about to say something to Brady, but then they both looked at Ashley getting up and calling his name. “Brady,” she said as if she wanted to tell him something.

His classmates walked past him while Ashley headed towards him.

“Eh, hi,” said Brady softly. “I have to go to class, so I’ll see you later.”

“Wait. I’m still home alone, so could you perhaps eh – keep me company?”

“What’s this, Brady?” said Kay jokingly as he walked past him.

He felt a strong hand slapping on his shoulder, a hand that undoubtedly belonged to Mark.

While Brady felt sorry for Ashley, he wasn’t about to spend another night at her place.

“Well, I can’t – ”

“Aw, please? Please? You have to. I mean, I can’t spent another night all by myself.”

Brady glanced into Lisa’s direction and saw that she, her sister and her friends were about to enter the canteen.

He had to get rid of Ashley or Lisa might start thinking things that weren’t true.

“Sure. Sure. Just – ” And Ashley embraced him.

Brady had never experience these levels of uncomfortability before. He shared a brief glance with a flabbergasted Logan, who looked like he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to laugh at him or be impressed.

“See you this afternoon,” said Ashley, giving him a nod before she returned to her seat in the far right corner of the canteen.

Christ, he thought.

Relieved, he turned his face to Lisa, who stood a couple feet away from him, looking at him.

At that point, Brady just wanted to die.

Lisa was looking at him in such a heartbreaking manner, Brady could barely hear Logan tittering and asking him to further explain his relationship with Ashley.

For a moment, Brady and Lisa stared at each other.

Then Marlene grabbed Lisa’s hand, shot him a look of despise and took Lisa away from the scene.

Brady couldn’t do anything but stand there, in the center of the canteen, gawking as Lisa as her sister and she disappeared into the English classroom with their friends and classmates.

How am I going to solve this? How am I going to solve this? I was so close. So close.

Perhaps he could make it up to her.

Perhaps, if he were to give her his number, he could explain it to her over text and fix it, because after all, there was nothing going on between him and Ashley except for a starting friendship, which he would possibly have to end prematurely.

He would hurt Ashley’s feelings, but he didn’t care about that. She had ruined it for him, be it unintentionally or intentionally, she had ruined it for him.

Ignoring Logan’s teasing, Brady followed his classmates half-heartedly.

 

Chapter 7

The Pack

 

 

The school bell rang and Brady followed Logan out of the school onto the school grounds. He saw Ashley standing on the sidewalk with her bike, waiting for him.

How am I going to explain to Ashley that I’m coming with Daphne?

“I have to be home soon so I’ll take the quick route today, okay?” said Brady to Logan, not averting his glance from Ashley, who had not seen him yet.

“Fine. See you tomorrow.” They parted ways.

Brady returned to the canteen. Logan was too busy talking to Mark to notice anyways.

I’m just going to wait here until she leaves.

Brady stood in the canteen with his back to the school’s ground, trying to come up with ways to become better at saying ‘no’.

His inability to say ‘no’ and stay with that decision is what had caused him to get into this situation in the first place. It was what had caused him to agree to come to Ashley’s house Wednesday afternoon, and it was what had caused him to agree to stay at her house that night and the day following, and those things had caused Ashley to approach him in the canteen earlier this day. Because of all that, his possible future with Lisa was now in jeopardy.

He contemplated the various options he had, and he concluded that Daphne was simply too late – he wasn’t interested in her anymore – and that he’d be better off spending the day with Ashley this time.

Next week, it would be all over. Ashley’s parents would have returned by then and she wouldn’t be alone anymore.

He would go with Ashley today. Yes, he would go with Ashley, if only to make himself feel better for helping someone.

But in the end, not only would he help Ashley, but she would unknowingly help him to get better at talking to girls.

It’s a win-win situation, starring me.

He would have to lie to his mom again, though, which was something he wasn’t looking forward to.

On their way to Ashley her house, Brady thought about Mister Allister and Alex Grant. If he were to ever see Alex again and he would agree on going to the school on Caliptus, it would undoubtedly mean that he’d have to spend his time here until the

next schoolyear or so.

On the other hand, if he were to join the pack of Mister Allister, he would leave as soon as April the sixth.

If he were to ever see Alex again, he would obviously go to Caliptus, but until he would, he had settled with the idea of possibly being forced to join the pack because he simply did not have any other options.

Sure, he could stay home, but that would mean his certain death.

I might as well scrap that option off the list.

 

It was late in the afternoon and Brady and Ashley were upstairs watching a movie.

Although Brady liked watching movies, he disliked being forced to do so.

Normally, he would spend his day productively, doing things like making homework, studying, doing research on how to get rich, and playing videogames, trying to get all the achievements and items in the game. With Ashley, at her home and without a laptop, he could basically do nothing but agree on watching a movie and actually watching a movie.

There was a lot of talking, and eventually Brady figured that he was doing something productive; he was learning how to talk to girls.

According to the internet, practice makes perfect, and while that was common sense, he hadn’t known that it also applied to human interaction.

While he liked people and wanted to be liked back, he was really bad at talking about trivial matters, such as the weather. Something that bothered him even more than that was that he couldn’t talk to people he didn’t know very well without turning red and stuttering.

“What would you like to eat?” asked Ashley, who was acting around him as if he had been one of her friends for ages.

While he was beginning to feel kind of comfortable around Ashley, flashes of what Ashley had attempted ereyesterday kept recurring to him, which then immediately made him feel on edge.

What if she’ll try it again?

Brady doubted that she would, but what if?

He had already taken advantage of her weakness once. He wasn’t sure whether he could do it again, even though it would be justified.

“I don’t know,” said Brady.

They were sitting on her bed, watching a movie.

Judging by the space in-between them, Brady could conclude that Ashley wasn’t interested in him romantically, which was great news. She was two years older than he was, and he didn’t like the aura she emitted. While he admired her confidence, the aura of dominance she emitted made him feel small whenever he talked to her face-to-face.

“Just choose,” she said. “Let me treat you. Let me treat you for staying with me. It’s Friday and I still have a hundred dollars left of what my parents gave me last Sunday.”

“Okay,” said Brady, visibly impressed by the amount of money she was allowed to spend in one week. Ashley had said that she still had a hundred dollars left, so she must’ve gotten at least, like, a hundred and fifty. “Pizza?”

“Sure.” Ashley got up and paused the movie she was streaming on her laptop. They were watching it on the big TV screen hanging above the low desk. The TV screen was even bigger than the forty-inch screen he had in his bedroom in his father’s house.

Watching movies on Ashley’s TV screen made him feel like he was in a movie theater, only there was only one person apart from him, and the screen was smaller, as was the room, and there was no popcorn.

Actually, it wasn’t like a movie theater at all.

“What kind of pizza do you want?” Ashley got her phone out of her pocket. Her phone was twice as big as his, and the phone case was a hot-pink, like most of her room.

“Salami, please.”

Ashley gave a snort of laughter. “Who raised you, a noble?”

Brady squinted and cocked his head. “Whah?”

“Like, I’m of around your age, and we’re friends now. You don’t have be on your best behavior, like, all the time.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brady.

“Ugh, stop it.” Ashley tittered. “Now you’re doing it again.”

“S – I apo – hm.”

Ashley smiled, but Brady still didn’t understand what was so funny about his politeness.

Ashley entered a couple of things onto her phone before she put it against her ear and walked out of the room. “Salami, right?”

Afraid of doing something stupid again, Brady decided to give a nonverbal response, so he simply nodded.

Ashley rounded the corner to the left just before his phone started

vibrating.

Brady got it out of his pocket. His mother was calling him. It was about time. He didn’t have any credit on his phone, so there had been no way of telling her that he’d be staying with Ashley again.

As he pulled the green phone icon to the left, lies were already being generated in his head.

“Mom. Hi.”

“Brady, where are you?” his mother demanded.

“I’m with a friend. I’m staying here to eat. I mean, can I stay here to eat?”

“Ehm, sure. But couldn’t you have notified me of that a little earlier, so that I could’ve told Norman before he made dinner for five?”

Brady didn’t understand. He had told his mother yesterday, or actually the day before, that he didn’t have any credit. Why didn’t she remember?

“I told you, I didn’t have – ”

“I know, I know. But you could’ve used the home telephone of your friend. Who is your friend even? Logan?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you can stay there for dinner, but I want you back here before eight, okay? I’m glad that you’re starting to hang out more often, but I can’t have my sixteen-year-old son spending the night at others’ houses on weekdays, do you understand?”

“Yeah, I do. I will be back before eight.”

“Okay. Well, have fun.”

“Thanks, mom.”
“Bye.”
“Bye.”
Now he had a proper reason to leave Ashley’s house if she would ask him to stay the night again.

“Okay, thanks, bye, bye,” he heard Ashley saying before she came back into the room, putting the phone into her back pocket. 

“Pizzas have been ordered,” she announced.

“Thanks. By the way, I – I can’t stay tonight,” he said carefully. “My mom wants me back home before eight.”

Ashley’s eyes widened as she stopped before him, intimidating him even though she obviously didn’t mean to.

“No no no no no.” And then she was panicking. “You can’t leave me alone. Come on, I’m ordering pizza and I allow you to drink from my glasses. I thought you understood that I can’t be alone. You can

not do this to me!”

Brady crawled back a little.
Ashley saw that she was intimidating him, and she made full use of it by taking a step closer. “You’re staying here, right? Tell me you’re staying here.”
“Yeah okay, I’ll – I’ll text my mom.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Ashley plumped down onto her bed. She was panting as if he had just returned from a marathon. “Jesus, I’m shaking.” Ashley looked at her hands. They were indeed shaking. “I’m shaking.”

Anxiously, Brady grabbed his phone – he was shaking himself – and pretended to be typing something, while in reality, he was trying to come up with a way to leave this house.

While he couldn’t stick with his decisions, his mother could, and he was almost a hundred percent certain that she wouldn’t allow him to stay away for another night.

He understood that, which was the reason why he wasn’t going to disobey his mother and stay away anyways.

Leaving right now wasn’t an option either, for Ashley had just ordered pizza and he didn’t want to be rude.

Also, he preferred taking some time to come up with an escape plan rather than improvise.

Escaping. He grew nervous just thinking about it.

 

They had eaten their pizza downstairs in the living room. Brady had managed to persuade Ashley to do homework, so while they had eaten their pizzas, they had also finished their homework for next week.

It was around half past seven when Brady realized that time was running out. It was a fifteen-minute’s ride from Ashley’s house to his mom’s house, so he would have to get going now or he’d be late.

Brady hadn’t taken off his shoes, but his jacket and backpack were downstairs. His plan was to excuse himself to go to the bathroom. The door to Ashley’s room was closed, so it would be easier to close it again once he left the room to ‘go to the bathroom’ without it attracting her attention.

The only thing that could form a possible hindrance was that Ashley might have locked the door to the outside. If that were the case, he’d have to escape through the bathroom window and climb down the drainpipe.

They were sitting on her bed again, eating chips and watching a TV-series.

She had persuaded him to watch it, and Brady wasn’t enjoying it for one bit. While the movies he had seen had been okay, this series wasn’t something boys were supposed to watch.

It was when another romantic kissing scene began that Brady excused himself, leaving the room before Ashley could say anything else.

He felt horrible for leaving her behind, especially because he knew that she was so afraid of being alone, but he couldn’t stay either either.

Brady closed the door softly and waited for a moment. He was afraid that Ashley already knew of his plan, and he didn’t want to be walking down the stairs only for Ashley to come outside and chase him.

It would be awkward, as well as emotionally shattering for him considering he was already in two minds whether or not to leave Ashley all by herself in the house.

Brady quietly turned to the staircase and sneaked down, cringing each time a stair creaked, hoping that it wouldn’t be loud enough for Ashley to hear.

After what felt like several minutes, Brady finally walked down the final stair and with his heart pounding like a hard-working machine, he reached for his jacket.

Quickly, he pulled the jacket on, glancing at the landing as he zipped up the zipper, where he then saw her standing, leaning on the handrail.

Brady froze, but he hadn’t met her eyes yet.

I’ll pretend I don’t see her.

Brady reached for his backpack, put that on as well and then hurried to the door before he heard her soft voice. “I thought we were friends.”

Brady winced and emotions took over his actions. He stopped, gulped and then pulled his hand away from the door, looking at Ashley, only to break eye contact not even a second later.

“We – are,” he stammered. “But you can’t expect me to stay. Also, there is somebody in my life, and what you did in the canteen earlier this day might have ruined that forever.”

He had just revealed to her that he had a crush on somebody, and judging by the grimace on her face, Ashley really didn’t like that.

“I – I hope you can understand,” he added.

Ashley looked down at the railing and not even a second later she said, “I can’t. I can’t understand.” She got her phone out of her pocket, tapped on it a couple of times and then showed him the screen. When he peered at the screen, he could see that it was a body, which could only mean one thing.

Brady’s heart skipped a beat. “What the…?”

She was showing Brady a picture of himself, lying on the mattress in her room, wearing only his underpants.

In the picture, he was seen sleeping, yet the blanket only covered his lower legs, exposing his bare thighs, belly and chest.

She pulled the blanket back.

“Why did you – ?”

“I’m always prepared, okay?” Ashley wasn’t bathing in triumph. She sounded like she wasn’t enjoying this moment at all. “Listen, Brady. You have to understand that I can’t be alone. I can not be alone. My parents will return on Wednesday next week, and yesterday, they called me and told me that only a week after their return, they will be gone for a business trip to Africa for another half week. You have to help me. I am willing to give you a second chance, but ruin that and I am going to upload this to my account on DailyFunz. All I am asking you is to stay with me, okay? You don’t know how frightened and horrible I feel when I am alone. I mean, everything is spinning, I can’t concentrate because I’m scared and – ”

She didn’t even sound angry. If anything, she sounded desperate.

“You wouldn’t upload it.” Brady shook nervously, clinging to the last bit of hope he had left. “Is – is that even legal?”

He could barely breathe. If Ashley would post that picture online, everyone would be able to see it for as long as the internet existed.

“I don’t know,” Ashley responded gloomily. “But they can’t do much more than giving me a warning and suspending my DailyFunz account. I have, like, no strikes.”

He hadn’t heard her talk like this before. It really sounded like she wanted him to stay. It really sounded like she did not want to use the picture against him.

“Please, you are the only one who understands. Not even Michelle does. And if you’re afraid that I’m going to make a move on you again, let me tell you that I will not, unless you ask me. I mean, you’re like my friend and stuff, but you’re only a kid, and I don’t want to be arrested, you know?”

Brady squinted, remembering that the age of consent in Washington was sixteen.

She must think I’m only fifteen years old.

There was no way on God’s green Earth he’d reveal his true age to her.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stay. But please, don’t upload that picture.”
“I won’t,” she assured him, a glimmer of happiness in her voice. “As long as you stay with me on the days that I’m alone, I won’t.”

Brady reluctantly took off his jacket, put his backpack on the floor and returned upstairs.

You gotta be kidding me.

 

He was in trouble. He was in deep, deep trouble. Ashley had blackmailed him into staying with her on the days that she was alone, but staying with her for the rest of this week was impossible for him. He couldn’t just stay away from home for that long, even if his mother and father would know about it.

He just couldn’t.

Luckily, he had managed to convince Ashley that it wasn’t possible for him to do so, so they had agreed that he would only stay with her when Michelle or her other friends were unavailable, which had been a huge relief to him.

 

A few days passed and it was now Monday, March the thirtieth, twenty fifteen. Brady was ready to meet them. On his way to his father’s house, he completely forgot about all of his current problems.

Brady’s head was filled with scenarios of how the meeting could go down. He had imagined what kind of people could be in the pack. He had imagined what they could look like.

He imagined fierce, brute men with bare chests, dressed in furs, and strong women with dirt under their fingernails and animal blood on their faces.

It was a warm day, but despite the warmth, it was still quite windy outside.

I’m gonna have to do my hair all over again because of the wind.

He had to be at Ashley’s at around six pm, which meant that he didn’t have all the time in the world to meet them.

Brady felt relieved that Ashley and he had come to an agreement.

This entire weekend – except for Saturday morning – he hadn’t seen

nor heard from her, but this day, during class, she had messaged him, stating that none of her friends could stay with her this evening.

While Brady wasn’t exactly looking forward to staying with her all night again, the time he had already spent with her had given him some much needed confidence in his social skills.

The downside was the short fight he had had with his mother, but all was good now.

Brady opened the fence gate and pushed his bike through.

He was greeted by Noah, his German Shepherd. She had a blue, rubber bone in her mouth and was chewing on it, thrilled to see him again.

Brian had given it to her a number of weeks ago. It made this squeaky noise, which Noah seemed to enjoy.

“Hey, Noah.” Brady put his bike behind his dad’s house and petted her.

Noah jumped up, biting her toy excitedly as Brady hugged her.

Noah dropped the toy before him and sat down, looking at him expectantly as a gust of wind made her hair wave.

Normally, Brady would’ve picked it up to play with her, but he didn’t have time now.

He hated having to tell his dog that he couldn’t play.

“I’m sorry. Not now, okay?”

It honestly hurt him emotionally, having to tell his dog that he couldn’t play with her. He could only imagine how lonely Noah had to feel during daytime when nobody was at home. After all, dogs were social animals. They required interaction with other living beings to stay happy.

Noah hadn’t averted her glance, so Brady picked up the toy bone and threw it as far as he could into the grassy backyard. Then, as Noah ran after it, Brady quickly unlocked the back door and entered the house. He couldn’t even look at Noah through the small window in the back door once he had closed it; that was how guilty he felt.

Noah was usually alone and he hated to disappoint her like this.

Brady turned to the hallway, his back pressed against the door before he took off his backpack and his jacket and entered the bathroom.

He looked at himself in the mirror. His hair was a mess. The wind had made it spiky near the front, and those long spikes looked ridiculous on him.

He’d have to cut it pretty soon or wax nor gel would help, which, to him, would be a good reason not to go to school.

He washed his hair with some shampoo and some warm water while he thought about how much he was looking forward to meeting the pack.

He really was, although he dreaded making a poor impression.  

As he left the bathroom and strolled through the back hallway into the kitchen, Brady began worrying about what would happen when Brian would be home early and Mister Allister would arrive.

That would be horrible. Now he was thinking about it, it was a quarter to four.

They could be here any moment now.

Anxiously, he opened the cabinet in the far right corner of the room, crouched down, reached into the wicker basket containing most of the sweet stuff put on bread, and pulled a carton of chocolate sprinkles out of it, which he then opened and put to his mouth before tilting it, allowing the contents to pour right into his mouth.

He heard Noah barking, which startled him. Brady quickly put the carton of chocolate sprinkles back into the wicker basket before closing the cabinet and rushing out of the house, his mouth filled with chocolate sprinkles.

He chewed and swallowed it quickly while he zipped up his hoodie and locked the back door.

Brady put his keys into his left pocket and turned to the fence gate before he saw a slender man wearing a dark-black cloak with a cowl attached to it walking up the empty driveway.

“Wroof!”

“Stay back, Noah,” said Brady, suddenly feeling even more nervous than he had just seconds ago when he’d realized that Brian could be home soon.

What if they come home now? How am I going to explain this?

“Noah,” Brady hissed. “Stay.”

Noah looked at him. “Stay,” Brady repeated, pointing at Noah. “Sit.” But Noah didn’t listen.

“It appears someone does not know how to raise an animal,” said Mister Allister. “Bah, if I were a dog and even if I were raised correctly, I would still not have listened to you,” Mister Allister stepped to the fence gate and looked at him through a hole in the wood. “Listen to yourself. You sound submissive. I bet the dog has already attempted to mount you numerous times.”

“It – it’s a bitch,” said Brady unsurely, looking at Mister Allister through the hole in the fence gate.

“You are a bitch. Now open the gate and come with me.”

Brady looked at the ground hurtfully as he opened the gate and then closed it behind him.

“Let us go,” said Mister Allister curtly.

Even when Mister Allister spoke normally, his tone was gruff and dark. Brady wondered in what manner Mister Allister spoke to the other members of his group.

His dark-black cloak waved in the wind and Brady found it to be a miracle that Mister Allister’s cowl had not blown off his head yet.

Brady followed Mister Allister to the forest, which was located across the street opposite of the abandoned farmhouse to the right of his father’s house.

He had been in this forest many times, but he had never wandered too far away from the street. There were so many stories to tell about his adventures in this forest. He had been here so many times with his friends when he was younger. This was because Brian and a bunch of his classmates had made a wooden bunker not that deep in the forest, and Brady and his friends always tried to destroy it. Brady could easily find the bunker if he wanted to, but it wasn’t worth it. The bunker was probably not even there anymore, and even if it was, it had undoubtedly been reduced to a pile of old wood by now.

Brady and his friends hadn’t had a real reason to destroy the bunker other than because it was fun. The group of boys and girls who had built it were around two years younger than Brady and his friends were, and at around that time, a kid named Oliver, who lived in a street not too far away from his home, was their leader. When Brian first took Brady with him to the bunker about six or seven years ago, Oliver had allowed Brady to join, and only days later, Brady had been promoted to co-leader of the group because he was the oldest. On a bad day, Brady had said something hurtful to Oliver because of reasons he couldn’t even remember, and Oliver had banned him from the club.

Only a couple of days after that, Brady had made a plan to attack the bunker and either take it over or destroy it entirely. He had invited a few friends of his to help him with that. Those friends were Ron, Denny and Charlie.

Ron had been his best friend in elementary school, and he was a tall and smart kid. Denny had been a little overweight and his face was dotted with scars acquired from chicken pox.

Charlie was a drummer, and a talented one for a kid of his age.

After multiple times of failing miserably to take over the fort using the plan, they had given up on it and Brady had decided to attack more violently on the next day. Oliver’s club consisted of around twenty members when the ‘war’ really began, and one of these members was Brian, Brady’s brother, who was two years younger than he was. Oliver’s crazy little brother was part of the club too. They called him ‘crazy’ because whenever Oliver’s brother saw them in the forest, he would chase after them with a saw or a hammer clenched in his fist while chewing on the other hand angrily, primarily on the thumb.

Then there was Denise, who was also a member of the club. The only weird part was that she was at least four years older than most of the other club members. She didn’t have any friends of around her own age. After having attacked the bunker more aggressively a couple of times, Denise started to mangle herself into the war. She had even crafted a weapon for herself. It was this sturdy stick and she had wrapped some brambles around it.

Being hit by it wasn’t just painful. The stick left behind bruises, but the brambles wrapped around it would leave irritating scratches that’d itch for days.

However, apart from the weapon, she had decided to make traps too. She had told the members of Oliver’s club to dig holes and put sharp sticks into them. Winter was coming and the battles were getting more intense; black eyes, bloody noses and on one occasion even a broken nose on Oliver’s side. First, they had only thrown sticks at each other, but now, they actually fought using them.

The memories of the grand battles in and around the forest still brought a smile to Brady’s face. God, how exciting his life had been around that time.

He had friends, he had enemies, he had his own personal weapon – a long, nearly unbreakable stick that looked like a wooden mace from one side and had a pointy end on the other – but most importantly, he had a purpose.

No one got injured by Denise’s traps for weeks until Charlie did near the end of the winter. It had been a two-man mission – just Charlie and he. Denise, Oliver and the rest of the club weren’t at the bunker that day. The bunker was now as big as a large room. Ron had made the plan. He’d said that he had been eavesdropping on Denise and

Oliver and that they had talked about something called ‘the main log’, which apparently kept a large part of the bunker from

collapsing. Charlie had brought a saw with him to saw the main log in half so that the bunker would collapse, but things went wrong. Brady was on the lookout and Charlie was sawing like crazy. But then Brady had heard Denise in the distance, running towards them with her personal weapon, screaming and cursing at them. He had warned Charlie and they had ran. That was when Charlie had fallen into a trap.

Denise had laughed at them, telling Charlie he deserved it while Charlie lay in the pit screaming in pain and agony. When Denise had departed, Brady had attempted to get Charlie out, and it was then that he had noticed that the pointy sticks were actually sticking through Charlie’s feet and legs, as in entering through the soles of his feet and exiting through the lower leg. Luckily, Charlie had recovered, and the war was over after Charlie’s mom had brought together the other mom’s and they had come to an agreement; the forest was off-limits for their children. That was when Brady’s life had changed. Only weeks later, Ron, Denny and Charlie had begun gradually ignoring him until they didn’t spoke with him anymore at all.

Their friendship had swiftly diluted. Brady had always thought that his three former friends had blamed Charlie’s accident on him. He couldn’t come up with a better reason as to why they had decided to ignore him.

Brady’s life had indeed changed from the moment Charlie had fallen into that trap, and three years later, he’d been reduced to a nervous, shy boy with little to no friends.

It had only been since recently that he had started to get better at people, and ironically, he had it all to thank to his frenemy: Logan Coleman.

 

The sky was clear and the trees shielded them from most of the wind.

They were walking through a sparser part of the forest, and Brady didn’t remember ever having been this deep.

His father had told him that the forest was large, but that it wasn’t large enough to get lost in. Yet, ever since the first time Brady had played in this forest, his father had warned him not to venture too far.

“We are nearly there,” Mister Allister announced, and it was then that the nerves started playing with his head.

He walked a couple of yards behind Mister Allister, who strode through the forest like an experienced seaman on a boat, whereas Brady had already tripped several times thanks to his absentmindedness.

They’d been walking for at least twenty minutes now. For some reason, Brady got this odd feeling as if Mister Allister wasn’t appreciating his presence. It was as if the man already didn’t like him.

Mister Allister wasn’t a talker as evidenced by the few words he had spoken.

At first, Brady had found it to be quite awkward, especially because he thought it was his fault. Mister Allister had this constant solemn expression on his face. Brady figured it was just his resting face.

A natural scowling expression. It was something they shared.

I hope the others aren’t like him.

It was almost half past four am. The density of the forest returned and they had to make their way through several bushes and over several fallen trees.

In the distance, the terrain grew hillier. Some hills were just tall enough to obscure their view.

“Straight ahead,” said Mister Allister. “Past those bushes and over the hill”

They walked past the bushes and climbed the small, gentle, grassy hill.

As they did, Brady began to notice brown smoke rising into the air only several yards away from him, and when he reached the top of the small hill, stopping next to Mister Allister, he saw people sitting around a campfire in a roundish clearing surrounded by bushes. The forest surrounding the clearing was dense, and Brady wondered how these people had found this nice spot.

While basic, Brady felt like applauding them for setting up such a camp. In the center of the clearing, there was a stone campfire surrounded by logs just large enough to sit on and prevent your pants from getting dirt and dead leaves on it. Behind the campfire, a bit to the left near the bushes surrounding the clearing, a lonely tree was standing, and below it, a wooden table crafted out of sticks and plant fiber ropes. Several small, old pots and pans stood on top of the table, along with a backpack made of fur and leather.

To the right was a cave in a hill. The cave led down slightly.

Like the bushes, the hill formed a natural border, separating the

camp from the dense forest surrounding it.

A cave, Brady thought excitedly.

He’d never been in a cave before.

The pack was smaller than Brady had initially expected. He counted three men and one woman.

As Brady followed Mister Allister down the hill, the people and the camp slowly disappeared out of his sight behind the bushes.

“Follow me,” said Mister Allister blankly as he started making his way through the blackberry bushes as if entering a gloomy dungeon.

Nervously, Brady followed him, rehearsing the basic rules of human interaction in his head; showing interest, smiling, and keeping eye contact, which were three things he wasn’t very good at.

His nervousness increased as a cold scarf of fear wrapped itself about his neck, making it hard for him to swallow or breathe.

This was usually what happened when he was about to meet new people.

When he stepped out of the bushes and took a first glance at the people with whom he would possibly be spending a lot of time in the future, his heart was already thumping in his chest, his eyes had widened and his hands had grown clammy and cold.

The fact that Mister Allister pointed it out to him didn’t make him feel any better and only made him grow more anxious.

Three men, one woman, sitting around the campfire, conversing like a small family on a birthday.

The youngest of the three men saw them first and he was quick to get up and approach them.

Brady gulped, looking at the jolly young man approaching him as if he were a thief brandishing a knife.

He couldn’t be much older than him – twenty-three, twenty-four perhaps – and he wasn’t much taller either, standing at about five feet and eleven inches.

“Tunstall, you’re back,” said the guy, who had a friendly, remarkably calm and relaxed voice. The guy eyed him. “And you took the boy with ya.”

He smelled smoky. His breath smelled as if he had just eaten an entire carton of cigars, and out of all the people currently here, he looked like the one who took the least care of himself as evidenced by his brown, shaggy hair and the hint of a goatee he sported. He wore a brown plaid shirt, which looked kind of new, and black jeans along with a pair of brown gentlemen’s shoes that just didn’t look

right on him. He also appeared to have some sleeping problems judging by the dark circles below his chartreuse eyes and the way he squinted whenever something made him think, like a conversation.

“Hello, Jason,” said Allister curtly before Jason extended his arm and shook Brady’s hand.

“My name is Jason, Jason Moorman. I think we’re going to be great friends, man.”

That made Brady feel a little more at ease.

Mister Allister gave a snort of disdain. “The cunt is only saying that because he is high.”

Brady didn’t know whether to laugh at that or not, so he simply stated his name. “Bra – Brady Heliot.”

Jason smiled and gave him a nod before patting him on the shoulder. “Hey, no need to be nervous, man. We’re good people. We won’t bite you.”

“Until we do,” Allister added darkly before he turned his back to them and approached the campfire.

Jason seemed like a laidback kind of guy, but like Mister Allister had just said, that could be just because he was high, even though a little. It explained the smell of his breath and the way he looked and talked.

Brady looked at Mister Allister, who seemed to have forgotten about him already.

“Don’t mind Tunstall, man,” Jason whispered. “He is who he is. It’s not because of you, so don’t take it personal, man.”

An old man who still looked vigorous for his age said something to Mister Allister and then looked to Brady before he got up.

Jason and Brady watched him approaching them.

“Living like this doesn’t seem like much,” Jason continued. “But man, once we start traveling again, it’s going to be great. Just freaking fabulous shit.”

Despite Jason’s friendliness, Brady had already lost interest in him.

“You must be Brady Heliot,” the old man said as he extended his arm. Brady shook his hand and made sure not to squeeze too hard. “My name is Roderic Aatu, and I am the proud elder of this pack.”

Brady took an immediate liking to Roderic. Roderic emitted this wise grandfather vibe.

Brady saw that Roderic had a tattoo on his face. It was a gray wolf, howling, and it was located on his left temple. Half of it was hidden underneath his thick, gray, pushed back, shoulder-length manes.

Roderic also had a bushy gray beard, and his eyes were ice-blue.

While tall, he wasn’t as tall as Mister Allister, standing at about six feet and four inches. He also wasn’t dressed as… mysteriously, as Mister Allister, wearing a suit of gray leather armor with prominent pauldrons. The suit of leather armor appeared to be rather thick, and along with it, he wore a pair of sturdy black boots. Brady guessed him to be around his mid-sixties.

Roderic had an accent, and as with Mister Allister’s, he knew what the accent was called. He’d learned it with English. Miss Jones often used it. Upper Class English.

The other man – the one who hadn’t introduced himself to Brady yet – decided it was about time to make his acquaintance, and the Asian woman, who appeared to be his wife or something, followed him.

“Brady Heliot,” the man sounded southern, and he looked friendly enough. “My name is Idu. Idu Polun.”

Brady shook his hand and Idu smiled at him. Then Idu put his arm around the neck of the Asian woman. “And this is Leena Polun, my wife.”

“Nice to meet you, Brady,” Leena smiled. She had a strong, Chinese accent. “Mister Allister hasn’t told us much about you, but I am happy to finally meet you.”

Idu wore a dark-green jacket over a brown shirt along with a pair of ripped jeans. He also wore a brown trucker cap on his head, covering most of his grayish-black, neck-length mullet, and he had a horseshoe mustache as well. Leena had dark-black hair and wore it in a bangs and fringe style. She wore a white, long-sleeved shirt with black stripes that seemed to be new, while her black pair of pants weren’t new nor old. Both Idu and Leena appeared to be around their late forties, and Idu stood about a foot taller than Leena’s five feet and three inches, making Leena by far the shortest of the bunch.

Jason, Roderic, Idu, Leena and Brady lingered near the bushes for one more moment.

“This is not all of us,” Idu noted somberly. “We are with two more people, but they are out hunting together.”

“Two more?” Brady said, wondering why Idu was talking like that.

“Yes,” said Leena, poking Idu in the ribs before cracking a smile. “There is Ace, who serves as our leader, and then there is Riley, who is only a couple years older than you.”

While Leena’s welcoming expression and tone made him feel a little more at ease, the way she had just poked Idu in the ribs made him

wonder.

Two more men? What a disappointment.

He would’ve liked to have a girl of around his age in the pack. Extra points if she would have been single and hot.

Well, there’s Jason. He looks nice.

He only hoped that either Ace or Riley was particularly nice, for at least one of them wasn’t, as evidenced by the sudden solemnness in Idu’s tone after his friendly introduction.

After Leena showed him a smile, Brady glanced at Idu, who gave a nod to the campfire. “Come on.”

He followed the men and the woman to the campfire.

“Take a seat,” said Idu as he sat down next to his wife.

Brady sat down in-between Jason and Roderic; the two people in whose presence he currently felt the most comfortable.

Allister was looking at the fire bleakly, and when Brady’s questioning eyes met Idu’s, Idu simply shrugged as if telling him not to worry about it. “I hope you are planning on staying, kid,” Idu then said. “Tunstall here really needs to mentor someone, and you seem like the right kinda boy.”

What? Mentor?

Idu noticed the puzzled expression on Brady’s face and then turned to Mister Allister, pleasantly surprised. “You did not tell him yet, Tunstall?”

“No, I did not,” replied Mister Allister solemnly, not averting his eyes from the crackling fire.

Idu and Leena smiled at each other. Brady didn’t know why. Did they find it to be funny, the way Mister Allister acted?

“Why?” Idu asked. “I would have told him the first time we met.”

“Fortunately, I am not you,” Mister Allister sniped.

Idu turned back to Brady, who was looking at him through the crackling fire. “Mister Tunstall here is a plausible teacher, Brady. He is good at things like, like surviving, and nearly everything that has to do with fighting using speed and your surroundings.”

This was a stressful situation for him. He wanted to get to know these people, but all the attention he was receiving was overwhelming him up until the point where chaos erupted in his head and he couldn’t think straight. The only thing Brady could do was smile while he tried to get the chaos under control.

He was so stressed, he didn’t even realize that Idu had asked him a question, despite looking the man straight into the eyes.

“Well?” said Idu expectantly, not having a single idea of what was going on in Brady’s head.

Brady alternated his glance between Leena and Mister Allister distractedly before he said “Whah?”

Fortunately, before it could get awkward, Roderic got up, attracting all the attention to him like metal splinters to a magnet.

“Let me converse with the boy for a moment,” he said calmly. “This might be going too fast for him. Perhaps he would like a one-on-one conversation with the elder first. I would like to inform him about the basics, and, as everyone here knows, as the elder, it is my solemn duty to get to know each pack member individually, as to help him or her to the best of my abilities, if necessary.” 

Brady breathed an inner sigh of relief before he got up as well, feeling the nervousness lessen and the chaos in his head diminishing.

“You do what you have to do as an elder, man,” said Idu appreciatively.

“I agree with that,” said Leena. “You were not appointed the elder of this pack for no reason. Out of all of us, you have the most experience with people.”

“I thank you, Leena. Brady, if you do not mind.”

Roderic turned to the cave and Brady followed him to it, analyzing each of his actions and his words from the moment he had entered the camp, turning red as he realized what the other must be thinking of him right now.

He had failed at making a proper first impression. They probably thought he was shy and weird.

In fact, they were probably looking at him right now, whispering about him behind his back.

They entered the gloomy, cold cave. The only source of light came from a torch in the back of the cave.

The cave wasn’t deep at all. Spread throughout the cave lay seven handmade sleeping bags.

They were made of animal skins and hay, and looked pretty comfortable.

Brady shivered. While he preferred cold, snowy weather to warm weather, he didn’t prefer feeling cold over feeling warm.

His father often complained about him taking hot showers and how it affected the gas bills.

Two sleeping bags lay right by the entrance of the cave, three lay the way in the back near the torch, and two sleeping bags lay somewhere

in-between the entrance and the back of the cave.

“Sit down if you will, Brady,” said Roderic once they arrived at the back of the cave, where the old man then sat down onto one of the sleeping bags.

It was dark, but the torch provided them with enough light to be able to see each other.

Brady sat down opposite of the old man onto the cold, stone floor. Roderic studied him for a moment before looking him in the eyes curiously. “Tell me. What did Tun -- Mister Allister, tell you?”

Fearing that he might stutter, Brady kept the explanation short.

Curt, if you will.

“The basics.”

Roderic nodded slowly, obviously not having expected an answer as short as that. “Could you explain it to me?”

Brady kept making eye contact and breaking it. “Th – th – that there is a world wh – wh – where everything is a… bit, like -- the Middle Ages, I think.”

Roderic squinted at him. “Why are you stammering, boy?” he asked bluntly. “Hm,” he then said, fingering his bushy beard. “Mister Allister is known for keeping most of his conversations curt and straight to the point.” Roderic urgently raised his left index finger to eyelevel. “Mind you, you should not take it personally. Either way, I am surprised to see that even when explaining these matters to a complete outsider who is clearly worrying about his future and many other matters, that he keeps it short and uninformative. Alas, it appears as though I have quite a lot of additional informing and explaining to do. First off, I would like you to answer a question of mine: why were you stammering just then?”

While Brady grew increasingly more nervous trying to come up with a proper explanation as to why he had – which would probably be a lie – Roderic studied him again. “You are fidgeting, your right leg is restless and you are staring at me as if I am a ghost,” he said

curiously. “Also, your eye contact is weak – pardon the bluntness. Could you answer the question honestly? Otherwise, you force me to

word my own personal analyzation of your current behavior, which might prompt you to dislike me for my honesty.”

Following Roderic into this cave had been a dire mistake.

“I – I d – don’t know -- know,” Brady said, freezing at that instance as to stop the fidgeting and the other things before he looked Roderic straight into his eyes, breaking eye contact before Roderic had even

opened his mouth to begin wording his own personal observation of his behavior.

“I am almost certain that suffer from social anxiety.”

On a normal day, Brady spent at least an hour on the internet learning new things, researching things he already knew and trying to find the ultimate procedure as to how he could improve his social skills, but he had never actually researched any of his current problems.

He had heard of the term ‘social anxiety’ before, although he had never taken time out of his day to research the term.

Analyzing the term, Brady figured that it had something to do with fearing social situations.

“Wha – what’s that?” Brady asked.

“Social anxiety is a fear of social situations, primarily those involving interactions with people. In short, one with social anxiety essentially fears being judged and evaluated negatively by others.”

Brady analyzed that explanation to see whether it sounded in term with what was going on with him and with the way he felt whenever he found himself in a social situation, and it was.

“I don’t -- like – talking about it,” Brady stuttered.

“That is a shame, but if you do not wish to discuss the matter at hand, I will not press you into doing so. While my tasks as the elder of the pack includes serving as the confidant, there is little I can do for those who do not wish to discuss their problems, no matter how urgent they are. Allow me to inform you about Caliptus, for there is far more to my home planet that what Mister Allister told you. I suppose Mister Allister already informed you about what you will be in a sheer number of months from now. A Morus. Well, the Morus is not the only dominant human or humanoid species living on Caliptus. There are, or were, as far as we know, five more.”

Moving onto the part where Roderic was the one doing the talking and the explaining made him feel a lot more at ease. If Roderic wouldn’t have been as blunt as he was, he might’ve been his favorite person in the pack.

“You already know of the Morus, the Wolfmen. Our abilities: we are fast and agile on land, and we have the longest claws of the three human species. Aside from the Morus, you have the Elmus, the Birdmen. They do not only have claws, but they have wings as well.

While their wings are not nearly as well developed as those of the bulk of birds, many can use them to glide and some can even use

them to fly. Then, the Signus, the Fishmen. They can swim like no other animal can. They can breathe underwater, and like the other two human races, they have claws.”

Brady tried to get comfortable on the cold stone floor while he listened to Roderic.

“You m – m – mentioned that there are five more species. What are the other three?”

“The Sifu, the Zlothi, and the Vandirians. These races are looked at with disdain by the human races, but the Sifu and the Zlothi are treated with far less contempt than the Vandirians are. This is mainly because most of the Vandirian race was once enslaved by the human races, as opposed to the Zlothi, whom the human races envy because of their superior intelligence. Envy, disguised as disrespect.”

Fascinating. Brady was so interested in this topic that he forgot how nervous he was.

“So wh – what about the Vandirians?” Brady said, cocking his head.

Roderic shifted positions uncomfortably. “By any means, I do not wish to sound racist, but what the Vandirians lack in intelligence, they make up for in toughness and brute strength. Their violent ways and inability to feel compassion for anyone but their own were one of the reasons why the human races on Caliptus amalgamated temporarily in a successful endeavor to reduce the Vandirian population. I shall attempt to give a brief explanation of the appearance of an average Vandirian.” Roderic caressed his own cheek, thinking hard of how to explain. “Picture a feline, a lion or leopard for instance, and imagine them enlarged with more prominent muscles, a hunched back, standing on its hind legs and with horns that can grow up to sixteen inches long. By the Justiciar, these creatures are magnificent.”

Roderic was making Brady excited to see Vandirians in real life. He could barely believe that all of this was actually reality and not some story in a movie or a book.

Brady had always thought that he’d been born in the wrong era. He had always thought that he should’ve been an adventurer or a knight in the Medieval Ages.

Yet he wasn’t as excited to leave his current life as he had expected to be if an opportunity would ever arise. This applied to leaving with the pack especially, considering that would mean that he wouldn’t see his family for a very long time as opposed to traveling to Caliptus and going to school there, where he would undoubtedly be

 allowed to leave during vacations.

“Enough about the races of Caliptus. Let us discuss your options. You already know that you have two choices. You can either go to Caliptus, or come with us. If you were to go to Caliptus, you would have to enroll into the school in Ismar. Castle Creighton, that school is called. The headmistress is a vile woman, but I am certain that he and the other teachers have the ability to teach you well. The course lasts four years, and once you successfully graduate, you will have the option to choose what you want to become, at least in the civilized parts of Caliptus. Mind you, most of Caliptus consists of desolate wastelands filled with ruins of extinct civilizations, and do not, I repeat, do not allow the peace and civility in the Kingdom of Zilnoii to fool you. The surrounding kingdoms and especially the kingdoms up north are far from safe. Kidnappings, rapes, murders, oppression, it is all too common up and down there. While the Kingdom of Zilnoii has its flaws, it is commonly considered to be paradise in comparison to the other kingdoms and the lands uninhabited.”

Going through his options and taking into account the time that had passed since he had last seen Alex, he doubted that he would be able to go to school in Caliptus.

Caliptus sounds so exciting. It would be a shame if I can’t go to Caliptus, even if I have to go to school there.

“I would like to remark on your lack of words.” Roderic smiled when their eyes met. “Talkers, there are enough, but listeners – ”

“Brady!” It was the one with the southern accent. Idu.

Brady startled and realizing that Idu had probably called him because Ace and Riley had returned, his heartbeat suddenly increased.

With eyes widened again, he turned back to Roderic, who looked at him compassionately. “I wish I could tell you to be positive and to

not think about your possible social anxiety, but I know better than

that. In the end, you are the one who has to reach out and grab the cure. All I can tell you, Brady, is to try to get out of your head. You have to be in the here and now to be able to converse successfully with other people.”

If Brady would have had an admiration-o-meter, Roderic would have been in the green zone by now, about seventeen lines below Albert

Einstein and about twenty-four lines below Robert Downey Jr..

“I suggest you make your acquaintance to our so-called ‘Alpha’,”

Roderic said, groaning as he got up.

Gulping, Brady got up as well, unconfidently turning to the exit of the cave, hearing two male voices – one of which he didn’t recognize – arguing.

“One more thing, Brady,” said Roderic as Brady prepared to leave. Brady turned to Roderic. “Ace might seem intimidating, but he will not harm you.” Roderic gave him a nod. “Do not worry.”

Brady and Roderic left the cave together, and as Brady was nearing the exit, the voices stopped arguing.

Standing behind the other with his back to the campfire, a man was standing with his arms crossed. Judging by his stance, he was quite confident and self-assured in his abilities and character.

“Look. There he is,” said Idu to the man with whom Idu had probably had some words judging by his stressed facial expression.

The man, the Alpha of the pack, turned around. He looked dangerous and imposing, and Brady immediately concluded that Idu’s tone had changed because of Ace rather than because of Riley. Ace’s right eye was completely white and the skin around it was scarred, as if someone had struck him there with a sharp object. The intact eye was honey brown. Ace looked looked strong and athletic and was about as tall as Roderic; six feet and four inches.

He kept his black-brown hair in messy spikes, and overall, Ace was rather broad.

If it wasn’t for the scarred eye and his cold, piercing glance, the smile would have made him look like a friendly, handsome man.

Ace was dressed in a leather suit of armor identical to Roderic’s, only it was charcoal black and looked even tougher. He also had a scruff and appeared to be around his late thirties.

Ace’s one good eye met Brady’s and the hint of smile that had been present on the man’s face grew. “Brady Heliot,” Ace said, spreading his arms as if Brady was an old friend he hadn’t seen in a long time.

Ace walked to him, and as he did, he lowered his arms and his expression grew colder. Ace stopped right before him and stared Brady coldly into his eyes.

What do I do? What do I do?

Brady broke eye contact, looking at the ground anxiously as he felt the others staring at him.

“Ace,” said Idu, who was leaning against the tall tree near the makeshift table where Riley and Leena were working at, warningly.

Shut up, Idu,” said Ace, not averting his glance from Brady, who

was beginning to feel high levels of uncomfortability. “I am not scaring him. Or am I, Brady?”

Brady shook unsurely, not knowing what to think of this intimidating man.

“My name is Ace. Ace Nawot,” said Ace normally before he turned to the others, spreading his arms again and raising his voice. “And I am the Alpha, of this pack.”

Ace then turned back to him. “Now, tell me ‘Brady’,” he said suspiciously, leaning in. “What is it that you are looking for here?”

Brady gulped and looked at Idu for help and advice, but Idu simply shook his head disapprovingly, folding his arms.

“Well – well, I’m…”

He unintentionally made eye contact with a girl, Riley, who then, to his relief, approached him, saving him from this terribly uncomfortable situation.

Surprisingly, Riley was a girl, not a guy, and she looked nice. There was no way Idu’s tone had changed because of her, and after meeting Ace, Brady was sure that he’d been the sole reason for it.

“You must be Brady,” said Riley, who then extended her arm. “Well, who else could you have been,” she chuckled sweetly. “It’s not as if we receive visitors here on the regular.”

Brady shook her hand. “Riley Hudson.”

“B – Brady Heliot,” he said, staring at her wondrously before he gulped.

Riley reminded him of a cowgirl. She wore a warm-red flannel shirt along with a pair of faded jeans, and she had her sleeves rolled up. Riley had thick, armpit-length, dark-brown hair and honey-brown eyes, same color as his, and her eyebrows were on fleek. Her facial features were very feminine, and Brady found Riley to be quite a looker. Riley appeared to be slightly taller than he was, standing at around six feet tall, and she wore a red choker around her neck, which had a black, oval jewel fixed in the center of it.

He had not expected her to be a girl at all.

I’m not to blame. Riley is a unisex name.

Riley emitted this friendly vibe, and Brady felt drawn to her. He had never had an older sister, but he was pretty sure that having one felt this way.

“You are here to see how we live, right?” Riley asked before turning

to the others. “Well, that’s what I was told.”

“Eh – eh yeah. Ex – exactly.”

She was rather tall for a girl, but he wasn’t complaining.

The answer he just gave to Riley immediately answered Ace’s question too.

Ace placed a strong hand on Brady’s shoulder. “Now that I know that as well, I will show you around so you can get an image of our daily routines.”

“Is that not something Mister Allister is supposed to do?” Roderic asked friendlily. “If, after some pondering, Brady does decide to join us, Mister Allister will be his mentor. Let us not forget about that.”

Mister Allister smiled uncomfortably as Ace looked to Roderic, who sat down next to Idu by the campfire. Leena seemed to be cooking, or at least, preparing the food. She was opening up a rabbit, which lay on the makeshift table, and she was removing its organs.

Brady didn’t like rabbits at all.

He felt a certain tension arising because of what Roderic had just said.

“We can also ask Brady what he wants,” said Riley, defusing something that could’ve possibly evolved into an argument, judging by the negative energy Brady felt.

Idu nodded. “Yeah. Good one, Riles. Let us ask Brady.”

Brady didn’t like being in the spotlight at all, and he didn’t want to get on anyone’s bad side either, so he kept his answer neutral.

“It’s – it’s just a quick tour, right? N – n – nothing important.”

“Make – a choice,” said Ace, smiling, his tone urging.

Brady turned to Mister Allister. “Eh – M – M – Mister Allister.”

After all, Mister Allister was going to be his mentor if he were to decide to join the pack, which might as well be his only option if Alex wouldn’t contact him soon.

“Off you go then,” said Roderic, obviously appreciating the choice.

Ace shrugged.

 

Brady sat on a rock.

He got off of it, approached a tree and then leaned against that. It was a bit more comfortable.

They were in the forest, about a hundred yards away from the camp. Mister Allister was drawing something in the sand with a stick. He had been working on it for nearly three minutes now. The only thing Brady had done in that time was thinking about tonight, for he would have to be spending some time with Ashley again.

His normal life felt so far away.

It was as if he had already made a choice, but he hadn’t.

“Finished,” said Mister Allister curtly before he slowly turned his head to him. “Stop lollygagging and get your arse over here, boy.”

Brady froze and then quickly walked to Mister Allister, who was sitting with his knees in the leaves. Brady crouched down next to him before he scanned the drawing, which appeared to be a map.

“What do you think this is?” Allister asked him, but it sounded like an order rather than a question.

“The best map ever,” said Brady dryly, his eyes widening as he realized what he had just said.

Mister Allister flashed a dark look at him. “I do not know who you think you are, boy, but you better pay more attention to the comments leaving your word hole.” Allister averted his glance and looked at the drawing while Brady tried to remember that for the next time, his heart thumping.

“This is a map, and this is supposed to resemble our camp,” Allister said, pointing at a campfire drawn somewhere in the center of a forest. He then pointed at a building located not that far away from the campfire. “We do not only hunt and gather. Stealing is part of our survival strategy as well.”

“Stealing?” said Brady, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

“I am detecting a surprisingly low amount of shock in your voice,” Allister remarked. “I know stealing is illicit, we all do, but we do not steal that often, only when we have to, for instance, in the near future. We cannot always find enough food. At this moment, we are residing in a forest in the middle of a city. I think you might understand that there is not a large amount of animals around here as opposed to on Caliptus. Now for the question: do you think that if you were to join us and you would have to steal in order to survive, you could do so?”

That was a rather odd question to ask. Stealing wasn’t normal, and it wasn’t socially acceptable behavior either.

Brady nodded.

He did because he feared that saying ‘no’ would ruin his chances with the pack, and while he would rather go to Caliptus, he knew that if Alex wasn’t going to contact him soon, joining the pack would be the only way for him to survive, for his third option was certain death.

 

When they arrived back at the camp, Ace was gone.

 “Brady, Tunstall,” Leena said welcoming. A shiny, steel cooking pot stood on the crackling campfire surrounded by flames and supported by Leena herself using oven mitts made of rags. “How did it go?” she asked Brady as Brady and Mister Allister joined her by the campfire. “Have you already made your choice?”

“I’m not sure,” Brady replied.

Bushes rustled behind them. “Then I guess it is time that I will show you some things,” said Ace proudly and loudly as he approached the campfire with a scarce number of dead squirrels hanging over his shoulder.

Brady and Mister Allister turned to Ace, who let go of the bunch of squirrels bound to each other by rope. The bunch hit the ground with a low thud. “Why back so soon?” Ace showed a crooked grin before he kicked the small heap of squirrels softly. “Is Tunstall done already, or did he bore the shit right out of your asshole? Ha-ha.”

A smile flashed across Brady’s face.  

“Mister Heliot has to return to his residence,” said Mister Allister snidely before nodding to the bunch of squirrels. “Also, do not be such an arsehole to those dead ones.”

Ace guffawed. “Since when does your cold self sympathize with dead squirrels?” He kicked the bunch of squirrels. “They are dead,” said Ace mockingly. “Dead, dead, dead,” he repeated, kicking the squirrels softly each time he uttered the word.

Brady knew it was wrong, but he found the sound to be quite funny.

Riley came out of the cave carrying some dried nettles.

Brady watched Riley putting the nettles on the table below the tree while Ace approached the campfire and sniffed the stew. “Smells good, Leena! You are such a wonderful cook, and I appreciate you for it.”

“I thank you, Ace,” said Leena as her lips curled up.

“I will lead him out of the forest,” said Idu calmly as he exited the

cave. “Perhaps I can get to know you a little better on our way there, Brady.”

Brady gave Idu a nod.

Ace looked at Idu before his mouth dropped open. “You are so nice, Idu. I love you!”

Idu shook his head. “Pff. Get over yourself, man.”

Brady didn’t understand why Idu wasn’t appreciative of that comment.

“I could take him home too,” said Riley. “I’ve got the time, and I

wouldn’t mind at all.”

“Well, I do not mind either,” said Idu. “Let us go, kid. Leena, can you make sure Jase keeps his hands off the crack? He has smoked more than enough for today.”

After having said goodbye to everyone, Brady and Idu left the camp.

 

Brady looked at his phone. It was almost four am. The sky was clear and the sun was still shining brightly. Brady suddenly thought about his birthday. It was almost the time. April the twenty-first. He knew that if he were to go with the pack, they would be long gone by the time of his birthday.  

It made him sad, thinking about how he would probably not be with his family on the day of his seventeenth birthday, especially considering his sixteenth had sucked big time.

If he remembered correctly, he had cried on his sixteenth birthday, but he wasn’t sure.

“Hey, you do not have to worry about Ace,” Idu told him. “He has some personality problems. That is all. He never fought any of us. Hell, he has never even hit any of us. He considers us family just like we consider him family.” Idu gave a weak snort of laughter. “I have a tough time saying it, but Ace is like my younger, slightly disturbed brother. His threats are empty. They are all words. What is the term for people like him on Earth? Paper tigers?”

Brady said nothing. He was thinking. If Ace was the slightly disturbed little brother in the pack, then who would he be if he were to join the pack?

Idu looked at him, confused as to why he wasn’t speaking.

He got his cap off his head and placed it back on straight. It was a brown cap that had a black truck imprinted on it.

“Ace is not always nice, but he is a valuable asset to the pack. Sure, he carries the title of ‘Alpha’, but that title is empty, just like Ace’s threats.”

As they neared the edge of the forest, Idu looked at him again while Brady came to the conclusion that if Ace was the slightly disturbed younger brother of the pack, he would be the shy, youngest brother if he were to join the pack.

“What was your first impression of him?”

“Whah?” said Brady.

“Your first impression, of Ace. What was it?”

Brady grew suspicious of Idu because of that question.

What if this is a test?

If this was a test and he were to speak his mind about Ace, Idu would undoubtedly tell Ace about it.

“I’m not sure.”

“Hmpf,” said Idu. “Well, if you have anything that is bothering you, just tell me or Leena. You can trust the both of us with anything. While the elder of a pack usually takes the role of the confidant upon himself, which Roderic does, Leena and I do as well.”

Brady smiled appreciatively. Idu was alright in his book.

Silence returned for a couple of seconds, but Idu quickly broke it.

Calmly, he asked. “So, what do you think? Are you going to join our pack or are you going to Caliptus?”

“I don’t know. I’m not even sure whether I can consider going to Caliptus a valid option. I don’t even know how to get there.”

“Well, Tunstall or eh… Mister Allister, sorry, told me that some guy, Alex Grant, talked to you about it. Did he not give you his number or something?”

Brady shook. “No, he just… left for some reason, and didn’t come back.”

“That is weird. Maybe he will come by your house one of these days. If not, well, then you only have one option left.”

Brady nodded. He thought about Idu’s name. He had never heard of it before.

“No offense, but where does the name ‘Idu’ originate from?”

Idu looked at him and smiled. “It is a Caliptian name. It originates from Arge Bjändar, a cold continent in the northern part of Caliptus. I have Bjändarian ancestors and the Bjändarian tradition of giving your children short names has always remained in the family.”

A cold continent up north. If he hadn’t heard from Roderic that murder, rape and all those bad things were common on Caliptus,

except for in the Kingdom of Zilnoii, it would’ve sounded like an

appealing place to him.

“So it’s a tradition to give your children short names in Arge Bjändar?”

Idu nodded.

“Yeap. Most people you will encounter in Arge Bjändar will have names shorter than five letters. Names like Gra, Zsal or Sith are quite popular in Arge Bjändar. Stun is one of the most common names.

My father once told me that my grandpa knew twenty people called Stun. Funny thing was that even my grandpa himself was named

Stun. Stun Polun.”

Even though the names were short, they were still quite interesting.

He couldn’t help himself but compliment Idu on his name. “Idu is quite a cool name.”

“Why thank you, Brady,” said Idu appreciatively, and suddenly, he felt a lot more comfortable in Idu’s presence.

 

Chapter 8

Oddities

 

 

The sun was a red-orange, as was the horizon.

Brady was cycling as fast he could through the streets of Downtown Yatawa. Cars stood on both sides of the streets. Getting permission from his father to ‘stay at Kay’s house’ had been surprisingly easy after Brady had lied to him about an A he had gotten on a geography test. His father also liked the idea of him hanging out with friends again considering it had been quite some times since he had done that.

Ashley’s house was just three blocks away now, yet he had to hurry up.

To his left, there was an oval park with a couple of trees, a small, oval pond in the center of it and an arched, stone bridge leading from one side of the pond to the other.

There was also a gravel path leading around the pond, continuing under the bridge on both ends.

To his right, there was a broad cul-de-sac consisting of townhouses.

Cars were standing on both sides of the road, but the road was deserted and as far as he could see, he was the only one using it.

He turned his head to the left instinctively when he suddenly heard a familiar voice.

What’s that?

He heard the scream again. It was a girl. It was clearly a girl.

Brady listened carefully as he hesitantly kept on cycling, keeping his glance focused on the park, trying to locate the source of the voice.

“Help me! Someone!”

The voice sounded so familiar. As soon as Brady made the decision to get off his bike to investigate, even if it was to only see who was screaming for help, he got this weird, dreamy feeling, as if none of this were real.

“Shut the hell up,” a man hissed. Brady had trouble hearing him.

He cycled onto the sidewalk, parked his bike and then, after closing his jacket, he approached a tree, hiding behind it and peeking around the side of it.

It grew darker all of a sudden.

The sound was coming from under the bridge, near the pond in the center of the park.

The screaming had stopped, yet he had heard where it was coming from. Despite the increasing darkness, Brady had managed to spot four human silhouettes, two of which were just standing there. The other one was doing something to a shorter silhouette.

That one silhouette appeared to be trying to restrain the other silhouette, yet the other silhouette was putting up quite a fight.

“Hurry up. It’s just one of them,” Brady heard.

While he had seen where it was coming from, his initial mission had yet to be completed. He had to find out to whom the voice belonged.

There was obviously something going on under the bridge, on the gravel path, but Brady didn’t feel like interfering.

He peered at the silhouettes – two of which were looking into his general direction, but hadn’t seen him.

“Help!” he heard again, and Brady’s mouth dropped open when he realized to whom the voice belonged.

Crud. It’s Daphne.

“Shut up!” a man hissed.

Brady instantly knew that he needed to do something. He would never be able to forgive himself knowing that he had allowed Daphne to be… whatever those men were planning on doing with her.

He could call the police, but he feared that they wouldn’t be in time.

Brady hastily scanned the distance, looking for a van or something that would then obviously belong to these people, but he couldn’t find anything, and he didn’t want to risk emptying the wrong tires.

His respiration increased once he realized he alone could save Daphne from these men, but how could he possibly do it?

There has to be a way to safe her. I can’t allow this to happen.

On the other side, he was afraid that something would happen to him, and he found his own safety to be more important than Daphne’s.

The story, though.

If I safe her, I’ll be a hero. That, in combination with the story of me defeating a wolf in single combat… Maybe I’ll even make the news.

He could already see the headline: ‘Local Yatawan Teen Beats up Wolf and Rescues Girl’.

He didn’t care that half of the story would be a lie. It would be his story. He would finally get some recognition, and who knew what would follow?

Then Brady remembered that his current life could soon end if Alex

was not going to contact him anytime soon, and that the headlines in the newspaper would only serve as a hindrance then, for a possible extra headline, starring him, would follow: ‘Beats up Wolf, Rescues Girl, Disappears’.

Headlines or not, he couldn’t allow Daphne to undergo whatever these men might do to her.

“Stay still! Guys!” a man hissed.

The other two silhouettes turned around and aided their friend. Brady couldn’t even hear Daphne’s muffled screams. He could only hear the men groaning and cursing under their breaths each time Daphne’s foot hit one of them.

Reluctantly, fearing primarily for his own safety, Brady sneaked away from his safe hiding spot and entered the path, making sure to stay at least a little low.

I have to find a weapon. Brady knew he couldn’t beat these guys with just his bare fists. He doubted that even with the added endurance he’d stand a chance against the three of them. Brady noticed a few branches lying on the grass, but they were too thin to be able to deal damage.

The possible headlines motivated him, as did the stories that were obviously going to spread about him if he were to be able to free Daphne.

Suddenly, he found himself trembling with excitement rather than fear, and thinking about the reactions he’d get from those who had wronged him in the past motivated him even more.

Rocks, Brady noticed. There were a number of stones and rocks lying in the grass next to the gravel path and among the gravel forming the path. He could use those. Crouching, Brady picked up some of the stones. The ones that were part of the gravel weren’t that significant, but with some force behind his throws, he might be able to deal damage with them, especially if he were to throw them all at once.

The ones lying in the grass beside the gravel path were as large his fists. He could even clasp his hands around them and use them as a melee weapon.

Brady drew a shaky breath once he got up with the small rocks in his pockets and two larger ones in either of his fists.

Approaching the men and Daphne, who were still under the bridge on the path, Brady drew another shaky breath as he thought his plans and the possible rewards for his actions through.

Is this a dumb idea?

Brady stopped about ten yards away from the bridge, looking at the four struggling silhouettes – one of which was fighting for her life.

Brady saw that one of them was tying Daphne’s arms together with something.

How do I get their attention? What do I say? Pff, should I even do this? Should I risk my own life, my own safety, for some external validation?

“Let her go.” The words rolled calmly out of his mouth.

Brady clumsily dropped one of the fist-sized stones to the ground.

One of the silhouettes under the bridge turned to look at him.

“Get the fuck outta here, kid!”

Because of the short distance between them, Brady could vaguely see his face.

This man seemed to be a drug addict or something, because his face was screwed up and ugly, and he was unhealthily pale.

Daphne looked at him desperately as the other two men continued to tie her arms together.

Brady gulped before he repeated his demands. “Let her go.”

His heart was in his mouth; that was how nervous he was.

It was getting darker and darker still. He could still see, but with each passing minute, his view distance decreased.

“Clyde, get the boy,” one of the men holding Daphne to the ground said. The one who had given the order was broad and tall while the other two men were skinny and weak. They had sunken cheeks as well.

Brady had learned something from all the action movies he had viewed in his life. Taking out the strongest enemy in an opposing team could make them all run, but he was pretty sure that he couldn’t beat the strongest one, so that piece of information was useless, at this moment anyways.

Clyde, a meager, bare-chested man with thin, dirty-brown hair and sunken eyes who only wore the lower part of a jogger, came his way.

Brady was ready. He was not ready to fight him, but to throw the rock at him.

He would wait until the man, Clyde, was close enough, and then he would smash the rock in his face.

As Clyde increased his pace, trying to look threatening, Brady realized that he couldn’t simply throw a rock of this size in the man’s face. That could bring him in trouble with the authorities.

“You can still run,” said Clyde, who was several inches shorter than he was, as the distance between them grew shorter and shorter.

He didn’t have to defeat all three of them. He just had to make sure he would get Daphne out of here before something terrible would happen to her.

He assumed that they were planning on kidnapping and raping her. While rape wasn’t common in Yatawa, a rape hit the shocker at least once every half year, and considering that, according to the internet, only about twenty percent of all men and women who’d fallen victim to rape actually reported it to the authorities, that would mean that every half year, four to five people were raped in Yatawa.

Most of the rapes took place in Southern Yatawa, though, where all those gangs were.

Being raped was horrible – no doubting that – but being sexually abused by three drug addicts with sunken eyes and disgusting bodies had to be not only horrible, but also horrifying.

He didn’t even want to think about what their privates looked like.

Too late. Yegh.

Clyde was getting really close now.

It’s now or never.

Brady tried not to think about the direness of the situation as he took a step back and threw the rock at Clyde as hard as he could, which caused him to miss.

“Hey! What the fuck you doing throwing rocks and shit!”

Clyde increased his pace. Brady had to act quickly if he didn’t want to get beat up, or worse. He quickly picked up the other fist-sized rock, aimed, and then threw it.

A low thud and Clyde went to the ground screaming.

“Clyde! What the hell are you doing?” the big one demanded.

Clyde attempted to get up and Brady responded by throwing more rocks at him. These were the smaller ones, but the rapid succession in which they hit Clyde all over his body kept him on the ground protecting his face and his privates, screaming on each impact and begging for mercy.

Like with a wild animal, Brady had to show these guys that the trouble they would have to go through to succeed in getting their prey wouldn’t be worth it.

“Get out of here or I’m gonna -- call the police!” Brady yelled as he threw his last rock at Clyde before fishing for his phone.

As Brady fished his phone out of his pocket, Clyde got up as if he

were late for work.

“Shit, dude!” Clyde said.

Brady showed his phone to Clyde and the other two men, who had now turned around, which prompted Clyde to stare at him, eyes widened, and then run away.

“I’m calling the police!” Brady said, trying to sound as serious as he could as he watched Clyde disappearing out of sight behind the bridge.

“I’m warning you for the last time!” the large man said, who had just finished tying up Daphne. “Get out of here or you are going to be in trouble! I swear I will send people after your ass!”

He couldn’t back down. Daphne had already seen him. If he were to flee the scene now, he might even be charged for… whatever.

I’ll have to stand my ground.

“I’m – I’m – I’m giving you ten seconds. If you are still here by then, or if you try to take her away from here, I will call the police! I’m not kidding! They will be here before you can get away! I’ll make – make sure of that!”

The man crouched down and grabbed Daphne by the neck, holding his fist only inches away from her face.

“Do you want me to hurt her?” he threatened. “I can punch her nasal bone up her brains. Do you want that?”

Do it, Brady thought. The man could hurt Daphne all he wanted, as long as he took long enough for the police to get here.

Brady didn’t have any credit on his phone, though, and if the man wouldn’t leave, there would be nothing he could do.

I can’t run and I can’t fight. Bluffing it is.

“T – t – t – ten… n – nine… eight…”

The other man got up and ran away, almost tripping over his own feet, leaving the larger man all by himself with Daphne.

“Seven… Six…”

“Okay! Okay! Grrr damn you!”

The man got up and ran away, leaving Daphne tied up under the bridge.

“But I will get you!” the man yelled at him once there was some distance between them. “Don’t worry! I will get you, kid!”

Brady was careful enough not to free Daphne immediately. He didn’t want the men to sneak up behind him while he was untying the rope.

He peered into the distance and saw the last of the three men

disappearing into a nearby street.

Brady ran towards Daphne and freed her swiftly.

She hugged him once her arms were loose, and while it was uncomfortable, Brady still felt amazing.

I’m a freaking hero. Brady could kiss himself. I’m a freaking hero.

“Oh Brady. Thank you. Thank God.”

It sounded as if Daphne was about to cry, and he couldn’t blame her, although he wouldn’t appreciate it if she were to start crying.

He was horrible at dealing with crying people.

“It’s – it’s alright. Are you okay?”

“I am now.”

She hugged him so hard that he could barely breathe.

 

Brady had the feeling as if his head could explode at any given moment now. There was so much going on, and not only concerning his uncertain future, because his current life was a mess as well.

Lisa, the girl of his dreams, thought that he was with Ashley, who was blackmailing him with a photo so that he would stay with her whenever she was alone.

Daphne, whom he had just saved.

The fact that he had met some people who were actually from another planet.

Now he was thinking about it, it was crazy. He had met aliens today, because technically, Ace, Mister Allister, Roderic, Idu and maybe even Leena were from another planet, which made them aliens. Riley couldn’t be from that other planet. She lacked the accent. Idu had a southern accent, but he’d stated that his ancestors were from Grane Bjalmarch.

Or is it Arny Bjoldirch?

They were walking back to his bike as if they were a couple.

Daphne was hugging him and it made him feel like a real man despite the fact that he was literally cringing away to touch as little Daphne as he could.

“I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened if you wouldn’t have showed up,” she sobbed softly.

“Just… try to forget about it, okay? Nothing happened. I mean, nothing bad. No, I mean – ”

 Daphne chuckled. She was laughing at him.

“I get what you’re trying to say,” she said.

“W – what were you doing here anyways?”

It took Daphne a good second to reply. “You know that one site, right? Breemel? The chat roulette site?”

She had met someone on Breemel and had decided that she wanted to meet him in real life.

Omg. You idiot, Brady thought.

“Ah, you wanted to have an interesting conversation with a bot advertising some random sex website?” Brady realized that that sounded very know-it-all-ish. “Ehm, I’m sorry.”

Daphne gave a snort of laughter. “Don’t apologize. It was stupid,” she admitted. “I met someone there. We talked for a while and coincidentally, he did not live that far away from me. He had asked me to meet him here, but instead of the good-looking seventeen year old guy I expected to meet here, there were three ugly thirty-year-olds who were planning to do God only knows what to me.”

Brady rolled his eyes. He couldn’t believe that he had ever crushed on someone who downright ignored one of the very first lessons taught by parents to their children; never get into a stranger’s car or meet a stranger from the internet in real life.

“I advise you to, like, not do it again,” said Brady.

She smiled at him – he saw it from the corners of his eyes – and then he turned his face to her.

They looked at each other for three very intimate seconds. Then he broke eye contact with her. “So, do you want me uh -- to take you home?” Brady asked, scratching his neck awkwardly.

“Yes. I’d appreciate that. It’s not that far away from here.”

Brady climbed onto his bike and kept it steady as Daphne sat on the luggage carrier.

Just as Brady was about to get the bike in motion, he heard something whizzing by.

 “What the?” he said, turning to Daphne and squinting at her.

Another whizz.

Psssh. It was coming from his tire. When Brady looked at the front tire, he saw a six-inch bolt sticking out of it.

“What happened?” Daphne asked. “Wha – what – ?”

“Get off the bike.”

Daphne noticed the bolt as well. “What’s that?” she asked, confused.

“Get off the bike!” he urged.

He heard something else whizzing by as Daphne got off the bike. “Go! Come on! Quick!”

They rushed to the bridge for cover, running from whatever was

shooting at them.

For a moment, Brady thought the drug addicts were behind this, but

why would they shoot at him with crossbow bolts?

They hid under the bridge, in the darkness, near the water rather than on the gravel path, but Brady realized that this wasn’t a very good place to hide. It would only take minutes for whatever was shooting at them to find them here.

“Stay here, okay?” said Brady.

Daphne nodded panicky as Brady got up and rushed to a nearby tree, hiding behind it.

He had the feeling as if he was in a dream again, just like last time at school with that girl who had frightened him.

He couldn’t extend his claws yet, and he didn’t have any other weapons. If whoever was shooting at them wanted to kill them, Brady wouldn’t stand a chance with only his fists.

He heard something ricocheting from the stone bridge.

Brady peeked into the distance from behind the tree.

Someone was in the grass, and he was closing in on the bridge, focused on Daphne only.

As soon as the person holding the crossbow was lined up with the tree and standing on the gravel path, Brady revealed his position, extended his arms and ran into him as hard he possibly could, causing his elbows to crack.

Whoever it was was dressed in night black rags entirely and even wore a cowl.

He was blown onto his back while Brady struggled to maintain his balance before he fell face-first onto the grass beside him.

Lying, he quickly turned to the man beside him and found himself staring at smoke where a head should’ve been, and two white slits where eyes should’ve been.

Brady froze and emitted a short scream of horror before he clumsily created some space between him and whatever was trying to kill or harm them.

The thing got up, brushed off its shoulders, reloaded its crossbow and shot another bolt at the bridge, narrowly missing Daphne.

Not knowing what to do, Brady simply shouted, “Hey! Stop! Stop!” from a distance.

The thing didn’t listen. Of course it doesn’t. What did I expect?

He heard a click, followed by another click.

Brady wavered, his eyes shooting from the thing to to the bridge and

from Daphne to the empty crossbow that the thing dropped.

“Chikame lomes vuh vuch da as teramodolusil zemada da di, Ovahmor,” the thing said as it closed in on Daphne.

Brady chased after it but he was too late. It had already arrived at its target.

Brady ran as fast as he could towards the bridge and he could hear the fighting.

Daphne was resisting, again.

He had to be quick now or it would be too late.

Pats. The thing hit Daphne so hard against her face that she was knocked out and fell onto the grass.

Brady ran towards the monster and as it turned around, Brady cracked his neck before he sucker punched the thing in the face.

The impact had hurt his hand, but he had done quite some damage to the thing with the white eyes.

It took a few steps back, clutching at its face before it fell backwards into the pond. He used the few seconds he had to check on Daphne.

“Daphne, wake up. Wake up! We have to go!”

Daphne opened her eyes slowly as the thing emerged from the water.

He supported her as they returned to his bike as quickly as they could.

As they neared it, Brady turned to see where the thing was and saw to his horror that it was in hot pursuit, yelling all kinds of things that made the thing seem almost desperate to get its hands on them.

It was quite scary and that was mainly because of the thing’s disturbing voice.

Lost in the moment, Brady pushed Daphne behind a tree, and knowing that the thing wouldn’t hurt him, he was beginning to feel pumped to beat it to the ground rather than afraid to fight it.

Brady ran at it at full speed, and while the thing saw him, it didn’t even try to get out of the way.

Adrenaline spun through Brady as he closed in on his target.

He grabbed the thing by the neck and took it down with him to the ground before angrily squeezing its neck hard in an attempt to stop the human-like creature from getting to Daphne, and surprisingly, it didn’t even fight back.

The thing just stared at him with its emotionless, white slits.

“Chikame!” it begged as it attempted to breathe. “Chikame, A hozim

vuh!”

Brady felt surprisingly cold as he squeezed harder and harder until

his fingers hurt, staring the thing into its eyes before it made chocking sounds.

For ten long seconds, Brady squeezed, and then the white of the thing’s eyes turned black.

But Brady didn’t stop squeezing. He couldn’t risk it. He couldn’t risk the thing getting back up to finish what it had started.

Brady dug his fingers into the thing’s neck angrily before he heard Daphne calling for him.

“Brady!” said Daphne, who was standing by his bike. “Quick!”

She didn’t sound like she knew what he had done. He looked at the thing’s face, trying to find the eyes, but they had disappeared. The slits that had once been white were now as black as the rest of the thing’s face.

Brady rose slowly as he realized what he had done, and then he drew a shaky breath.

He had just killed something. He wasn’t sure whether it was a person, an animal or… whatever, but he had killed it, and he felt nothing but shock at what he had done.

Moments later, they were on his bike, both tires empty, and it took him quite some effort to keep the bike from swaying, which was the only thing that kept him from thinking about what he had just done.

Daphne had her arms wrapped around his body. She was sitting on the luggage carrier.

The dreamy feeling slowly wore off and after a while, he felt normal again.

The sun was going down and the sky was orange.

He looked at his phone as he followed the street around a corner.

It was time. He was too late. Ashley would be pissed, and he knew that he was risking her uploading his picture to DailyFunz.

Brady felt something heavy on the luggage carrier. He looked at it from over his shoulder and saw Daphne sitting on it, smiling at him.

He remembered now. He had just saved Daphne from three creeps.

He was already looking forward to tomorrow. If the story about him ‘beating up’ a wolf had spread as quickly as it had, he wondered how quickly the story about him saving Daphne would spread.

Yet, while he knew that he had saved her, he felt like something was missing. He felt like there were blank spaces in his memories, but he couldn’t quite figure out why they were there.

A few minutes passed and they were nearing Daphne’s house.

She lived in a cul-de-sac only four blocks away from the park.

Houses stood on each side of the road, and each house had a small driveway to the right of it, along with a small front yard in front of it.

While they weren’t townhouses, the houses looked almost identical to each other from the outside; white, brick walls and grayish roofs.

“Take a right here,” she said.

Brady cycled onto the sidewalk and then took a sharp turn to the right, driving right up the driveway of Daphne’s house, where a black sedan was standing.

He stopped the bike clumsily, and for a moment he feared that he’d lose balance, causing both of them to fall off the bike onto the driveway, but he managed.

He got off the bike awkwardly, accidentally kicking Daphne softly, which prompted him to say sorry to her.

 “So, thanks again for saving me,” said Daphne as Brady got back onto his bike, having failed to help Daphne get off it like a real gentleman should’ve. “Would you… like to hang out some time? You still owe me, you know?”

He understood what she was referring to.

Last time, he had let her down. He hadn’t told her he couldn’t come. It was all because of Ashley.

“Eh – yeah, yeah. Sorry about -- that time…”

“It’s okay,” Daphne assured him before she looked him into his eyes longingly, which caused Brady to cock his head. “Tomorrow then?”

“Uh – uh yeah, sure,” he said, but he actually wasn’t sure.

He couldn’t think straight. Daphne’s longing look had confused him.

“Well,” he said. “I’m actually not sure -- if – ”

Daphne took a step forward, placed her hands on his shoulders and pressed her full lips onto his, kissing him in the darkness of the evening.

Brady felt himself turning red, and while Daphne’s eyes closed, his were wide open.

He was shocked, and not only because Daphne had kissed him out of what had felt like to him as nothing, but also because he remembered that eighty million bacteria were transferred during a ten-second kiss.

He counted how long the kiss took, trying to enjoy the intimate moment the best he could, but he just couldn’t, and then, when Daphne finally took a step back, he divided the amount of seconds by eighty million.

She pulled with the corner of her mouth as if she had made a minor

mistake while Brady looked at her blankly.

 “I’m – sorry,” said Daphne, rubbing her arm slowly. “I should not – have – ”

“Excuse me, what?”

Daphne squinted at him. “I apologized,” she said slowly. “Did you really not hear that?”

“No,” said Brady thoughtfully. “Sorry. I was – thinking -- did you know that we just transferred sixteen million bacteria, give or take, like, a couple thousand.”

Daphne gave him a blank look. “I suppose that I don’t have to feel awkward. Do you realize that I just – kissed you?” she asked, saying the word ‘kissed’ as if it were a horrible word, like cancer.

“Yeah,” said Brady normally. “And then I did the math and I concluded that we exchanged like – ”

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” said Daphne quickly before she smiled at him as if he were a cute puppy. Meanwhile, Brady was fretting, hoping that he hadn’t said anything stupid. Daphne had just kissed him. Him. Brady prayed that his response to the kiss had been at least mildly appropriate. “See you tomorrow?” she asked.

“Sure, yes,” he replied. “To – tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow then, ‘Brady Wolf’. Thanks again.”

“An – anytime,” said Brady, hiding his excitement. “Any – time.”

Daphne opened the door to her house and waved at him with her fingers before she closed it.

Brady got back on his bike and on the way to Ashley’s house, he made sure to analyze the conversation he had had with her on the driveway, realizing that perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned the bacteria.

 

Chapter 9

At the Top

 

 

That morning he awoke feeling horrible. He had spent another evening and night at Ashley’s house, and while it hadn’t been unenjoyable, each hour he spent with her reminded him of how she had ruined his chances with Lisa.

 

The school bell rang just when Brady entered the deserted canteen. He had to hurry now if he didn’t want to be too late. In fact, he was already too late.

Ashley had decided to call in sick today. She had told him that she barely needed to go to school since she got straight A’s by simply paying attention when she did go to school and opening her books for a minute or five before a test, and while this didn’t apply to Michelle, Michelle had agreed on spending this day with her at her house.

Brady hurried through the canteen on a sunny Tuesday morning, knowing that if Miss Jones were already in the classroom, he would probably have to report himself to the principal for being too late.

Entering the hallway to the right of the canteen, Brady stopped and was surprised to see his classmates leaving classroom A-six, heading to the canteen.

Was the English teacher not there?

Mark smiled as soon as he saw him, and at that moment, Brady knew the story about Daphne and he had spread. “Yo, look. It’s Daphne’s hero!”

Kay’s mouth dropped open with excitement when he saw him. “Is it true what she said, Brady?” Kay asked as he and Mark, followed by the rest of his classmates, entered the canteen. “Did you really save her?”

Brady smiled shyly. “Well – ye… I – “

 “High-five brotha!” Kay high-fived him jubilantly. “First, you defeat a wolf. Now you saved a girl. You are unstoppable, aren’t you?”

Logan stood in the crowd, and Brady could see the jealousy in Logan’s

Brady felt proud of himself, but he could have done with a smaller crowd of quizzing teens.

“How did you scare them off?” Nataly, a.k.a. Safari, asked.

Logan and he had secretly given her that nickname because she reminded them of a Safari guide. He didn’t know why she did. She just did.

“Well, I – I – I – ”

“Hey Brady, you should come with us to the Triangle tonight, man,” said Kay. “I’m sure that after all this news, every girl will want you there. Think of all the pussy you can get!”

“Yes, that’d be fun,” Mark chuckled. “I’ve never seen him drunk!”

Brady cringed. He really, really despised talk like this.

“Well, actually – ” He couldn’t finish his sentence because he saw Daphne making her way through the crowd, and so did his classmates, who stepped aside to create some space for her like the water did for Moses.

At this point, Brady felt like he was a in a movie, and while he had felt like this before, at this point, the feeling was strongest.

Daphne stopped before him and looked him in the eyes for an intimate second. Then suddenly, she hugged him and pressed her lips onto his mouth while their classmates, except for Logan, were cheering in the background.

 

The drama was over. Brady was sitting next to Daphne instead of next to Logan now.

Logan was sitting all alone in the front row of the classroom, next to the door.

He deserved it, sitting all lonely and stuff.

Logan had caused him some troubles this year, but Logan had helped him as well.

I can’t forget that.

Miss Jones walked in, carrying a stack of a4 paper. It was the test they had to make today.

It turned out that she had informed school about her arriving a bit later this day. The school had, just as always, forgotten to inform the right class about it.

“Hello class and welcome to English,” Jones said with a heavy Upper Class English accent.

“Miss Jones,” said Kay, who sat in the back row, just like Daphne and him. “You know what Brady did to that wolf, right?”

While Brady and Daphne sat near the window in the far right corner of the class, Kay and Mark were sitting in the back of the row in the

middle of the classroom, in-between the row of tables to the left and the row of tables to the right.

“Yes,” she nodded, continuing to use the Upper Class English accent. “He chased it away if I am not mistaken.”

“Guess what he did yesterday?” Mark said, his voice sounding even rougher and deeper than usual. “He fought three pedophiles and saved Daphne from them!”

Brady didn’t know how to respond to all this attention so he just cracked a forceful smile, looking at his table shyly while turning red.

“You did, Brady? How did you even know where to find her?” asked Miss Jones. She was so impressed that she broke character.

“Well, I was on my way to my… mom, to get some stuff I forgot, and then I heard screams coming from the p – p – park.”

Jones nodded and she appeared to be genuinely impressed with him. She stood there, behind her desk with her hands on her hips, the stack of paper on the desk.

“You’ve done a really good job. I think you should be rewarded for that. Nevertheless, we have a test to make. I will take it upon myself to inform the principal about your heroic deed, though.”

That wasn’t necessary, really. Well, actually, it is.

“Now, before we begin, let me give you all a brief warning. If I catch you looking at your neighbor’s test I will give you an F instantly. No exceptions.”

Everyone was quiet while Miss Jones handed out the tests.

Brady hadn’t studied for it, but to his relief, it was only a short test. It were a couple of words that had to be written in the past tense and some other things involving grammar.

“Okay. The test starts now. No talking and no peeking.”

As soon as he started writing down his name on the piece of paper, he felt it, as always. Each time he had to make a test or exam, his stomach started getting upset for some reason and then began to make sounds. He always tried to suppress it by pushing his thumb on his solar plexus or by breathing very slowly and deeply. Those two techniques helped him to suppress it for a while, but not for forever. If this test would take long, he would have a problem, just like with the exams last year.

He still felt humiliated, thinking back at that moment. Brady was always so focused on preventing his stomach from rumbling, and so anxious that he would fail to keep it from doing so, that he would rush through the test, causing him to get a lower grade than he

could’ve scored if it hadn’t been for his stomach.

He clicked his ballpoint pen and wrote down his name on the piece of paper.

Ashl

Wait a second.

Brady quickly hid the word with his hand and then covered it in ink.

Ashl Brady Heliot.

Now onto writing down the name of his teacher, his class and the date. …Done.

He then felt his stomach getting ready to make some noise, so he pressed his thumb on his solar plexus.

Oh God, Brady thought, gritting his teeth. Every time! Every time I have a test you do this to me. What are you thinking? No, wait. I know what you think. ‘Oh, you are making a test in the middle of a quiet classroom filled with your peers? Here, let me play you the song of my god damn people, you asshole’. Grr, stop it, stomach.

Brady inhaled deeply and then exhaled. Then he inhaled deeply again, and exhaled deeply again. It was over now, but not for long, of course. Never. Like they said: the battle is won, but the war goes on.

Brady thought about what had happened not even ten minutes ago.

Daphne had kissed him in front of the entire class.

Is she my girlfriend now? Yeah. Right?

Brady still really liked Lisa, though. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen her anymore since the day she caught Ashley talking to him like that. Maybe she was feeling sick, because of him. Did she stay home because of a broken heart? Could a broken heart be so painful that one couldn’t go to school?

Hm, interesting question.

He’d have to do some research on that matter.

 

The English test went better than expected. It was relatively easy. The first five questions had been exceptionally easy, but the questions that had followed were a bit harder. A bit. He didn’t know whether he had done a good job or not, but it sure felt like he had. He had recess now. The story had passed through the school quickly and within minutes, a small crowd of students aged twelve to fifteen was following him and asking him questions.

As always, whenever he was in the center of attention, he turned red and became very awkward.

“Did they hit you?” a girl asked.

“Can you tell me how you beat them?” a boy asked.

“Were it really three of them?” some other kid asked.

The worst question had to be the ‘Can you tell me the whole story again, please?’ question. He had already told the story twice, and some still hadn’t fully understood it.

Luckily, just as he was about to go down the stairs to the first floor, he saw Miss Steen Walters walking to him and the small crowd. She was their economics teacher, and as always, she looked a bit irritated.

“Hey, don’t you see he doesn’t want to answer any questions now?” Miss Walters boomed, which even startled Brady.

Most of them were too afraid of her to say anything back, for she was known to make you come back an extra hour for the dumbest of reasons.

The crowd shrunk quickly until no one was left but Miss Walters and him.

“Uhhb – thanks.”

To his surprise, Miss Walter showed him a smile. “Not a problem, Mister Heliot. How is economics going? I remember it was one of the subjects you failed for last year. I hope that is not going to happen again.”

He wasn’t doing a good job at economics at the moment, but obviously, he couldn’t tell her that.

It wasn’t that the subject didn’t interest him, he just had something else to do during her class, like drawing and stuff.

“I am doing well. My eh… dad and I… He helps me study for it. We spent a few minutes a day on economics after school.”

Miss Walters seemed to like that answer. “Good. Now go for it, alright? If you fail class again, you might as well start searching for some carton boxes.”

He nodded, and after they wished each other a good day, he approached the staircase and climbed down to the first floor.

He entered the canteen and approached Logan, who was sitting in the far right corner, waiting on him.

The canteen was pretty full and most students looked at him for a few seconds, which caused him to stare at the ground in an attempt to avoid eye contact with anyone.

He sat down opposite of Logan, who was spending his free time on his phone playing that game again.

Logan didn’t even look up for one second. In fact, Logan didn’t even say hi.

Brady realized that Mister Weaver would be handing the geography tests back this day.

Brady couldn’t really remember whether he had done a good job or not.

“What level is your castle?” Logan asked.

“I deleted that game a couple of days ago. I’m not much of a mobile gamer.”

Logan gave a snort of disdain. “Oh oh oh. You just couldn’t handle being a lower level than me.”

Brady was too busy worrying about geography to even respond to that. He got his phone out of his pocket and looked at the time. Thirteen past ten am. Two minutes left, and then geography class would begin.

“It’s only two more minutes. Let’s go.”

Logan didn’t respond, but then he put his phone away and got up.

“Loser,” he said softly, trying to provoke Brady. “Ha-ha-ha, loser. Can’t even handle being a lower level than me.”

 

They were in classroom C-eight now. Brady was sitting next to Logan, and Phillipe and Steve were sitting in front of them. Phillipe was a tall and handsome guy with black, spiky hair and brown eyes. Steve was very pale and thin and he had gray eyes. According to Phillipe, Steve had a hot mom and Phillipe usually made some remarks of sexual nature about her. Mister Weaver was already handing out the tests. As he got closer to them, he mentioned it being one of the most well-made geography tests of the year. It was noisy in the classroom and Brady had trouble hiding his nervousness. His heart started beating faster as Mister Weaver approached his and Logan’s table and gave him his test back.

“Disappointing, Brady,” said Weaver coolly.

Shit. Shit. Brady turned the test around as Logan, Phillipe and Steve received theirs.

An F? Really? An F? Shit. Dad is going to break my legs.

“What do you have?” Logan had obviously seen his disappointed and shocked expression. Logan attempted to snatch the test out of his hands.

“I have an F,” Brady responded, hiding his emotions the best he could. He knew Logan fed on negativity. “But it doesn’t matter.”

Logan and Steve laughed at that. Phillipe was completely focused on Jeremy, the guy sitting in front of Steve and him.

They were having a conversation about the new Fidelity game.

“Jesus, an F?” Logan sneered. His laugh sounded so fake. “You are really really dumb, man.”

“How about your grade,” Brady said, trying to hide his irritation. “What about that, huh? Maybe you have an F too.”

This only caused Logan to enjoy this moment more. Logan turned his test around and looked at the grade.

“An A!”

“I have an A too!” Steve smiled.

They both turned to Brady.

“Show us your test, stupid,” said Logan, smiling contemptuously together with Steve. “Let us see what you did wrong.”

Brady shook as he inspected his test.

“Ah, you’re too scared to show us your grades. So weak. Pitiful. You’re pitiful, do you know that?”

Steve laughed, but it sounded as if he was just laughing to make Brady feel bad.

Knowing that Logan was merely attempting to leech happiness from him because of what happened earlier this day with Daphne, Brady thought about how he could get out of here.

He was done with him. Done with Logan and Steve, even though Steve was only there during geography.

He allowed his gaze to wander across the room searching for a way out, and that was when he saw Daphne, sitting all by herself in the far right corner of the classroom

He was trying to make eye contact with her, but she was too focused on her test.

He decided to just go for it.

“Bye, n – n – noobs.” Brady got up, and he had to clench his jaw hard just to keep himself from tearing up.

Logan noticed what he was trying to do, so he pushed Brady’s chair back to the table, against the back of Brady’s leg, causing Brady to accidentally sit down again.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Logan warned coolly.

Brady thought he knew what was going to happen, so he decided to get his ballpoint pen out of his backpack just in case if he was right, and he was. Logan tried to kick him off the chair, like he always did when Brady did something he didn’t like.

Brady almost fell off, and this was only the first kick.

“Stop,” said Brady, grinding his teeth. He felt the corners of his mouth pulling down.

Steve just laughed.

Logan tried kicking him off the chair again with that annoying, provocative grin on his face.

“I said stop,” Brady hissed before he clicked his ballpoint pen and stabbed it in Logan’s upper leg.

“Ow!” Logan howled as his hand shot to his leg.

Brady quickly put the ballpoint pen back into his backpack, got his stuff and then got up.

“I’m sick of you, you f – asshole,” Brady hissed through gritted teeth.

Looking at Mister Weaver to make sure he didn’t have any problem with it, Brady approached Daphne’s table with his stuff.

 “Can I sit here?” he asked her, trying to forget about what had just happened. Brady could barely keep the tears from rolling down his cheeks.

He always had been emotional, and he hated that about himself.

“Yes, of course you can,” Daphne said, putting her test on the table.

Phew. That was over. In addition, so was his friendship with Logan.

For real this time.

 

He hated Logan. For all he cared, Logan could sit alone for the rest of the year.

Like Brady, Logan didn’t have that much friends at school. Sure, he was better with people, but as far as Brady knew, he hadn’t sat next to anyone but him since the start of this schoolyear.

Steve was Logan’s friend, yes, but Brady knew that Steve would rather spend time with his best friend, which was Phillipe. Maybe Logan had Mark, but what did it matter? Screw Mark. Why should he forgive Mark that easily?

It wasn’t as if Mark had never wronged him with the intention of making him feel bad, like Logan had so many times.

Brady remembered that time in PE.

Mister Flynn had brought boxing gloves and had decided to let them spar while he himself would go drink some coffee with the teachers in the teacher’s room.

‘You can’t hit each other’, Brady remembered Mister Flynn saying. ‘That’s strictly forbidden. You may only hit the opponent’s boxing

gloves.’

Obviously it would get out of hand. What had Flynn thought? A bunch of fifteen-year-old guys, each wanting to prove how strong they were to the others.

Surely, something would get out of hand. Brady and a few others had listened to Flynn, though. Brady had been fighting Logan. They did it right at first, but then Logan snapped or something and just hit him in the face out of nowhere.

Brady had first thought that it had been an accident until Logan had tried it again. Brady had blocked it and hit Logan back in the face, but not that hard. Mark had seen that and had then started protecting Logan for some reason. Two versus one. The bad thing was that Mark practiced MMA and that Logan practiced kickboxing, so he hadn’t stood a chance against them. He didn’t get beat up or something. He had just received a few blows to the head.

Yes, screw Mark too.

Fortunately, school was over for today. Brady unlocked his bike and cycled to Daphne, who was waiting for him on the sidewalk.

They cycled away, to Daphne’s house, which wasn’t that far away from school. It was a warm day, and for once, Brady enjoyed the warmth.

“What grade did you get on geography?” Daphne asked him as they crossed the intersection near school.

Even though he had been through some things with Daphne, he still didn’t feel that comfortable around her. Perhaps that was because she was a girl.

Brady was in two minds of whether or not to lie to Daphne about his grade, but he decided to tell the truth.

“An F.”

“An F?” Daphne said, sounding surprised. “How come?”

“I forgot to study. I had things to do.”

Brady was very good at being mysterious. His mom had told him so, once.

“What ‘things’?” Daphne said, giving a snort of laughter.

Is there a birthday I can lie about? Nope.

“I lost my geography books near the beginning of last week and found them back on the day I had to make the test.”

Not my best lie, Brady reflected.

“You lost your books? But you said you had other things to do,” said Daphne.

“Yeah, my grandma passed away year ago last week. I had to visit her grave with my mother and brother.”

“Oh, are you alright?” Daphne asked.

Brady didn’t really know how to respond to this question. He had just used the death of his grandmother as an excuse for something. That’s kinda effed up.

“Yeah.”

Brady and Daphne talked some more. Daphne appeared to be feeling comfortable around him, but this wasn’t vice versa. All the way to her home, she was asking him questions about himself until she asked a question referring to something said by Kay and Mark during geography.

“So, about geography. Kay and Mark asked you to come to the Triangle, remember? Do you want to go?”

He wanted to say no, but he had always been bad at saying it bluntly.

“I’m not sure,” he replied, staring at the road in the distance. Like with many people, he just couldn’t look Daphne in the eyes. “But if you are going, I’ll -- go too.”

Daphne smiled appreciatively. “What day is it today?” she asked him, which gave Brady this feeling as if she only asked that because she too knew that they were starting to run out of topics to talk about.

Brady knew that if he would have been the one who would have had to do all the talking, they would’ve run out of topics before they had even crossed the intersection.

Whenever he was in a conversation with someone and the topic wasn’t about something serious, he’d run out of things to say and ask pretty quickly, except for if he wasn’t the one dominating the conversation.

“Tuesday, right?”

“Yes, hmm, let me see, Tuesday… I have to ask my parents about it first.”

I hope they’ll say no.

He didn’t want to go to the Triangle. He hated places like that. There was too much underaged drinking, and too many people he knew from elementary school. He had never drank alcohol himself. At least, not seriously. He had tried it once and hadn’t enjoyed it. Brian, his little brother, had, though. Once, when Brian was only four years old, he had drunk beer out of their father’s glass while they were on vacation in Italy. When their father had come back, the glass was

empty and all his father had done was laughing. His mother got a little angry though, when she found out.

Brady knew that Brian could grow up to be a problem one day.

Once he would be allowed to go to the Triangle, he could drink whatever he wanted, and because of his lack of responsibility, that could get out of hand very quickly.

 “Hey, so you know that Nitro 7 just came out in the theaters, right?”

Brady nodded. He was trying to hold eye contact, but he kept on breaking it.

He didn’t know why he did that. He always had.

“I’ve pirated it. Do you want to watch it with me?”

 Brady tilted his head a little. “You like the Nitro movies?”

“Yes!” Daphne responded, glad.

“What? No way,” said Brady, and suddenly he was feeling a lot more interested in Daphne.

“Yeah! I’ve seen them all. Except for the last one, but now I’m going to watch it with you. If you want to, of course.”

Awesome. Brady had been dying to see that movie ever since he’d seen the trailer.

 

“So, can I go?” Daphne asked her mom.

They were at her house already.

Brady had introduced himself to the nice, polite woman that was Daphne’s mother only seconds ago.

Luckily, Daphne’s father was still at work. Brady didn’t like introducing himself to new people.

“I can make an exception,” Daphne’s mother said distractedly, stirring a soup in a kitchen about as large as the one his father had in house. “But I want you to be back before one am, understood? It is a week day after all.”

“Okay. Thank you, mom.” Daphne grabbed Brady’s hand and headed for the staircase. Daphne’s mom looked a lot like her daughter, or was it the other way around? Technically it was, considering Daphne had been born after her mother, which was obviously obvious.

“Nice to meet you, Brady,” said Daphne’s mother as Daphne and he climbed the brown, spiral staircase to the second floor.

He wanted to say something nice back, but he couldn’t, which left him feeling quite awkward as he followed Daphne to her room. Daphne’s house was on the old side.

The house had a cellar, a first floor, a second floor and an attic. The walls were made of white stucco and the floors of a grayish laminate.

Daphne opened the door to her room, which didn’t look that girly at all. The walls were a gray-blue walls and the floor was whitish – laminate as well. Daphne’s TV wasn’t that large, but it was large enough to watch a movie on. She turned on her laptop, entered her password and then started the application she had mentioned. It turned out that she hadn’t even pirated the movie at all. She had only downloaded an application that you could use to watch newly released movies… in four-eighty p.

If I wanted to watch a movie in four-eight p I’d go to my dad’s house and sit outside about a hundred feet away from the router and watch it there.

“Do you want something to drink or eat?” Daphne asked him as she started the movie.

“Maybe later,” he replied, waiting on Daphne to give him permission to sit down, considering this was her room.

He was thinking about this evening. He didn’t want to go to the Triangle, but it was already too late to cancel it all.

Why do I always have to make everything so difficult for myself?

While Daphne’s room wasn’t big or anything, it was larger than Ashley’s.

Funny. I can now compare the rooms of girls I’ve spent time with. Never thought I’d be able to do that.

 

Brady’s phone vibrated, taking him out of the movie completely.

He got it out of his pocket and looked at it.

Ashley? What does she want?

“Who’s that?” Daphne asked. She was leaning against him with her back. Although the way she was sitting made him feel very uncomfortable now he was back in reality, he did a good job at hiding it.

“Oh, my – dad. I forgot to inform him that I’m here. I’ll call him back later.”

Brady figured Nitro 7 had to be near its end now. We’ve been sitting here for, like, two hours.

“I forgot to ask you,” said Daphne suddenly before she sat upright and squinted at him. “Who was that girl in the canteen who asked you if you wanted to stay at her house again, like, last week?”

“Oh, she eh -- asked me for my number earlier that day,” he said normally. Overall, he wasn’t a confident guy, yet if there had to be anything out there that he was confident about, it was his divine ability of coming up with lies. “I hadn’t given it to her and she was disappointed. I guess what she did to me in the canteen was some kind of – payback, revenge, retribution, vengeance.”

“Well, that’s one way to be desperate,” Daphne remarked.

His phone vibrated for the second time.

“God. My father can be so annoying,” he said, irritated.

“Is he calling you again?”

It was Kay this time.

“It’s Kay, actually. Should I pick up?”

“Yeah,” said Daphne as if the answer was obvious. It wasn’t obvious to Brady. Usually, if someone called him, he’d ignore the phone call and send a text message later, asking why they called. “It’s probably about tonight.”

Brady pulled the green phone icon on his screen to the right and put the phone to his ear, already worrying about how he was going to greet Kay.

“Eey. Sup, Brady? Are you coming or not?”

He didn’t want to go, but he had already told Daphne that he would if she wanted.

Brady breathed a sigh, prompting Daphne to look at him, confused.

“Sure,” Brad replied, trying to sound excited, but excitement was hard to fake. “When do we meet. Where – eh…”

“Around nine. We’ll be there around that time too. Mark, Mike and I.”

Brady couldn’t keep himself from rolling his eyes.

He knew that Mark and Kay were buddies. They were both rather popular – Kay more than Mark.

 “See you around nine pm, then,” Brady replied.

He was not looking forward to nine pm at all. If an opportunity that would allow him to not go to the Triangle with Daphne, Kay, Mark and Mike would present itself, he’d seize it.

“Wait, eh, do we have to come pick you up or something?” Kay asked. “Mark knows where Daphne lives. We can go together.”

Brady looked to Daphne. “They want to… pick us up.”

“Yes, that’s fine.”

To Kay, Brady said, “That’s fine. See you around…?”

“Half past eight. Aight. See you then, man.”

Brady hung up. Simply thinking about spending his evening in a crowded club filled him with anxiety.

“Have you ever been to the Triangle, by the way?” Daphne asked him.

“A – a – a couple times,” Brady lied. “Just not that often.”

Daphne chuckled a little. “I almost thought you were doing this just for me.”

Brady chuckled awkwardly. “Ha-ha-ha, yeah.”

 

Chapter 10

Man in Black

 

 

The Triangle was a triangular shaped area paved with bricks. An old, ruined church stood in the center of it. While tall, broken-down, iron fences enclosed the church, the Triangle was enclosed by bars, pubs and a movie theater, only there were several alleys leading to nearby streets, and those alleys served as exits.

Especially children of around Brady’s age, who were exploring something called ‘getting drunk’, loved the Triangle, which was the reason why you’d mainly see fourteen to eighteen-year-olds in the pubs and bars.

He wasn’t going to drink any alcohol, even though he was sure that Kay, Mike, Mark and Daphne would. It wasn’t that he didn’t dare to. He just didn’t want to drink any alcohol. If anything were to happen, he wanted to be sober so that he could do something about it.

Who was he kidding? He wouldn’t do a thing even if he was sober.

It was funny that he was the oldest, yet he had the least amount of experience with things like clubbing out of all of them.

In fact, he didn’t have any experience with clubbing at all.

They parked their bikes in an alley in-between a bar and the local cinema, and when Brady got off his bike and locked it, thinking about all the things that could go wrong, he was surprised by a wave of anxiety that constricted his throat and befuddled him.

Daphne and he followed Kay, and Mark and Mike followed them.

“Are we going to be sober enough to ride back?” Mark asked Mike, chuckling.

“Not me, man!” said Mike excitedly.

Brady was so lost in his head that he couldn’t even cringe internally at those dumb, dumb words.

“Where are we going?” Daphne asked Kay, who seemed to be the one in charge. “Disco or bar?”

“Thomas’s,” Kay, who appeared to be most levelheaded out of the five of them, replied.

Currently, Kay had this leader vibe around him, which made Brady feel a little more at ease, yet he would’ve liked to been able to stop worrying about things that might happen and instead focus his energy on trying to enjoy whatever hell he was going to find himself in for the next couple of hours.

“Didn’t Logan want to come?” asked Mark to Brady as they approached a bar called ‘Thomas’s Tavern’.

It was located in the far right corner of the Triangle, and judging by the shadows inside, it was quite busy. From the outside, Thomas’s Tavern actually looked like a cozy tavern, but the colors Brady saw alternating through the windows – light-green, blue, purple, red and pink – gave away what it was really like inside of Thomas’s Tavern.

Thomas’s Tavern was located to the left of an alley leading into the Long Street and to the right of a square building called Bottled Joy.

The Long Street was pretty much a shopping street in the center of Downtown Yatawa where most of the shops were located in.

“I don’t think he is coming,” said Brady, his voice giving away how he was currently feeling, which prompted Daphne to shoot a puzzled look at him, making him even more nervous and anxious. 

“Shall I call him?” said Mark.

He didn’t want to have Logan here. He didn’t want Logan here at all.

“Nah, just us, man,” said Kay. “I don’t really like Logan that much anyways to be honest.”

Kay doesn’t like Logan either? Splendid.

“Logan is cool, man,” Mark said mildly defensively.

Kay shook. “Nah ah man. I don’t like his attitude.”

Mark didn’t seem to like him saying that.

“Hey, you two,” said Mike. “Let’s just go inside already.”

Mark, Kay and Mike approached the disco. Daphne grabbed Brady’s hand and then they did as well. They entered the tavern-like building, and on the inside, the primary colors were light-blue and warm-red. The colors he had seen through the windows where nowhere to be seen but in the windows. They were probably there to draw attention to Thomas’s Tavern.

Even though it was a weekday, the tavern was filled with kids of around fifteen to eighteen years old, and some older, but nobody exceeding the age of thirty.

There was a surprising lack of sitting options, and most of the people in Thomas’s Tavern were either standing by one of the long bars on the left and the right or dancing on the floor that alternated between light-blue and warm-red, like the rest of the tavern apart from the windows.

Overall, Thomas’s Tavern was not that big, and Brady was surprised to see that so many people were still coming in after them even though the bar was almost filled.

There were some pockets of space left here and there, primarily before the warm-red leather corner couches standing in each corner – two in both corners near the entrance and one in both the far left corner and the far right corner.

There was a lacquered wooden staircase located in-between the corner couches in the far left and the far right corner, and this staircase led upstairs. A lacquered wooden gate prevented anyone from going up there, though.

While a staircase was located in-between the couches in the far left corner and the far right corner, the bar to the left was located in-between the couch in the far left corner and the couch in the left corner near the door – the same thing applied to the bar to the right, only it was located opposite of the other bar.

“So, you two are bf and gf now?” Mark smiled as they crossed the disco.

Brady’s eyes were widened and he had trouble concentrating. It was as if the overcrowding was causing his very consciousness to attempt to retreat inside of his mind.

“We’re – sort of dating,” Daphne replied once she realized that Brady hadn’t heard the question. After that, she squeezed his hand, which brought him back to reality, but only for a handful of seconds.

There was loud rap music playing, and Brady had never heard the song before.

Rap wasn’t his kind of music.

They made their way through the clusters of dancing adolescents.

The lights alternated on the beats of the songs, causing confusion inside of Brady’s head.

Sometimes, the lights would turn off for a second or two, cloaking everything in darkness.

Kay placed his hand on Brady’s shoulder once they were through the crowded center of the room and he pointed at the corner sofa in the far right corner of the room.

“There,” he said, his voice barely audible over the loud music. “You take Mark and the rest to that corner, okay? I’ll get us something to drink.”

Brady nodded, and then Kay left them to go to the bar to the left.

“Where’s he going?” Mike asked him.

“Getting – drinks,” replied Brady, anxiously making his way past the few remaining obstacles that were people.

Mark, Mike and Daphne followed him over to the corner couch and

then they sat down just when the rap music stopped and A Sky Full Of Stars from Coldplay and Avicii began playing.

Brady didn’t choose to listen to music that often, but when he did, he usually listened to either Coldplay, Avicii or Imagine Dragons; those were his favorite bands.

Such luck that a familiar song was now playing, yet Brady still felt his fight-or-flight response kicking in moments after because of the loudness of the music and the fact that he was literally looking at one of the things he feared; an uncontrolled crowd.

This was definitely his first and last time clubbing, and he hadn’t even been here for five minutes.

“It’s crowded, isn’t it?” Mark smiled to Brady.

Brady was sitting in-between Daphne and Mark, and Mike was sitting next to Mark.

“Too crowded, yes,” said Brady, trying to make it seem like he was enjoying himself while the booming music – not the song itself, not at all – was eating away at him from the inside.

Daphne grabbed his hand and placed it between her hand and her thigh. The loudness of the music, the overcrowding in an already small building, the flickering lights, the smell of alcohol and all that accompanied by a public display of affection made Brady feel more uncomfortable and anxious than he had felt in this entire school year.

He could feel his hands growing cold, his arms trembling and if he hadn’t known that it had been the nerves, he would’ve sworn that he was growing nauseous.

He looked around and saw something he didn’t want to see; troublemakers. One of them was in his late twenties. He towered above everyone and had a couple of guys standing around him. It were probably his friends. They were fighting or something, but not physically. They were arguing, and every now and then, Brady could hear them, but their words were unintelligible.

Brady knew they were troublemakers. He could just feel it. The tall guy, the way he was standing, Brady knew that he had left his house today with the sole reason of causing trouble.

Then, through the crowd, a ray of hope; Kay.

He was leaning on the bar.

Kay was actually a nice guy. Kay Chandler. Yeah.

The barman poured something into some shot glasses.

The bottle had a weird shape and color. Brady was sure that whatever was being poured into those glasses wasn’t alcohol-free.

Damn it.

He could feel his phone buzzing in his pocket, and Brady clutched at it as if hitting a fly.

He got it out of his pocket, fearing that even though he had put it on vibrate only long ago, the ringtone would still sound.

Looking at the screen, he saw that it was his father.

Mark, Mike and Daphne were talking, so Brady tapped on Daphne’s shoulder in order to get her attention.

When she looked at him, he suddenly felt the urge to kiss and hug her, and that wasn’t because he loved her, it was because he was in desperate need of comfort.

“My dad is calling me,” said Brady.

Daphne cocked her head and squinted.

“My dad – is calling me – again.”

Daphne had understood it this time. Brady got up and she did too. He hadn’t planned on taking her with him to answer his dad’s phone call, but if she wanted to come, he didn’t mind. Brady walked through the crowds again and made sure to keep enough distance between the troublemakers and Daphne and him.

A random boy who couldn’t be much older than sixteen suddenly appeared right in front of him, dancing like a lunatic with a shot glass clutched in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other, looking at him as if inviting him to dance with him.

Brady quickly made his way past him and continued outside. As soon as the door fell shut behind him, he felt the cool air licking his face, and he felt free again, as if he could breathe again.

Brady gave himself a moment to enjoy the fresh air, but the moment of peace and quiet was rudely disturbed by several voices coming from his right and a disgusting smell entering his nostrils.

A group of about five smokers was standing outside of Thomas’s Tavern, smoking and talking normally.

“Are you okay?” said Daphne, confused.

Brady nodded before he got his phone out of his pocket again.

“What are you going to say?” Daphne asked. “Are you even allowed to go clubbing?”

He honestly didn’t know, but he picked up the phone anyways, aching for a reminder of home, which somehow felt so far away.

“Dad,” said Brady, the relief he was feeling audible in his voice.

“Brady. Where are you?” his father asked calmly.

Even if he hadn’t been calm, Brady would’ve still been glad to talk

to him. He realized that his father could save him if he would tell him to come home, but then Brady thought of how he would look to Kay, Mark, Mike and Daphne if he were to go home, telling them that he, the oldest of the five of them, wasn’t allowed to go clubbing on a weekday. 

Brady pondered. He only had a few seconds before his dad would ask him if he was still there.

“I’m at a disco with some friends.”

It was quiet on the other side of the line.

“You? A disco?”
“It’s a bar,” Daphne whispered.

“I mean a bar,” said Brady.

“What are you doing at a bar?” his father asked normally.

“You know, ehhm – stuff, and like – yeah.”

 “Well, that’s okay with me. Be careful. Don’t you have school tomorrow, by the way?”

“Yeah, but only after… twelve. It’ll be okay.”

Brady was surprised. He had expected his father to get mad at him.

“Alright. But don’t stay up all night.”

“Ah – alright. See you tomorrow.”

“Yes. See you tomorrow. Have fun.”

Brady hung up.
“And?” Daphne asked, concerned.

“I can stay. No problem.”

“Nice,” she smiled before offering him her hand. “Come on.”

Brady took a deep breath just before he headed inside, and held it.

Looking past the dancers dancing on the dancefloor, Brady noticed that Kay was sitting with them too now. There was one problem, though, because the troublemakers had moved closer to where they were sitting. Brady hoped they wouldn’t start talking to him and his friends.

He noticed some shot glasses standing on the lacquered wooden table before the corner couch. Two for each, it seemed.

How was he going to cram all that alcohol through his throat? The only things related to alcohol he had drunk were wine and beer, and while beer had been borderline okay, he found the taste of wine to be – bluntly stated – revolting.

Making his way through the dancers with Daphne was simply a nightmare.

Each time he bumped into something, his heart skipped a beat and he

thought he would receive a fist right in his face, but it never happened.

Some guy appeared out of nowhere and Daphne accidentally walked into him. The guy dropped his plastic cup onto the ground, causing the liquid that was inside of it to spread over the dance floor.

“Jo,” said the guy angrily, causing Brady to freeze even though it wasn’t him who the guy was speaking to. “Bitch.”

“Oh, sorry,” Daphne replied as Brady attempted to get her out of there as quickly as possible.

If that guy were to start throwing punches at Daphne, Brady feared that he wouldn’t be in the right mental state to help her.

Surprisingly, shaking his head, the guy left the dancefloor.

Brady sat down next to Kay, and Daphne sat down next to Brady. The couch was full now.

Kay grabbed one of the small blue glasses from the table and gave it to Brady.

“This one’s for you, man,” said Kay, accompanying the offering of alcohol with a friendly smile hinting at good intentions.

“Oh, eh – yeah,” Brady grabbed the glass reluctantly as Kay and Daphne looked at him expectantly.

Mark and Mike were looking at the dancefloor, each holding a shot glass while they were exchanging words with one another.

Brady looked at the clear, brownish liquid inside of the small shot glass and tried to determine how much fluid ounces were in this glass.

About one and a half, Brady thought. About forty-four milliliters, if he wasn’t mistaken. How the living shit am I going to cram that stuff down my throat?

Brady swirled the liquid like a professional wine taster before he put the glass against his lips as he exchanged a look with Kay from the corners of his eyes. Kay looked at him like a father at his son – there was a certain proudness present in his expression – before Brady tilted the glass, allowing about five milliliters to enter his mouth before he held the shot glass before him, making the alcohol sit on his tongue for a while.

A look of surprise appeared on Brady’s face.

That’s actually pretty good. It’s sweet, but also a little sharp.

“And?” asked Kay hopefully while Brady swallowed the five milliliters of alcohol as if it were an entire mouthful.

It tingled in his throat and was yet again sharp while the sweetness

that had been present in the alcohol was now absent.

Still, it tasted good.

That was when Brady realized they might’ve put something in there. His eyes widened.

“Don’t tell me you put something into it.”

Kay and Daphne chuckled. While Kay thought it was genuinely funny, Daphne sounded more as if she thought it was cute, the way he was behaving.

“We know you’ve never drunk alcohol before,” said Daphne. “I knew it from the moment Kay and Mark asked us if you wanted to come with us to the Triangle earlier this day.”

“And that grimace when you drank it,” said Kay. “I wish I could’ve caught it on camera, man.”

For a moment, he thought Daphne and Kay were ridiculing him, but then Kay patted him on the shoulder. “Good job, though, man,” Kay grabbed his own shot glass. “To you,” he added with a smile.

 

It was twelve am. Brady, Kay and Daphne hadn’t left their seats to go to the dancefloor even once, but Mark and Mike had spent most of their time away from them.

Kay and Daphne had talked a lot. They appeared to be good friends. Brady had attempted to open up a little as well, but for most of the time, he had felt like the third wheel, and he knew that it was his own fault. He had mostly responded with short answers because he had felt overwhelmed nearly the entire evening and had spent most of the time in his head.

It had taken Kay to the point where Kay had asked him whether he was feeling okay or not.

Overall, everything had turned out better than Brady had expected it to do. There had been no physical fights and apart from three times, he hadn’t gotten himself into many awkward situations.

Currently, Mark and Mike were sitting on the couch, and like Daphne and Kay, they had drank a little too much.

Brady was scanning the dancefloor, which was still quite crowded, and it was then that he saw a man dressed in black – his face hidden by a hood – standing by the bar to the right.

Brady thought that it was Mister Allister, and he was confused as to why he was here, but then he noticed the differences in height between this man and Mister Allister. While still tall, this man was about six foot and two inches as opposed to Mister Allister, who was

six-foot-six.

The man was looking his way, and after a second or so, he signaled Brady to follow him.

Could it be someone else from the pack? Brady thought. Could it be Idu? Idu was about six feet and two inches tall. While Brady was feeling less overwhelmed and anxious than he had the first couple of hours, this man sure as hell increased his anxiety levels.

Who could it be and what did he want?

“I gotta go for a… second,” said Brady, not breaking eye contact with the mysterious figure.

As he looked at his new friends, he noticed that he was actually the only one who wasn’t tipsy or tired. Even Daphne was sitting on the couch as if she hadn’t slept for over two days.

Brady got up and approached the man, who then slowly disappeared behind the dancers in the center of the bar. Brady followed him slowly, not knowing what to expect but secretly hoping that it was someone from the pack, even though that was technically impossible considering they had no way of knowing that he had gone to this place this evening.

With Paper Planes from M.I.A. playing in the background, Brady made his way around the dancers, trying not to draw any attention to himself, and approached the blue door in-between the bar to the right and the corner couch near the exit.

It was the men’s room.

Just when Brady arrived at it, it closed.

Curiously, he approached it and carefully, he opened the door.

Brady peeked inside of the men’s room before entering it and closing the door behind him.

The man, who wore a black trench coat, was leaning against the wall, his face hidden behind his cowl. Only his mouth and his stubbly Balbo beard were visible.

“Hi,” said Brady unsurely before he cocked his head. “Who are you?”

The man was staring at the floor mysteriously. It was almost as if he wasn’t even aware of Brady’s presence at all.

“Who – ” but then the man signaled him to come closer again.

Carefully, Brady walked towards him before the man signaled him again, and this time, he signaled him to stop.

Confused, Brady obeyed the signal and came to a halt.

In what felt like a heartbeat, the man extended his claws, turned to

him and slashed at him.

“Ho!” Brady exclaimed as he jumped back, narrowly dodging the four razor-sharp claws.

But this was only the man’s first try. He slashed at him with his other arm.

Schgk. “Ah!” Brady said. Four tears in his white New York shirt and four scratches on his chest, four scratches that were slowly turning red.

Brady clasped at his chest and made a dart for the door.

“Damn it!” the man said. “Come back!” Brady threw the door shut and pressed his back against it, breathing as if he had just ran a marathon.

He was safe here. That guy… thing, wouldn’t try to kill him where everyone could see him, right?

He took a step away from the door, looked at it from over his shoulder, and not knowing what else to do, he zipped up his hoody, hiding the four four-inch scratches on his chest and the blood in his white, now damaged New York T-shirt.

The wounds were shallow. They were mere scratches, yet they stung like hell.

With his heart beating as if it were planning to escape his chest, he made his way through the bar back to Kay and the others, his hand pressed on his chest.

It hurt, it stung, but not nearly enough to make him cry, not nearly enough to make him shed a tear of pain.

Brady knew that he had to get out of here, though. He had to get out while he could. He had to get out before the man, or whatever it was that had attacked him, came up with a new plan.

Kay, Mark, Mike and Daphne sat on the corner couch, and while Mark sat slumped over, Mike, Kay and Daphne drunkenly tried to persuade each other to go to the bar to get some more shots.

It was only when he reached them and sat down next to Daphne that he realized he had nearly died back there.

He could barely believe it, and he started wondering why he was feeling this normal.

He could still feel the anxiety soaring through him, but it was that supposed ‘social anxiety’ rather than the fact that he had nearly been murdered just then.

Who was that person, and why did he want to kill him?

As soon as he would be back at the camp, he’d tell Mister Allister

about the attack.

Maybe Mister Allister had an explanation for it, or Roderic. After all, Roderic was the wisest in the pack. He wasn’t the elder for nothing.

He had to go home now. The person that attacked him would probably not think that he would run this soon.

Kay, Mark, Mike and Daphne were drunk, all four of them. They were of no use to him, and even if they had been sober, they wouldn’t have been of use to him.

He couldn’t tell them about what just happened. He would have to lie to get out of here. Either that, or he’d have to leave unannounced.

He sat on the couch and looked at Daphne, and then at Kay, and then at Mike. They were slurring. They were laughing about nothing.

This is fun? This – is fun? What the – this is what I’ve been ‘missing out’ on?

Shaking his head and trying to ignore the stinging of the four wounds, he unlocked his phone, clicked on the setting application and navigated to ‘Time and Date’.

He was going to make it seem as if it were later than it actually was.

Half past twelve should be late enough.

Now Brady just had to tell Daphne that it was time to go.

With his phone in his hand, Brady tapped on her shoulder, glancing at the dancers in the center of the bar anxiously, relieved to find out that no one was looking at him.

Daphne turned to him, her eyes nearly closed.

“Hey, it’s already half past twelve,” said Brady. “You had to be home around one am, right?”

Daphne’s lips curled up into a smile as soon as their eyes met. “Hit is?” she slurred. “Oh, yeah. Levt me geyt my… jackeft quick.”

Daphne got up and stumbled around awkwardly while Brady’s eyes shot from one person to the other, hoping that nobody was laughing at them.

He just wanted to get out of here now, especially because Daphne was drawing so much attention.

How was he supposed to get her home, though? She couldn’t drive a bike while drunk.

Brady saw Mike looking at his phone.

“Ybut it’s ontly… five past twelve,” he said, squinting, which nearly made it seem as if his eyes were closed completely.

Brady pretended not to hear it.

“Bye guys, see you tomorrow,” he said quickly.

Kay wished them a good night and Mike said something unintelligible to him before Brady left with Daphne, pulling her with him through the bar while partly supporting her

“Man, she’s drunk,” he heard one of the two guys entering the bar remarking before they passed them.

Now for the tough part; getting Daphne home. Daphne had a hard time trying to get her brown jacket on because she was so drunk. She was completely dependent on him now.

Not knowing what else he could do, he just stood there, waiting for Daphne to finish pulling on her jacket.

 

They arrived back at her house. The skies were dark and because of the lack of bike lights on his bicycle, he had depended entirely on the streetlights to get here. Daphne had left her bike at the Triangle and was sitting on Brady’s luggage carrier. She was staggering, and the constant shifting of balance made it a little harder to cycle without swaying.

Brady drove up the driveway, helped Daphne off his bike and then took her to the front door, which she then unlocked awkwardly, stabbing the wood around the keyhole twice on accident.

“Thank yotu for tphis great evening,” said Daphne. She had a hard time smiling without opening her mouth while doing so.

“Yeah… well, it was my pleasure, I guess.” Brady breathed a sigh of relief as he returned to his bike while Daphne got inside. He couldn’t wait to get back home.

He heard Daphne walking towards him and then she grabbed his shoulder. Brady turned around.

“Why… dson’t you cnome… inside?”

She was trying to control the way she was talking, making a feeble attempt to sound seductively.

She failed so hard that she was doing quite the opposite to him.

“Nah, I really gotta get home,” said Brady.

While he wasn’t tired, it had been a while since he had been looking forward to sleeping.

She grabbed his hand, squeezed it and guided it towards her bosom.

“For, yme?” Daphne said, trying to look cute and innocent.

With his right hand on the part of the jacket covering her chest, he looked at her.

She was drunk, obviously.

This would be considered ‘taking advantage of’.

I can just take a peek and then leave, Brady figured. I’d still be a good guy then. Right?

“No, I can’t do this,” said Brady nervously. “You’re drunk, and – ”

“Oh, come on. I want tish. I wants you.”

She moved in for a kiss but Brady moved aside deftly, causing Daphne to stumble into his bike.

Instinctively, he grabbed her hand, and while his bike fell, Daphne didn’t.

Brady shook his head with disdain before he picked up his bike.

“I’m – sowwy. Can I make it up to you?”

“Yeah, by going inside and locking the door.”

What?” she said in disbelief before he turned around.

“I can’t do this – with – you. Not now, I mean.” But inside, he knew that it would never happen.

“But – ”

“I will – I will see you tomorrow.”

He got onto his bike and turned it around.

“Wait,” said Daphne.

He stopped and turned around. She approached him and hugged him once more before giving him a kiss goodnight.

“I wibll… ksee you tomowwow.”

He gave her a brief nod before he put his feet on the pedals and cycled down the driveway, across the sidewalk and back onto the street.

Without turning to wave, he cycled out of the street.

He wasn’t sure what Daphne had wanted to do, but it was probably something intimate. The kissing had already been very uncomfortable to him. Brady wondered how he would have felt if he wouldn’t have stopped her.

Lost in thought, Brady cycled through the dark streets of Downtown Yatawa back to Yatawa Town.

He thought about how many days he had left before he would leave Yatawa for a long time, if not forever.

Six? Five?

There were about five or six days left until he would leave Yatawa, until he would leave his family, until he would leave his current life for an entirely new one.

I have some things to do before I can leave, though. There’s some family stuff I have to deal with. Some social stuff as well. Life stuff in

general, actually. I’ll have to cover my disappearance. Something crossed his mind. Maybe I can fake my own death?

Brady figured that would be too much work, and it would leave his family devastated, at least for a week.

Then again, simply disappearing could leave them in a state of worry and sadness for years if they wouldn’t give up on finding him.

I guess that’s the only option I have, though, just like joining the pack. Hm, thanks Alex.

Five days. Six including this one.

He would leave.

Now he just had to find an excuse for why he left, for he couldn’t disappear without a proper reason.

 

Chapter 11

Finishing Up

 

 

The day began just like any other day. Brady got out of bed, pulled on some clothes and ate his breakfast, all and all while preparing himself for school. This day would be a normal one, but the next couple of days wouldn’t be. He would start by acting differently. He would start by acting depressed.

After that, he would begin ending friendships. Luckily, he didn’t have many friends. Currently, the only friendships he’d have to end were those with Kay, Mark and Mike.

What am I thinking? This plan isn’t good at all.

 It wasn’t even a full plan yet. He had fallen asleep mid-planning, causing him to have forgotten about most of it.

I’ll make a proper one this evening.

This would be his last normal day, and he was going to enjoy it to the fullest. Brady hadn’t heard from the pack anymore. Mister Allister would probably pay him a visit soon to see what he was up too. Brady hoped he would. He had a lot to ask.

When he checked his schedule, he felt disappointed when he saw that his last normal day at school would only start at twenty past ten am instead of the normal time.

He wanted to spend as much time as he could with Daphne, even though he wasn’t falling for her at all.

He also didn’t care about Logan anymore. Betrayal after betrayal, the guy had made Brady hate him.

 

It was a nice and sunny day in Downtown Yatawa.

The school grounds were filled with clusters of students who were either smoking or just talking and having a good time with their friends.

Brady locked his bike and approached the entrance. Logan was nowhere to be found.

It seemed as if Daphne had taken his place.

“Brady!” Daphne called, waving at him as if she thought he hadn’t seen her yet.

“Hey there,” said Brady, smiling a crooked smile before Daphne cuddled him.

Even though the story of him having been attacked by a wolf and

‘beating it up’ was old news, he was still receiving occasional looks

from others.

“Sorry for last night,” said Daphne, embarrassed. “I was tipsy. I couldn’t help it. But it was sweet that you left and didn’t allow me to… take you with me upstairs.”

Brady smiled shyly while he scratched his shoulder. “Well I mean it was a quarter to one am. I didn’t want to watch another movie.”

That made Daphne chuckle. “Yeah,” she stared him into his eyes before slowly saying, “Perhaps next time. Then we will both be sober and you won’t feel guilty.”

The way Daphne looked at him made his cheeks grow warm and he had to look away. “Well -- I don’t really like that, to just do – such things so quickly. I mean like, the amount of days we’ve been together… You can count it on one hand.”

“Why are you stuttering, and what do you mean?” Daphne asked as if she couldn’t understand why he was saying that. “I want to thank you for saving me that day. I… owe you.”

“No no no no no you don’t owe me,” Brady stammered. “Nah, were good. We’re A-okay. We’re – even. We’re – ”

“Stop,” she said, looking at him weirdly, but her glance was accompanied by a hint of a smile. “Why do you do that? Are you shy or something?”

He didn’t want her to think he was shy. “No. I mean, I – I – I – I – I – ”

“Calm down,” she chuckled before caressing his cheek, which made him look away awkwardly. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

He pursed his lips.

“Let’s go,” she said warmly.

They walked through the canteen and entered the hallway to the right, approaching the English classroom.

Miss Jones was sitting behind her desk and greeted them. Logan was sitting on his normal spot in the front row near the door. Brady pretended as if he didn’t see him. Logan looked at him, though, and Logan even said hi. Ouch.

There was no one sitting behind Logan either.

“Let’s go to the back row and sit there, okay?” said Brady, trying hard not to meet Logan’s piercing glance.

He didn’t want to sit near Kay, Mark or Mike because they would go on and on about the uninteresting things that had happened yesterday

evening and night, and the things they couldn’t remember because ‘they were so drunk’. Brady despised such talk.

They took a seat in the back row in the far right corner of the classroom.

“So, do you have time to hang out this afternoon?” Daphne asked with a hint of desperation in her voice.

Ashley. I have to go to Ashley today.

Brady couldn’t just not come, because Ashley would upload that picture then.

How was he going to solve that? How was he going to delete that half-naked picture of himself off Ashley’s phone?

Even though he would leave pretty soon, he didn’t want a half-naked picture of his body to be uploaded to social media. He didn’t want any picture with him on it to be uploaded to social media.

Once it was on the internet, it would remain there for as long as the internet existed.

“No, I have to go see my uncle. It’s his birthday today. He is turning -- thirty-eight.”

Another pro lie that just came out of his mouth as if it were the very truth.

“Oh. Well, wish him a happy birthday from me,” Daphne then chuckled a little. “Even though I don’t know him.”

Jamie walked in. He greeted Logan and then sat in the back row too, on their left side. He began talking to Daphne about some random things, and then Kay came in, alone. Kay’s shark-like eyes met his, and he greeted Brady from a distance by giving him a nod.

Brady returned it before Kay put his backpack on the table behind Logan.

“Miss Jones,” said Kay. “Can I go to the toilet real quick?”

“Fine, but be back in a minute or I’ll write your name down and have you come back for an hour for being too late.”

“Two minutes, please?” said Kay. “I doubt I can get my Johnson out of my pants in only sixty seconds.”

“Is it so hard to find then?” Miss Jones smiled.

“Ooooh!” Jamie exclaimed.

Kay shook and smiled too.

“Well, go then.” Miss Jones chuckled. “Or I’ll come in there and help you find it.”

“I’ll be sure to take my time then.”

Ew.

The thought of Miss Jones grabbing Kay’s peepee entered his mind, leaving Brady in a state of disgust.

Thoughtfully, he stared out of the window to his left, a window that overlooked the sparsely wooded park behind the school.

It was a large field of grass rather than a park considering there were no paths, but yet everyone referred to it as a park.

As soon as Kay left the classroom, Brady noticed Logan turning around and looking at Kay’s backpack.

Then Logan did something Brady hadn’t expected him to do.

He opened the backpack. Brady looked at Miss Jones, but she was too focused on her computer to be able to notice it.

Logan carefully looked around first to make sure no one was watching him before he actually began rummaging around in Kay’s backpack.

Brady squinted. What’s he doing?

Logan got something out of it. Was that… Kay’s wallet? Logan put the wallet into his pocket and closed the backpack.

What’s he going to do with the wallet?

Brady had stolen money before with Logan on a couple occasions, but not that much as Kay had in his wallet. They had only stolen some pennies and dimes out of the pockets of jackets hanging on the coat racks around school, but this was a completely new level of stealing.

 

They had a free hour now. English class ended just five minutes ago.

Brady walked through a hallway, alone, on the third floor. He needed some time to think about his plan.

Man. My life has turned upside down.

Everything was changing.

He only had five days left until the pack would leave.

Only five days.

He couldn’t believe he’d leave all of this behind in five days.

Suddenly, Ashley came in through the glass double door near the end of the hallway. It was as if Ashley knew he’d been here.

“Brady?” she said as if she hadn’t seen him in years.

“A – A – Ashley,” Brady stuttered.

“Where have you been?” she asked curiously before she approached him.

“You didn’t message me,” said Brady.

They were the only ones left in the hallway.

“That’s true, but you could have at least messaged me. We’re friends, right? And I always message you.”

Then Brady saw Logan coming through the same glass doors Ashley had just come through.

Logan stopped and took a few steps back, hiding behind the open door.

“Tonight,” Ashley said. “Michelle can’t come, and so can’t anyone else, so I need you, okay?”

Brady nodded distractedly.

Logan and his eyes met when Logan peeked round the corner.

He saw Logan pulling his phone out of his pocket and aiming the camera on the back of it at them.

Brady felt like he was plummeting down a mountain. Logan would have a picture of him and Ashley, and he was undoubtedly going to show it to Mark or something, who would in turn tell Daphne.

Brady wanted to end relationships on his terms. He didn’t want Logan to get the satisfaction of seeing everyone spitting at him because they thought he was cheating on Daphne with Ashley, with whom he’d been seen before, last week, in the canteen.

While Daphne hadn’t suspected anything of it back then, she surely could if shown that new picture of him and Ashley.

Snap.

The picture was taken, and Brady knew that if something weren’t to happen quickly, Logan would get his undeserved revenge.

“What the f was that?” said Ashley, confused.

Trembling, Brady pointed at the door Logan was hiding behind. “Behind you.”

Ashley turned around and saw Logan’s hand and phone.

“Hey!” said Ashley. “What are you doing?”

It took Logan a few seconds to realize that he was caught.

He revealed himself. “What is it?” Logan chuckled as he approached an annoyed Ashley.

Brady was standing behind Ashley like a child behind his mother, only he wasn’t realizing it himself.

“Did you just make a picture of us?” said Ashley, quietly getting her phone out of her back pocket.

“No,” said Logan bluntly.

Ashley took a split second to register that answer. “Ehhm, let me see your phone,” she said, her voice a lot calmer than just then.

Logan held his phone in his hands tightly as Brady joined Ashley by

her side.

“I’m not going to give you my phone,” said Logan, his chest going up and down hard, and his breathing audible.

“Calm down,” said Ashley, showing him an assuring smile. “I just want to see it.”

She sounded so friendly. What was her plan?

“I have a nude pic of Brady,” she added.

Brady looked at her phone as she opened her gallery and then proceeded to open the picture of him.

“You aren’t going to do that, right?” said Brady worriedly.

Logan and Ashley both looked at him for a moment.

 “Okay,” said Logan, showing newfound interest. “I’ll show you mine, and then you send me yours.”

“Deal,” said Ashley normally.

 “Ashley.” Brady said, and with some trouble, he managed to get a barely audible and desperate-sounding ‘please’ out of his mouth while Logan was browsing his own pictures.

“Here.” Logan turned the screen of his phone to Ashley.

Ashley looked at the picture of him and Ashley standing opposite of each other in the hallway, obviously talking to each other.

“I see,” said Ashley before she switched her phone to her left hand and snatched Logan’s phone out of his.

Logan startled because of the sudden, unexpected action before Ashley turned and threw his phone across the hallway.

With an expression hinting at how impressed he was with that action, Brady watched it bounce on the ground on a corner once before it fell down the staircase on the other end of the hallway.

“Dude,” said Brady as if he thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Ashley had just earned his respect.

They turned to Logan, who had watched it happening with his mouth opened in shock.

Then he suddenly got that look in his eyes, the one he always got when something happened that he really didn’t like. It was this weird, empty look.

He slapped the phone out of Ashley’s hand, causing it to fall onto the ground.

Ashley looked at it in shock as Logan raised his foot and made it come down hard onto the phone, crushing it.

“What the – ” said Brady, shocked.

Ashley turned to Logan.

“You fu – ” but before she could finish her sentence, Logan made a fist out of his hand and punched her right in the face.

Ashley fell onto the ground with a low thud while Brady jumped aside, emitting a yelp.

Ashley didn’t move anymore, and her eyes were closed.

“What the hell?” Brady exclaimed. “You just punched a girl.”

Logan just looked at him, emotionless still.

“What happened?” said Kay as he rushed their way.

Brady looked as Kay crouched down next to Ashley before checking her pulse.

She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t moving at all.

“What happened?” Kay demanded.

Brady looked at Logan, who had regained emotion in his expression and appeared to be somewhat relieved, knowing that Kay hadn’t seen him punching Ashley.

“She tripped,” Logan lied.

Logan then looked at him, desperately, and this was the first time Brady had seen him like this.

He was going to hate himself for this, but if he were to tell Kay that Logan had punched him, he would have to explain why.

If he would just confirm that she had tripped, he could tell Kay that they had found her here like this.

“Yes,” Brady confirmed wholeheartedly. “She walked by us and just -- passed out – or something.”

Kay got up and then ran back towards the staircase. “You two stay here! I’m going to get help!”

Brady placed his backpack onto the ground and crouched down beside Ashley, who was lying on her stomach.

“Jeez,” Logan chuckled. “He could’ve just gone into one of these classrooms for help. There’s class.”

Logan was right, but Brady decided to ignore him.

Well, at least Ashley’s phone was destroyed now, meaning the picture she had of him was gone too.

I am… free, Brady thought. I’m free. I’m actually… free.

 

“So,” said his mother. “How would you like it? What kind of style?”

They were in the dining room part of the living- and dining room, and Brady was sitting on a black dining chair in-between the birch dining table and the large, rectangular cabinet standing against the back wall.

His mother was standing behind him, her back facing the large window overlooking the small backyard.

“A little shorter on the top and on the sides,” he told her.

He liked his textured modern quiff, and until something that looked better on him were to pop up, he would stick with it.

It was nice to have a mother who had studied to become a barber.

After about five minutes, his stepdad, Norman, who had been sitting in the backyard enjoying the sun, came in.

“It’s way too short,” he remarked jokingly.

 “Don’t scare him like that,” Nora, Brady’s mother, chuckled.

Norman turned on the television and switched to a radio channel. Just as he did, one song ended and a new one began.

Norman left the living- and dining room and disappeared around the corner in the kitchen before trumpets and a weird melody were heard.

“At the end – of the street,” Norman sang.

“At the end - of the street,” the singer of the song sang.

Nora gave a snort of laughter. “He knows all these songs by heart.”

Brady grinned briefly.

 

Daphne and Brady ran up the stairs. Shortly, the school bell would ring and they’d be too late.

“C-eight?” Brady asked hurriedly. “Geography?”

“C-eight,” Daphne confirmed. “Next time you leave school in a free hour, tell me, okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Brady distractedly.

“It looks nicer now it’s a bit shorter, your hair,” Daphne remarked.

“Thanks.” Brady forced a smile.

They rounded the corner, walking fast.

Brady’s heart jumped when he saw Lisa along with a couple of her friends standing by the table against the wall before the door leading to the geography classroom.

Are you shitting me? Why now?

Lisa saw him and while her friends continued to converse, she just stared at him.

There was no way out. They would have to walk past them.

Classroom C-eight was located literally right before where Lisa and her friends were.

“Is she looking at you?” Daphne whispered, confused.

Brady ignored her.

Lisa. She was still the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, tied with Marlene, of course, since they looked almost identical.

He didn’t like like Marlene, and he didn’t only like Lisa for her looks.

It was the connection he had felt with her the first time he had met her eyes, and even now, he still felt it.

She had to feel the same way. She hadn’t given him that letter a couple of days ago for nothing.

But what did it matter now? There was a chance that he wouldn’t see Lisa nor Daphne ever again after April the sixth.

The closer he got to Lisa, the warmer his cheeks grew and the more anxious he became.

What if she’d talk to him? What if she’d scold him right before Daphne her eyes?

Lisa wasn’t like that, was she?

Perhaps not, but her sister, Marlene, was.

He exhaled softly but deeply as they walked past Lisa and her friends. He could feel Lisa looking at him, and he could feel Marlene’s glare burning a hole right through him.

He looked at the floor and was glad when Daphne opened the door.

But as he entered the geography classroom, and when he closed the door behind him, he could sense that something was wrong.

What happened?

He looked up and saw Mister Weaver looking at him with that cold vampire glance of him.

“Just in time,” Weaver said coolly.

Everyone was looking at Brady. Everyone. All of his twenty-something classmates.

“W – what’s the matter?” Brady asked.

Brady got the feeling as if he was suspected of something bad.

“You tell me,” Mister Weaver challenged him, folding his arms.

Kay, who looked disappointed and then slightly angry, got up and approached him.

“Daphne, would you mind taking a seat?” Mister Weaver asked, not in the same tone but rather friendly.

Daphne gave Mister Weaver a confused nod before she crossed the classroom and sat down by the table in the far right corner of the classroom.

What was happening? Brady’s heart was in his mouth.

Kay stopped right before him and looked him into his eyes angrily.

For a moment, he thought Kay would hit him.

“Wallet. Now,” Kay demanded calmly.

Brady instantly realized what was going on.

Logan. Logan had stolen Kay’s wallet and had blamed him in an attempt to get some sort of redemption.

“I – I don’t have it,” said Brady, trying to sound as confused as possible. After all, he was innocent, but they didn’t know.

They thought he had stolen the wallet.

Brady looked at Logan. The guy was smiling at him.

“Wallet,” Kay demanded, which caused Brady to cringe a little, even going as far as to assume a slightly submissive stance.

“I don’t – ” But then Brady saw Logan mouthing something at him.

‘Front’. That was the word Brady could make of it.

Brady gulped, knowing exactly what Logan was trying to say.

Slowly, Brady took off his backpack and opened the front pocket.

Carefully, as if it were a box of snakes, he put his hand into it, feeling something leathery.

Well, shit.

 

Chapter 12

Donezo

 

 

Brady felt their eyes on him. Even Daphne was looking at him with doubt.

They were all waiting for an explanation as to why he was in the possession of Kay’s wallet.

“I – I didn’t steal it,” Brady said as he felt his consciousness trying to retreat into his own mind.

“Of course you didn’t,” Kay said. “Then why is it in your backpack?”

Kay was surprisingly calm, but his face screamed angry.

“Yes, Brady. Why is it that Kay’s wallet is in your backpack?” Mister Weaver asked.

Brady allowed his gaze to wander from face to face, and he saw that each one of his classmates was looking at him doubtfully.

Brady was starting to panic. What if they wouldn’t believe him and Mister Weaver would call the police?

He didn’t want to go to jail for not stealing someone’s wallet. He didn’t even want to go to jail for stealing someone’s wallet.
There had to be something he could do, and then Brady realized what his only option was.

“Logan did it,” he said as if he had only just realized it himself.  

Kay looked at him in confusion, and Brady knew that he needed more than an accusation only to prove his innocence and Logan’s guilt.

“Remember with English?” said Brady to Kay. “You were – you were sitting behind him. First, you put your backpack on the table. Then you asked Miss Jones if you could go to the toilet. Re – remember that?”

Kay thought about that before he nodded slowly. Skeptically, he said, “Yeah, yeah I remember that,” he turned to Logan. “Logan, is that true?”

Logan looked like a deer caught in headlights, and when he opened his mouth, there were no words coming out of it.

Somehow, the look of sheer innocence on Logan’s face did something to Brady, and he suddenly found himself filled with loathe for him. “Why are you even asking?” Brady snapped. “Of course he is going to say he didn’t do it.”

Mister Weaver alternated his glance smugly between Logan and him before coming to a conclusion. “You are both in trouble then. Report to the principle. I am sure he will find out who’s the one lying here.”

Brady knew that if he wanted to win this, if he wanted to expose Logan, he needed to say this one thing he was thinking about right now. He only needed the guts to turn these thoughts into words. Brady gulped as Logan shot him a warning look. “Logan is jealous of me. That’s why he did this. That’s why he put the wallet into my backpack.”

Brady could hear the anger in his own voice. Normally, he would not have dared to say this, but now, after everything that had happened to him over the last couple of days, he did. Logan looked like he was about to get really mad.

“What do you mean?” Mister Weaver, who was obviously doubting that statement, asked.

“Well, with the whole wolf and kidnapping thing, I became more and more popular. Logan couldn’t handle seeing me like that, so now he’s trying to turn everyone against me.”

Kay, Mark, Mike, Daphne, all of them seemed to realize it now, which gave Brady a little more hope, until he realized that his lips were trembling, pulling down, as if he was about to cry

Then Mark said something Brady would’ve never expected him to say.

“That’s true, sir. I know Logan, and I know he would do something like that.”

Did Mark really just side with me?

Brady had never ever expected that to happen. Mark always sided with Logan.

Would Mister Weaver believe him too now? That would mean Logan’s plan had failed.

“Hmm, I don’t know,” Mister Weaver said. “I would still appreciate it if the two of you could go to the principal’s office right now. He will figure this out.”

No. Shit. Brady knew Logan would try something once they were alone. This is going to be bad. This is going to be bad.

Logan got up, no emotion on his face at all. Brady quickly opened the door and walked back outside. Fortunately, Lisa and her friends were gone.

It was only when he closed the door that he asked himself why he was afraid of Logan.

He could probably beat him now. Logan went to the gym every single day and on top of that, he was a kickboxer, but Brady had more endurance now that he was a Morus. Would it be enough to help him defeat Logan in a fight, though?

He realized that either way, waiting around to see what would happen wasn’t a good idea, so he made his way through the hallway, walking quite fast. Shortly before reaching the stairs, he heard the door of the classroom shutting and quick footsteps behind him.

He would rather not risk Logan beating him up, so trying not to make it seem obvious that he was running, he hurried down the staircase. Brady was on the second floor now. He turned right and walked through the area where Logan and he used to sit when they had recess or a free hour. As soon as he rounded a corner and ran down the stairs to the first floor, Brady felt as if he was in a dream again.

It was the same feeling he had gotten when he had forgotten his books that day, the day he was bitten. Brady hadn’t seen anyone yet. There were no teachers or students roaming the hallways. No one. Brady rushed through another hallway and caught himself looking out of a window, noticing that it was too dark for this time of the day.

Using another staircase, he descended to the first floor and walked past classroom A-six before taking a right and rounding the corner.

He gasped when he saw her black hair and her dirt-stained dress. It was the girl he had seen the day he was bitten.

Brady’s eyes widened and he quickly turned around to run to the canteen.

This is crazy. What is happening?

He knew he had to get outside. He knew he had to get away from here.

He would just go home and pretend to be ill.

Rushing past classroom A-six, Brady startled when he heard soft little footsteps behind him. He looked back from over his shoulder and screamed when he saw the girl again, chasing him with her arms bend in an unnatural manner. Just before he could enter the canteen, Logan jumped down the staircase and punched him in the face. Brady fell to the ground as he placed his hand on his cheek on the spot where Logan had hit him.

What was going on?

Where were the teachers?

Brady jerked his head to the right, but the girl was gone. Brady looked at Logan. He had that empty look in his eyes again, like

earlier this day with Ashley.

“Why the hell did you hit me?” Brady snapped.

Logan didn’t stop. Instead he raised his foot up into the air.

Brady rolled aside as Logan’s foot hit the ground. He jumped up and attempted to hit Logan in the face, but Logan was quick to react and grabbed his arm, placing it on his knee and attempted to break it.

“Aagh!” Brady yelled, feeling his elbow joint popping and cracking as Logan pushed it past its bending point.

Desperately, he stomped on Logan’s foot, and Logan’s brief yelp in pain and the fact that he let go of his arms confirmed to Brady that he was free.

Brady used those few seconds he had to get away.

 

Panting like a dog, he ran into the double glass doors with his shoulder and they flew open. Brady hurried outside, but not onto the school grounds. Instead, he was going to the little grass field on the other side of the school.

Thinking that he had outsmarted Logan, he checked his six only to see the glass double door opening again and Logan charging at him.

“No!” Brady exclaimed as he increased his pace.

He didn’t know where he was heading. All he cared about now was losing Logan.

He hurried past the few trees on the grass field behind the school, seeing more buildings in the distance, along with a road.

Brady picked up a stick while running and threw it at Logan from over his shoulder, but he missed.

It was only then that he heard something else running after him. He looked and saw.

It was a man dressed in black rags, wearing a black cowl.

Brady recognized it as the man that had attacked him in the bar.

He was running towards him at full speed.

Bonk. Brady and the man fell onto the ground. The man got up quickly and extended his claws before approaching him, looking him directly into the eyes with its white slits.

Brady shuddered, holding his hands before him defensively, only realizing that this wasn’t a man at all just before the thing pulled its arm back, ready to strike.

Its face was nothing but smoke, held together by the black cowl it

wore. Its eyes were snow white, emotionless.

“Fook dor vuh da zie,” it said, its voice unnatural, unreal, alien-like, sounding as if the damned and the doomed were escaping its invisible mouth with each word it uttered.

Screams and cries of extreme agony and pain.

The thing pushed its arm forward, and with it, its claws, and Brady closed his eyes, preparing for death for the second time in the past two weeks.

Tonk. Brady’s eyes shot open as the thing fell to the ground and Logan appeared behind it, staring him right into his eyes, holding a large stick in his hands.

Logan raised the stick and emitted a loud cry of anger before slamming the stick onto the ground not even a second after Brady had rolled aside.

He heard the stick cracking and the dirt parting on impact.

His expression creepily empty, Logan turned to Brady again and lashed out at Brady’s shin, but Brady kicked against the stick, causing the weakened lower half to break off this time, grazing Logan’s temple on its spinning way past his head. Logan gave a grunt as he clutched at his temple while Brady got up and ran away, back to school.

I have to get my bike and get the freak out of here. This is crazy!

He felt surprisingly light, which made him grab at his shoulders, noticing that he wasn’t wearing his backpack on his back.

Brady figured that he had dropped it in the moment. Then he remembered it: Logan had hit him against his head and that was when he had let go of it. Brady’s biggest question right now was why it was so dark. It wasn’t even that late yet. It was only two pm or something, yet it looked like it was past ten pm, past bedtime.

A sharp, long object flew past his legs and suddenly, he felt a stabbing pain. It had grazed him. Brady fell down and the thing flew onto his back. Brady struck it in its smoky face with his elbow while tears of pain appeared in his eyes.

Expecting four sharp claws in the back of his head at any given moment now, Brady was surprised when Logan saved him yet again by kicking the thing off his back.

Brady got up on all fours, backed away like a spooked chimpanzee and then got up, staggering. Logan wasn’t even bothered by the smoke-faced being. He went straight for Brady, charging at him with his right arm pulled back before he threw it forward.

Brady narrowly saved his own nose by grabbing Logan’s fist with both of his hands. Meanwhile, he saw the thing crawling up behind Logan, touching the place where there should’ve been a jaw. “Secuntave, Ovahmor,” it said. “Qe qa cetru A gava.” 

With emotion this time, Logan looked at Brady unsurely before Brady pushed Logan off of him and limped away as quickly as he could.

“Brady! Brady!” Logan yelled angrily, causing Brady to turn his head, seeing the thing grabbing Logan by the neck before turning him around and pushing him hard onto the ground.

Panting, Brady limped and limped, getting closer and closer to glass double door of the school while the sun and light slowly reappeared in the sky.

“A vga micq agon da xaga vuh,” it shouted. Logan seemed to be disturbed by the manner in which it spoke. “Chikame lome vuh vuch!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Logan said with a glimmer of fear in his voice. “What are you? No. No! No!”

Frightened, Brady turned. The thing had Logan pinned to the ground, and it was only when Brady noticed the fist with the four claws attached to the knuckles that his eyes widened.

The thing stabbed Logan in the head continuously, pulling its hand back only to make it come down on Logan’s face again, and again, and again.

Brady’s muscled tensed up and he felt a certain coldness surging through his his body, witnessing the event.

Gulping, he turned back to the school, trying to keep his expression neutral as he grabbed for the door handle, seeing nobody inside of the canteen.

When he pulled it down and heard a click, he found himself looking at the ground, puzzled.

Wha – wha – wha – where am I? What happened?

He cocked his head suspiciously when an odd gurgling sound entered his ears and he turned around slowly when he felt someone looking at him.

Logan was lying on the ground, his face covered in blood.

Brady’s mouth dropped open before he limped towards his ex-friend, dropping onto his knees beside him and looking in shock at the maimed face.

“Logan. Logan, what happened?” Brady’s voice cracked with panic

as he examined the wounds. Logan choked up some blood before he weakly raised his hand, pointing at Brady.

Trembling, Brady looked at his hands and then at his knuckles before he slowly started remembering the chase through the school.

Did I do this? But how?

According to Alex he wouldn’t get his claws before August.

But then how -

“You,” said Logan spitefully, but so weakly. “You -- killed me.”

Brady placed a hand on his own mouth as he saw the life seeping out of Logan, recognizing the distinct, low-pitched gurgling sounds he made as terminal respiratory secretions, better known as death rattles.

Logan was dying. Somehow, he had killed Logan.

“I -- killed,” said Brady, his breathing shaky. He looked at his hands. “I am -- a murderer.”

His eyes were brimming with tears, but he wasn’t crying.

He needed to get his backpack, which he remembered lying near classroom A-six on the first floor.

This is enough. I gotta get out of here before anyone freaking sees me. I gotta get home and get out of here.

There wasn’t enough evidence to get him in trouble, right? Was Logan dying? One thing was for sure: Brady wouldn’t go to school tomorrow.

There was no need for a plan anymore. If the people at school would find out about this, it would be enough. Daphne wouldn’t want him anymore. Kay, Mark and Mike would despise him for what he had done. His family, his immediate family, what would they think?

He entered school, his head filled with anxiety-causing thoughts.

If he wouldn’t leave now, he would have to go to jail, and he wouldn’t survive that.

What was the punishment for murdering someone? A lifetime?

Pretty soon, Logan would be found and evidence would be gathered. Police might start looking for him.

He was obviously the number one suspect. All roads led to him.  

Brady couldn’t remember ever having felt this anxious before. He limped through the canteen, trying to walk normally as his anxiety grew and grew.

He didn’t remember having killed Logan, but he obviously had. It were just the two of them outside, at least on the grass field behind the school, and Logan was obviously stabbed.

Brady gulped again and started feeling sick, and while he approached his black backpack, which was lying just before the staircase, he began to feel lightheaded.

He put on his backpack, rushed to the male toilets below the staircase and in-between the staircase and the canteen, entered a stall and dropped onto his knees before he threw up.

 

Brady kept his head low as he made his way through the canteen, looking anxiously from the corners of his eyes at a group of boys and girls entering the canteen from the school grounds.

Their voices were echoes, and each one of them sounded like it was talking about him.

Brady felt dizzy, he felt nauseous and he was as pale as a ghost.

Anxiety, stress, nervousness; neither of those things had ever caused him to throw up, until this day.

Brady put his left arm through the shoulder strap of his backpack and reached for his keys, which were attached to a chain.

 

He cycled across the driveway of his father’s house, stopped in front of the fence gate, opened it and clumsily closed it behind him before he lost balance and fell.

Fa-thud. “Ah!”

He wanted to get up, but he felt quite comfortable lying on the cold bricks that formed the upper part of his father’s backyard.

Brady was tired. Everything that had happened to him over the past two weeks came back to him, and while he was far away from dying, he closed his eyes and felt peace, but that peace was rudely disturbed when he felt someone hunching over him.

A cold, wet snout pushed against his cheek before he felt a long, moist tongue sliding across his face.

He opened his eyes and stared right into those of his dog; Noah.

“Hey, girl,” he said before his eyes shut and then opened again what felt like several hours later.

The first thing he thought about was that he had killed Logan. His hands shot to his pockets and worriedly, he reached for his phone, checking the time, fearing the worst.

It was three pm. I’ve lain here for, like, half an hour.

Brady had it cold, his lower jaw trembled and before he knew it, he teared up.

“I don’t want to go to prison,” he whispered. “I don’t – ”

Tk. Tk. Tk. Tk. Tk. His face shot to the left and he found himself looking at Noah, who had joined him, staring at him curiously.

She lowered her head and looked at him in a way of saying ‘Get up.

Come on, get up’.

Thoughtfully, Brady looked at Noah before he sat upright, pushed his bike off his legs and crawled to her before giving her a hug. Noah accepted it, but barely. 

“Thanks,” he said to Noah before emitting a short grunt and getting up.

I can’t be tired now. I can’t be lazy. I have to get up if I want to get out of here without cuffs around my wrists.

That thought frightened him, and he realized that as long as he was here, at his father’s house, each second, he risked getting caught by the police, because surely, school would call them and inform them about him as soon as they had found Logan, which they probably already had.

Brady opened the back door and rushed through the back hallway, through the dining room, through the front hallway, up the brown, carpet stairs and to his bedroom, which was the first room to the right. He dropped his backpack onto the laminate floor and opened the largest pocket, throwing all the books out.

With his hands in the pocket, he looked up, his face sad.

What about Daphne?

He had to break up with her. He was leaving, yes, but Daphne had to know that it was over between them.

Brady got his phone out of his pocket and opened Time2Chat. He then opened his chat with Daphne.

Daphne <3: last seen at 1:18 pm.

Good, she wasn’t online. Now to think of something he could say to her.

I’m breaking up with you.

Nah, not good enough. He would obviously not say it that way. It sounded way to blunt.

I have to break up with you. I’m doing this for your own good. You’ll probably never see me again.

How about that? It sounded better than ‘I’m breaking up with you’, that was for sure.

He sent the message, but before he could close the app, Daphne’s status changed into ‘online’. Brady’s heart skipped a beat. He quickly turned the internet access off and then turned his phone off

completely. As he did, he started feeling worse. He wouldn’t be able to text his mom either now, nor send his dad an SMS.

“Wroof, wroof.”

Brady gasped, and for a moment he thought he’d be hyperventilating soon. He was breathing hard, and his hard was beating like a machine all of a sudden. With his heart in his mouth, he ran out of his room, rounded the corner and from the top of the staircase, he peered out of the window overlooking the driveway.

There was no one there, and Noah wasn’t barking anymore either.

Brady attempted to relax and returned to his room, thinking about how he was going to say goodbye to Noah.

It was only five past three pm so he still had some time to say goodbye to her after he’d put all the important stuff into his backpack.

Currently he wore his favorite outfit, which consisted of a black hoodie, a gray Cuba T-shirt and a sturdy denim pants. He put his phone, recharger and some clothes and underwear in the backpack first. Then he added some socks to it.

He remembered his brother’s fire striker. He could use it to make fire. Perhaps he’d need it somewhere in the near future. It had to be somewhere in Brian’s room. Maybe in or on his desk?

Brady got up and walked to his brother’s room, which was located diagonally opposite of his bedroom, to the right.

The ceiling of Brian’s room was light-blue, and his room was always a mess. There were clothes lying under his bed, on his bed and even on the desk.

How am I going to find his fire striker in this pigsty?

Perhaps it was in the closet lying somewhere between the toys? No. What about under his bed? Brady crouched down and looked underneath it. There it was, lying next to a bunch of dirty clothes. He put the lighter in his backpack too. There was a flashlight app on Brady’s phone, but what if his phone was empty and he couldn’t recharge it? He opened one of the drawers in Brian’s desk and got a thick, black flashlight out of it. He would take that with him too.

I think I’m ready now, he thought before trying to control his breathing a bit. No. Wait. Knife.

Brady returned to his own bedroom and got a pocketknife out of the largest drawer in his desk. He had bought the pocketknife in Turkey last year.

Putting the remaining stuff in his backpack, Brady was thinking.

What will dad think when I don’t come home this evening? Shit. What will mom think?

Would they think it was because of them? Because of his brother? Nah, they’d hear about him and Logan. They would know he had ran away from home, fearing to be caught by the police. Perhaps if he was fortunate, they would hate him for having committed a murder. It would make it easier for them to forget about him.

Thinking about it, he would celebrate his upcoming birthday with people he barely knew, if they were even going to celebrate it at all.

This was harder than he’d expected it to be.

Nauseously, Brady put on his backpack and left his bedroom.

He lingered in the hallway, thinking back about all those years he’d spent inside of this house.

This was where he had grown up. This was where he had lived for the first fifteen years of his life.

Actually, that wasn’t true, Brady realized. His parents had separated literally a week before the start of the schoolyear of twenty-thirteen twenty-fourteen, which meant that they’d separated about a year and eight months ago. Taking into account that he spent the even weeks at his father’s house and the uneven weeks at his mother’s house, he had spent the first fifteen years and ten months of his life in this house, while he had spent the other ten at his mother’s new house.

He shook, remembering that today it was Wednesday, April the first. The universe had played a cruel joke on him; making him kill his former friend and disallowing him from remembering it.

He shut his eyes tightly before, for nostalgia’s sake, he turned around, casting a final look at his room, remembering all the good times he’d had in there; the stories he had created and enacted for and with his Playmobil characters, the books he had read, the movies he had watched, the videogames he had played, the life questions he had pondered, the homework he had made, his first kiss…

He turned around heavily and then headed downstairs and outside, locking the door behind him for possibly the last time in his life.

Noah ran towards him and then sat down. Brady crouched and cuddled her, and yet again, Noah tried to free herself from his hug.

“I’m going to miss you, Noah,” said Brady.

Noah licked his face. Brady didn’t even care about that. He got up, checked if the door was really locked, opened the fence gate and then closed it behind him. He headed to the front of the house and took one last look at the place where he’d spent most of his life.

He then turned around and headed to the forest. This feels horrible. Brady felt like he was being torn apart from the inside, but it had to be done. After all, this was the only way.

 

Brady had thought that after all that stress and nervousness, after all that sadness, he could just walk through the forest, trying to find the

camp by himself, but he’d been wrong. Right now, he was racing through the forest.

Puffing, Brady jumped across a ditch and nearly ran into a tree, which he then narrowly dodged. He had thought he could find the camp by himself, but he was wrong. Now he was in deep trouble. The forest was very large and considering he hadn’t been that deep into it many times, he was lost. Now something was chasing him, something dressed in all black.

He heard something penetrating the soil behind him. Brady needed to lose his chaser swiftly because sooner or later, whoever it was wouldn’t miss.

“Help!” Brady yelled desperately.

He hated the sound of that. It made him sound like a helpless baby, yet he did it again. “Help! Please!”

“Hey, kid!” the man behind him shouted. “Stop running. Do you think I like doing this? Just stop and I’ll make it swift!”

He recognized that voice. The hospital, that man who had left after Brady had told him something he should’ve apparently kept to himself.

It sounded like him. It sounded like Alex Grant.

“Alex?” shouted Brady, surprised.

He felt a sudden terrible pain in his left shoulder that made him freeze at that instant, causing him to drop straight to the ground and slide across it before coming to a standstill with his face in the dirt.

Brady gasped, and he gasped again.

He couldn’t move his shoulder. The pain was horrible. With his right hand, he felt around his left shoulder until his fingers met something hard, something thick, something made of wood.

It was a crossbow bolt. “Ah, aah!” Brady exclaimed. “What do you want? Please!” he yelled as he heard Alex closing in on him.

A knee in his back and four sharp claws pushed against the back of his head were the things that made him tense up.

“You are his Listener,” whispered Alex. Desperately, as if pleading, he said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you to live. Killing you is for

the greater good!”

“Then do it!” Brady begged as tears appeared in his eyes. “End it!”

“I am so, so sorry, Brady. I hope you can forgive me,” Alex begged.

“I can,” Brady sobbed softly before he squeezed his eyes shut, a tear of fear running down his cheek.

Click. Sh-sh. Thuck. “Ah -- haaa!” Alex screamed.

With Alex still on his back, Brady looked to the right, puzzled.

In the distance, a man with unkempt, neck-length, grayish-black hair, a beard and a mustache was standing, waving at him. “Brady!” the man, who wore a brown trucker cap on his head, said. “Brady, what are you waiting for? Get your ass over here!”

Seeing an opportunity to live, Brady wiggled around until a hurt Alex fell off his back. Gulping, Brady jumped up and glanced at Alex – who had a bolt stuck in his right shoulder – before he ran.

“This way, Brady!” Idu called, and Brady ran as hard as his young legs could carry him.

His eyes met Idu’s. “Take cover!” Idu barked before he put the wooden crossbow against his shoulder and aimed.

Brady startled by that sudden command before a hand from behind a tree grabbed his lower arm and pulled him behind it.

He was pulled face-first to the ground before he looked up, meeting Riley’s eyes.

“Stay low,” she told him, sitting with her back against the tree and carrying a crossbow herself, although she seemed rather hesitant to use it.

Click. Sh-sh. Idu shot at Alex as Alex got up. Idu missed, and he quickly reloaded his crossbow before lining up the iron sights with the running Alex.

“I will get you you son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath.

Ace appeared out of nowhere and ran into Idu just when Idu took a shot.

The bolt didn’t get far, hitting a nearby tree.

Idu flung his crossbow to the ground in anger, breaking it, causing several wood splinters to fly up into the air before coming down to the ground. “What in the name of – ” he yelled angrily.

“Shut up and let me follow him!” yelled Ace distractedly.

Ace chased after Alex and the two disappeared into the distance.

Brady crawled back up while Idu examined the broken crossbow. “Well, he can have me, if he even exists,” Idu muttered before he walked towards Brady. “Are you alright, kid?” he asked, putting a

strong hand on his shoulder.

“He’s hit,” said Riley, the girl who looked like a cowgirl in some ways, shocked. “There’s a bolt, and it’s stuck in his – shoulder.”

The world spun around him, and trying to look tough, Brady said, “It’s okay. I don’t even feel a – ”

 

Chapter 13

A New Family

 

 

Riley and Leena were preparing a stew on the table standing below the tree. Idu and Roderic were sitting by the campfire, talking about Ace and his ‘ruthless behavior’. Jason was smoking a joint, sitting on a wooden log near the bushes surrounding the camp all by himself.

Jason heaved a long, relaxed sigh before he fell off the log and landed on his back onto the soft ground.

Idu looked at Jason and then sighed too, but it was a sigh of disappointment.

Brady, who had woken up just a second after Idu had pulled the bolt out of his shoulder, was also sitting by the fire, but with his back against a log. Worriedly, he looked Jason’s way. Was nobody going to help him?

He met Roderic’s eyes. “No need to worry, lad,” the old man smiled. “He has been addicted prior to joining our pack. This is not the first time he fainted because of an overdose.”

Leena stepped away from the wooden table where she was preparing the stew with Riley and then sat down next to Idu by the campfire.

Brady wanted to give a nod at Roderic to show that he had understood that, but then he realized something. This was only the second time these people had seen him. Around them, he could be whomever he wanted to be. He could act the way he wanted to act. There was no need to worry about how they perceived them, for if he were to act like a social, funny guy now, he’d be known as a funny and social guy amongst these people as opposed to the quiet and reserved ‘know-it-all’ with a sarcastic side, as he was in his life prior to this.

“But, um… that stuff is not good for you, right?” he asked, knowing that the answer was ‘yes, smoking pod is not good for you’.

“Jason is a grown man,” Leena responded. “We don’t have the right to take that filth from him, even though most of us want to.”

Leena’s Chinese accent was strong.

“I cannot say that I agree with that,” Idu murmured. “That stuff is bad for you. It makes you stupid.”

Brady gave a crooked smile.

Then, sounds, coming from the bushes surrounding the camp.

His expression dark, Mister Allister appeared.

“Good afternoon, Tunstall,” said Idu without looking at him.

A confused expression appeared on Mister Allister’s face when he saw Brady.

“What is the kid doing here?” Allister asked sharply.

Brady noticed that Mister Allister often talked with his teeth clenched, only moving his lips and the corners of his mouth.

Before someone could answer that question, the leaves of the bushes surrounding the camp rustled.

“I tracked down their camp,” said Ace seriously, panting. “This is the ultimate chance for Brady to prove his worth.”

Leena looked at Ace disapprovingly as Ace took a peek in the pot of stew standing on the makeshift table before patting Riley friendlily on her right shoulder.

“Prove his worth?” Leena asked, sounding completely against it. “The boy is only sixteen. He doesn’t have to prove himself yet. At least give him a chance to accumulate to this new situation first.”

Roderic fingered his beard. “I think it is Brady himself who should make the decision of whether or not he is going to help you.”

Ace turned his head to Brady and Brady could see the question appear in Ace’s mind.

“What is he even doing here?”

He couldn’t tell them that he had fled his home because he was a murderer now. The thought of having to come up with a lie filled him with anxiety, until a lie magically appeared in his head. “Well, school ended early today so I decided – ”

Before he could even finish his sentence, an appreciative smile appeared on Ace’s face.

“You decided to come here and spend some time with your new family. I can appreciate that, Brady-boy.”

Brady gulped and nodded.

“Why did that man try to kill you?” Idu asked. “Who is he?” Idu turned to Ace. “Or do I have to ask: who was he?”

“Do not get your dick up, Ids,” said Ace lightheartedly, marching forward with his hands on his hips. “I did not touch the man with a single finger.”

“Well, I can confidently state that each one of us, with the exception of Brady, knows that you have many creative ways of killing people,” said Idu skeptically.

Looking around, Brady saw Roderic and Leena nodding.

His eyes fell on Riley, who was absently stirring the stew, staring at the makeshift table as if she were watching a movie, nibbling on the inside of her cheek.

“Thank you for complimenting me on my creative ways of killing, Ids. I take pride in the many ways I can bring death, violence and murder.”

“Well it was not meant as a compliment,” said Idu distractedly, looking at Brady. “Either way, I would like to know why that man tried to kill you, kid. Do you know him?”

“Not well,” Brady responded as he gracefully touched the covered wound on his shoulder. Leena had wrapped a bandage made of brown and black rags around it. “His name is Alex Grant, I think.”

Mister Allister, who was leaning against the tree, squinted at him. “Alex Grant?” he said. “You have mentioned him before. Why is it that your personal and only way to Caliptus tried to murder you, huh? Or did the cunt want something else from ya?”

“Alex Grant? Your one and only way to Caliptus?” Ace roared with laughter. “So that means you only have one option left?”

Brady felt intimidated by Ace. While he seemed like a funny man, there was nothing funny about being ridiculed only several minutes after nearly facing death for the umpteenth time in the past two weeks.

“Oh, come on, Ace,” said Idu disapprovingly.

“Don’t be like that to him,” Leena added to that. “I understand that you have trouble grasping emotions that aren’t yours, but you can’t mock a sixteen-year-old like this. He is child. At least try to show him some compassion.”

Ace stopped laughing.

“You are right, Leena,” said Ace, sounding normal all of a sudden. “Let us change the subject to something more violent. We have to strike. Now. Before he finds our camp. I scouted his already, and it turns out that he is not alone. There are at least three more people there.”

Idu got up and disappeared into the cave. Ace turned to Roderic.

“Roderic, you stay here. You have to defend the camp if they somehow manage to get here without us seeing them first. Leena and Riley, you too.”

Hearing her name brought Riley back to reality. “What?” she said normally.

Without turning to her, Ace said, “Speak with two words, young

lady! You are staying here, with Leena and Roderic, to defend the camp.”

“Eh – sure, but why can’t I come?” she said before joining them by the fire. “I have to learn, you know?”

“Ace,” said Leena. “Take Riley with you. I’ve seen her fight before and she can handle herself.”

Ace gave a snort of laughter. “Yes, she can handle herself fighting against you, with a sparring sword. Sure, you still beat her, but you are not a killer, Leena, and neither is my favorite pal Roderic, at least not anymore, do you understand?”

Leena rolled her eyes.

“Are you nearly done, Ids?” Ace called.

Idu came out of the cave carrying a wooden crossbow.

“I am, but we only have five crossbows and twenty bolts left.”

“What?” said Ace, squinting. “Five cross – I thought we had six? Jason, inventory?”

Brady snapped back to reality and glanced at Jason, who was still lying on the ground near the bushes.

“Jason?” said Ace, snapping his finger twice before looking Jason’s way.

“And that is why you do not appoint someone who is high eighty-four percent of the time as the one keeping tabs on the inventory,” said Idu.

“Fair point,” said Ace lightheartedly, snapping his fingers twice. “Ids, you are the new inventory keeper. Congratulations with your demotion Tell me, how many crossbows did we have two hours ago?” 

Idu rolled his eyes and shared a glance with his wife, Leena, who showed him a crooked smile. “Six,” he said unsurely.

“So there is one missing. Either there is a sneak thief amongst us, or we have lost it. You tell me, Ids.”

“I broke it,” said Idu surely. “On accident,” he added, his Southern accent clearly hearable in that sentence.

“Shit happens, am I right?” said Ace. “And considering that our next stop will be the House of Noah, I will not spank you over the knee.”

“Ha-ha.” Idu’s laugh was dripping with sarcasm.

Ace looked at the crossbow and then at Brady. “Throw him one, and get me the other four, as well as the bolts. We will need them.”

Idu approached Brady and helped him up. “How is your shoulder, kid?”

“It feels s – s – surprisingly well,” Brady said. Their eyes were on him. He preferred listening to their conversations rather than adding something to them.

“Do you know how to operate such weaponry?” Ace asked.

“Kind of,” Brady replied softly.

“What?” Ace snapped.

“Kind of,” Brady repeated, louder this time.

“You gotta speak up, Brady-boy. Very well.” Ace looked around, keeping his chin up high. He pointed at the tree standing near the bushes surrounding the camp. The tree by the table.

“Shoot the tree.”

His shoulder stung, but oddly, it didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would.

“Are you certain you can do that with your shoulder?” Idu asked him.

“Don’t worry, Idu,” said Leena friendlily. “I administered some Water of Noah to his wounds. He should only feel stinging, not pain.”

“You are a legend, Leena,” said Idu to his wife.

“I do have to agree with that,” said Roderic. “There is no skill in administering Water of Noah to a wound, but I know of nobody who mastered medical science as quickly as you have.”

“I thought World Compliment Day falls on March the first,” said Ace. “Either way, with some Water of Noah in your body, you do not feel pain, at least not in your shoulder, for now, so let us go. Shoot the tree, Brady-boy.”

He looked at the crossbow and he quickly figured out how to load it. The design of the crossbow was simple. With a little help, he could’ve made it himself. He noticed a thin, white, four-pointed star imprinted on the barrel of the crossbow. Questioningly, Brady looked at Roderic.

“That is the sigil of the Anolors of Great God Noah,” said Roderic before he spread his arms to the others. “We all are Anolors of Great God Noah, and you will be too, if you decide to join us.”

Brady had never been a man of religion. “Anolors of Great God Noah?” Brady asked, thinking about his dog, who was also called Noah.

“This is no time for history, Brady-boy. Come on,” said Ace.

Idu handed him a crossbow bolt. Like the crossbow, the bolt’s design was simple. It was made of wood and had a sharp, steel tip.

Brady put his foot through the cocking stirrup and then he pulled the string back, which was heavy, but not nearly as heavy as he had expected it to be.

He put the bolt into the flight groove and, exhaling slowly, he lined up the iron sights with the tree.

“Put the stock against your shoulder,” Idu instructed. “It helps you aim better.”

Everyone except for Jason was watching him, increasing the pressure.

He made sure the tree was in the center of the iron sights and then he pressed the cold trigger.

Click. Sh-Sh. Chuck.

The bolt grazed the tree and after that, it quickly lost altitude and landed on the ground near the table. Ace looked at the bolt and then he looked at Brady. There was an awkward silence for a second.

“Well? Go get it!”

“Ace.” Idu shook his head.

Keeping his head low, Brady walked past Ace and Riley and picked up the crossbow bolt before returning to Idu’s side.

“Take your time, kid,” said Idu. “There is no need to hurry.”
“I advise you not to let Ace distract you with his rudeness,” said Roderic.

“Why is everyone against me all of a sudden?” Ace chuckled.

With his hands still trembling, even more so than before, he aimed, inhaled, held his breath and shot again at the same tree.

Click. Sh-sh. This time, he totally missed and the bolt disappeared behind the bushes surrounding the camp.

“What!” Ace yelled. “It is not that hard!”

Ace snatched the crossbow from Brady’s hands, snatched a bolt out of Idu’s hands and reloaded the crossbow without much effort.

“This is how it is done.”

Ace raised the crossbow, closed one eye, aimed for not even a second and shot.

Click. Sh-sh. Thuck.

Ace opened his eye before doing a fist pump. “That is how you do it,” he said proudly. “Now go get it! We will find the other one later.”

Idu growled. “Will you stop yelling at the kid?”

Brady went to the tree and tried to pull the bolt out.

It wasn’t easy, but he managed.

Judging by how deep the bolt had penetrated the bark of the tree, this bow could pack quite a punch.

Like a submissive dog, Brady returned to Ace and Idu’s side before Ace shoved the crossbow into his arms. “One more time, Brady-boy,” said Ace calmly.

Why doesn’t he always talk like this? It makes him sound much nicer.

“Take your time now, because you have plenty of it.”

Brady figured that in the end, it was thanks to Idu that Ace had lowered his tone.

“Perchance Brady would perform better without an audience,” said Roderic just after Brady put the stock against his shoulder and aimed. He opened his other eye and looked at Roderic. “What do you say, Brady? Would you prefer to practice with, or without an audience?”

Brady obviously didn’t want the others to think that he was sending them away. Technically, he hadn’t even been among them for longer than a day. Technically, he hadn’t even been among them for longer than half a day. He didn’t think they would appreciate it if he would tell Roderic that he preferred to do this alone, without people watching him.

“N – no, it’s okay,” Brady stammered before aiming and closing his left eye.

“Are you certain about that?” Roderic asked.

Brady nodded unsurely, hoping that Roderic would get the hint and send the others away without Brady having to state explicitly that he preferred doing this without viewers.

“You seem unsure,” said Roderic with a hint of smile.

“By Ahlorin, just shoot,” Ace urged.

Brady made sure the tree was in the center of the iron sights of the crossbow and then he pulled the trigger. Click. Sh-sh. Thuck.

The bolt hit the tree. It wasn’t a perfect shot. The bolt was nowhere near the center of the tree, but he had hit it.

“Horrible!” Ace said. “Disgusting, but I figure that it will do for now.” Brady received a hard pat on the back from Ace. “Good job, Brady-boy.”

Idu clapped his hands once, and Brady showed him an appreciative smile. “Nicely done,” Idu said.

“You did well for someone who has never used a crossbow before,” Leena complimented.

If Ace will stop shouting at me, staying with the pack might actually not be that bad.

Feeling proud of himself, Brady lowered the crossbow.

“Is it time for the killing yet?” asked Mister Allister impatiently. “I do not want them to sneak up on us while you are teaching this cunt here how to operate a crossbow.”

“Tunstall,” said Leena as if she were warning a child playfully. “It was already a terrible thing that he was bitten, and now you’re going to treat him like some kind of liability?”

“At least he uses the word ‘cunt’,” said Ace. “It hints at his preference. Let us go now. We have a lot to do.”

Ace seemed to enjoy emphasizing certain words; pronouns and adverbs in particular. Most of the time when he did, it was accompanied by a movement of his hand or hands.

 

Ace walked up front, followed by Mister Allister, then Brady, and then Idu. The four of them carried crossbows.

Brady’s eyes kept falling on the sigil imprinted on the barrel of the crossbow, and he realized that because he didn’t have any other choice now, he’d have to join this pack, he’d have to join these ‘anolors’. The term ‘anolor’ didn’t sound familiar to him at all, yet it sounded like it could be a word.

He reached into his pocket, clasping his hands around his black phone and only then realizing that getting it out would not serve a purpose, for he didn’t have Wi-Fi here. He wouldn’t be able to research the term.

Brady clenched his jaws, knowing that in order to find out what the term meant, he’d have to ask one of the members of the pack.

Ace ducked under a fallen tree, then Mister Allister did, and then Brady did.

Ace looked at them from over his shoulder and whispered. “We are almost there.”

“It is about time,” said Idu, groaning as he grabbed the fallen tree and ducked under it. “Let us get this over with and return home. I am looking forward to Leena and Riley their stew, and I am also looking forward to getting some sleep in my warm bed.”

“That is the wrong attitude, Ids,” said Ace lightheartedly. “If you want to be successful in life, you should not like sleeping and being lazy and shit.”

Brady stated it without thinking.

“There’s enough successful people who like sleeping.”

The hand that had previously been in his pocket flew to his mouth, covering it.

Ace stopped, turned and squinted at him.
“I told ya he is a know-it-all,” Mister Allister, who then passed Ace, flung his crossbow over his left shoulder and took the lead, grunted bluntly. “I also warned him that around here, he can get his cunt bashed in acting like that.”

“That is very true, Tunstall,” said Ace, grinning crookedly before he turned to Mister Allister, who was already several steps ahead. “That is very true.” Ace then turned back to Brady and Idu, pointing at Brady. “Judging by your face and your lack of tits, you do not have a cunt between your legs, which means that if Marshmallow here or I do decide to discipline you for acting smarter than you are, it will only hurt more.”

Ace turned quickly and followed Mister Allister while Brady and Idu lingered in the back.

Brady felt sad all of a sudden, and a bit scared. A tear welled up but he quickly dried his eye.

“Do not worry about it,” said Idu to Brady before they continued following Mister Allister and Ace through the grass, past the trees. “Tunstall – I mean, Mister Allister, is simply like that; cold and hostile, with remarks as sharp as an obsidian blade. But Ace, and sometimes even others, do not call him a marshmallow for nothing. While he may appear to be hard on the outside, he is soft on the inside.” Idu pulled with the corner of his mouth. “Ace on the other hand, like I said, do not worry about him hurting you, but as cold as Mister Allister may appear to be on the outside, Ace is on the inside.”

That made him feel a little more at ease, yet he couldn’t understand how Ace was like Mister Allister on the inside. Ace looked like someone who was fun to be around once you got on his good side.

They regrouped with Mister Allister and Ace just before a sparsely wooded area. The terrain was grassy, surrounded by the thick forest where they were currently standing in. Peering up into the sky, Brady could see the sun smiling at him. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he preferred snow, it would’ve been a beautiful day outside, one of those days that would remind him of the early years of his childhood.

“Here it is,” said Ace, who, together with Mister Allister, stood with

his back to the sparsely wooded area like a medieval knight, holding his crossbow like a soldier would hold a gun that he wasn’t intending on shooting anytime soon.

Ace and Mister Allister parted as to allow Brady and Idu to see what lay beyond the thick forest.

Near the back of the sparsely wooded area, partly hidden behind a couple of oaks, a camp of tents lay dormant.

While sort of far away, the camp of tents wasn’t out of earshot, and when Brady listened carefully, he could hear the small campfire in front of the three light-orange tents of polyester crackling peacefully.

A cooking pot was standing on the campfire, and a black-haired girl was sitting before it in a cross-legged position, stirring whatever was inside of it absently, staring at the flames.

The three-person tents stood beside each other.

Brady was standing in-between Ace and Idu, and the four of them were watching the camp silently.

“Like I said: Alex is not alone,” said Ace seriously. “There is the girl and some woman.”

“I only see a girl,” whispered Idu skeptically.

“The others could be inside of the tents,” replied Ace smartly.

“Can we discuss the plan already?” Mister Allister was impatient, and he was speaking with his teeth clenched again.

Ace signaled them to be quiet just before the left tent opened and a man with brown, pushed back hair walked out before he cast a glance at the girl by the fire.

“Sann! Can you come here for a moment?” Alex called, sounding as if he wasn’t hurt anymore.

“Coming!” an unseen woman replied, and a second later, the tent to the right opened and a woman with long blond hair, a fair skin and light-blue eyes came out.

She wore her long hair in a ponytail kept together by an orange hairband, and she wore a yellow summer dress. Overall, her outfit screamed warmth and fashion.

She seemed to be around her thirties, like Alex, and she was pretty. Is that Alex’s girlfriend? Is the girl their child?

Alex had redressed himself, currently wearing a light-brown sweater along with a black pair of jeans.

“You are the Survival teacher,” Alex said to the woman, who was fidgeting with the sleeves of her summer dress as if she were getting ready for a family dinner at a fancy hotel.

“Would you mind helping her out real quick?”

If you’d ignore the part about Alex wanting to kill him, he seemed like a nice guy. He was calm, exuding good will and trustworthiness.

Alex referred to the girl who was stirring the stuff in the pan on the fire. The woman, Sann, looked at the girl. Then she walked to her and helped her.

Is she the Survival teacher at the school where I should’ve gone to? Hm, Survival. Sounds like a cool subject.

Ace suddenly moved forward, entering the sparsely wooded area confidently. Mister Allister grabbed the sleeve of Ace’s charcoal-black leather armor and pulled him back, prompting Ace to turn around.

“What are you doing?” Mister Allister demanded brusquely.

“Give me one good reason why my fist and your nose should not get acquainted right now,” said Ace, his tone absurdly neutral.

That comment intimidated Mister Allister, but his dark expression remained. “You cannot simply charge in and expect everything to go well.”

“What can I say, Marshmallow, I do like improvising,” Ace gave a nod at Brady. “Keep an eye on him, will ya? Come on, Ids.”

Ace shrugged off Mister Allister’s hand, put the stock of the crossbow against his shoulder and charged in.

“I hate it when he is reckless like this,” Idu complained before following his leader.

“Takeover time!” Ace yelled, actually sounding like he was enjoying this.

“Miss Ramsey!” the girl with the black hair shouted.

Brady took a step forward, fascinated by how he was a part of this, but then Mister Allister placed a strong hand on his chest. “Not a step farther, boy,” he said as if scolding him, flashing a dark look at him.

Sann Ramsey got up and Alex turned around, watching Ace and Idu charging at them in horror.

“Stay where you are!” Ace yelled exultantly before pushing the trigger on his crossbow.

A bolt shot out, penetrating Sann’s neck before she could even extend her claws.

Brady’s mouth dropped open as Sann fell to the ground, choking on her own blood.

The girl jumped up in shock and placed her hands on her mouth.

“Sann!” Alex shouted, his voice cracking from sadness. “No!”

The voice crack broke Brady’s heart, and he immediately felt sorry for Alex.

Idu shot at Alex, but he missed and hit the tent in the center instead. Alex dived into the tent to the right and then came out carrying a wooden crossbow himself before he took cover behind a tree.

Ace pulled a bolt out of the pocket of his leather armor and reloaded his crossbow while jumping behind an oak several yards away from the girl.

“I am gonna get ya!” Ace teased.

Idu slid across the ground behind a tree near Ace.

Alex revealed himself and aimed at the tree Ace was using for cover. “Come on! Run!” he shouted at the girl, who then got up, panicky, and joined Alex behind the tree.

“Leave her alive!” Ace barked at Idu. “Perchance I can have some fun with her once we are done with this ‘man’.”

“’Man’? You are the one talking about raping a young woman,” said Alex, his voice hinting at the sadness he was feeling. “What kind of a sick man are you?”

“Who was talking about rape?” Ace shouted humorously. “I was referring to – to an intellectually stimulating game of Chutes and Ladders.”
Idu rolled his eyes and shook his head. Mister Allister seemed to enjoy the sarcasm, and while Brady couldn’t say that it wasn’t his type of humor, Ace’s remark left him feeling quite suspicious of Ace’s morals.

“Drop the crossbow and let’s finish this like men,” said Alex, grief-struck.

Each word that left Alex’s mouth made Brady feel more and more sorry for him.

“Aren’t we supposed to help?” Brady asked Mister Allister.

“Ace told me to keep an eye on ye. That is exactly what I intend on doin’. Just keep your hole shut and watch the spectacle. Perchance you learn somethin’.”

Mister Allister was encouraging violence. It confused Brady, for he had learned that violence was never right.

Alex still had his sights on the tree.

“It does not matter how I finish this,” Ace laughed. “I will always finish it like a man, for I am a man.”

Idu was paying attention to Ace, and Ace was looking forward, his

back against the tree, smiling in a satisfied manner.

Brady saw Alex signaling something to the girl hiding behind the tree, and seconds later, he himself started backing away before he turned and ran.

“He is running away,” said Brady, puzzled.
“He is what?” said Mister Allister, who then saw it as well. “Well shit. Hey! He is running!”

Ace flashed a look at them before he got away from his cover.

Brady couldn’t see Alex or the girl anymore.

“Shit! Why did none of you say that earlier?” Ace dropped his crossbow to the ground and his hands shot into his hair in frustration.

 

They were still at Alex’s camp. Ace and Mister Allister were looting it. Idu was sitting on the ground, by the nearly extinguished campfire with Brady. They were talking, but Brady wasn’t really there. He was in his head, unable of grasping that this was his life now.

He had witnessed a murder, and it reminded him of Logan. It reminded Brady of the fact that he had murdered Logan, so that meant that he was a murderer as well.

“It is not often that we fight and kill,” Idu explained, poking with a stick in the remaining flames and charred wood. “But sometimes, we have to. There is not as many of us as you think. Two hundred tops.”

Then, suddenly, he heard a weak whispering. Brady cocked his head. It sounded like it was coming from inside of his head rather than outside.

“Two hundred.” Idu gave an absent snort of laughter. “Barely anyone born on Earth chooses to travel with us. If you think about it, why would they? Going to Caliptus sounds far more appealing. I mean, at least you get to see your family again every now and then if you go to Caliptus, and also, after those four years of studying, you are permitted to return permanently.”

Brady smiled absently and nodded a little, trying to figure out what was going on inside of his head.

The whispering… it seemed off to him.

“Brady,” he heard through the whispers. “Brady.”

Brady squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head a little. Luckily, Idu didn’t question that in spite of the fact that he clearly saw it.

“My family is Leena, and you guys of course, but I do have a pa and a ma, and a lil’ brother.”

He didn’t know what to think right now.

What was happening inside of his head?

“Brady.” The voice spoke slowly. It didn’t speak boringly slow, but slow in a way of sounding both mysterious and clear at the same time. It was a man, and he had a deep voice.

Ace came out of the tent he had been searching through and began ripping it to shreds violently using his claws. Ace then proceeded to gather what was left and threw it into the fire. Allister helped him.

After they were done, they returned to Idu.

“What you got?” Idu asked, looking up at Ace.

“This green backpack.” Ace responded. “Let me see what is inside.”

Ace opened the backpack.

“Did thee forget?” the voice asked.

The voice’s tone was filled with contempt, as if it thought it was talking to a lesser being.

It had been a couple of weeks since Brady had last talked to a voice inside of his head, but that one hadn’t sounded nearly as real as this one did.

If it hadn’t been for internet, Brady would have still been troubled by that negative voice. Thanks to the internet, Brady had found out that the voice wasn’t real at all, that it was an auditory hallucination, that it was a figment of his imagination. A couple of months ago, Brady had started working hard on trying to suppress the voice inside of his head, on trying to tame it, and it had worked.

Each time it had talked to him, each time it had tried to bring him down, he had played happy songs in his head, and now, even if he thought about the voice, it didn’t speak to him.

This one on the other hand didn’t sound like an auditory hallucination. It wasn’t a figment. It sounded too real, too here and now to be fake.

“I can heareth thyne thoughts. Speaketh to me.”

He knew that it could. It was how he spoke to the other voice; through his thoughts.

I… I… are you real?

“Misn, fool. Of course I am,” the voice said, his tone hinting at the disdain he felt towards him.

Even though it sounded real, Brady doubted whether it was actually real.

What are you, Brady thought as he started to sing Strawberry Swing from Coldplay in his head.

“I cannot bid thee. There art things I need thee to doth, and thee shalt

obey.”

The fact that this voice actually had an accent Brady had never heard of before made it seem more and more likely to him that this was actually real.

‘No, I don’t understand and I don’t want to understand. What are you? What do you want from me?’

“We will have to hunt them down,” said Ace before zipping up the green backpack.

“We shalt doth it liketh this: In returneth for deeds, thee shalt receive lapastohvak, information. I shall leaveth thee once the deeds hast been done.”

Brady didn’t get it and frankly, this was confusing him. What were those weird words the voice used?

Suddenly, someone hit him on the shoulder and Brady startled.

“Come. We are going home.” It was Ace.

Idu shook his head uncomprehendingly. “Why did you have to do that, Ace?”

Ace and Mister Allister began making their way back towards the forest surrounding the sparsely wooded area. “Because why not? I had to get his attention somehow.”

Brady got up and Idu and he proceeded to follow Mister Allister and Ace, the latter one who now had a green backpack on his back.

It reminded Brady that he had taken his backpack with him as well. He had put some clothes in it, a fire starter and a long, thick flashlight.

“Tell me, Brady-boy, why where you staring at the ground like some… mentally challenged person?” Ace scoffed.

“What? I… I what?” Brady stuttered.

He was experiencing some brain fog. He couldn’t think straight.

“Doth not bid those folk about me,” the voice said darkly, stretching the word ‘me’.

The voice didn’t want him to tell them about it.

It wasn’t like he was planning on doing so.

It had taken him several years before he had finally told his parents about the voice.

He wasn’t just going to tell Idu and the others about it almost immediately.

“Leave him alone Ace,” said Idu. “He was probably just absorbed in thought. It happens.”

“Aagh,” Ace responded.

“I shalt beluz vuh, contacteth thee, when the time is there,” the voice said just before Brady somehow ‘felt’ it leaving.

 

Chapter 14

In the Rain and the Darkness

 

 

It was getting late, and it was getting colder as well. They had eaten the stew Leena and Riley had made, and it’d been some pretty good stew.

When – after taking about five minutes to build up the courage – Brady had asked Leena in the presence of all the others what was in the stew, Leena had explained to him that the primary ingredients were Western gray squirrel meat and nettles.

Brady had never eaten either of those things before, and he had to say that nettle and squirrel meat stew tasted simply fantastic. It was thick, greenish, and while the squirrel tasted similar to chicken and the nettles tasted similar to spinach, the nettles added their own tang to it, as if Leena had added a sprinkle of lemon juice to the stew.

Because they were sitting in a forest and it was getting darker, the faces of the members of the pack were growing less and less visible, and Brady felt his anxiety decreasing by the minute.

While both his head and heart were thumping and his palms were cold and sweaty, Brady could now at least focus on the conversation with more than thirty percent of his consciousness.

He stuttered a lot, which in turn made him turn red, but the thought of how they wouldn’t be able to see that anyways took away a lot of stress.

Brady had managed to figure out the social roles of nearly everyone in the pack.

While Leena, Idu and Ace were primarily the ones doing the talking, and thus, steering the conversations, Roderic frequently added something as well, whether it’d be his personal opinion on the matter, a wise statement or sometimes even an entirely new subject.

Jason spent most of his time smoking joints and blowing the smoke over his shoulder as to not hinder the others, but it was also he who caused laughter most of the time for his perfectly articulated and perfectly placed jokes and witty responses to questions asked in general and to him.

Mister Allister was a pessimist and a real crank as evidenced by how his responses and reactions to the other’s trying to include him in the conversation were mostly curt, negative and primarily consisted of the words ‘cunt’, ‘twat’, and ‘shit’.

While Ace did belong to the three steering the conversation, he had a dark and eccentric sense of humor with ‘remarks as sharp as an obsidian blade’, as Idu would say.

The only one whose conversation role he hadn’t been able to figure out was Riley’s, who frequently added something to the conversation, but yet didn’t fit in with the others.

Perhaps Brady got this feeling because, like him, she was not sitting next to anybody.

While Roderic, Mister Allister and Ace were sitting to his left and Idu and Leena to his right, Riley was sitting opposite of him with her back to the makeshift table.

They were all sitting on the ground, around the campfire. The fire was crackling peacefully and the waves of warmth it emitted made him feel at home.

It had been a while ago since he had said this many words in a single day. The questions felt like they were unending, and while many had been asked, the members of the pack only knew what school subjects he did and didn’t like.

The asking had stopped for a while now, and while the conversation continued, Brady didn’t have a part in it.

Inside, he was preparing lies. Soon, someone was going to ask him at what time his parents expected him to be home.

He had to be ready.

Brady looked up, at the fire, and then his eyes wandered off to Mister Allister, who then looked at him, his expression dark while Leena laughed at something Jason had done.

“Hmmm,” Leena sighed. “Brady,” she then said, which made Brady look at her. “Isn’t it time for you to go home?” It’s getting darker with the second.”

Brady couldn’t reply to that because Ace had already undertaken that task.

“Ah, let him stay here if he wants to. It is already six pm anyways, so going back now will not stop his parents from giving him a beating.”

“I thought he just said his parents were separated,” said Idu.

“My fault.”

Jason tossed his joint into the fire before he began rolling another one.

“The streets can be dangerous at night,” said Roderic. “I insist that you take someone with you once you leave.”

“I don’t – need protection,” said Brady. “I – i – i… it’s not that far, and I think I can protect my – my -- my -- my – myself.”

“Aw,” Ace smirked. “You saw death today and now you can handle everything, right? I understand that feeling, little Brady-boy, we have all been there, at least, most of us have, but often, that feeling is what will get you killed the next time, when you think that you can kill your opponent, but then you freeze because – because you remember, that ‘all life is sacred’.”

“Apologies for interrupting,” said Roderic questioningly. “I understand that I am a bit late, but perchance we should consider not having a sixteen-year-old be the witness of death?” Roderic allowed his gaze to meet everyone’s eyes before he continued. “We all do know what happens when a young person witnesses too much death and or partakes in too many killings, I hope?”

“Ah, that is one in ten,” said Ace as if it wasn’t a big deal. “One in fifteen if you believe the books.”

“Exactly, and this one might be stupid, but he is not mental,” Mister Allister sniped, which earned him a look from Roderic.

“What do you have against him, Tunstall?” Idu asked.

“What do you have against people?” Leena said.

Riley got up and wiped her hands on her faded jeans. “We were talking about Brady and him having to go home, right? I could take him.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Leena agreed. “That way, the two of you can get to know one another.”

“I agree,” Roderic said. “Brady should have some alone time with each one of us so that he can get to know us in private. I think that will only speed up the process of him feeling at home with us, for we are his new family.”

Ace nodded in agreement. “Good point, old man. I like it. So now it is Riley’s turn to get to know him better.”

While Brady liked this plan, he wasn’t looking forward to being alone with a girl again for an extended period of time.

Although, he could use what he had learned from spending time with Ashley in his upcoming alone time with Riley. Even though he wasn’t looking forward to being alone with Riley, he had to admit that he was feeling a little less anxious than he would’ve normally felt.

 

Twigs broke and leaves crunched under their weight as they walked

over a path through the forest. It was beginning to get really dark now, and Brady had tripped three and almost fallen three times. Riley moved around carelessly. Like Mister Allister, she appeared to have mastered the art of walking through forests.

It was so dark, if it wasn’t for the path, they might as well have been walking around in circles.

Brady recognized this part of the forest. It was where his friends and he used to fight Oliver and the others over the bunker. This meant that they were almost out of the forest.

It was twenty past six pm and it was starting to get dark outside. Brady and Riley hadn’t talked to each other over the past half hour. This was because of the constant struggle to get through the bushes and such, which were blocking their path.

Walking over the path next to Riley, Brady looked a bit troubled. His thoughts were straying off, as always.

“What is it?” Riley asked him, her question accompanied by a snort of laughter.

“Nothing,” said Brady curtly.

He had so much on his mind. There was the he voice he had heard, his family, even Logan. He was killer, yet he didn’t feel like a killer.

“Nothing rarely actually means nothing,” replied Riley smartly. “And this is coming from a woman.”

Brady squinted at her. “What do you mean?”

Riley cocked her head, puzzled. “You know, women often say that there’s nothing wrong while there obviously is something wrong.”

“Do they?” Brady asked, confused.

Several yards away from them, the dirt path disappeared into the grass surrounding the forest.

Once there, Riley extended her claws and slashed the branches that were in their way, causing most of them to snap and break and fall to the ground.

The forest was surrounded by a thin ditch. The other side of the ditch was a little higher than the side where they were currently standing on.

“What are you thinking of the pack so far?” Riley asked to break the silence as Brady looked at the houses standing on the other side of the road on the other side of the ditch.

“Are – are we going to jump? If so, the other side of the ditch, that strip of grass, it’s where people walk their dogs, so, just so you know.”

Riley looked at him and nodded, her expression neutral. He wasn’t looking at her. He couldn’t.

“Are you going to answer my question?”

“What?”

“The question. I asked you what you thought of the pack.”

“Oh, eh, everyone is… nice.”

Riley gave a snort of disbelief. “Yeah, sure.”

They crossed the ditch by jumping and then walked over the road heading into the direction of his house with the grass to their right and the houses to their left.

Behind the houses, a large field of grass was visible. The pasture had once belonged to Brady’s neighbor, but that was some years ago. Riley tried to make eye contact with him, but Brady was gazing off into the distance. He could already see his father’s house, or at least the little road where it was connected to.

“Let me tell you a little about everyone in the pack,” said Riley. “If you want, that is.”

“Sure,” said Brady absently.

“A man of few words, aren’t you?” said Riley, and Brady suspected that she was beginning to feel awkward around him, which in turn caused his anxiety levels to go up. Before he knew it, he was back to square one; fiddling with his hands nervously and feeling his face turning red.

“I’m not a man,” said Brady. “I’m a boy. I’m a man in one year and twenty days from now. That’s -- three hundred and eighty-six days, give or take one.”

“Okay,” said Riley normally. “But we’re straying. Let me tell you about the pack. First off, Idu. Idu is kind of a hot-head. His ancestors are from Arge Bjändar, hence his short name. Idu was born in the Kingdom of Zilnoii if I’m not mistaken, but his direct family fled to Earth when he was very young because his father had killed someone in a fight in a tavern. Idu and his younger brother grew up in Alabama. I think you already know he was from one of those states, because of his – ”

“ – accent,” Brady nodded. Riley bobbed her head.

“Since his entire family had basically broken a major rule, both Idu and his brother couldn’t go to Castle Creighton. You know, the – ”

“ – school in Isman.”

“Ismar,” she corrected slowly. “Either way, travelling with packs was really his only option. In secret, we’ve travelled to Idu’s parents,

who, FYI, live on a farm, more than once, and even though Ace is close with the higher-ups in the House of Great God Noah, he never told them, which, to me at least, confirms that he likes us more than his powerful friends up the mountain.”

“Or Ace just doesn’t want to get in trouble with them,” he said smartly.

“It’s what you’d think, huh?” Riley smiled. “That’s not really how the Anolors work. It’s mostly favoritism up there. If Ace were to report Idu and us, we’d be in trouble while he’d go free.” Riley gave a disdainful sniff. “Perhaps they’d even reward him.”

“And I take it that Ace being the leader of this pack is a form of cronyism?” he asked her.

“It isn’t a form of cronyism. It is, cronyism,” Riley said. “… Hm. Just moments ago, you sounded so… nervous. Now it’s almost like you aren’t shy at all.”

His eyes widened in shock by the mention of that word. “I – I’m not shy,” he stuttered before he met her eyes.

“Oh come on,” she sniggered. “It’s obvious that you’re shy.” She broke eye contact, and with confidence on her face, she looked into the distance. “At least you’re not shy shy. We just exchanged several words and you didn’t stutter and sound unconfident.”

Looking at the ground, Brady realized that he’d have to start coming up with a lie pretty soon. His home was just down the road, near the peaceful intersection in the distance.

Soon, they’d be there.

“I’m trying to figure you out,” she remarked before she pursed her lips. “Not working out so far… Onto Jason. Jason his father was an addict and his mother was a prostitute. She stopped when Jason was born, causing him to grow up in a poor family because nobody worked and most of their money was spent on his father’s drugs. Jason’s father treated Jason well, but treated Jason’s mom very poorly. Jason grew up in a small town in Utah. He was bitten, like you, and was able to use his claws shortly thereafter. Jason used them to slit his father’s throat after the man beat his mother into the hospital. Then Jason ran away and ended up with us. We believe he smokes all the time to forget about his um… troubled past.”

“T – t – that sounds… rough,” said Brady.

“It does, yeah. He is the only one with a tragic past, though.”

Thinking about Jason’s past and comparing it to his made him chuckle, but not loudly enough for Riley to hear.

“Are we going the right way?” Riley asked. “Mister Allister described where you live, but I don’t know the exact location.”

The abandoned farmhouse next to his father’s house was only several yards away from them. It wouldn’t be long before his father would be able to see him from the large window in the living room.

Brady winced. He had yet to come up with a suitable lie.

“What’s wrong?” asked Riley. They stopped

Brady didn’t have a lie ready to use so he had to improvise.

“My father and I… had a fight shortly before I went over to you guys. He broke my TV. He also told me not to come back. I now have a reason to stay away.”

Riley took a few seconds to register that. “Wha… you… Wouldn’t your father blame it all on himself then?” she asked, squinting. “And how about the rest of your family once they hear that story from him?”

“It – it – it’s the only chance currently at my disposal. If I don’t stay away now and then suddenly leave on the s – s – sixth of April, what will they think? They might think I’ve been kidnapped, or worse.”

“Mkay,” said Riley. “If you can live with it. Who am I to judge?”

“Exactly,” Brady agreed before his face went blank and he looked at her. “Uhb, I don’t mean to say that you’re irrelevant or… insignificant, or… ”

Riley gave a snort before sniffing disdainfully. “Are you doing this on purpose or…?”

Brady looked at the road. It was quiet outside.

“If you’re sure that you want to stay with us, let’s go back then.”

Brady nodded and they turned, but then suddenly, a thought crossed his mind, a thought that wasn’t his.

“No, no… wait,” he said, puzzled. “I – I have to go to my mom’s house. There’s something I – I forgot there.”

Riley turned and looked a bit confused. “So you don’t want to go to your father, but you do want to go get something from your mom’s house? Sure, I guess. Mister Allister didn’t tell me the where she lives, but if you know where to go, lead the way.”

He gave her a distracted nod, which made a smile appear on Riley’s face. “You’re a bit different, aren’t ya?”

“N – no,” stammered Brady. “I – I – just – ”

Her smile turned into a grin before she shook her head lightly. “Let’s just go.”

Just when they had taken their first step, raindrops started falling

from the sky and they looked up synchronously.

Brady hadn’t even noticed how dark the sky had become. If it hadn’t been for the streetlights, it would have been truly dark outside.

“Great,” Riley sighed. “This might be a farfetched supposition, but I don’t think you want to get wet either, so I suggest we get a move on.”

“Oh it’s not farfetched,” said Brady innocently. “You’re right. I don’t want to get wet.”
“Ugh, are you serious? It was a joke.”

“Right,” said Brady, scratching the back of his head awkwardly.

Riley nibbled her lower lip, contemplating. “Let’s keep moving until it gets worse, okay? We’ll look for a place to shelter from the rain then.”

Brady wasn’t sure whether he wanted to walk for forty minutes to his mom’s house, even though it felt like he really needed that specific item.

What could it be? What could possibly be so important, yet clearly not important enough for him to remember what it specifically was?

Just when he wanted to tell Riley that he didn’t feel the need to retrieve the item from his mom’s house, he felt a certain heaviness inside of his head, like an upcoming headache.

“Doth not returneth now,” the voice said. “There is something important whereth thou art headed. Thee shalt needeth it.”

The voice used archaic forms of words – most of which were incorrect – and like Ace, Mister Allister and Roderic, it had a foreign accent. An Early Modern English accent.

Why is it so important and what do I need it for?

“It is something betweeneth I and elseone. Considereth it a test.”

The voice was speaking in Old English primarily, yes, but some of the things it said didn’t sound right. It spoke in broken Old English rather than in Old English.

Brady thought about his decision.

“Doth as I sayeth and thee shall taketh answers.”

Then the heavy feeling was gone. Brady looked at Riley. She tilted her head a little, narrowing her eyes as if she suspected there being something wrong with him.

“Uh – yeah,” said Brady, not sure why he was doing what the voice was saying. “Let’s keep going.”

 

Rain was pouring from the sky, and the wind was getting stronger

too. Both of these things, combined with their soaking wet clothes made their temperatures drop quickly.

They were on the cycling track leading from Yatawa Town to Downtown Yatawa. On their right, there was a peaceful freeway consisting of two lanes, and on the other side of the freeway, there was a slope with behind it the Yatawa River.

On their left, there was a large field of grass. The darkness in which it was covered made it a rather creepy sight, especially for someone who feared the dark, like Brady.

He was intentionally not looking to his left because even though he wasn’t alone, his nyctophobia made him imagine all sorts of spooky things that were lurking within the darkness. So far, he had imagined an army of decaying zombies, a woman with dead, black eyes, and a deep, endless void.

In the center of the field of grass, a large, abandoned factory of red bricks stood, but even that wasn’t visible.

Every now and then, cars passed them, driving straight through the puddles of water that had formed on the freeway.

Riley had her shoulders raised and was blowing warm air into her cupped hands while rubbing them against each other. Brady was picking wax out of his hair.

I won’t be able to do my hair in a very long time.

He didn’t suppose that Ace or Mister Allister was carrying some wax or even some hair gel in their pockets.

“We have to find a place to take shelter, Brady,” said Riley before blowing some more air into her hands. “I’ve seen worse, but I’d rather not get soaked for no good reason. Do you know a place around here where we could take shelter?”

“L – l – let me think,” said Brady, trying to make himself audible over the loud gusts of wind and the constant sounds of rain while simultaneously not trying to get annoyed by the sticky, waxy hair and waxy residue smeared out over his forehead. “Ehhm… there’s an abandoned factory around here.”

He pointed at the grass field. Riley peered into the distance shortly before she stopped and he stopped as well.

While Riley was trying to locate it, Brady looked into the general direction of Downtown Yatawa. The trees standing atop the slope across the freeway blocked most of his view. He hated this bicycle track. He used this to get to school when he stayed at his father’s house and somehow, no matter which direction he went on this

track, he always had headwind. Always.

It was hard to see because the dark clouds made this evening even darker than it normally would have been. Brady felt cold, but at least he wore his black hoodie. Riley, on the other hand, was wearing clothing designed for the summer. Her faded jeans were the only thing that offered protection from the cold and the rain, for her warm red flannel shirt was too thin to do so, and the choker around her neck didn’t provide any protection against the elements at all.

He suddenly got a chivalrous idea. “D – d – do you want to -- borrow… my hoodie?” Brady asked.

Riley turned her had. “What?” she asked loudly.

The rain and gusts of wind made speaking even more of a chore than it already was. “D – do you want to borrow my h – hoodie?” he repeated.

An appreciative smile appeared on Riley’s face. “I’m five years older than you and I’ve got more experience with this type of weather. In short; no, but thanks for the offer.”

Brady turned red as Riley continued trying to locate the factory.

Brady looked at her. Riley was tall for a woman, standing about two inches taller than his five-foot-ten. Her armpit-length hair was thick and dark brown, and she wore it loose, just how Brady liked girls to wear their hair. She really did look like a cowgirl, only she lacked a hat with a large brim, and cows, and she also didn’t have her sleeves rolled up or the lower part of her warm red flannel shirt tied up.

“I think I see it,” said Riley slowly, scratching her temple. “About there.”

Brady nodded. “Yeah.”

There was a thin strip of grass on both sides of the bicycle track. To get to the abandoned factory for shelter, they’d have to cross a ditch and judging by the puddles of water, a now wet and muddy field of grass.

My shoes will be soaked long before we reach the factory.

“Come on,” said Riley before jumping across the ditch without a second thought.

Brady had jumped across many ditches in his lifetime, and while the ground was lower on the other side of the ditch, he as well jumped without thinking too much about it, landing perfectly on his two feet.

“Agh, but my shoes,” Brady complained before he looked at the muddiness they would have to cross in order to get to the factory.

“Seriously?” she scoffed humorously. “Are you certain that you’re

not a girly girl in the body of a sixteen-year-old boy? Like, what are you doing?”

Brady pursed his lips.

Riley gave a snort. “Come on. We’re wasting time here.”

And before he knew it, Riley ran towards the factory.

“Wait,” he said, but not nearly loudly enough for her to hear.

Grudgingly, Brady started running as well.

Splash splash. He felt the cold water entering his shoes as soon as he had taken a second step.

Damn it, he thought. 

Brady wanted to ask her to slow down, but he didn’t want to appear to be weak. He hated being perceived as a liability. Eventually, the darkness made it impossible for him to see where Riley was. All he could see was the factory in the near distance. An iron fence surrounded the abandoned building to prevent people from getting in.

Reluctantly, he continued making his way through the muddy and wet field of grass, soaking his sturdy shoes and the lower parts of his blue, faded jeans.

Riley was waiting for him by the fence. Panting and muttering curse words under his breath, Brady stopped near her.

“Just be glad that I’m not Mister Allister,” Riley remarked normally. “At least I understand that this might be hard for you considering you don’t have several years of experience with travelling in the rain and the darkness.”

“Yeah. This aspect of travelling with you guys isn’t very appealing.”

“You can rest assured that it won’t happen often,” Riley replied. “And I’m not saying that we can walk several dozen miles under those conditions without complaining, getting sick and annoyed and wishing we were elsewhere, but if you’re even a tad bit adventurous, you’re going to understand that it’s worth it. Spending your nights in dark forests, caves, abandoned buildings etcetera etcetera is quite the adventure.”

Thinking about that suddenly made him feel very excited, especially if they were allowed to decide where they slept by themselves.

“We have to get over this fence,” she said before giving the metal

construction fences surrounding the wide, rectangular building a nod. “I’ll give you a boost. I can manage myself.”

The red-brick factory wasn’t very big, and the chimney to the left of it towered over it.

Riley crouched down and cupped her hands.

“Are you sure you can climb over by yourself?” Brady asked, feeling a little less manly now that a woman had offered him a boost. It should’ve been the other way around.

“Look, I’m sitting with one knee in the dirt,” she replied. “As you can imagine, it’s cold and wet, and I do not wish to be sitting in this position for longer than I have to, so if you can just get on with it.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” he replied uncomfortably before awkwardly putting his right foot into Riley’s cupped hands, causing her natural, on-fleek eyebrows to point down and together.

She groaned as she pushed him up.

“Got it?” she asked, struggling.

“Yeah yeah, just – ”

Brady grabbed the cold wet tube forming the borders of each metal construction fence panel and pulled himself up before swinging his left leg over the fence and then his right leg. Letting go, he landed softly in another muddy puddle, causing him to say some bad words that he wasn’t supposed to say.

He looked at her pensively, and she looked at him.

“Yeah, say it,” she said lightheartedly, but yet impatiently.

“Are you sure you can – ”

“Yeah I’m sure,” she said curtly. “Mister Allister taught me, even though Leena is my mentor.”

She jumped and grabbed the top of the fence before pulling herself over and landing next to him.

“Where’s the entrance?” she asked him. “I’m starting to get the feeling like we’re wasting more time getting in here than we would’ve getting to your mom’s house.”

“From here, it’s at least fifteen more minutes to get to my mom’s,” explained Brady. “We’ve spent about three minutes getting here, which is twenty percent of the time that it would’ve taken us to get to my mom’s.”

“That’s trivial information, Brady,” Riley sighed before approaching the redbrick walls of the factory and trying to find a way in.

Talking a bit more loudly in order to make herself audible over the sounds of the weather, Riley said, “You know, I do like interesting facts, though.”

Brady looked at Riley as she was inspecting the broken windows. A crooked smile appeared on his face.

Brady didn’t know where an entrance was.

He’d never been this close to the factory before. He’d only seen it from the bicycle track. Brady’s nephew, Marc, had been here, together with Brady’s little brother, Brian.

He shivered. He could only imagine how cold Riley would have to be. “I don’t suppose you know a way in, so let’s search.”

He did as she said and followed her alongside of the building. The squishy mud was worse than the wet grass. He could hardly see a thing apart from the fences, the mud and the walls of the factory.

The surroundings of the factory were covered in debris. This factory had been abandoned after a fire about eighteen years ago. While there had been a road leading to the factory back then, the fire department had done little to extinguish the blazing flames that had, fortunately, not taken any lives.

“There,” he heard Riley saying.

Riley pointed into the distance and he saw it too now.

The windows were missing there. They could climb through.

 

Chapter 15

Something He Needs

 

 

They hadn’t waited in the factory for very long. Not even ten minutes after they had entered the abandoned building, the raining had stopped.

Brady had spent most of his time exploring the dark ruins of the factory with Riley. Fortunately, Riley appeared to be as adventurous as he was.

Thinking about the adventures he’d have with her brought a smile to his face and made him feel good on the inside. If somehow, someway, he would one day be able to feel comfortable around her, they could become great friends.

Just the thought of being friends with a girl five years older than he was – she was twenty-one, so technically she wasn’t a girl anymore – made him feel cool and self-assured, yet he felt like it was a long way away until he would feel comfortable enough around her to be able to be himself.

There were few people whom Brady could truly be himself around, and most of those people, actually all of them, were part of his direct family.

While still wet, cold and shivering, Brady was feeling alright. The raining had stopped, and the winds were soft and infrequent.

It wouldn’t take much longer than two minutes for them to arrive at his mother’s house.

They were currently following a bicycle track through a quiet part of the neighborhood. Behind them, in spite of the darkness, a low, natural dyke consisting of ground and grass was still visible. The Yatawa River was long and led through each of the six districts of Yatawa. While Brady had lived in Yatawa all his life, he’d only been to half the districts. He visited Yatawa Town and Downtown Yatawa most often considering his parents lived there, and he went to school in Downtown Yatawa. He’d been to Yatawa West a couple of times, but only with his parents and friends or with friends and their parents on children’s parties. There was a large, indoor swimming pool in Yatawa West, and while Downtown Yatawa had a swimming pool of its own, it was not nearly as enjoyable and fun as the swimming pool in Yatawa West was.

 “I assume you don’t want to be seen by your mother,” said Riley.

“So how are you planning on getting in and out without her noticing?”

“It’s not just her. Her boyfriend is there too.”

“You’re saying that as if it’s a good thing,” Riley remarked. “Really, it isn’t. It’s just more ways for us to get caught.”

Those words reminded him of the risk he was taking. The police could be looking for him. He had totally forgotten about them. After all, he had killed Logan, and everything that had happened suggested that he had done it, which was the truth.

On their left, there was some grass and trees and on their right, there was a ditch. On the other side of the ditch, behind several trees, houses were standing.

“I seeth thee has’t nearly arrived at thyne destination. I am here to guide thee. I knoweth what thee needeth, and I shall bid thee when thee seeth it.”

He only heard half of what the voice said because he was lost in thought.

He hadn’t given the voice much thought yet, but so far, Brady had settled with the idea that this voice sounded a lot more convincing and real than the voice he had managed to overpower and banish from his mind several weeks ago.

Thinking about how he had ‘defeated’ the other voice sometimes gave his self-assurance a boost. After all, according to the internet, hearing voices was very bad and could drive one to do dangerous things, and on top of that, it is very difficult to get rid of them.

He had managed to get rid of the voice he was hearing by playing songs in his head and focusing on those songs whenever the voice started talking, all the while hanging on to the thought that the voice was merely a figment of his own imagination. Whether the latter part was true or not, thinking that way had helped, yet lying to himself hadn’t felt good.

“I shalt bid thee after thee has’t retrieveth the object.”

A concrete road divided the bicycle track in two. Crossing the road would get them to the other part of the bicycle track, but they didn’t have to be there.

Basically ignoring the voice, Brady pointed at his mother’s house, which was located across the street to the left. It was the townhouse in the center of the row.

“Do you see it?” Brady said to Riley.

“The house with that one thin tree in the garden?”

“Yeah. I hope the curtains are down. I don’t want them to see me.”

“Obviously not.”

It was late and dark, so there was a big chance they were closed.

“Your mother’s house seems to be the only one in this street that’s properly taken care of,” Riley remarked.

“Yeah, she and her boyfriend like working in the garden, especially when it’s warm outside.”  

They crossed the street and entered the sidewalk. Brady watched his surroundings carefully.

“We’re not even there yet and you’re already careful?” Riley pointed at the ivy screen that his mother had grown to the right of the front door. The ivy screen wasn’t long, and Brady wasn’t sure what purpose it served other than disallowing the neighbors to the left from seeing who was knocking on his mom’s front door. “Have you noticed the ivy screen? I suppose you have considering you live here. Either way, it’s just long enough for us not to be seen, not even through the window in the front of the house, so relax.”

Riley didn’t understand that getting caught by his mother or stepfather wasn’t the only thing he feared. What if a police officer were to suddenly drive through this street, stop near them and start asking them questions? If he wasn’t suspected of Logan’s death yet, he was sure that the police would recognize him because his parents had already reported him as missing.

They stopped in front of the house to the right of his mom’s house.

 

“Could you… check?” Brady asked uncomfortably before he gulped.

Riley gave him an assuring nod before she stuck her hands into her pocket and casually walked down the sidewalk. She didn’t even pass his mother’s house before she returned.

“Coast is clear,” she said, her tone not hinting at any nervousness whatsoever.

Brady looked at the left window on the second floor. It was part of his room and half of it could be opened, which it currently was.

There was no way to get into his mom’s house through his window, but half of the right window, which belonged to his little brother’s bedroom, was open as well.

It wasn’t opened far enough for one of them to be able to slip a hand inside and open it farther, though.

Nervously, shaking, Brady followed Riley to the front of his mother’s house, keeping an eye on the large window that currently

showed nothing but the back of a white curtain.

They remained on the sidewalk, trying to figure out how to get in first before they took action.

“That window isn’t closed completely,” said Riley, pointing at the window of his brother’s bedroom. “It’s not opened far enough, though. Perhaps if you could find something thin and long, you could open it farther and climb inside.”

“What about… a stick?” said Brady.

“Should suffice.”

Carefully and watching the large window from the corners of his eyes, as well as keeping an eye on the long, rectangular window in the black front door, Brady walked down the path towards the thin tree standing near the front door and then picked up a stick which lay in the garden. He looked up at his brother’s window and alternated his glance between it and the window in the front door.

How am I supposed to get in there? It was on the second floor, after all.

“How do I have to get there?” Brady asked her.

“I don’t know if you can do it, but I might be able to jump to that steel tube sticking out of the wall there, just above the front door. I can climb up that way and pull you up too then.”

Riley was referring to the steel tube that looked kind of like an exhaust pipe from a car. Brady didn’t know what it was called when it was attached to a house.

He looked at her from over his shoulder and nodded unsurely. If his mom were to catch him sneaking in or around the house, Brady wasn’t sure what he’d do. The very thought made his heart race.

Confidently, Riley approached the front door, making sure to generate as little sound as possible.

She signaled him to give her the stick, which he did before Riley jumped up and grabbed the pipe.

The stick he had found was wet and didn’t feel like it was very strong, yet it should be able to do the job.

How he hoped his mom and stepdad wouldn’t be watching TV right now. If they were, they might be able to hear Riley, and then they’d come outside to see what was going on.

Riley pulled herself up and grabbed the windowsill before pulling herself up farther, resting one foot on the steel pipe as she began working on opening the window farther.

A second later, Riley dropped the stick – which plummeted down

onto the grass – and then opened the window farther before climbing in and disappearing into the house.

It didn’t take long before Brady started feeling nervous.

What if mom or Norman is upstairs?

Brady had trouble swallowing, and when he started thinking about what would happen if they were caught, he felt like fleeing.

Seconds later, he saw her appearing in the window, looking down at him.

“Now try climbing up the same way I did,” she said. “Jump up, grab the pipe, pull yourself up and grab the windowsill before you pull yourself up again, understood?”

He nodded, looking up quite unsurely.

Smoke came out of the steel tube sometimes, but that wasn’t the case this time.

“Come on,” Riley urged.

Brady hesitated for a second but then jumped up, grabbing the steel tube successfully. The tube was wet, cold and slippery.

He attempted to pull himself up a little so that he could grab the window sill, but he wasn’t strong enough.

“I c – can’t,” whispered Brady. “I can’t p – pull myself up.”

While Brady lost some confidence, Riley didn’t appear to mind that he was currently being a major liability.

She leaned out of the window and extended her arm.

“Pull yourself up a little more,” she whispered, struggling.

He did as she said and then extended his arm as well. Riley grabbed his hand and pulled him up with quite some effort.

He managed to grab the window frame and Riley let go, heaving a sigh before she took a few steps back.

Their clothes were soggy, and so where their shoes. Them leaving drips of water behind on their way through the house to his room was something unavoidable.

Brady climbed in through the window and quietly, he crawled over his little brother’s bed out of the tiny and dark bedroom as quietly as possible.

Brady regrouped with Riley in the hallway before they sneaked into his bedroom, which was about two and a half times as large as the one of his little brother.

He could hear the TV downstairs.

“Nice room,” Riley remarked. “It’s big, but you could’ve put some more effort into decorating it.”

“That’s what she said,” Brady muttered. “My mom, I mean.”

Riley gave a snort.

They were right, though, Riley and his mom. While large, not much space of his room was used.

Once inside, his bed stood directly to the left. To the right of the window there was his rickety wooden desk, and across the room, a tall, light-brown cupboard stood, closed. The floor, like in the rest of the house, consisted of white laminate, and the walls where white as well.

He approached the messy desktop and looked at it. Empty bottle, a few ballpoint pens, wads of paper and candy wrappers. There was nothing of significance standing on it. Riley approached the cupboard located to the left of a closet in the wall.

Brady quietly opened the drawers of the desk and searched through them. He opened the one on the right first. Books, a picture of Noah, a picture of his pigeon named Lil P, who’d passed away about eight years ago, a picture of his other dogs who passed away around five years ago, books and more books.

Riley grabbed something. He looked at her from over his shoulder. She was holding his dragon statue. It wasn’t large, but it looked cool. The dragon statue was completely black and consisted of a castle surrounded by waves. A large dragon had wrapped itself around the castle and then there was this wizard, standing on a small boat, about to cast a spell at the dragon. He turned back to the desk and opened the left drawer. He got some notebooks out of it, multiple paysafecards and a bottle opener of an anime woman with big breasts. There was some text printed on the woman’s breasts.

‘Open Up, Bitch!’ the text read.

He had gotten it from his father once. He couldn’t say that he was happy with it, though.

“That’s anti-feministic,” Riley, who had somehow managed to sneak up on behind him without making a single noise, noted.

“I know right?” Brady said. “I got it from my dad once.”

He continued searching and quickly found himself looking at an empty condom wrapper. He remembered that he had filled it up with

water and had then thrown it at the neighbors’ horse with his brother.

Not the horse from the neighbors who used to live on the farm, but on the horse from the neighbor living on the right side of their father’s house.

She was kind of old, had black hair and lived all alone.

She had a whole lot of dogs to keep her company, though.

“An empty condom wrapper,” noted Riley. “I wonder what you did with what used to be inside.”

He shook his head quickly. “No, no it isn’t what you think.” Brady felt himself turning red.

“Calm down. I’m just kidding,” Riley scoffed. “You’re what, sixteen? Big chance that you used it for something else.”

Brady smiled a crooked smile. “Ex – exactly.”

He found a few more pieces of paper, a pair of scissors and then the green-blue shard he had found in the ruins of the Krestley’s house. 

“That is it.” the voice said blankly.

What. This shard?

How was he going to explain to Riley that they had come all this way for a shard of a vase?

“This is it,” Brady said as he showed the shard to Riley. “It might sound stupid, but it was my grandma’s. She gave it to me about a day before she passed away.”

“Oh,” said Riley. “Was that long ago?”
Brady felt horrible. He had used his deceased grandmother as part of a lie, again.

“Yeah, last year. This shard has quite some… sentimental value to me, you – you know?”

Riley pulled with the corner of her mouth. “I mean, sure, but let’s get out of here now before we get caught.”
“Yeah.”

 

They were walking through the dark streets. There were townhouses on both sides of them.

I think I deserve some information. What are you and what do you want? You sound so real, but I’m not sure.

“Mayhap thee wanteth,” the voice said. “But I am not willing to giveth it to thee.”

But you –

“There art more important actions which has’t to be undertakeneth.

 Giving thee answers is not of dire importance. Keepeth doing what thou art doing, and I may just reassess.”

When it was present, Brady could feel it inside of his head, but after what the voice had just said, he didn’t feel its presence anymore.

It had left.

Brady wanted to throw the shard away, but he couldn’t now.

He had just told Riley this shard had belonged to his grandmother.

There was an alley to their right, and when Brady looked into it, he saw a couple of men standing in it, smoking, drinking and talking.

They saw them too. At first, he didn’t think it were troublemakers. At first, he thought they were just hanging around there, but then one of them started talking, to him.

“Hey, kid, isn’t she a bit too old for you?”

His buddies chuckled a little.

“Tss, just ignore them,” said Riley, who didn’t sound like she cared at all.

Brady wasn’t planning on responding to them. If those guys were looking for trouble, talking to them wouldn’t be a good idea. But then again, ignoring them wouldn’t be either.

In the end, the good and bad actions he might take depended entirely on what these guys wanted from them. If these guys just wanted a quick argument to show them how cool they were, ignoring them would help, but if they wanted more…

“Hey, I’m talking to you, kid!”

He gulped, but, just as Riley had said, he kept on ignoring them.

Brady could feel them staring as he and Riley walked past the alley they were standing in.

From the corners of his eyes, he could see Riley’s chest going up and down at a faster pace than was considered normal, neutral. Despite her cool act, her fight-or-flight response had kicked in.

“Hey, hot bitch! I have a seven and a half incher in my pants. Wanna see it?”

Seven and a half?

What was this guy referring to, a knife? Was he trying to intimidate them?

They reached the end of the street and took a right.

“Pffff,” said Brady as he placed a hand on his chest, his heart still thumping.

“I understand,” Riley chuckled, a hint of nervousness in her chuckle. “You never know with those corner boys.”

“Corner boys?” said Brady, squinting.

“Yeah, I think it’s an -- Irish noun, for shady people who spend their time loitering on the streets.”

“Corner boys,” Brady repeated thoughtfully.

They walked for a while without talking. They reached the end of the block and took a left.

“Shall I tell you some more about the others in the pack?”

Brady nodded.

“Okay, so, Roderic is the oldest of our pack, which does not automatically make him our Elder, but he is. If it wasn’t for the fact that Morus can endure more, I think Roderic would have collapsed from exhaustion on one of our travels some time ago. He has a son who also lives with the packs, and both his son and he were scholars slash advisors to minor nobles in the Kingdom of Marghet. The Kingdom of Marghet is not nearly as safe and peaceful as the Kingdom of Zilnoii, so minor noble houses come and go, either destroyed by opposing major noble houses to secure their position or taken down by other minor noble houses in the race to make their house more successful. Both the heads of the minor houses they grew up with and advised were executed some years ago for openly rebelling against the throne of Marghet, and Roderic and his son narrowly escaped their sentence. Living with the packs was their only option, so they fled Caliptus.”
“Noble houses?” Brady asked.

“Yeah, but most minor noble houses aren’t even worthy of that title. According to Roderic, you can create a house name and a sigil as soon as you have your own business, which explains why there are dozens of minor noble houses so small and insignificant they aren’t even considered to be noble houses at all by the higher-ups. Also, about Roderic, in his early life, he was a Paladin. It was only when he was in his late twenties that he decided to spent more time with his wife and son all the while exploring his, as he refers to it, ‘gift for learning and remembering things easily and quickly’. Thus, he resigned from the Brotherhood of Peace before studying hard with the, at that time, scholar slash advisor to the head of his house, succeeding him several years later.”

It was quiet for a while. Brady misstepped and because of that, he almost fell, but he managed to keep his balance. Luckily, Riley hadn’t seen it. She had heard it, though, but before she could ask any questions, Brady asked, “H – h – have you ever been to Caliptus?”

Riley shook. “No. I really want to go there once, though. Well, at least to the Kingdom of Zilnoii. I’m not sure whether I’d like to go to any other kingdoms considering the danger. By the way, Roderic also wrote a book about the life in a pack in which he tries to disprove the lie that the Anolors are actually dangerous murders and rapists who are responsible for most of the unsolved killings and

kidnappings on Earth. They don’t have printers in the House of Great God Noah, and there are only a couple of scholars amongst us, which is the reason why the book has only been copied like, ten times. Roderic acts very mysteriously about his book, and because he owns the only copy that hasn’t been brought to Caliptus for the very reason why it was written in the first place, none of us have been able to read it yet.”

“How did he write it?” Brady asked.

“It’s been… five years since he has finished the original. According to Mister Allister, Roderic worked on the book for five years in total because he was only able of bringing a certain amount of ink, parchment and quills with him whenever they left the House of Noah.”

Interesting.

“I know how Jason joined the pack, but how did you?” Brady asked, cocking his head and then suddenly worrying that that question might’ve been inappropriate.

“I wasn’t bitten unlike you and Jase,” Riley explained normally, looking down at the sidewalk. “I was simply born a Morus. It all happened very quickly for me because I was born on August the twenty-fourth. Has Roderic explained to you how the transformation works?”

Brady shook thoughtfully. This should be interesting.

“In Caliptus they don’t research life and universe stuff that much, which is why there isn’t a proper explanation out there, so I’ll describe it to you how Roderic told it to me. Basically, a normal human has a very slim chance of being born with an extra gene. If a person possesses this extra gene, they will start experiencing things like lightheadedness and bloody noses around their seventeenth birthday, which signifies that they are transforming into a Morus. For some reason, around August or September, Morus get their claws. Not all at the same time, but everyone gets them around that period. I am born in late August, on the twenty-fourth, ehhh…

thirteen days before the start of Castle Creighton’s new schoolyear. Leena visited me the day after my birthday, Castle Creighton sent

me a letter two days after my birthday, and I got my claws three days after my birthday. Three presents,” Riley added lightheartedly. Gloomily, she continued. “Not presents at all, actually. More like surprises, and none of them very good.”

“You would’ve rather not become a Morus?” Brady asked.

“Apart from Leena, I’ve never really discussed this with anyone, but to answer your question, if I could travel back in time, I would have still wanted to become a Morus, but I would’ve chosen for Castle Creighton rather than travelling with the pack.”

Brady’s mouth dropped open and Riley saw it, which prompted her to smile very briefly before her expression turned gloomy again. Brady felt his cheeks growing warmer and he quickly closed his mouth.

“Shocked?” Riley chuckled dejectedly.

“Yeah,” said Brady softly, as if he feared his words would hurt her. “Why didn’t you go to Castle Creighton… if I may ask.”

Riley gave a snort. “Of course you may ask,” she replied as if the very question annoyed her. “To keep it short, I’ve changed in my time with the pack. I’ve changed a lot. I wasn’t particularly a ‘good girl’, if you know what I mean.”

He didn’t know what that meant. It could mean several things, but because he didn’t want to be annoying, he choose not to ask what she meant by that. 

 

Chapter 16

First Lessons

 

 

They made their way through the bushes surrounding the camp, rewetting their damp clothes.

The camp looked empty and even the fire was extinguished.

The rain had left the camp muddy and wet, and the ground squished underneath their shoes as they approached the cave behind the extinguished campfire.

Brady was looking forward to sleeping. He was looking forward to taking off his clothes, hunkering down in the cave and allowing his consciousness to travel to dreamland.

But first, he would have to explain to them why he hadn’t gone home.

Brady and Riley entered the cave, both ready to lie down and sleep. The pack had split itself up. Idu and Leena were relaxing near the entrance of the cave with their own little fire while Ace, Roderic and Mister Allister were sitting in the back with their own fire.

“Hey Riles, what took you so long?” Idu asked normally. Then he saw Brady and his tone grew surprised. “Brady? What are you doing here? I thought Riley would take you home.”

“Decided to stay here anyways?” Leena asked. “Oh child, I understand how hard it is to leave your family like this.”

“Yeah,” Brady replied shyly. He looked at the others who were sitting in the back. Ace looked their way and got up.

“What took you, Riley?” Ace demanded. Then Ace saw Brady and the tone of his voice changed significantly. “Brady-boy? I thought you were going home. Liked it here better?” Ace put his hands on his hips.

“I – I – I had a good reason t – to stay away because I had some t – troubles w – w – with my we – dad earlier this day.”

“Ahhh okay. Do you want to end him before we leave in a couple of days, huh?” Ace asked excitedly, grinning sadistically. “Are not coming back here anyways, right? Might as well tie up loose – ”

“Ace!” said Leena disapprovingly.

“Hah, I was just kidding of course.”

Leena shook slowly.

“Just ignore him when he speaks like that,” said Riley to Brady.

“Goodnight guys, Brady.”

Idu, Brady and Leena wished her a good night before Riley joined Jason in the center of the cave and crawled into her handmade sleeping bag made of animal skins and hay.

“Yeah, you better run,” said Ace jokingly. “Do not worry, Riley and I are great friends.”

“Sit down and warm up, Brady,” said Idu. Their eyes met and Idu gave him a nod.

“Ho, what do you think you are doing?” said Ace loudly. “No. No no no no no we are going to talk about your training first.”

“Come on, Ace. It is dark outside,” said Idu. “Let the kid warm up first at least. His clothes are all wet.”

Ace placed a hand on Brady’s back and was about to take him with him outside of the cave.

“Hold on just a moment, Ace.” Ace and Brady turned around and saw Roderic standing behind Idu and Leena. “Tunstall is Brady his mentor. He should be the one training him.”

“Why do you have to meddle yourself into this?” Ace asked, irritated.

Roderic heaved a sigh of concern. “It are my duties as the Elder. I am only doing what is right. Tunstall will be Brady’s mentor, and thus, he is the one who should introduce him to the training.”

Ace closed his eyes and sighed before he said, “Just… do not. Okay, Roderic?” Then, darkly, he added, “Do… not.”

Idu and Leena exchanged an uncomfortable glance with each other. Roderic’s expression grew angry, a calm sort of angry.

Ace then grabbed Brady by his shoulder and took him with him out of the cave. He could feel Idu, Roderic and Leena looking at him. What were they thinking of him? Had it looked like he had sided with Ace? While he didn’t want to get on Ace’s bad side, he also didn’t want to have all the others against him.

Ace took Brady with him to the bushes surrounding the camp and they stopped near the tree, near the table. “So, Brady. Are you ready to do this, huh?” Ace seemed excited, but he always seemed kind of excited. Brady pulled with the corner of his mouth, prompting Ace’s expression to grow suspicious. “Or did you agree with wise old Roderic?”

Brady didn’t know why, and even though he knew it was a dumb thing to say, he still said it.

“Yeah.” Ace rolled his eyes slowly. “I – I – I mean kind of… He sort of i – i – is right, right? I – I – ”

Shut the hell up, okay?” said Ace through gritted teeth before placing his hands on Brady’s shoulders and leaning in uncomfortably far. “You, are embarrassing yourself with that stutter of yours.” Slowly, Ace continued, “Ugh, Brady. Dear Brady. Dear nice, sweet and very, very friendly Brady. Tunstall will become your mentor, but I think that I, Acius Nawot, could be a much better one. I mean, look at me.” Ace slammed his fists onto his chest twice. “I am, combat. I am, training.”

Suddenly, Brady felt the heavy feeling in his head again. “Thee has’t been reunitetht with the others. Good.”

He saw Ace’s mouth moving but he couldn’t hear him. All that Brady could hear was the voice inside of his head, and all that he could do was stare at Ace blankly, breaking eye contact repeatedly.

“Thou art fortunate. The alpha male hast already offeretht to be thyne mentor.”

Then he could hear again. Suddenly, Ace walked away. “I just want you to remember that.”

Brady turned to Ace in a confused manner. Why did he walk away like this?

Brady decided to just follow him.

 

Brady’d spent his night sleeping in a reserve sleeping bag that the pack had made just in case if someone’s sleeping bag were to get damaged or lost.

He had had trouble sleeping. Brady had worried constantly that the police would find him and that he’d be arrested for Logan’s murder, and that he’d have to spent the next twenty years in prison. He had once read on the internet that the average prison cell was about six by eight feet in size. Brady didn’t understand why anyone would risk being put away into one of those small rooms for months or years. Sure, desperation could cause someone to undertake dangerous and unthinkable actions, but if those people were to just stop and think about what they would be sacrificing if they were to get caught. Just the thought of being forced to spend years and years in a six by eight feet room made him feel bleak and empty inside.

Ace woke him up around six am and gave him two minutes to get ready, not telling him for what exactly.

Brady, who had barely slept six hours, sat upright, his head spinning as he watched Ace leave the cave.

Jason and Riley had told Brady that he should put his sleeping bag

near them. He had slept in-between them, but he had made sure to put his sleeping bag in a way so that he had enough personal space on both sides.

Ace had told him to come to ‘the part where a sunbeam touches the grasses’. Brady had no idea where that would be, really. He rubbed his eyes and crawled out of the soft sleeping bag.

While his slumber had been short, it hadn’t been unenjoyable. The sleeping bag was warm, and that, accompanied by the coldness outside, had made for an enjoyable feeling.

At first, Brady had thought it would be weird to sleep in a cave with people he barely knew. It actually wasn’t that bad, though. The others didn’t seem to mind having him sleeping amongst them either, and in the evening, everyone, even Ace, spoke softly as to not disturb those who were trying to sleep.

The crackling of fire was like a natural white noise, and thus, after he had managed to calm his mind, he had fallen asleep pretty quickly by simply concentrating on the crackling of the two fires in the cave.

Brady stretched and then looked around himself. Apart from Ace and him, everyone was sound asleep.

He had slept with nearly all of his clothes on. Brady picked up his black hoodie and took it with him outside.

While tired, the cool, early morning air made him feel refreshed and ready, and once he had pulled his hoodie back on, it was almost as if his slumber hadn’t been short-lived.

Birds were chirping, the wind – while cool – blew softly and the fresh forest air reminded him of his early childhood.

Because the camp was surrounded by bushes and trees, it was hard to see where Ace had gone off to, so Brady made his way through the bushes and climbed on top of the cave, peering into the distance.

His eyes quickly fell on crepuscular rays in the distance, and he detected movement in a clearing just out of earshot of the camp.

Brady jumped off the cave, freezing as soon as he landed. He had seen Leena and Idu lying near the entrance of the cave, but he had forgotten it in the past couple of seconds.

Gulping, he turned around only to see that Leena and Idu were still sleeping undisturbedly.

Brady sneaked away from the camp towards the clearing in the distance, where Ace was.

His clothes were a little damp still, but they were not nearly damp enough to be a hindrance.

The morning dew on the grass rewetted his shoes, but because they were near waterproof, it didn’t bother Brady at all.

Brady walked in on Ace sitting on the ground with his back turned to him in a cross-legged position, running the long, sharp edge of a steel longsword across a grayish stone lying on a broad plank on his thighs.

Shhhgggggg. Shhhgggggg. Shhhgggggg.  

An Anolor Crossbow was leaning against a tree to Brady’s left along with a couple of six-inch bolts and six-inch steel knives. Each knife had a ring below the grip.

Throwing knives, Brady figured.

Unlike the camp, this clearing was only surrounded by trees, and it was also smaller. Apart from two trees – one to his left and one behind him, to his right – the weapons and them, the clearing was completely empty.

The ground consisted of grass and green oak leaves.

Ace looked at him from over his shoulder before he continued running the edge of the steel longsword across the grayish stone. Shhhgggggg. Shhhgggggg.

“Brady! Good mornin’.”

“Good – good morning.”

While not as large as the camp, this place was large enough to be able to train efficiently. Ace was probably not that much of a good trainer for him, considering Brady didn’t perform that well under stress.

Ace didn’t look like one of those people who would allow him to make mistakes. Ace seemed like someone who would yell and scream at you and get angry whenever you failed.

“Are you ready?” Ace put the plank and the stone on the ground beside him and got up with the sword in his hands.

Brady nodded unsurely.

Ace suddenly tossed the sword at him and Brady jumped back, startling as the sharp steel sword hit the ground. He had once read that the medium length for longswords lay around forty-seven to fifty inches, and this sword seemed to match that medium perfectly,

being about forty-eight inches in size. The grip of the sword was

made of a black leather and both the pommel and the guard were made of a grayish steel. Brady picked up the sword and noticed a thin, four-pointed star engraved in the pommel. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was the sigil of the Anolors of Great God Noah.

He had never held a sword in his hands before, and because he was very interested in the medieval times, this was quite the moment for him.

He inspected the sharp, shiny blade in awe before he peacefully cut at the air twice.

This is so cool, Brady thought.

Back in his early childhood, like many children, he used to play-fight with sticks and pretend that they were swords or other medieval weapons, but holding a real sword, an actual, deadly sword… it made him feel powerful.

The longsword was also a lot lighter than he had expected it to be. The sword couldn’t be a lot heavier than three pounds.

“You like that, do you not?” said Ace, smiling at the sight of Brady looking at the sword as if it were an ancient relic.

“It’s – wow,” said Brady, not even looking in Ace’s general direction while he spoke to him.

“Morus have claws, but, at least on Caliptus, claws are considered barbaric to use as a primary weapon. Most Anolors do not consider it barbaric, yet many of us do prefer using swords and the like over claws. I do not. Claws are fast, basically weightless and they do not only serve as good weapons, but as shields as well. We will start with the sword. Once you know the basics of using a sword, we will move on to the crossbow and then the throwing knives. The throwing knives are the hardest to use. We barely use them ourselves. Now, to answer your question as to why we took them with us from the House of Noah. It is, because the so called ‘blacksmith’ there accidentally made a few dozen too many, and gave them away for free.”

Brady lowered the sword to his side. “W – what exactly is the House of Noah?”

Ace looked a bit surprised. Then he grinned. Ace had wolfish teeth.

“Tunstall has not told you about it yet, has he?”

Brady shook his head. “He – he – he hasn’t told that much about anything yet.”

Ace guffawed. “That sounds like Tunstall alright. The man is as cold as a frost enchantment on a Northman Sword and as heartless as

High-Lord Baldemar Grofwald.

Ace cracked his knuckles and his neck and then he extended his claws.

“But enough talking for now. Let us get started. Defend yourself.

Show me what you already know.”

Brady started feeling a little anxious as he assumed a defensive stance.

Ace was a rough person. He hoped Ace wasn’t that rough that he would accidentally hurt him. Ace walked towards him threateningly, his eight, eight-inch claws looking particularly deadly.

Without warning, Ace slashed at him a couple of times. Brady held his sword sideways, because according to the video games he had played and the movies he had watched, that was the basic way to block using a sword only.

Zting, zting, zting. After nearly disarming Brady, Ace stopped.

“Okay…” Ace said calmly and unimpressed. “Now you attack me. Again, show me what you already know.”

Unsurely and unconfidently, Brady readied his sword as Ace assumed a defensive stance.

Brady pricked and cut at Ace a number of times, holding back because he didn’t want to hurt him.

Ace easily blocked every single attack with little to no effort.

“Ho ho, stop,” said Ace, his eyebrows down and together, making him appear far more serious than he just had been. “Either your arms are made of jelly, or you are not actually trying to hurt me. I suggest we try again and this time, you have to attack me as if you want to kill me, understood?”

Brady gave a nod at Ace, his heart thumping in his chest.

“Do it.”

Putting more force behind his attacks this time, Brady slashed, cut and jabbed at Ace. Still managing to block the attacks deftly and without much physical exertion, Ace nodded.

“Good, good.” Brady thrusted once more. “Okay, stop.” Ace signaled Brady to hand the sword over to him as he retracted his claws. “Give it here.”

Ace looked very alert and focused.

Brady handed the sword over to him and Ace held the grip with two hands.

“Listen, Brady-boy. If you want to become a pro with a sword, you need to learn how to use combos and you need to learn how to use

those combos efficiently.”

Ace switched the longsword to his right hand. “Now, I will show you the most basic of combos.”

With force, Ace swung left, then right, and then he thrusted the

sword forward, to Brady, which made Brady recoil.

Ace did it all very quickly, very neatly, as if he’d mastered that combo already.

“Now you. Try to execute the combo as quickly as possible.”

Ace returned to sword to him before Brady took a step back. Ace gave him a nod.

Brady swung the sword to the left, then to the right, and to finish the combo, he thrusted the sword forward.

Ace clasped his hands behind his back and shook disapprovingly. “Too slow.”

That left Brady feeling puzzled. As far as he knew, he had put as much force in his attacks as he could.

He tried it again. This time, as he had learned in karate a year or five ago, he used his hips and torso as well, causing him to be able to strike much faster. Left, right, thrust.

Ace suddenly extended his claws, making Brady recoil in shock.

That made Ace guffaw “What’s wrong with you?” he chuckled. “Do you think I am going to hurt you? Pssh. Here. Let me show you what happens if you fight like that in a real battle. Attack me.”

Brady knew that he would get hurt now. He just knew it.

Using his torso and his hips along with all the force he got, he used the combo on Ace, who still blocked each strike, and that from a passive stance. When Brady finished the combo by thrusting at Ace, Ace captured the blade between his claws and turned his fists about ninety degrees forward.

The sword was pulled out of Brady’s hands and flew downwards to the ground.

It had shocked him, but it had also left him feeling quite amused.

 “This – is what happens then,” said Ace proudly. “Your opponent disarms you and your life falls into his or her hands, which means death seven out of ten times. No. Nine out of ten times.”

Even though Ace was being a little rough, Brady found himself to be having a good time. This was a unique experience.

“Can I ask you something?” Brady panted.

“What is it?” Ace seemed ready to answer whatever question he had.

“This might have an obvious answer, but why don’t we use guns?” Brady was panting.

“That is a good question, actually, Brady-boy. It has an obvious answer, yes. We do not use guns because we just do not. It is as simple as that.”

Brady looked a bit puzzled. “And what happens when like… bad Morus decide to attack good Morus, and they use guns?”

Ace shook disapprovingly. “When bad Morus decide to attack good Morus?” he said, sounding as if that entire statement made no sense whatsoever. “There is no bad, and neither is there good,” he spat. “There is only perception and the interpretation of actions. I am good in my eyes, but many people think I am bad. I have killed, alright? I have killed innocent ‘Earthlings’, but look around you. Not here I mean, but in a city for instance. There are over seven billion people on this shit planet. Do you think Mother Nature intended for people to become a plague and take over literally everything, destroying everything in the process to create more space for their own? No, of course not. When I kill, I am directly aiding Mother Nature in reducing the human population on Earth and thus, creating a better planet. Perhaps not for people, but certainly for all the other livings things and beings on this world.”

Brady blinked and looked at the ground thoughtfully.

“And no, not even ‘bad’ Morus use guns. They just do not. Now come on. Try again.”

Brady nodded. Left, right, thrust. Left, right, thrust. Left right thrust. It went on like that for a minute or two until Ace told him to stop again. Ace approached the tree to the left and picked up some throwing knives.

“These things are shit,” Ace said as he returned to Brady. “I know of only one person who can use these things effectively, but you try either way.”

Ace handed him a bunch of throwing knives while Brady gave the sword to Ace. The throwing knives were made of steel and each throwing knife had a ring below the grip.

Brady immediately pressed the tip of his index finger on the tip of the blade of the knife. They were sharp. Very sharp.

“Throw it,” said Ace. “I do not care if you do not know how to use one yet. Just throw it.”

Like with the sword, this was the first time he had held a throwing knife. He inspected it before he grabbed the blade, pointing the ring at the tree, and threw it as hard as he could.

The knife hit the tree only to ricochet and land onto the soft grass.

“Expectable,” said Ace normally before picking up the throwing knife. “Let me teach you how to throw them. Do you hear what I said? I will teach you how to throw them, not how to hit anything,

because even I do not know how to hit anything with one of these shits. Are you right handed?”

“Y – yes.”

“Okay then. Pinch-grip the knife with the handle pointing away from you.”

Brady did as Ace instructed, but he just couldn’t get it right.

“How exactly?”

“Put your thumb on the side you are looking at, and your other fingers on the side you cannot see, except for your pinky.” Ace glanced at the tree before alternating his glance between Brady and it. “How far would you say that tree is away? Far away, or close by?”

Brady looked at it.

“Ehhm, I think… close?”

“Yep, your target is close. If your target is close, you should bend your wrist back toward your forearm. If the target is far away, then you should keep your wrist diagonally in the air, unbent.”

Brady nodded to show Ace that he had understood.

“Okay, now for the throwing. Place your weight on your dominant leg, and place your non-dominant leg in front of you.”

Brady assumed the proper stance.

“Good. Good. Now, when you are going to throw the knife, shift your weight to your non-dominant leg. Swing the knife forward and stop when your arm is pointing straight forward. Try it out.”

Brady did it. He shifted his weight to his left leg and swung the knife forward, letting go of it once his arm was pointing straight at the tree. The knife flew through the air, hitting the tree but not penetrating the bark. It just ricocheted again.

“Harder!” Ace barked as he gave him another knife.

Brady tried again, fearing he would fail. Same story. It hit the tree, but didn’t penetrate the bark.

“Okay, this is getting boring,” Ace remarked, dropping the sword nonchalantly. “I want to kill something. Let us go out hunting. Take the crossbow with you. We only have fifteen bolts left, so if you shoot, make sure to hit at least something.”

Kill something. Hunting. Brady had never hunted before. He was very excited to try, though.

“I am warning you,” Ace added, sounding quite serious as he picked up the knives. “Do not lose the bolts, or I will break your fingers, one by one, and eat them for breakfast.”

They looked each other in the eyes for a few seconds, and then Ace smiled.

“Just kidding. But seriously, do not – lose them.”

 

The sun shone through the thin canopy. The surrounding forest was sparse and they could navigate through it with ease.

Brady and Ace were creeping through the forest. They hadn’t seen any animals yet, but they hadn’t given up either. Ace seemed to be very determined to catch something.

They both carried a crossbow, and while Brady’s was carrying his without intending on shooting anything, Ace had his pushed against his shoulder, ready to press the trigger as soon as he visualized movement.

Ace was also the one carrying the sword. He carried it in a special scabbard on his back.  

“I am glad to know that you are not afraid of killing,” said Ace, keeping his voice down. “How does that come? Do you have experience?”

Brady wasn’t sure if Ace would be the right person to tell this to.

“I do,” said Brady. “But I regret some of the things I have done to animals.”

Ace stopped and turned around. What Brady had said had seemingly peaked his interest.

“Well tell me,” said Ace, suddenly not worrying about that loudness of his voice at all.

“My eh – neighbors used to have rabbits,” Brady explained unsurely. “T – t – three of them. When I was like… six or seven, I killed two of them.”

Ace raised his eyebrows and looked amused. “You did?” he said, surprised. “How, though? Did you do it on purpose? Was it slow?”

Brady squinted at that last question. “I didn’t kill the first one on purpose,” he said to Ace. “But after killing the first one, I realized that I don’t really like rabbits that much.”

“Ah, ha-ha. You killed out of hatred! Tell me more.”

While Brady wasn’t exactly enjoying telling Ace his experiences with harmless animal murder, he did know that it was good and that

– judging by the tone of Ace’s voice – it would have a positive effect on his relationship with him.

“I found a pigeon when I was ten or so,” Brady continued. “It was stuck in the nettles and after bringing it to my dad, he came to the

conclusion that its wing was broken. Taking it to the vet was too expensive, and he didn’t want to do it because it was just a wild animal, so I kept it. I didn’t really treat it nicely, though. I kicked it, hit it and more.”

Telling Ace how he had harmed a harmless pigeon hurt. He’d been young and confused, and when he had found the pigeon in pieces in his father’s backyard after having taken care of it for two years, he had been devastated, especially after he realized that what he had done to it was basically considered to be torture. And now he was telling it to Ace, acting as if it was funny and as if he were still proud of it.

“That is such a great story! I believe you and I might just have something in common,” said Ace, simply delighted. “Do you have any more of these stories?”

Brady looked down. He hesitated for a second. What if Ace were to tell these stories to the other members of the pack? He didn’t want that to happen.

“I’ll tell you some of mine too,” Ace said.

Brady looked at Ace. “Yeah, okay. Let me think. My – my brother had a rabbit.”

“And?” said Ace as the smile on his face turned into a sadistic grin.

“I punched and choked it. It was a medium-sized one. Black.”

Ace shook his head in disgust. “Black, huh?” Hopefully, Ace asked, “Do you dislike black people too, like I do?”

“No,” Brady replied quickly. “I – I – I – I don’t have a problem with black people.”

Ace pulled with the corner of his mouth. “Hm. That is a shame.”

Ace is a racist, Brady realized.

“Anyways,” Brady continued. “I liked it when her rabbit gasped for air when I had my fist clenched around its throat. Sometimes, I would beat it in its stomach while I choked it.”

Ace almost jumped up into the air from happiness. “Brady, my boy, I think we two are going to have some great times with the animals and maybe even the people we find out in the wild! Just think about. I can teach you how to kill people, how to hurt them, emotionally and physically. We can – we can go to a city at night, have the others hunker up in an abandoned house and then we can infiltrate residences and kill everyone who lives there.”

That sounded exciting, but in a completely wrong way. Brady didn’t want to feel excited about those plans.

He felt guilty for the things he had done to his brother’s rabbit, the neighbors’ rabbits and his own pigeon, even though his last victim, which was his brother’s rabbit, had died over a year ago.

They both turned when they heard sounds in the distance.

“Jeck!” Ace exclaimed.

They saw a pair of antlers. It were deer. They were passing through. Ace pointed the barrel of his crossbow at the great beasts and sneaked closer to it.

“Follow,” Ace whispered.
Brady gulped and followed Ace through the forest. The deer – five of them – were still kind of far away, but they stopped.

“Hey!” said Ace, startling the deer before he shot.

Click. Sh-sh. Chuck. While the other four deer ran away and disappeared behind the trees and bushes in the distance, one of the deer, a doe, fell to the ground, a bolt stuck in her left foreleg.

Brady felt sorry for the doe. Ace hadn’t managed to kill her in one shot, so now it was suffering.

Brady followed a running Ace towards the doe. Ace crouched down beside it while Brady remained a couple of feet behind him, unsure of what to do.

The doe was lying in the grass, breathing heavily, its big eyes filled with fear, and all Brady could do was feel sorry for it.

Such a magnificent beast. Brady couldn’t remember having every seen a deer up-close.

“Ha-ha.” Ace’s laugh was dark. “We have got it!” Ace turned to him. “Do you see its face? Its eyes?”

“Li – like a deer in the headlights,” said Brady dryly. But inside, he was frozen, for he realized that Ace wasn’t planning on killing the doe just yet.

“Ha-ha! Exactly. Normally, I do not like puns, and if it was not for the current circumstances, it would have cost you a finger, but this one, I do! So, who is first?” Ace grinned in anticipation like a child opening a birthday present.

Brady’s eyes jumped from Ace to the suffering doe repeatedly. I – I can’t hurt a deer. I – I can’t. I won’t.

“Y – y – you can go first,” Brady stuttered.

Ace got up smiling and signaled Brady to join his side. Brady did.

“What shall we do with you first, hmm?” said Ace through gritted teeth as he stared down at the animal.

Brady was desperately trying to come up with a way to stop Ace

from doing whatever he was planning on doing. Brady realized he could shoot the door with his crossbow, but what would Ace do when he’d do that? Fearing Ace’s reaction, Brady decided to stand down.

The doe’s chest went up and down at a fast pace, and Brady felt something inside of him breaking when the animal looked at him with its large peepers.

Ace crouched down next to it again and extended his claws before proceeding to stroke it carefully alongside the cheek of the deer, which was lying on its side.

Brady was seriously considering shooting the animal, saving it from the torture Ace would inflict on it, but Brady was also sure that if he were to do that, Ace would be furious with him.

His current positive relationship with Ace would be shattered, and he could make a pretty good guess what Ace did to people whom he didn’t like, even if they were part of his pack.

Ace grabbed the deer’s upper left foreleg, the wounded one.

The deer didn’t fight back. It had given up hope already. It was staring off into the distance, probably hoping to die.

“I know what we can start with!” said Ace loudly.

He placed the other hand on the deer’s lower left foreleg and while pulling the upper left foreleg towards him, he pushed the lower left foreleg away and that hard.

The leg made a sickening sound as the bone it primarily consisted of broke.

Brady’s heart skipped a beat, his eyes widened. The deer cried in pain, and it was the most heartbreaking sound he’d ever heard.

Ace extended only one claw. “Look!” he chuckled.

He slowly scraped the claw across the deer’s belly, creating a large but not lethal cut while the deer kept on crying for mercy, barely moving at all.

“Ever tortured an animal like this?” Ace shouted. “Ha ha-ha-ha!”

Brady shook as he watched the torture continue. His stomach turned when Ace stopped and pulled a strip of skin away from under his claws, tossing it aside as if it were garbage.

Ace growled. “Gouging out the eyes is always an incredible feeling,” he said through gritted teeth. “ It will make you feel powerful. It will make you feel – unstoppable.”

Ace kept the lids of the deer open with one hand while holding the claw on the other hand in front of the globular organ.

“I will do this one. You can do the other one. Does that sound fine to you?”

Brady looked aside with his eyes closed. He wanted Ace to stop. He wanted to do something about it, but he couldn’t. He was afraid.

The deer was crying. Why didn’t Ace stop? What could cause a man to be able to do this? In the small amount of time he had known Ace, he had learned much about him. Ace was crazy. Ace was a psychopath.

The animal cried and screamed as Ace slowly penetrated its left eye. It felt like the deer was crying for hours before it finally stopped.

Brady opened his eyes, not wanting Ace to catch him with them closed.

The deer was breathing heavier than it had before. It knew it was going to die today, it knew that it was going to die alone, in pain, but not yet.

Brady tried not to think about it so deeply. This torture, it had happened, it was a fact now.

“Your turn!” said Ace gleefully as he got up, turned around and retracted the bloody claw.

Ace was actually having fun.

“Come on Brady. You do not have a wide variety of tools you can use on it, but I think that the throwing knives should suffice.”

Feeling sick, Brady approached the animal reluctantly and then crouched down next to it, on the exact same spot Ace had just sat.

He gulped as Ace said, “Be creative.”

There was nothing he could do to spare the animal from its suffering.

Without looking at the other eye or the open wound on the deer’s belly, Brady grabbed the animal’s snout and turned it upwards, revealing the other eyes.

Brady got one of the throwing knives out of his pocket and held it near the other eye.

How the shit am I going to do this? How the… I mean how can I?

Brady realized that he’d have to. If he wouldn’t do it, Ace would urge him to do it anyways, and if he were to walk away or kill the doe, Ace might get angry with him.

“Just look at that eye,” said Ace, which made Brady look at the reddish-black mess that was left of the eye.  

It made him want to throw up. It made him want to cry.

Brady took a deep, soft breath and prepared himself, feeling Ace watching his every move.

Slowly but surely, he moved the throwing knife closer to the deer’s other eye, feeling the world turn around him.

Brady exhaled slowly as the remaining inches between the knife and the eye grew smaller and smaller and – .

“Howdy folks!”

Ace turned in a heartbeat and Brady got the knife away from the eye, quickly putting it back into his pocket.

“Idu?” said Ace quickly. “Eh – how did you find us out here?”

Idu chuckled. “Oh Ace, with all due respect, but you really gotta work on your ‘erase traces’ skills,” chuckled Idu jokingly. “Man, I could easily track you down by just following your footsteps.”

Ace looked confused. Brady picked up his loaded crossbow and got up as well. Idu noticed the deer lying behind them, breathing loudly enough for him to hear.

“You caught a deer! Good work, man.”

Ace nodded. “Yep, I caught a deer.”

Idu’s eyes reduced to slits. “Is it – is it alive?” he said.

Ace turned to the deer while Brady looked at Idu.

“Yeah, we have not gotten the chance to kill it yet because you came here.”

Idu noticed the cut on its belly and the mangled eye. Brady saw his mouth dropping open and his eyes shooting open.

Ace didn’t notice it.

Fearing that Ace would wait until Idu would leave so that they could continue the torture, Brady got his crossbow ready, aimed at the deer’s head and then shot.

Click. Chuck.

The bolt penetrated the deer’s head, killing it instantly.

Ace didn’t look angry, Ace didn’t look happy, there was simply no emotion to be seen on his face, which frightened Brady.

Then Ace approached the deer, picked it up and threw it over his shoulder.

“Let us go, Ids.”

Idu watched and smiled as Ace walked past him, but as soon as Ace had actually passed him, Idu turned to Brady, cocking his head, his eyebrows down and together, looking suspiciously.

 

Chapter 17

Doing the Chores

 

 

Brady, Idu and Ace made their way through the blackberry bushes surrounding the camp.

Roderic and Jason were sitting by the campfire, opposite of each other, and Riley, Mister Allister and Leena were nowhere to be seen.

The deer hit the ground with a low thud and Brady and Ace took off their weapons, placing them against the tree near the table.

Idu and Brady joined the others by the fire, although they didn’t sit down.

“Leena, Riley, dinner has arrived!” Ace caked before disappearing into the cave.

“How was the training, young one?” Roderic asked him, and if the question was meant to be passive-aggressive, Brady didn’t notice it at all. Roderic sounded genuinely interested.

“It was o – okay,” Brady replied softly.

Roderic gave him a friendly nod before Jason flicked his joint into the fire.

“Ace can be a bit rough,” said Jason, relaxed. “As in yelling and screaming man, shit.”

“Yeah, well, luckily, he was not your mentor,” said Idu to Jason before turning to Brady. “Has anyone told you about Blake Kenzy?” Idu asked him.

Brady shook.

“Well – ”

“Sit down, Brady,” said Ace as he approached the campfire and took a seat next to Jason.

Brady exchanged a glance with Idu and Roderic, the latter who then patted the ground beside him.

Keeping his head low, he sat down next to Roderic by the campfire that wasn’t even burning. It wasn’t even smoldering anymore. The rain of yesterday had completely extinguished every single flame that had ever been part of the campfire.

“I was just telling him about Kenzy,” said Idu to Ace. “You know, the kid who ran away as soon as we were near MREZ?”

“Ah, Caliptian Kenzy,” said Ace as if the memories he had of him were joyous. “His time with us was short-lived but enjoyable.” Smiling crookedly, Ace added, “I am still not sure as to why he left.”

“Mayhap he did because you took away one of his fingers,” said

Roderic suggestively.

“That is very probable,” Ace laughed.

“W – w – why did you take away his finger?” Brady asked, a little shocked.

“Because Kenzy was a flirt,” Ace explained joyously. “In the…,” he snapped his fingers thoughtfully before squinting at Roderic. “I – I do not even think he had been with us for a year.”

“Four months,” said Jason. He cocked his head. “It might’ve been six.”

“And that is why you are not the inventory keeper anymore, Jase,” Ace laughed.

“Ah – what, I’m not?” said Jason, confused.

Idu facepalmed himself and breathed a deep sigh. “You fired the guy from the job and you did not even tell him?” he asked, irritated.

Ace pulled with the corner of his mouth. “Eh – wuh – yeah, perchance I should have told him. But we are not talking about Jason’s uselessness, are we? We are talking about Caliptian Kenzy. Basically, Brady, he flirted with Riley non-stop, and even with Leena, who was twenty years older than him around that time, which was like two years ago. The guy irritated Idu, me and the others so badly, but it was almost like the guy did not even realize it. One day, about two years ago now, I think, I hauled him out of his sleeping bag, extended my claws and threatened to cut his fingers off if he would not adjust his womanizing behavior.” Ace gave a snort of disbelief. “Do you know what he did? He told me, me, that I would not do it. You see, I am a man of my word, so I sliced off his right middle- and index finger and kicked him back to his sleeping bag. The soft sobbing I heard throughout that night still fills me with joy and delight. Such a shame that the others did not find it enjoyable what I did.”

Idu rolled his eyes. “Kenzy is a kid, Ace. Did you seriously not know of any other way to teach him a lesson? Did you truly have to cut off not one, but two of his fingers, to make a point?”

“I could not agree more,” said Roderic to Idu.

Brady remembered Idu telling him that Ace was a paper tiger, yet he had cut off someone’s fingers to make a point. Brady suddenly felt himself doubting Idu’s statement about Ace being a paper tiger.

“Perhaps you guys should tell him what happened to Kenzy,” said Jason as he lit another joint, causing Idu to shoot him a look of

 

disapproval.

“He fled,” said Roderic. “We found Blake near the Mount Rainier

Entering Zone, and he told us that his grandfather, the head of House Kenzy, had him exiled for ‘no reason whatsoever’. None of us believed him when we found him wandering the foot of the mountain, but we took him in anyways. We travelled back to Mount Adams to make him one of us officially, and he chose Ace as his mentor. A number of months later, we left Mount Adams, and after what Ace did to him, the moment we were nearing the Mount Rainier Entering Zone again on our way to Glacier Peak, he fled, and we have never seen him again.”

“Yep. I am going to make the beds,” said Idu before leaving them and walking towards the cave.

Ace looked at Idu from over his shoulder. Then he looked at Brady.

“Brady, what I want you to do is to start familiarizing yourself with the life as a member of this pack. Go help someone. Idu, for instance. Clean up the cave with him and help him make the beds. If you do not want to hang around with Idu, you could always help Riley and Leena out with the cooking.”

Something to do. Nice. “I – I – I’ll go help Idu.”

“Do that. He will appreciate it. If not, tell me.”

Riley and Leena came out of the cave together, followed by Mister Allister. The three of them were talking to each other, and for once, Mister Allister didn’t appear to be in a bad mood.

“Oh yeah,” said Ace, shortly before standing up and bringing the sword, the two crossbows, the bolts and the throwing knives to Brady. “Take these back in.”

Ace then turned to face Allister. Ace spread his arms as if he wanted to hug the man.

“You ready to play scout again? I need to know where this ‘Alex’ guy of yours went. I am going to kill his face off the moment I see him.”

Tunstall nodded. “Let us head out. I am in for some killing.”

As Ace and Tunstall left the camp, Brady entered the cave, thinking about Caliptian Kenzy, the doe and about what Ace had done to them.

I’d best forget about the doe, Brady thought, pulling with the corner of his mouth. I’d best forget about it.

It was dark inside the cave. The campfires were out.

Brady noticed a silhouette in the distance. It was Idu. Brady was about to say something to him, but then he heard Idu talking to someone. To himself.

Brady walked deeper into the cave, but he made sure to tread lightly.

“Stupid Ace,” he heard Idu muttering. “Already ruining that boy.”

Brady didn’t know what Idu meant by that. Did Idu know what Ace had done to the doe?

Idu suddenly turned around and Brady froze. He hoped that Idu wouldn’t think he had heard him.

“Yeah?” said Idu carefully.

“It – it’s me,” said Brady. “I eh… came here to help you.”

Idu rummaged around in one of the three backpacks Brady saw lying in the musty back of the cave. The back of the cave was rounded, and it smelled stale the closer he got to it.

“I hope you do not mind the smell,” said Idu. “It is because of the rain of yesterday evening and today’s warmth.”

Idu got a stick out of one of the fur backpacks along with two more items.

“I would greatly appreciate your help.” Idu wrapped the cloth around the stick and made a knot in it. “Try lightin’ this thing, will ya? Do you know how to do it?”

Brady shrugged. “Kind of,” he said, now standing near the backpacks, the sleeping bags and Idu close to the rounded back of the cave.

“Here, I will show you how.” Idu, who was crouching, handed him the short stick before he opened his other hand and showed him the flint and steel.

“We always do it with these boys. This is the flint, and this is the steel.”

Idu held them against each other. Brady shivered. It was much colder in the back of the cave than it was in the front, which was obvious, of course.

“Okay, so if you want to create fire using one of these, you have to make sparks.”

Idu scraped the piece of steel over the flint, causing a bunch of sparks to fall onto the ground in-between them, disappearing almost instantly.

“Here. Your turn.”

Brady returned the unlit torch to Idu and received the flint and steel.

“Now strike them against each other as hard and fast as possible.”

Brad did as Idu had instructed. He struck them against each other, hard and fast.

It didn’t work the first time, and it didn’t work the second time either. Then he decided to hold the flint and steel more tightly in his hands and struck them against each other again. Tsjk. Tsjk. Tsjk. Just like with Idu, a bunch of sparks landed on the ground in-between them.

“Nice. Try it again. You want to master this as quickly as possible so that you will not forget it again. After all, fire is one of the most important things to have in a survival situation, and considering that survival situations is where our currents lives will consist out of for the most part, it is one of the most important things in our lives.” Humorously, Idu added, “Well, that, and Leena for me of course.”

He did it again, three times, successfully.

“Alright. Now for the harder part.”

Idu placed the torch on the ground and signaled Brady to crouch down.

“I think you know what I mean by the ‘harder part’.”

Brady nodded. Idu was probably referring to lighting the torch.

“Try it out. Come on, go ahead.”

Idu already sounded like a better mentor than Ace. Brady had enjoyed the tutoring Ace had given him, but that was mainly because he had been allowed to use medieval weaponry, and the tutoring had been okay up until the point where Ace started torturing the doe.

Brady struck the two items against each other again and made the sparks appear. They didn’t quite reach the target, though, which was the unlit torch.

“If you want to light something, you have to strike faster, and with faster, I mean multiple times. Lighting something can sometimes take a while using these tools.”

Idu sounded patient. Brady tried it. Multiple times, he struck the steel against the flint, creating sparks every now and then, but it just seemed like the torch didn’t want to be lit. The sparks even landed right on the cloth on a couple occasions.

After about a minute, Idu ran out of patience and got up.

“Good. You keep on trying to light the torch. I will continue with what I was supposed to do; making the beds.”

Brady tried it over and over again, but it just didn’t seem to work. Tsjk. Tsjk. Tsjk. Tsjk. Tsjk.

It was tiring work; sitting in a crouched position slumped over an

unlit torch in a dark cave while striking two items against each other repeatedly.

A minute passed, then another minute passed, and before Brady knew it, he was lost in thought, thinking about Lisa, about Daphne, about Astrid, but mostly about his family. What would they be doing on this Thursday morning? Apart from his father, everyone was probably still asleep.

Idu walked past him and began sorting the backpacks. Footsteps made Brady turn around and snap out of the train of thoughts.

Idu turned around as well before turning back to the backpacks. “Are you back already from the scouting?” asked Idu to Ace.

“No, I am still out there,” Ace replied. “We did not find anything. We decided to wait and see what happens. They will show up again eventually, and when they do, we will be ready for them.”

Then Ace walked away, back to the entrance of the cave.

Idu heaved a short sigh before chuckling a little. Brady picked up the flint and steel and started striking them against each other again.

“Why is Ace like this?” he asked without thinking, causing him to worry about Idu’s response to the question, and Brady also checked his six anxiously just to make sure Ace wasn’t behind him.

Idu shrugged. “I do not know, but if I would have known he was like this, I would not have chosen to join this pack.”

Brady looked at Idu. Idu looked at Brady. Then Brady broke eye contact and returned to his duty: trying to light the torch.

“Then why don’t you and Leena just join another pack?” he asked, figuring that because he had already asked a more ‘dangerous’ question and because Idu’s response to it had been okay, he might as well continue. At least it was better than talking about trivial things such as the weather.

“Look, Brady. It is not as simple as that,” said Idu before he turned to him. Brady tried to make eye contact but he kept on breaking it, as always. “There are rules for joining and leaving packs. If you want to join the society on Earth one day, you are going to have to know how to adapt and how to tolerate certain things and certain people, and leaving this pack would mean leaving Riley, leaving Jason, leaving Roderic and leaving Tunstall. Also, if I leave, Leena has to as well. I cannot do that to her. Riley is like a daughter to her, and she treats Jason like a… nephew, I suppose. I am sure that if you had a choice, you would have chosen to stay with your family as well, no matter how annoying some of them can sometimes be.”

Brady thought about that. Would he have stayed home if he could’ve? He had never liked the idea of living a ‘normal’ life, but because of the things he had read on the internet about it, he had simply settled with the idea. He had accepted the fact that he wouldn’t be able to live a thrilling life such as knights or adventurers in the medieval times.

“Not really, no. My brother can often be annoying, but – ”

“Yeah, you do not leave your family just because of one bad family member. I love Leena. She is smart, attractive, funny, romantic. She is the woman of my dreams. I really like Riley and Roderic. Tunstall has his moments and Jason is more of a liability than anything else, but it goes about the fact that they are my family now, and they have been for years. I cannot just leave that behind because of one guy, because of Ace.”

Brady nodded, but Idu wasn’t done ranting yet.

“Ace has his moments, like Tunstall, but overall, he is – he is a mad man. You cannot forget that. Do not – trust him, Brady. It does not matter how nicely he acts to you. It does not matter how well he treats you. It does not matter how much of a good mentor he might be. Do not trust him.”

Brady continued striking the steel against the flint and it finally worked. The torch was burning and a few creepy shadows appeared on the walls of the cave.

Idu got up and smiled appreciatively. “Well done. There is a pedestal a couple feet back. Put it in there.”

Brady approached the pedestal. The pedestal was just a piece of metal connected to a wooden pole that was prevented from falling over by a bunch of stones that were carefully placed around it.

He placed the torch in the pedestal.

“You have helped me out a lot and I am nearly done here too. Try Leena and Riley, alright? I am sure they could use a hand.”

Brady nodded and turned around.

“And thank you, for – for listening.”

“Y – y – yeah.”

Then Brady headed out. He left the cave and walked to Riley and Leena, who were preparing the deer for tonight. Ace, Mister Allister, Jason and Roderic were gone. He wondered what they were doing.

Were they exploring the area or were they trying to find Alex again?

“Watch out for the urinary bladder,” Leena warned lightly. “Damage it and it might contaminate the meat.”

“Oh yeah… sorry,” said Riley absently.

According to Idu, Riley was like a daughter to Leena. It was nice to see that such bonds could form between people who had initially been unrelated to each other.

The doe lay on the table under the tree. It was skinned, completely, and it did not look like what Brady had expected a skinned deer to look like at all. The way it lay there and the way the meat was white and an odd reddish made it seem as though it had come straight from the butcher.

The skin was lying beside the table – a pile of reddish-brown gore – and there was a gaping hole in the carcass’s chest. Leena’s arm was halfway down the bloody hole and when she got it out, she had a fistful of gore in her hands.

“Can I… help with anything?” Brady asked, unable of keeping his eyes off the blood and the gore and the organs lying both on the table and on the ground beside the table.

 “Yes, you can help,” said Leena friendlily. “I need some clean water to boil the deer in. Would you mind helping Riley get some? I need to stay here and finish this.”

“Yes. Eh – I mean no, I wouldn’t mind.”

Leena smiled. “We don’t have buckets here. We use our own water skins. You don’t have one yet, do you?”

Not knowing what to say, Brady began nervously chewing the skin around his fingernails.

“Let me explain to you why we don’t use buckets. Water skins are very handy for when we are out travelling. We make them just large enough so that we can carry them without much effort. We mostly make them out of the urinary bladders of the animals we’ve killed. Everyone has two so that if one is damaged while on the road, you don’t necessarily have to make a new one right away.” Leena’s hand disappeared into the animal again before she got an odd, condom-colored, see-through sack the size of an overfilled water balloon out of it.

Brady squinted. For a moment, he thought this was some sort of joke.

Leena held one hand in front of her mouth and extended the other.

“Take this and my water skin to the pond. Riley will show you the way. She has her own water skin too, which has to be filled as well.

We have enough water here to clean the meat and the table once I am done, but I need these both filled.

When both are filled, I am sure we will have enough water to prepare dinner. Also, be sure to clean the urinary bladder thoroughly, and do not dispose of whatever is inside of the urinary bladder into the water, understand?”

“Yes.”

 

Minutes later, Riley and Brady arrived at the pond. It was deep and a few feet wide and long. Reed and a bunch of other plants surrounded the pond, and a couple of ducks flew away in a hurry because of them.

There weren’t many trees here. This was another one of those clearings in the forest. They made their way through the tall reed and Brady could see where the others had walked last time they’d been here. Riley extended her claws and removed some of the plants that were in their way. The sun was reflecting on the water. Looking at the water, he noticed that there weren’t that many clouds in the sky. It was going to be another one of those warm days. Usually, he preferred colder days, but now, in this forest, where it wasn’t that warm most of the time, he appreciated the sun.

“You have to clean the bladder first,” Riley told him as she crouched down near the edge of the pond. She submerged the brown, hardened water skin, filling it up with water.

“So do I just poke a hole in the bladder to get that stuff inside of it out?”

“No. Just put your hand below the bladder and turn it upside down so that what’s inside can get out through the long, thin end.”

Brady held the urinary bladder as he would a water balloon – at the bottom and at the tip.

“Be careful because it might gush, and like Leena said, don’t empty it in or too close to the water.”

Brady turned his back to the pond and emptied the urinary bladder onto the ground surrounding the pond. The reed sucked it up as if it were a nice, salty drank rather than a bodily fluid discharged through the urethra.

Nature doesn’t waste, Brady thought. Although this is kind of disgusting when you think about it.

Once the bladder was empty, Brady turned to the pond and submerged it, allowing it to fill up with water before he poured the water back into the pond again.

“That’s that,” said Riley, who seemed to be ready to return to the

camp.

Brady got Leena’s empty water skin out of his pocket and filled it with water as well. While he did, he took his time to examine it.

Like Riley’s water skin, the urinary bladder it was made of had hardened and was now a leathery brown. It looked like an overfilled water balloon, yet there was nothing inside.

He walked to the other side of the pond and filled Leena’s water skin before filling his own. Then he got up.

“Done?” Riley asked.

He nodded.

“Alright. Let’s head back then.”

 

A bright ray of sunlight blinded Brady for a moment. When he opened his eyes, he saw spots and colors in his vision. Squeezing his eyes shut fixed it.

They were on their way back to the camp, walking through a part of the forest which was still a little wet because of the morning dew.

“So,” said Riley to break the silence. “How are you liking it here so far?”

He avoided eye contact with Riley and she seemed to notice that. Fortunately, she didn’t remark on it.

“I like it… so far. It’s just… I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable around… Ace.”

Like with Idu, he hadn’t been sure whether he should talk to the others about Ace like this.

Idu had responded positively to it, though.

“You’ll get used to it eventually,” Riley assured him. “I did too after a while. He won’t hurt you, if that’s what you’re afraid of. Well, at least not intentionally.” She squinted. “Actually, he did once, but not me or one of the others. There was this guy. Blake Kenzy. Ace cut off two of his fingers because Blake was so annoying all the time; flirting with Leena and me and trying to provoke Mister Allister. Challenging Ace.”

Brady had heard that story already, but he didn’t want to interrupt Riley to tell her that he already knew of it, so he had to listen to it again.

“He wasn’t with us very long. After Ace cut off his fingers and once we entered the general area of Mount Rainier, Blake was gone.”

He shook the water skin back and forth as he thought about what to say next.

“About Ace,” Riley continued. “Once you get to know him and if he likes you, he is really not that bad. Sure, there are some things wrong with him, but he would never harm us. He treats most of us with respect, although he treats no one with more respect than his father, Dorian Nawot.”

Brady tilted his head. “His father? But I thought Ace said that he hates his father with every – ”

“Respect and hate are two different things. You can hate someone, but you can still respect them for what they are worth and what they can do. Ace knows that as well as I do. His father is a very intelligent man. He will be the successor of Markus Thorren, the current leader of the House of Noah and the Anolors.”

They climbed over a fallen tree and made their way through a bunch of bushes.

“What exactly is the House of Noah?”

“The House of Noah is a castle located on Mount Adams. It’s the headquarters of the Anolors and the Council. The Council is a group of people that make the rules and determine the penalties for those who don’t follow them. The leader of the House of Noah is the head of the Council too, and that is Markus Thorren. Currently, anyways. The House of Noah is also the place where packs have to go at least once every two years to show who have passed away and to make new Morus, like you, do the ritual to become one of them.”

Brady had wondered where they would be heading after they’d leave this place on the sixth of April. Now that was clear to him. They would go to Mount Adams. They would travel to the House of Great God Noah.

 “So… we’re going to Mount Adams, because of me?”

Riley nodded. “Partially. Mount Adams is a good fifty miles away from here, and that’s if you’re travelling in a straight line. I’d say it will take us at least five days to get there.”

Brady raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t sure if he could do that. But what he feared the most was that he would be a liability to the others.

“I didn’t… know we had to walk – “

“Calm down. It’s alright,” Riley tittered, which made Brady feel a little more at ease. “I’ll begin about it this evening. I’m sure all of your questions will be answered by the others then.”

They made their way through the bushes surrounding the camp and approached the table where Leena was working behind.

The deer was already cut into pieces and a cooking pot had been placed on the campfire. There was no way all that deer could fit into the cooking pot at once. It was not nearly big enough.

“Ah, you’re back,” said Leena before she drove a large knife through the table.

Brady asked himself why Leena didn’t just use her claws to cut the meat. He figured that it was because of hygiene.

They put the two water skins onto the wooden table near the meat.

“Good job. Now I can get started on the cooking. Hm, I think we will have to dry the rest of the meat.”

Jason was smoking a joint again, by the fire, and judging by how he

looked, it wasn’t the first one he’d smoked today, or in the past five minutes.

“Shall I pour the water into the pot?” Riley asked.

“If you will. Brady, did you clean the bladder?”

He nodded. “I have. Here.”

He handed the bladder over to Leena, who then carefully inspected it. Everything appeared to be all right judging by the expression on her face.

“I think Riley knows what to do with the meat, so let’s finish this water skin together, shall we?”

Riley was already pouring the water into the cooking pot, which started sizzling almost immediately.

“Hey, Riles. Could you boil the meat? You know how that works if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yeah. Sure. ”

He was surprised that he hadn’t freaked out when he had first seen the empty, dirty looking deer skin hanging at a branch of the tree. There were even some bones lying around it. Leena had done this quite quickly, at least that’s what it seemed like to him.

He didn’t know that much about hunting, or skinning animals for that matter. The brain, eye, the stomach and all the other organs were lying on the ground too, on a piece of leather that was, by the looks of it, used for that often. He didn’t know where they would need those organs for, but he was sure they had their uses.

He followed Leena into the cave.

The cave was still lit by the torch he’d put on the pedestal earlier this day, although the light was a little bit fainter than it had been at first.

Leena rummaged around through the items lying in the back of the cave.

“Now where did… Idu put it?” she said thoughtfully. “Ah, found it.”

Leena closed the chest and showed him a brown string that appeared to be crafted out of grass.

He gave Leena the water skin and she made a knot in it so that the water couldn’t pour out of the tip anymore.

“The bladder has to dry first,” Leena explained. “Once it starts turning brown, you can use it. In the meantime, you can use my reserve water skin. There’s a kettle standing under the table where we prepare the food. The opening is covered with tarpaulin as to prevent leaves and anything else from falling into it and spoiling the water inside. You can fill up your water skin with it whenever you like, only when the kettle is near empty, you will have to get new water and either cook the water yourself or ask somebody to cook it if you can’t. Don’t forget to put the tarpaulin back on once you’re done or leaves and all sorts of other things might fall into it.”

He thanked her and returned outside with her. The clouds were getting darker all of a sudden. Not knowing what else to do, Brady sat down onto the ground by the campfire opposite of Jason, fumbling with the string. He wanted to adjust the way Leena had put it around the tip of the water skin so that rather than having to untie the knot each time he wanted a drink, he could simply pull at both sides of the tip and open it that way. Closing it would be easier as well then. If this would work, he could close it by pulling both ends of the string.

Brady hadn’t sat down by the fire with the intention of talking to Jason, but once Jason had noticed him sitting there, Jason talked to him anyways. “So,” said Jason slowly, looking at him through squinted eyes. “I heard you did some… things, around the camp. You helped Idu, and you helped Leena. How’d that go for the first time, man?”

Even though Jason was stoned, he was trying to converse. This made Brady feel slightly uncomfortable. He’d never talked to a stoned person before. He didn’t know how they’d act.

It was… okay,” Brady responded awkwardly as he looked at Riley, who was now putting the venison into the cooking pot. “I learned how to use flint and steel and I made a water skin.”

“Good job, man,” Jason smiled. “Good job. Can I see it?”

He hesitated for a second, but then he handed it to Jason.

Jason inspected it carefully, as if he were holding something of great value.

“It’s nice and large, I can tell you that. You should add another string to it and tie it to your belt loops, man.”

That was a useful tip, for a completely stoned person.

 

There was a thunderous sound followed by lightning flashing in the sky.

Brady was inside of the cave, hiding, with Ace – whom had returned – and Leena and Riley. Roderic, Mister Allister and Idu were still gone. Leena looked concerned, and she probably was about Idu.

Jason wasn’t inside of the cave either. Jason was outside, dancing around the extinguished campfire, praising the Gods of Weather and Sound or… something.

At least, that was what Brady could make out of the things he was saying, or rather, chanting.

“God of the weather, give us your lighting. Burn those who don’t respect you! God of the weather, give us your rain. Help us water our lands and satisfy the thirst of ourselves and our livestock! God of sound, let us hear the music you created for the lightning! God of sound, let us hear the sounds you created for the rain!”

It was cringy for the lack of a better word; seeing him dancing and singing like that.

Brady sat in the back of the cave while Leena and Ace were sitting in the front, looking outside. Jason had been screaming those things for almost fifteen minutes now, and he’d gotten soaking wet in the process.

“Jason, get the hell inside before I cut your limbs off and sacrifice the rest of your body to the gods!”

Jason completely ignored him, feeding Ace’s annoyance. Leena and Riley didn’t seem to mind it that much.

Suddenly, three figures came out of the forest, entering the camp through the blackberry bushes.

“What are you doing, Jason?” asked Idu, who almost burst out in laughter. “Is he high again?”

The three men were soaking wet. They were probably going to light a campfire soon to get them to dry up.

That would be about time, Brady thought before hugging himself. He was freezing.

Mister Allister supported Roderic while they both entered the cave.

Idu pulled Jason in and shook, a wry smile on his face. “Kids these days.”

“What’s going on with Roderic?” Brady asked as Allister sat Roderic down on his bed. Brady asked this question because he wanted to show some concern. He knew that showing concern could make people like you more, and he wanted Roderic and the others to like him.

Roderic gestured Mister Allister that he was okay now and then Mister Allister sat down too, on his own bed.

“It is nothing, young one, but I appreciate your concern. I am not sure whether you have noticed yet,” Roderic added humorously, “but I am quite a lot older than each and every one of you.”

Ace didn’t really seem to care about Roderic as he approached them.

“Tunstall, did you manage to find anything?”

Mister Allister, who was sitting on his bed, staring at the ground, shook slowly. “No, I… we… have not managed to find a thing. It is almost as if the cunts are gone.”

“What a grand disappointment,” said Ace before turning to Brady. “Now, Brady. You and Riley are going on a special mission tomorrow. We need the two of you to fill our water skins with milk. We will need that on our journey to Mount Adams.”

Riley, who heard her name, came to them.

“Did you already tell him about the journey?” she asked, placing her left hand on her hip.

“Nope. I completely forgot,” Ace responded. “Brady-boy, we will be traveling to Mount Adams in a few days.”

“Yep,” said Idu, who then joined the conversation. “As the crows fly, it is a good eighty kilometers. It takes us about a week, if you include the obstacles.”

Ace guffawed at Idu. “We walk for around five hours a day. Our average speed will be around four kilometers an hour. Five times four is twenty. Eighty divided by twenty is four. So that means four days walking without obstacles, five days with obstacles. Monday first day, Tuesday second day, etcetera etcetera, ending on Friday. Five days is not a week, Idu.”

“Oh, I am sorry, ‘Mister Mathematics’,” said Idu sarcastically, obviously not appreciating Ace’s know-it-all attitude. “It is only a two day miscalculation.”

Ace heaved a sigh. “Two days. Two times twenty-four is forty-eight. That is not a small miscalculation if you ask me, and probably the others. It is a relatively big one, actually. Especially considering the fact that the entire journey will last five days at most, which means

that you are claiming that the journey to Mount Adams will last forty percent longer than that it actually will.”

Idu looked like he was holding himself back. It was as if Idu was trying to keep himself from getting angry or something. Riley had mentioned Idu being a hot-head.

“Alright,” said Idu calmly, but his face hinting at quite the opposite feeling. “Suit yourself.”

A crooked smile appeared on Ace’s face. Then Ace cleared his throat. “Now, where were we? Yes, the milk. But we need some extra food as well. So that gives you kids two options. You can either go out hunting, or steal a few gallons of milk. Your choice. Keep in mind that we have stolen from that farmer before and that he even caught us once, so he will probably not politely ask the two of you to leave.”

He wanted to choose for the hunting, but then the heavy feeling in

his head returned.

“The alpha male will appreciateth thou more if thou chooseth what ist difficult over what ist noth,” the voice told him. The voice sounded calming, but also evil and mocking at the same time.

Judging by what it had said, it wanted him to choose for stealing the milk rather than the hunting.

He’d have to answer now and he decided to do as the voice said. Brady didn’t do this for the voice, though. Rather, he did this for Ace because he wanted to get on the man’s good side considering he was the leader of this pack and he didn’t want to lose fingers for getting on his bad side.

“I’m going for stealing the milk.”

Ace looked both surprised and impressed at the same time.

“You are choosing for the challenge, eh? Does your… ‘female colleague’, agree with that?”

Riley, who stood near them, nodded.

Ace clapped his hands. “Okay! Go to bed now, then. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.”

“Just hold on a second,” said Roderic, who got up with difficulty. “I have to admit that I do not think that sending out our youngest to do such a difficult task is the right course of action, no matter whether you want them to learn something or not. No offense, but if they fail, one of them might be caught, and with that one I mean Brady.”

Ace smiled a bright smile. “Ah, Roderic. Have some faith in our younger members. I trust Riley is able of defending Brady if she has

too. I appreciate your concern, but you do not always need to think about the worst-case scenario. There is minimum risk involved in this mission. After all, the farmer is just a weak, frail, old man who probably cannot even keep his pitchfork up. And with pitchfork, I am not referring to the agricultural tool if you know what I mean, ha-ha!”

Roderic sighed and then looked away. Idu didn’t seem to fully agree with the plan either, and neither did Leena. Brady knew that he couldn’t crawl back now, though. The decision was made.

 

 

Chapter 18

Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk

 

 

“Stop right here,” said Ace, who carried a crossbow on his back.

They hid behind blackberry bushes just on the edge of the forest. There were no trees at all on the large plot of land starting only several feet away from them.

The farmhouse in the distance and its lands were surrounded by forest from all sides. Brady could only imagine how peaceful living here would have to be.

The farmhouse was rectangular and made of white bricks while the roof was made of black roof tiles. To the left of the farmhouse, a dairy constructed out of red planks and white metallic roof plates was standing. The dairy wasn’t particularly large, but it was a little larger than the farmhouse standing to the right of it.

A small garage constructed out of green planks stood in-between the farmhouse and the dairy.

There was a large meadow located in-between them and the farm and it was dotted with black, white and brown cows. The meadow itself was surrounded by wooden fences, which were just high enough to prevent the cows from jumping over and escaping.

Ace had told Bradyto take his backpack with him, and so Brady had.

“See that dairy there?” asked Ace as he pointed at it. “That is the target.”

Brady felt the warm sun on his troubled face. He worried about home again, and about Logan, and primarily the police.

The dairy seemed like it was used to house cows as well. Brady counted forty cows, and judging by the size of the dairy, it would be crammed once all the cows were inside of it.

“If you are lucky, the farmer is not at home and you can take your time. If you are not so lucky, he is home and you will have to be quiet and swift,” Ace told them, keeping his eyes on the farm.

Brady looked at the dairy. The large brown doors of the red wooden building were closed. They’d have to find a different way in.

“Brady, just follow Riley’s lead. She will get you two inside.”

Riley and Ace exchanged a brief glance and Ace gave her a nod.

“Come on,” said Riley as she stepped past the bushes.

Riley proceeded to cross the little strip of grass in-between them and the meadow and then vaulted over the wooden fence, immediately

attracting the attention of several nearby cows.

Brady just climbed over the fence. He lacked the agility to be able to vault over it.

The two made their way to the dairy. Some cows approached them as they ran through the meadow stealthily. It was a short run. It took them only twenty seconds to get from one side of the meadow to the other side, but Brady hadn’t felt this alive in years.

His heart was thumping in his chest, he was stressed because he didn’t want the farmer to catch them, and he also wasn’t certain of the intentions of the cows chasing him.

In the first time in what felt like years, he breathed and actually felt like he was in the moment rather than in his thoughts, thinking and overthinking everything.

They climbed over another fence, which was the one that separated the meadow from the rest of the farm, and then used the side of the dairy facing the meadow and the cows as cover.

Despite the stress, he felt joyful, he felt alive. He felt so alive and so merry that he barely heard Riley telling him to check the driveway while she checked the windows, and that they would regroup to this side of the dairy once they were done.

Brady nodded, feeling slightly unnerved with the task that had been given to him. Riley walked towards the farmhouse and Brady made his way to the driveway, which was on the other side of the farmhouse. He ran across the gravel path towards a small, green garage between the dairy and the farmhouse and hid behind it. He listened carefully. No sound but his increased heartrate. Brady checked both corners of the garage. Clear. As he ran over the land of the farmer, he remembered him and his brother having done something similar to this in the past a couple of times; spying on their neighbors, which were now their ex-neighbors. The man and woman hadn’t appreciated it, even going as far as to confront their parents about it. His mom made them buy a box of chocolates to give to their neighbors. She had also made them apologize to them. As Brady approached the edge of the house, he placed his back against it. Brady then looked around the corner, being able to see the dirt track leading out of the forest, and the driveway. It was empty. He turned around and ran back, taking the same path he used to get here. As he turned around the corner of the dairy, he bumped into someone. “Whaah!”

“Jesus.” Riley placed a hand on her chest. “Pffff.”

Brady pffffed as well. He was sure he would have died of a heart attack if this would have been the farmer.

Riley signaled him with her eyes. “I’ve found a way into the dairy. Follow me.”

They ended up behind the dairy. The official entrance of the dairy was on the other side, but those doors were locked. There was some kind of air vent here, which they could use to enter the dairy, but they quickly figured out they couldn’t get in because of the iron bars blocking their way. They crouched down next to it. Riley grabbed two of the bars with her hands.

“This is the only possible way in, apart from the front doors. We have get rid of these bars somehow.”

Brady’s eyes widened. “Remove the bars? If we do that, he – he – he’ll -- he’ll know we’ve been here for sure.”

“I know, but what does it matter? It’s not like we are really going to see him again any time soon anyways, and he won’t know it was us who did this.”

Brady couldn’t come up with any other options, so he reluctantly agreed to Riley’s plan.

Riley got up. The bars were connected to each other, forming squares the size of a fist. The area surrounding the bars was made of concrete, but the concrete was failing. There were cracks in it. The concrete was either very old or it was of low quality.

Riley kicked against the bars once, and very hard apparently because as soon as her foot made contact with the bars, a deafening sound echoed through the dairy.

“What the heck?” Brady whispered as he anxiously kept an eye on the farm’s grounds, fearing to either hear the gravel crunching or seeing the farmer coming their way.

“Do we really have to – ”

DUNG. Brady’s hands shot to his ears.

If the farmer would’ve been home, he would’ve definitely heard all this. Brady looked at the iron bars and to his surprise, the concrete around it was cracking even more.

“We’re fortunate that this stuff is so old,” Riley remarked.

Brady nodded before Riley kicked against the bars repeatedly with much force, but when she kicked it for the fifth time, she staggered

back.

Brady had his hands on his ears and was scanning the driveway anxiously. He felt very alert, yet he could’ve done with less stress.

The lack of rumbling made him remove his hands from his ears and turn to Riley.

“Jesus that hurts,” she murmured before she crouched down and grabbed her right, light-brown boots. “Come on. Your turn.”

He looked at her in disbelief.

“Uh… I – I – I d – d – don’t know if I c – can – ”

“Just do it,” Riley urged. “We don’t have time for this. You know that, right?”

Brady hesitated for a second, but then he did it. He kicked once and saw the iron bars pushing back into the concrete, causing the concrete to crumble on the other side.

His eyes fell onto the peeling red paint on the wooden planks. This dairy really was old.

Brady kicked five times, as hard as he could. His kicks were slow, but the force behind it was hard enough for the concrete to crack even more, although just a little.

“See?” said Riley proudly. “What were you afraid of?”
“I – I – I wasn’t afraid, I – ”

“Tell me later. Focus on the kicking for now.”

Brady could feel the same pain Riley was feeling arising in his leg.

After two more kicks, he was done.

“Alright. Let me take it over,” said Riley.

She didn’t have to say that twice. Brady stepped aside, putting a hand on his lower left leg as he watched Riley kicking the bars.

She kicked once, twice, and with a loud noise, the concrete cracked, broke and the iron bars were pushed into the dairy, clinging onto the concrete floor inside before coming to a stop.

“Nice,” said Brady.

“Now, I’ll go first, okay? If the farmer comes, you just run.”

Brady nodded. “Okay, sure.”

Riley crouched down, looked at him from over her shoulder and squinted. “Really?” she tittered. “Wow.”

Her tone was free of any judgement, which left Brady puzzled as to why Riley appeared to be surprised by his answer.

“W – what is it?” he asked worriedly.

“Well I had expected at least some chivalry,” she smiled. “I mean, I know that I’m older than you and that I’m used to this life while

you’re new to it, but come on, you’re really going to accept my offer of leaving me behind to potentially die without feeling any guilt whatsoever?”

“N – no?”

She gave a snort of laughter. “Let’s just go.”

He looked at her for a second and then nodded reluctantly.

Riley crawled through the air vent while Brady waited outside, anxiously scanning the area and hoping he could climb through soon, or rather that they could leave.

“I’m through. Your turn,” said Riley softly.

He took off his backpack and shoved it through the hole.

Riley grabbed it and pulled it into the dairy. He crawled through the opening swiftly and then got up, dusting off his pants as he attempted to find Riley, who had been here just a second ago but was now gone.

She was already venturing deeper into the dark dairy, having taken his backpack with her.

“Riley,” Brady whispered nervously.

On the inside, the dairy consisted of one large, open chamber with a high roof and concrete flooring. The dairy looked longer on the inside and on both sides of him were cow stall – about twenty on each side.

The concrete flooring continued in the cow stalls, but the farmer had covered the cold concrete floor with lots of fresh hay.

In the distance, near the doors, he noticed what appeared to be a room. Rather than having concrete flooring like the rest of the building, this room’s flooring consisted of small, white, square tiles.

“Riley,” he said unconfidently as he made his way through the dairy towards the room near the large doors. “R – Riley?”

He was starting to feel uncomfortable now. He took a couple of steps farther into the diary. The stench of manure filled his nostrils. A couple of years ago, he wouldn’t have had a problem with that considering he lived right next to a farm, but now?

“Over here,” he heard Riley saying. Her voice was so confident. Was she not nervous or anxious at all?

Apart from the few rays of sunlight entering the building through the holes in the roof, it was dark inside of the dairy.

As he entered the room, he saw Riley standing near six large, metal vats.

The vats had milk in them. Lots of milk. The milk was being steered

constantly by an automated machine.

“Here’s the milk,” said Riley. “I don’t think the farmer would miss those few liters we’re going to take. Do you?”

Brady shrugged before Riley looked at him with her honey-brown eyes. “I don’t feel very comfortable with stealing.”

Riley pulled with the corner of her mouth. “Yep. I know what you’re talking about.”

He placed his hands on the edge of one of the metal vats, looking at the milk as it was being stirred.

“You’re getting nervous, aren’t you?” she asked him.

He obviously didn’t want to admit that he was – fearing she’d look down on him – so he just shrugged and attempted to change the topic.

“Why are we going to all this trouble for some milk? We have water, and doesn’t this seem like much work for you for seven water skins?”

“Eight,” she corrected, looking at the milk in one of the vats. “And no. Some, and with some I mean very few, beverages have different effects on you now you’re a Morus. Cow milk is one of those beverages.” Mysteriously, Riley added. “You’ll see.”

Brady hadn’t drunk milk in a while. He also couldn’t remember the last time when he had. It had been at least a week or two ago. Riley got the backpack off her back and got the water skins out of it. It were seven in total, his included and Riley’s excluded because she had kept hers on her person.

“Won’t the milk be spoiled before we even leave?”

 Riley filled one of the water skins and he approached her to help. “Oh, don’t worry about that. Milk itself spoils in two to three days. But it will last longer if you put it into something, like in a carton or, like in our case, in a water skin.”

He wondered if his water skin was ready for use yet. It probably was, because otherwise, someone would’ve warned him already, probably. They’d cleaned it by pouring boiling water into it, and they’d led the water sit for a while.

Brady got Ace’s water skin out of the backpack and filled it with milk.

Riley began as well, working quietly.

 

A minute or three passed. They only needed to fill one more now; Jason’s.

His own water skin had dried nicely over the past hours, and while it wasn’t hard and leathery yet, like the other water skins, it was a lot harder than it had been first.

He was about to get Jason’s water skin out of his backpack, but then he heard a car door closing, which made him put a hand on his mouth in shock and turn to Riley with his eyes widened.

“Okay, he’s home,” said Riley before drawing a sharp breath. “We have to get out of here right now, but stay calm,” she told him, “otherwise, you might make some mistakes, and we don’t want that, okay?”

Even though she sounded rather calm, Brady still detected a glimmer of panic in her voice.

“But what about Jason’s – ”

“No,” Riley interrupted him. Authoritatively, she said, “If he finds us, we’re in deep trouble. I can’t use my claws on him, you know?”

He made sure his water skin was shut tightly before he closed his backpack and lifted it off the ground.

“Come on,” Riley whispered, trying to keep her cool.

He followed her back to the air vent, all the way through the dark, cold dairy.

“You go first.”

Without hesitating for one moment, he dropped the backpack and crawled through the air vent as quickly as he could.

Riley grabbed the backpack and pushed it through the vent. Brady pulled it out and then put it on before contemplating whether it was socially acceptable to reach for Riley’s hand to help her out.

He decided not to do so.

Riley crawled out and got up, taking a moment to dust off her jeans.

Brady heard sounds and was shocked when he realized it were the sounds of footsteps.

He looked around the left corner of the dairy – the corner nearest to the air vent – and he startled when he saw an old man with a weak chin, sunken eyes and dressed in blue overalls approaching them. He carried a pitchfork in his hands and he didn’t seem to be afraid to use it.

“Hey!” the farmer shouted with his shrill voice.

“Come on, come on!” Riley exclaimed, who appeared to have startled from the sudden appearance of the farmer.

Riley ran towards the wooden fence and vaulted over it. He thought he’d be able to do that too this time, but he hesitated and just climbed over it instead. He looked at the farmer from over his shoulder and saw that he was running after them.

The farmer wasn’t that fast, but if he’d see his face and would report

them to the police, people might recognize him.

That sudden realization made him almost forget about where he was and what he was doing.

“What are you doing?” Riley, who was already halfway on the other side of the meadow, shouted.

Riley slowed down a bit just when he jumped down the fence and started racing through the field.

“Go!” she shouted.

“We’re being followed!” Brady uttered anxiously when he saw cows curiously closing in on him curiously.

“They’re just curious. Come on!”

They finally reached the other fence.

As he climbed over it, he looked at the farmer, who had given up long ago.

The old man hadn’t even bothered climbing over the fence. In fact, he wasn’t even there anymore.

Brady waited for Riley to throw the backpack over the fence, but he found out she wasn’t planning on doing that.

“What are you waiting for?” Brady demanded.

“I’m going back,” Riley responded. After an unsure chuckle, she said, “This may sound melodramatic, but we have to fill Jason’s water skin. I can’t go back handing everyone their filled water skins and giving Jason an empty one.”

Brady wanted to convince her to return to the camp with him, but he knew she wouldn’t appreciate that.

It was quiet for a second.

Riley appeared to be waiting for him to say something, but she found out quickly that that wasn’t the case.

Before he could say anything else, Riley darted through the meadow back to the farm, leaving him behind with nothing but his own water skin.

Not knowing what else to do, Brady plumped down into the soft grass and heaved a sigh, glad that he’d made it out.

He was worrying, though.

He was worried that the farmer might report them, and that the police would search around the forest and find them.

While Ace and the others had claws, he doubted they’d be able to put up much of a fight against an armed police force.

Brady allowed the grass to tickle him between his fingers, and he attempted to forget what he was thinking about by closing his eyes

and looking up at the sun, enjoying the warmth.

 

Brady was lay in the grass on his stomach, peacefully searching for a four-leafed clover in a patch of clovers.

It was such a nice day, and thinking about how much he was enjoying himself outside in the sun, not worrying about school, homework or his grades, he was beginning to doubt one of his very own dislikes. Warm, sunny days weren’t that bad, at least not when spending time outside rather than inside, playing video games, doing homework or watching videos online.

It was only when he devoured another three-leafed clover that had initially looked like a four-leafed clover when he had picked it, that he realized Riley was taking too long. With the petiole of the clover sticking out of his mouth, he looked up very suddenly at the dairy, thinking that maybe the farmer had caught her.

He remembered what Ace had said. Ace had mentioned them having stolen stuff from the farmer before.

If Riley were to be caught in the act, the farmer would obviously immediately suspect her of the stealing.

Brady got off the ground, climbed over the fence and started running back to the dairy.

I’ll only take a look, he reassured himself.

With his heart in his mouth, he climbed over the fence and approached the dairy. He was sure that if he would run into the farmer now without expecting it, it wouldn’t be good for his health. Brady sneaked to the air vent and crawled through, hearing voices as he got up on the other side and dusted some of the concrete debris off his jeans.

He heard a shrill voice. The farmer, he realized.

Fearfully, he made his way through the dairy.

“I have no money here. There is nothing of value!”

“I’m not here for money,” he heard Riley saying, and she sounded like she was in trouble.

While he didn’t want to risk his own safety to safe Riley, he knew that he had to.

He couldn’t turn back. He just couldn’t.

 “Then what in God’s name are you doing here?” the farmer demanded angrily.

Brady sneaked through the dairy and pressed his back against the wall of the room with the milk vats.

He looked around the corner. To his horror, he saw the farmer pointing at Riley with a hunting rifle. Riley’s panicky eyes met his. She was cornered. She had her hands in the air.

“I – I was getting some milk for my eh – cat,” Riley said. Somehow, now she knew that he was here, she sounded a lot more confident.

“For your cat? That’s bullshit! Do you want me to shoot you?” the farmer yelled.

It was an old, frail man. A good kick against the shin might just break it, giving them all the time they would need to escape.

But Brady wasn’t violent. He was going to solve this non-violently.

An idea popped up in his mind. Gladly, he thanked himself before he took action. Brady sneaked back to the vent and picked up some loose pieces of concrete. They were small and easy to carry.

“You stole my money and trashed my house. Now you try my dairy?”

So that was what they’d done. No wonder Ace warned us like that. They hadn’t only stolen milk, but they’ve stolen money from him too.

Had they used it to buy the clothes? Some of their clothing looks very new.

Brady sneaked back to the room with the milk vats and looked around the corner again. Hesitatingly, he thought about the things he had done these past few days in an attempt to boost his confidence.

This isn’t as scary as that time with Daphne and those three men. It’s not nearly as scary.

That thought made him feel slightly more at ease and even gave him enough confidence to act.

He winded up his arm and threw the concrete at the farmer, but not hard enough to actually hurt him.

“What the…?” the farmer exclaimed as he turned around, giving Riley an opportunity to escape.

But Brady was already gone. He was running like the wind, fearing that at any moment now he would hear the explosive sound of the farmer’s rifle and feel a stabbing pain in a non-lethal area of his body.

But instead, the farmer exclaimed a short yelp before something clattered onto the tiled floor.

Just before he reached the air vent, Riley caught up with him.

“What happened?” Brady asked, his voice cracking with panic.

“Just go!” Riley grabbed his shoulders and pushed him down, signaling him to climb through the air vent.

Brady slid through the air vent and this time, he grabbed Riley’s hand and helped her through.

Brady was about to make a run for the meadow, but Riley grabbed his shoulder again and pulled him back, causing Brady to fall onto his behind clumsily.

Riley gasped. “Sorry!”

“It – it’s okay!”

“We can’t run now,” said Riley as she helped him up. Her hand was warm, and somehow, looking at her made him feel safe, especially considering she was slightly taller than he was.

“He’ll have a clear shot if we run now,” said Riley carefully. “We have to disarm him.”

“But how?”

Riley looked as if she was trying to come up with something. “We can hide behind the dairy, and if he rounds the corner – ”

“Hey!” they heard coming from the front of the dairy.

They hid on the other side of the dairy, facing the meadow, seeing the cows staring at them curiously.

Brady’s heart was thumping in his chest. He thought that he was going to die.

He thought about the farmer shooting and killing him.

But what if the bullet doesn’t kill me? Panic surged through his body when he thought about that. What does it feel like to get shot?

Brady remembered that he had been attacked by a wolf not too long ago. He remembered the excruciating pain the wolf had inflicted on him.

Did a bullet through the leg, shoulder or arm hurt as much as that?

Brady doubted it, but he didn’t have any experience with getting shot, so he wasn’t sure.

His eyes widened when he heard footsteps not too far away from him.

“He’s coming!” Brady hissed desperately.

He didn’t know how much longer he could do this. The gravel crunched beneath the farmer’s boots. The sound became louder and louder as the old man got closer and closer, cursing softly. Then the farmer turned around the corner. Brady froze.

“Ah-hah!”

Riley shoved Brady aside, yet again throwing him to the ground before she kicked the rifle out of the old man’s hands, causing it to fly up into the air. Riley extended her claws and then, as the rifle

plummeted back down to the ground, she slashed at it, not exactly cutting it in half, but severing the wooden stock and fore-end from the steel barrel, rendering the firearm useless.

The farmer’s mouth dropped open by the sight of his gun landing on the ground in two pieces, but he was even more shocked when he saw the eights sharp claws attached to Riley’s knuckles.

“What in God’s name?” the man asked, his eyes widened.

Brady crawled up slowly and before he had even gotten up, Riley grabbed his arm and pulled him with her.

They ran back towards the meadow and climbed over the fence. They were already halfway through before they realized that they weren’t being followed. The farmer was just staring at them.

 

“Have you filled Jason’s water skin?” Brady asked. It sounded almost like he were about to cry, and he hated it. Brady was so scared right now. His hands were trembling, and it wasn’t with excitement. The farmer had obviously seen them, and Brady had witnessed firsthand how accurately a police sketch artist could recompose faces using descriptions.

“Yes,” said Riley. He grabbed his backpack with the other hand. His left hand had grown tired of carrying it. “I don’t want to know what happens once… once I tell Ace about the farmer having seen my claws.”

He’d completely forgotten about that. This could be… something.

Something bad.

“We can just not tell him about it,” Brady thought out loud as they slowed down a bit.

He placed his hands on his knees and took a moment to regain his thoughts.

“No, we have to tell him. I’m an incredibly poor liar, and if he finds out I lied about it, I will be in even deeper trouble.”

They were on the edge of the forest, looking for a way in.

It was then that they saw something in the distance; a man, approaching them.

It was Ace, and he’d seen them too.

Ace waved at them with a huge grin on his face. It made Brady think about a little kid who didn’t understand the rules of hide and seek very well.

That thought made an absent smile appear on his face despite the things that had just happened in and around the dairy.

He waved back shyly for a second. It just didn’t feel good to not do so.

Ace approached them. “And?” he asked them, smiling excitedly.

“Done,” Riley replied curtly.

Then she exchanged a quick look with Brady, who looked away. Ace noticed it.

“And… how did Brady do it?” he asked slowly, his recent excitement replaced with suspiciousness.

“Ehm – okay,” said Brady.

Ace tilted his head. “Why so curt, the two of you, huh? Buck up. You just stole milk from an old man,” Ace winced. “I know that it may sound a bit stupid and not much like an achievement at all, but it is.”

“Something happened back at the farm,” Riley admitted suddenly, not backing down but obviously feeling nervous.

Ace eyebrows pulled down together.

“Ubh – completely my fault by the way,” she added, pulling with the corner of her mouth. “Brady had nothing – ”

What – happened?” Ace demanded intimidatingly, looking down at Riley, but still, she didn’t back down and kept strong eye contact.

“The farmer -- saw my claws,” she said softly.

Ace’s face grew blank before he slowly turned to the farm as if he had only just realized it was there.

Suddenly, Ace vaulted over the fence and ran across the meadow.

“Jeez, he’s fast,” Brady remarked normally.

“Wha – ? Don’t you realize what he’s going to do?” Riley’s hands turned into fists. “Ace!” she called, vaulting over the fence and running after him.

Brady watched Ace running to the farmhouse and Riley following him.

After pondering for about five seconds, Brady decided to go after them. He vaulted over the fence but felt his leg being caught on the upper plank, causing him to be stuck for a moment before he fell.

“Oof,” he said when he hit the ground with a low thud.

He got up and followed Ace and Riley, but he wasn’t going to run. It was way too warm for that.

 

It took him a while to arrive at the farm. He rounded a corner, followed a path in-between the farmhouse and the small garage and then approached the green front door.

Even from outside he could hear Ace taunting the farmer. The odd thing was that Ace didn’t even sound angry. He sounded more as if he was enjoying this moment.

Ace was informing the old man about the fact that these were the last few minutes for him on this planet, and that his death would be slow and painful. Riley tried to persuade Ace to let the man go, or to at least kill him fast rather than slowly and painfully, which the farmer didn’t deserve. After all, the farmer was the good guy here. They were the bad ones. Brady realized that all too well. The door had been kicked in, the wood was splintered. Brady could get inside without any trouble. With Ace here, he suddenly felt a lot safer, and if Ace were to get rid of the farmer, at least the potential problem of the farmer reporting them would be gone.

“You see these claws?” Ace shouted. “I am going to cut your legs off and then I’m going to gouge out your eyeballs slowly. Oh, this is going to be so much fun!”

Brady walked through the small, cramped kitchen and noticed an outlet as well as the crossbow they had taken with them, which lay on the black, plastic kitchen counter. He then quietly approached a door in back of the kitchen, in the left wall, and entered the living room, where Ace, the farmer and Riley were standing in.

The living room was bigger, but it had a low ceiling and the floor was ugly, consisting of a dark-brown nylon carpet. The room was also pretty empty apart from a fireplace located in the left part of the room and a dining table.

They don’t even have a TV, Brady noticed.

Across the room, atop a staircase consisting of three stairs, there was a door, but it was closed.

“Please, sir! Don’t kill me,” the farmer, who was on his knees before Ace in the center of the room, begged, tears in his eyes. “I won’t tell anyone. Please, I swear!”

It was an old, harmless man. Brady thought that if he would have been in Ace’s position, he would have let the man go and would’ve just left with the pack.

Although, thinking about the future, if he’d ever be allowed to return to his family, the potential report the farmer could make to the police about them stealing from him and threatening him with death could get him in trouble.

“Ace, stop this!” Riley demanded. “He is already going to die! Could you at least not make it any more stressful for him than it

already is?”

Ace raised his fist slowly, his claws already extended, causing the farmer to cringe away in fear.

“I am going to do something else,” Ace laughed mockingly. “Your arms first. Quickly though, okay? After that, your legs. What do you

have to say about that, huh, Brady?”

Ace looked at him, his claws pointed at the old farmer.

Brady joined Riley’s side curiously and the farmer looked up at him with his old face and his dull blue eyes.

“Tell him to sto – hop, please!” the old man begged, alternating his glance between Riley and him.

The sheer desperation in the man’s voice and the fact that he was old and frail made Brady feel sorry for him all of a sudden.

“Brady, opinions?” Ace asked him loudly, enjoying this moment to the fullest.

Riley looked at Brady with her eyebrows down and together.

The door across the room flew open and a large old woman with gray curls who wore a pink dress covered in purple flowers appeared, carrying a shotgun.

“Leave my damn husband alone.” she said heroically.

Then she did something Brady hadn’t expected an old woman like her to do at all.

POOM. A loud and piercing peep filled his head and the explosive sound of the shotgun made him feel like his heart had just burst out of his chest.

Brady saw the old man getting up and retreating with his wife into the back of the house, disappearing around the corner.

Brady and Riley exchanged a quick glance with each other before watching Ace slowly removing his hands from his ears and growling frustratingly through gritted teeth.

Brady noticed several holes in the white wall near the door leading to the kitchen. The woman had missed the shot.

Turning around, Ace looked at him and Riley, smiling an aggressive smile. Something fell out of Ace’s one good eye.

Brady squinted suspiciously at the see-through thingy lying on the nylon carpet. It looked like a colored contact lens. Why was Ace wearing a colored contact lens?

He grew confused when he looked up at Ace and saw that his honey- brown eye was now blood-red, filled with madness.

“Ace, no!” Riley shouted, backing away quickly.

Then he noticed something else, something that made him back off slowly in horror.

Ace was growing bigger and bigger and black fur started growing out of his skin. His ears grew large and pointy, his nose and mouth formed into a snout and each part of his body grew stronger and bigger.

Thick, black claws grew out of his enlarged fingers and toes, while his bad eye turned good again, taking on the same blood red color as the other one.

As the fur grew out of his skin, his clothes grew into it, disappearing.

Ace began to look a lot like the wolf that had bit him, only not quite. Two parts were colored differently, and those parts were his snout and a line on his back, which were both white-grayish.

While this thing looked like an entirely different entity, it still resembled Ace Nawot in a weird way.

“W – w – what the fuck?” Brady stammered slowly as Ace surpassed nine feet in height.

“Back off. Back off!” Riley barked at Brady.

The two of them took a couple of steps back until their backs pressed against the wall behind them.

Ace, or the wolf that he had turned in to, was now ten feet tall and about three times as broad as the average grown man. Ace’s muscles rippled as he growled loudly, signifying that his transformation was finished.

Brady’s mouth dropped open as Ace charged through the doorway leading to the back of the house, making the entire house shake as he stomped towards the old man and woman.

Riley pressed her hands on her ears firmly and closed her eyes tightly. Brady didn’t do so. Instead, he looked in awe at the shotgun that the woman had dropped in the doorway as he heard wood breaking, glass shattering and furniture being thrown across the room. But those things weren’t all that he heard. Loud screams of agony, murder, and the sounds of flesh being torn apart filled his ears. With an empty look in his eyes, he listened to the scarily enjoyable sounds of chaos and death.

 

It was quiet on the way back to the camp, although it wasn’t a normal silence, it was an awkward one. Ace was walking up front, the wooden crossbow no his back dangling back and forth. He was ignoring them, still angry with them for what they’d done, even

though he’d done something far worse than that.

Back at the farm, after Ace had left, Brady had wanted to see what was left of the farmer and his wife, only Riley had stopped him, saying that it was for his own good that she didn’t allow him to.

“How did he turn into a werewolf?” Brady, who walked a couple of yards behind Ace with Riley, whispered greedily.

They hadn’t crossed the meadow yet.

Brady reevaluated the way he asked that. It didn’t sound right, especially not after what had just happened.

“It’s called the Beast Within,” Riley explained solemnly, looking at the ground. “It – it – it allows a Morus to turn into a wolf-like creature.”

He looked fascinated, and he wondered whether he could do that too when he was old enough.

Riley grabbed him by his shoulder suddenly, roughly, causing him to stop walking and look at her, shocked.

Don’t tell this to anybody else, okay?” she hissed worriedly. “If you do and Ace finds out, he’ll kill you.” She let go of him and with a softer tone, she added, “I am just warning you.”

His eyes widened. “They don’t know?” he whispered.

“No, they don’t, and there’s a very good reason why.”

Ace turned around angrily. “What are you two babbling about?” he spat.

Ace’s one good eye was honey-brown again. Brady hadn’t seen Ace reverting to his human state.

Riley nor Brady had the guts to reply to Ace’s question.

“If anyone finds out about the killing of these two people, I will blame it on the two of you. Do not even try to turn the story around. It is your fault that this has happened, and you both know it!”

Riley looked at Ace and Brady looked at the ground.

Then Ace turned back around, resuming his journey back to the camp. It was quiet again for a while, until he felt this heavy feeling in his head.

“Putteth thyne hand in thyne pocket,” said the voice, his tone calm but mocking, like before.

Then the feeling was gone.

It was hard to describe. Whenever the voice was there, it felt like an upcoming headache.

Brady put his hand into his pocket and felt something sharp. He even accidentally cut his finger on it.

“Ah,” he whispered, flapping his hand in an attempt to reduce the minor pain.

He put his hand back into his pocket and carefully closed his fingers around something hard and sharp-edged.

He instantly remembered that it was the shard he’d found in the ruins of the Krestley’s house a while back, the one the voice made him pick up from his mom’s house.

What did the voice want him to do with it?

 

 

Chapter 19

Never Dead

 

 

It felt like they had walked for hours. Instead, they had only walked for a minute or ten. Brady still heard the screams echoing through his head, and the sounds of the flesh being torn apart as well. He couldn’t get it out for some reason.

He could already see the blackberry bushes surrounding the camp in the distance. Just out of earshot of the camp, Ace turned around very suddenly. “No word about it or – ”

But Ace’s warning was interrupted by screams.

Brady listened carefully, standing on his toes, and so did Ace, only he remained on his feet.

“Listen,” Ace whispered.

Brady exchanged a hurried glanced with Riley, who seemed equally shocked.

Brady looked at Ace.

Another scream. Brady’s eyes widened when he realized who it was. Leena.

“By Ahlorin! Go go go! Follow me!”

They could barely keep up with Ace. As they came closer to the camp, the screaming and sounds of steel on steel became louder and more apparent.

“Riley, take left! Stay with Brady! Guard that little shit with your life!”

Ace went right and disappeared into the bushes surrounding the camp. Riley grabbed Brady’s hand and pulled him with her.

“W – w – where are we going?” Brady asked, fearing for his life.

“Taking the higher ground!” Riley was shouting at him. “Allister taught me this!”

Before he knew it, they were standing on the back of the cave. Grass grew on it so from his point of view, it was as if they were standing on a short hill.

The camp looked like an arena from here, and the blackberry bushes surrounding it were the walls that kept the contestants from fleeing.

Ace was nowhere to be found, but Brady saw Idu and Leena standing near the extinguished campfire, defending themselves against two boys who couldn’t be much older than twenty. The boys were dressed in brown and gray linen tunics and wore clogs made of

hard leather. Their pants looked too thin to be able to provide even the smallest amount of insulation against cold weather.

While young, the men knew how to handle their iron longswords, yet Idu and Leena – Idu primarily – had little trouble defending themselves against them using only their claws.

While Idu and Leena were fighting around the campfire, Jason battled two guys of around the same age as the others near the table, near the tree. He didn’t seem to have it anywhere near as easy as Idu and Leena had it. It didn’t seem like he would last much longer. Those guys nearly had him cornered.

Riley jumped off the cave and Brady did the same thing. They took a glance inside of the cave and saw Roderic and Mister Allister fighting off four more boys. For an old man, Roderic could handle himself pretty well in a fight.

With his eyes widened, Brady analyzed both scenes – the one inside of the cave and the one outside of the cave – and he came to the conclusion that while they were lightly outnumbered, they were doing a better job than the attackers were.

“Who are these people? Who are these people?” Brady asked panicky as Riley pulled him into the cave.

Claws on swords sounded the same as swords on swords. The clinging echoed through the cave and filled Brady with dread.

They managed to run past Roderic, Mister Allister and their four adversaries and continued to the back of the cave where Riley then crouched down and searched through the pile of items lying behind the three sleeping bags.

Brady turned and shot a look at Roderic and Mister Allister. While Mister Allister was using speed to keep the sharp swords of his adversaries away from his body, Roderic applied a more offensive approach to his defense, slashing and cutting and in return narrowly dodging or blocking incoming attacks.

Riley’s words grabbed his attention. “I hope Ace taught you well,” she said before getting up and tossing the steel longsword at him.

Brady recoiled and then quickly picked up the sword, too stressed out to turn red and feel humiliated at this failure.

Hesitantly, he looked at the blade, trying to remember what Ace had taught him.

“Listen, Brady-boy. If you want to become a pro with a sword, you need to learn how to use combos and you need to learn how to use those combos efficiently.”

“Who are these people?” Brady demanded desperately.

Riley walked towards him, her eyes widened. She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked at him, her glance piercing. “Look, I need you to calm down, okay? I have spent years with these people and I’m not planning on watching them die today. Are you able to help them?”

Brady was shaking. Helplessly and confused he stared back at Riley.

She shook him back and forth once. “Are you able to help them?” she repeated.

She didn’t sound angry. If anything, she sounded impatient.

“Y – y – y – yes,” Brady stammered.

“Good. Then come on.”
Riley walked past him and extended her claws. While Brady was shocked at Riley’s sudden shift in attitude, he couldn’t blame her for it. This wasn’t exactly as stress-free situation.

With the Anolor Steel Longsword in his right hand and his left hand formed into a fist, he followed Riley reluctantly.

They darted past Roderic and Mister Allister and then past the men dressed in linen.

“Die, you Anolor scum!” shouted one of the attackers before lunging at Mister Allister, who grabbed the sword between his claws and then moved both of his knuckles inwards, separating most of the blade from the hilt.

“At least this Anolor scum knows that iron swords snap between claws as easily as toothpicks between fingers!” Mister Allister retorted.

Brady and Riley were standing a couple of feet behind the four men.

“What now?” Brady whispered anxiously. “Do I just – ?” he said before giving a nod at the sharp blade of his sword.

Riley pursed her lips. “I – I – I don’t know, just – don’t kill anybody. Use the pommel.”

Visibly in two minds, Riley retracted her claws and just looked at the fighting, brainstorming about what to do.

“Ragh!” Roderic growled before slashing at his enemy, who scarcely blocked the attack.

Use the pommel, Brady thought before he ran at Roderic’s attacker and raised his sword, only to make the pommel come down onto the fellow’s scalp hard. Donk.

“Ulgh,” the young man uttered before turning around awkwardly, his eyes large and his tongue hanging sideways out of his mouth before

he fell onto the cold ground of the cave with a loud thud.

Brady looked at what he had done with his mouth wide open.

He met Roderic’s stern eyes. “Help Jason!” the old man ordered

before turning to help Mister Allister fend off his attackers.

Riley and Brady followed his orders and left the cave, approaching Jason’s two attackers, who had worked Jason up against the tree.

With the tree in his back, Jason cringed away each time his adversaries slashed at him, missing intentionally.

Riley’s hands formed into fists before she muttered, “I’ve got this one.”
Brady’s eyes shot to Idu and Leena, who had managed to take out one of the two men fighting them. It was only a matter of time before the other one would fall.

His eyes shot back to Riley and the man whom she was approaching, but just before she could knock him out or whatever she was planning on doing, a bolt penetrated the man’s skull and he dropped down onto the ground, dead.

Brady followed the direction from whence the bolt had come with his eyes and saw Ace sitting in the blackberry bushes like a sniper, already reloading the crossbow before four more men wearing brown and gray linen tunics charged into the camp, running towards Idu and Leena with their swords raised.

Jason’s attacker turned around very suddenly and caught Riley by surprise.

“Riley!” Brady shouted, shocked.

The man turned around suddenly and cut at her, but Riley recoiled and the iron longsword missed her by a mile.

Riley bumped into Brady and Brady fell while Riley barely managed to keep her balance.

The man alternated his glance between him and Riley.

Click. Sh-sh. Chuck. In a heartbeat, a bolt had penetrated the man’s head, going in on one side and peeking out slightly on the other.

His sword hit the ground before he did, and Brady followed the direction from whence the bolt had come with his eyes, only for them to fall on Ace yet again.

“Thanks, dudes,” said Jason, and while obviously stoned, his expression stood quite appalled.

“Go to the cave and help Roderic and Mister Allister,” said Riley. “Hurry!”

While Idu and Leena were defending each other from the three new

attackers who had just entered the camp, Ace had a rough time doing the same thing, only against someone who Brady had seen before.

Alex had returned and was now fighting Ace, accompanied by the girl he saw before and one additional man. He noticed that Alex knew how to handle himself in a fight.

Is he here for me again?

Brady felt the heavy feeling in his head returning as Riley left his side to offer Idu and Leena a hand. He was now standing there, in the midst of the camp, alternating his confused glance between Ace and Riley.

“Endeth the black-haired mistress,” said the voice. “Chargeth at her and taketh her life.”

The voice wanted him to kill. The voice wanted him to kill an innocent girl who was probably not even three years older than he was.

“Brady, over here!” Idu shouted.

“Doth not hark to him! Killeth the mistress!” the voice demanded.

Brady hesitated for a second. He looked at Ace, who had some trouble defending himself from the constant attacks. Alex was a quick fighter, and he dodged and evaded Ace’s strong attacks lightly and deftly, returning the favor by slashing and cutting at him with his steel longsword while the girl only slashed at Ace when she saw an opportunity to do so without risking getting hurt herself.

Then he looked at Idu, who was doing a pretty good job at fighting the four attackers together with Leena and Riley.

Brady decided to help them anyways despite the voice’s orders.

Leena and Riley were each fighting one of the attackers. Idu fought two by himself. With his heart thumping harder than ever before – life-threatening situations were much scarier and much more real than he could have ever imagined – he raised his sword and aimed the pummel at the back of one of the attackers’ heads. Everything felt like a dream, everything was like a haze.

He made the pommel come down hard, only the man took a step aside, causing Brady to hit him on the shoulder rather than on the head.

“Awh!” the man exclaimed before turning around, flashing a dark look at him.

Brady’s eyes widened and he froze on the spot. Idu and the others were too busy defending themselves. It would be him against this man now.

Brady had never fought for his life like this before, and he was positive that this could mean his death.

“Kill him!” Alex yelled, referring to Brady. “If we kill him we’re done! We can leave!”

The man lowered his eyebrows and looked at Alex with his stupid face before focusing on Brady again.

“Wah!” the man cried before slicing at him with the sword.

“Aah!” Brady yelped before jumping aside and jumping aside again.

“Someone help Brady!” he heard Idu saying, gritting his teeth.

“Combos! Combos!” Ace yelled at him.

Brady realized that he was being watched, and not just by his attacker. Both Ace and Idu were spending half their time glancing at him to see how he was doing.

Rather than using the combo Ace had taught him or listening to any of their suggestions, Brady could only stand and watch with the sword clasped anxiously in his right fist.

“Do something!” he heard someone barking at him, but he wasn’t sure who the voice belonged to.

The man’s eyes flashed before he slashed at him from the right. Brady grabbed his sword with both hands and held it upwards.

Ting. But before the man could strike at him again, three claws appeared out of his chest and his eyes shot up into his sockets.

Idu placed his foot onto the man’s back and pushed him forward slowly until his claws were out of his chest and the body was on the ground.

Brady looked shocked at Idu.

Idu turned to Riley and Leena immediately and started helping them.

Brady flashed a look at Alex, who was growing visibly disheartened at his heavy losses.

Desperately, Alex sliced at Ace. His attack was blocked by Ace using his claws, but Ace wasn’t prepared for the punch thrown at his face.

Alex hit Ace right against the nose. Ace staggered before he fell onto his back into the blackberry bushes and both Alex and the girl took that opportunity to run for it.

“Endeth the mistress while thee still can!” the voice said, sounding angry this time.

In a whim, Brady turned to Alex and prepared to chase after him, but then Idu grabbed him by the shoulder.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” Idu demanded, turning

him around. “Alex will kill you if you go after him alone.”

Brady tried to get away, but Idu was too strong, and realizing that technically, Idu was right, Brady stopped trying.

He allowed his gaze to wander across the camp and into the cave before Idu let go of him. His eyes fell on the bodies of the men slain by the very people with whom he’d be spending a lot of time in the near and in the far future.

They were dead. All those men -- were dead.

Brady shockingly realized that he had just witnessed at least four killings, and he felt abnormally normal. On the internet, he had read that witnessing death could cause one’s mind to perceive time as slowing down as to process what had happened. He had read that witnessing death could turn one pale briefly, because of shock, and that a sudden loss of motor skills was also common. The loss of motor skills as a result of witnessing someone’s death was also known as medical shock, a phenomenon where the anxiety you experience affects your brain and that that makes it hard for the brain to relay signals to the rest of your body.

The fighting was over now, though.

Growling angrily, Ace got up.

“Are you alright, honey?” Idu asked Leena worriedly.

“I am alright, babe. Don’t you worry about me. Are you alright?”
Idu gave a nod.

Jason and Mister Allister came out of the cave, but where was Roderic?

Everyone was standing outside now except for Roderic.

Brad looked around, counting at least ten bodies – all young men cladded in thin cotton tunics and pants.

There were puddles of blood on the ground and stains on the tree and in the cave.

Ace took a deep breath before he joined them by the campfire.

“Who were those dudes?” Jason asked, not sounding stoned anymore. His eyes were usually wandering, as if Jason saw things the others didn’t, but that wasn’t the case right now.

Also, while he usually sounded funny and quite odd, his voice was a little more serious now.

“I am not certain,” said Ace, pinching his nose. “Agh, he gave me a bloody one.” Ace winced. “I know this Alex Grant guy. He has connections with the Brotherhood of Peace. Judging by their shit armor and their shit weapons, these fellows were Brotherhood

Trainees. We just killed – ” Ace did a quick count. “ – eleven of them. Eleven little shits, ha-ha!”

“The Brotherhood of Peace?” Brady asked wondrously, remembering that Riley had mentioned them before.

“No time for explaining,” said Ace, suddenly sounding quite serious. “Riley and Leena, prepare us some food. Idu, Tunstall, Roderic, burn the bodies and clean those bloodstains.”

This left Brady confused. They were just done fighting, and some of them could’ve died, and Ace wanted them to prepare food now? Idu exchanged a quick glance with his wife. Then he picked up a body and walked away, followed by Tunstall.

“Brady, Jason, you two come with me.”

Brady took a glance at Jason, who shrugged at him.

“Take a sword and a crossbow with you, Brady. Try not to waste any bolts.”

Brady nodded obediently.

 

Carrying the Anolor Steel Longsword on his back in Ace’s scabbard and an Anolor Crossbow in his hands, Brady quietly followed a sneaking Ace and a sneaking Jason through the sparse oak woods.

“Why are we here again?” Jason asked unsurely as they made their way through some bushes.

If Brady wasn’t mistaken, this was the first time he’d actually seen Jason completely sober. Each time he had spoken to him and each time he had seen him in the past, Jason had been at least slightly high.

“We are here to end Alex’s miserable life,” said Ace confidently, a glimmer of hatred in his voice. “If we let him go now, he will undoubtedly contact reinforcements in the form of Brotherhood Knights or Partisans, and we do not want that, do we now, little Jasey?”

“I suppose not,” Jason replied slowly.

They kept on walking for a few more seconds, dodging low hanging branches.

“W – w – what if there are… more of them?” Brady asked, not sure whether this question made sense or not.

“We have the element of surprise on our side, Brady-boy,” replied Ace lightheartedly. “I am a hundred percent aware of the fact that we cannot take out thousands of men with the element of surprise, but I am not expecting there to be much more than five, are you?”

Brady shook. Ace stopped and turned to him. “Are you?” he repeated.

“I – I – I shook.”

“I cannot sense that,” Ace uttered. He pointed at Brady. “If I ask you an open-ended question, you utter your answer out loud, do you understand? I will not stand for nonverbal responses to my questions.”

Brady gulped.

“Man up and follow me.”

Jason joined Brady’s side and they continued following Ace through the sparse oak woods.

Brady squeezed his eyes shut as the heavy feeling in his head returned. “Explain thyneself. Wherefore didst thee not doth as I said?”

Because Idu had a point, and I don’t even know whether you’re real or not.

It was quiet for a second or two.

“I art actual. I art existent. Thou would be wiseth noth to disobeye, for thou art my inferior.”

Currently, the tone of the voice wasn’t calm and mocking. The voice sounded impatient and irritated.

“Remembereth: obey.”

Then the heavy feeling subsided.

“Well?” Ace asked, sounding as if he was waiting for an answer.

Brady hadn’t realized that he had come to a stop and that both Ace and Jason were looking at him.

“Huh?”

Ace rolled his eyes. “Tunstall does not think that you are very bright. I have argued against

his thoughts. I told him not to judge a book by its cover, and that even people who look obviously unintelligent might actually be intelligent, but now I am beginning to have my doubts.”

Brady didn’t understand why Ace said that all of a sudden, so he narrowed his eyes.

“Huh?” said Ace, imitating him with a voice that sounded very stupid. “Huh? I am asking you why you think Alex wants to end your life so badly, you dalcop.”

While hurt by Ace’s insults and slightly annoyed by the fact that he couldn’t research the term ‘dalcop’, of which he had never heard before, Brady tried his best to come up with a valid theory as to why

Alex wanted him dead.

Alex had mentioned something about him being a Listener. Fearing that Ace and the others would react similarly to Alex, Brady decided to keep that string of information to himself.

If they would just kill Alex then no one would have to know about this ‘Listener’ thing.

While wanting to find out what Alex meant by him being a Listener, Brady knew that because of the consequences that telling anybody about it could have for him, forgetting about it would be the safest course of action. Nobody would have to know what Alex had claimed him to be. That information would fade into nothingness, and only his own words could make it real.

“I have no idea. I really have – ”

Ace signaled him to stop talking before he moved forward quietly, peering into the distance.

Brady heard it as well, and it looked like Jason had also.

Voices, and the voices sounded very close by.

Brady heard Alex’s voice. The girl’s voice too. This was his chance to kill her. The voice wanted him to.

If he would kill her, she would be the second person to be killed by him, the first female to be killed by him.

Figuring that he’d have to learn it anyways but feeling quite nervous about it, he settled with the idea that he was going to kill him.

He rummaged in his right pocket. The shard was still in it. He closed his hand around it.

Ace sneaked closer, followed by Brady and Jason. Brady took a good look around. There was a small clearing in the distance, and in it stood one orange polyester tent along with six dark-brown tents of leather.

It were enough to house all of those people they’d killed back at the camp, and then there would even be some space left.

“Targets spotted,” Ace whispered, groaning before he said, “Oh, I am going to enjoy this.”

Brady saw Alex and the girl standing by the orange tent, talking about something. Alex appeared to be comforting her.

Apart from them, there was one more man. The man was dressed in a brown linen tunic, like most of the other men who had attacked them, but he also wore white linen coif and he looked rather unintelligent, but like Ace had said to Allister: Never judge a book by its cover; even people who look obviously unintelligent may

actually be intelligent.

“Oh-ho, we can do this,” Ace snarled through gritted teeth. “Jason, you take out that Trainee. Brady, you go for the girl. Ha-ha,” he

laughed darkly. “You may even take her if you wish. The dead do not struggle.”

Brady squinted at the odd thing Ace had just said.

“I will take Alex Grant. I want to torture that guy. I want to torture him until he begs me to kill him.”

Brady shared an uncomfortable glance with Jason before turning to the Brotherhood Trainee. The boy’s face was dirty and he was rather thin, like the other Brotherhood Trainees.

I’m ready. Brady felt an odd rush of excitement soaring through his body. I’m ready to kill her. Voice? The heavy feeling returned and Brady squeezed his eyes shut momentarily.

“I wanteth to witness it all. Endeth the mistress apace and mercilessly, and doth noth forget to useth the shard.”

“Now,” said Ace before he got up. Jason followed him quickly and they both extended their claws before splitting up, charging at their respective targets.

Jason slashed at the Trainee’s back, but he was holding back and only scratched him, but still hard enough for the Trainee to utter a cry of pain.

Alex and the girl turned around and Alex barely blocked Ace’s attack before shouting at the girl to run.

Like a tiger, Brady was sitting behind a bush, following the girl with the black hair with his eyes. 

He watched her disappear behind the tents in search of refuge, and he knew that this was the time to pursue her.

He dropped the Anolor Crossbow onto the ground and got the sword out of the scabbard on his back awkwardly before darting towards the tents and disappearing behind them in the same fashion as the girl with the black hair had.

He rounded the corner of the tent, arriving at the back, only to be kicked in the right hipbone by the girl.

Brady took a couple of clumsy steps backwards before he dropped onto his back on the soft ground.

“Doth not useth the sword,” the voice said. “Useth the shard!”

Brady looked at the girl with the wavy black hair. She had a clear face and her skin was a light tone. Her almond eyes were light-green and she wore a blue shirt as well as a pair of faded blue jeans.

She was shorter than he was, although not much shorter, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was a Morus, she could’ve been a model, easily.

“I don’t care that this is considered barbaric,” she said, approaching him before extending her six-inch claws. “You were with them,” she said spitefully. “They killed Miss Ramsay. My mother. My real mother.”

She pulled her arm back and walked towards him, ready to strike.

Still lying on the ground, he slashed at her legs with the sword, but she jumped up and landed on the blade, causing him to let go of it. He rolled aside and got up.

“Who – who – who are you?” he asked in a desperate attempt to stop the girl from killing him.

The girl’s light-green eyes flashed angrily in the light of the sun passing through the canopy. Brady’s heart was racing and his eyes were wide open.

She lashed out at him, something which he should’ve expected to happen, and carved a scratch in his shoulder before pushing him onto the ground and sitting on his arms with her knees.

“Agh!” he said, but he couldn’t do anything but fear what was to happen next.

“I am Anna, but you might know me better as Anna Krestley.” her spiteful gaze grew softer. “I’m sure you’ve heard about me, in the news.”

Anna Krestley? Brady looked her into the eyes for a moment. She hadn’t suffocated under the ruins of her house so many years ago. She was still alive, and a Morus.

“An – An – Anna Krestley? You are dead,” Brady said in disbelief.

She was so pretty, and realizing that this was the girl rumored to have been dead for so long, he didn’t even want to kill her anymore.

“Doth not even bethinketh,” said the voice coldly. “Endeth her!”

“The woman they killed was my mother,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “I hid, and I nearly died when everything collapsed, but then she, Miss Ramsay, came amid the chaos and saved me from my adoptive parents. She told me that I am the bastard daughter of Vinjoy Vadosy of the House Vadosy, and that she was my mother, and that she was going to take me home to Caliptus.”

Brady recalled something. He and his classmates once had a few lessons in elementary school where they’d learned how to defend themselves in high school.

In one lesson they had learned how to deal with headlocks and such things. If someone had you in a position wherein you couldn’t move, you just needed to wait for a few moments. Their grip would most likely loosen up after a few moments, and then, if you were quick enough, you could free yourself.

He tried to distract her by looking at Ace and Alex, who were fighting hardcore.

Cling, cling. Clang. Brady heard the sounds of physical exertion and Ace cursing Alex

Ace was strong and a good fighter, but Alex was quick and it was like he knew exactly when Ace was about to strike him

From the corners of his eyes, he saw Anna looking at them as well.

Du-dung du-dung du-dung du-dung du-dung du-dung. His heart was like machine.

This was the time. He quickly grabbed her wrists and pulled them away from each other, causing Anna to fall onto him with her chest on his. There was an awkward moment wherein it looked like they were cuddling each other intimately.

Then he rolled her over, causing him to be on top. Anna kicked him off and he rolled backwards. Then he heard a scream. Jason had just fatally wounded the mercenary and the man didn’t appear to be able to fight anymore.

There were a few feet in-between Brady and Anna now, and Brady knew this was the right time to kill her. He picked up a stick from the ground while he got the shard out of his right pocket. Anna’s eyes flashed angrily.

Brady threw the stick at her and Anna while shielded her from it with her arms, Brady charged forward, knocking into her and falling to the ground, landing on top of her.

“Agh!” she exclaimed. “Get off!” Anna struggled violently, and he could barely keep her down.

His hand with the shard in it formed into a fist and he wanted to stab it into her throat, into her face, into her neck, but he couldn’t.

Anxiously, worried about his next move, Anna stared at him and she stopped struggling.

She isn’t a killer, Brady realized. Anna was scared, and she was merely defending herself, hitting and hurting him out of anger for her mother’s killing, despite the fact that he hadn’t done it.

I don’t think I –

“I hadeth expecteth this,” the voice said, having regained its calm

demeanor. “I shalleth aideth thee.”

The characterized heavy, headache-like feeling he felt in his head whenever the voice was present changed. All of a sudden, he felt lightheaded and dizzy, and everything felt like a haze.

“Do it then, huh?” said Anna, her expression skeptical. “Come on. Do it.” Her look of skepticism changed into a smile. “You know

what? I don’t think you have the – ”

And without thinking, squeezing his fist tightly around the shard, he pulled it up and made it come down hard onto her throat. Shnk.

Anna’s light-green eyes widened and were suddenly filled with fear as he pulled the shard back out. Shocked at what he had just done and his entire body trembling hard, he made the shard come down repeatedly, badly cutting his hand in the process.

Shnk, shnk, shnk, shnk, shluk, shluk, shluck, shluck, shluck.

He kept on going. He kept on going and he wanted to stop, for the job seemed done, but he could only slow himself down. With his face and his black hoodie covered in blood splatters and Anna’s throat opened up – a gory mess of blood, flesh and bone – he drove the shard into her throat one last time, splitting her Adam’s apple. Shik.

Brady panted with exertion. The shard stuck in Anna’s throat, Brady fell beside her and looked up at the sky through the canopy.

Brady knew that it wasn’t he who had done this. Not completely at least, yet it felt like it was entirely his fault, his doing and only his.

Brady’s hands were covered in Anna’s dark-red blood, and it was only then that he saw that his right hand was trembling like a naked chicken in the cold – considerably harder than his left hand. Brady’s eyes widened in shock when he saw a long and deep wound running from his purlicue to below his pinky finger, where his hand was connected to his arm.

As the lightheadedness subsided, the sharp, stabbing pain in his hand intensified. 

He looked at what he had done, at the gaping wound in Anna’s neck.

Why the shard? Brady was exhausted. His breathing was slow but deep, and loud.

“If noth foreth the shard, if noth foreth this ironic death, her life forceth would have escapeth into another plane.”

What? Brady was confused, tired, and he did his best to ignore the intensifying pain in his hand. The pain made him feel like throwing up.

Brady looked at what he had done.

It was a truly horrifying sight. The inside of Anna’s neck was completely exposed.

This served as proof, though. For Brady, at least. He hadn’t wanted to kill her. Somehow, the voice, although not completely, had taken control of him.

It was real. The voice was real.

How did you make me –

“Doth noth worrieth. This had to be done. Thou shalt noth disobeyeth again.”

With some effort, he got up and tried to get rid of some of the blood on his hands by wiping them on his jeans, but as he did, as soon as his right hand came in contact with the sturdy, cotton, warp-faced textile, a stabbing pain ran from his hand all the way through to his shoulder.

Anna’s blood, his blood, the wound. He found himself worrying about the diseases in Anna’s blood all of a sudden. Blood borne diseases were transmitted by blood. Brady knew that if Anna had any blood borne diseases, he would have them too now, or at least, he would have a large chance of having them too now.

He felt the voice leaving him, making him wince before he staggered past the tents.

Brady saw Jason wrestling on the ground with the Brotherhood Trainee, only using his claws to defend himself against sword attacks.

Ace was struggling against Alex near the bush where Brady had dropped his loaded crossbow.

While Ace fought with heavy slashes, Alex was quick and deft, dealing out attacks with much lower damage than Ace did, but hitting his target – which was Ace – considerably more often.

Alex slashed at Ace, missing, but following the sword attack with a punch to the face from his left fist. Ace staggered back with one hand on his face covering the spot where Alex had just hit him.

Alex raised his sword and then noticed Brady, standing by the tents, covered in blood.

His expression filled with horror and he dropped his sword arm to his side.

“Anna. No,” Alex said hopelessly, his voice cracking yet again.

Alex kicked Ace away, causing Ace to plummet to the ground, and then he picked up the crossbow Brady had left there, aiming it right

at him.

“Brady, run!” Jason shouted.

But Brady couldn’t. He looked at Alex as Alex pulled the trigger.

Click. Sh-sh. Chuck.

An excruciating pain in his shoulder as he felt the skin and flesh of his shoulder being penetrated.

Brady’s eyes shot open and he turned around immediately, clutching at his heart rather than at his right shoulder, where the bolt had hit

him.

He fell onto his knees, feeling his body tense up, and then he dropped down flat onto his stomach, cringing in pain as he felt the bolt in his shoulder bend, pushing against the flesh, widening the wound.

Jason retracted his claws and punched the shocked Brotherhood Trainee against the temple, knocking him into the dirt.

Jason rushed to Brady, sacking onto his knees before he was even there, sliding over the ground for a bit before his hands touched Brady’s neck.

“Brady. Brady!”

Brady’s eyes met Jason’s, and with a lot of effort, Brady managed to mouth the words ‘say that I’m dead’.

It took him all his self-control to prevent himself from crying and screaming in pain. He lay frozen on the ground, feeling the wooden bolt in his shoulder and the cold, steel tip of the bolt sticking just out of the back of it.

“Brady!” Ace exclaimed.

“No! There’s no pulse!” Jason called.

“Then may his young soul live peacefully in the afterlife,” said Alex before kicking a downed Ace in the face and making a run for it.

“Ragh! Get back here, you cock!” Ace raged before getting up, staggering and falling flat on his face.

Feeling an odd combination of proudness and pain, Brady remained frozen on the ground, desperately trying to keep himself from moving as to prevent another shot of pain from surging through his body.

 

Carrying a barely conscious Brady over his shoulder, Ace rushed and jumped through the bushes with Jason directly behind him.

Brady didn’t fear he would die because of his wounds, but it sure hurt like hell.

His hand, where the shard had cut him, hurt. His right shoulder, where the bolt had hit him, hurt.

And his head hurt. While balancing the currently fine line between consciousness and unconsciousness, Brady tried to register the recent deaths he had witnessed.
He knew that witnessing people dying and actually killing people wasn’t good for one’s mental health.

While barely conscious, the feeling of driving the shard through

Anna’s skin and flesh still made him shiver.

They were approaching the camp. Ace stormed through the bushes.

Brady was proud of himself. Alex thought he was dead now judging by the comment he had made shortly before his departure.

Alex thought he was dead. It was over.

“Support him,” barked Ace to Jason before gently sitting Brady down near the campfire, which was now burning lively again.

“It will be alright, Brady,” said Ace seriously, hurriedly, before he disappeared into the darkness of the cave.

It seemed like all the others were in the cave too, considering he and Jason were the only ones outside now. A second or two later, Ace returned carrying a sleeping bag and he was followed by a visibly concerned Riley. “What happened?”

Ace placed the sleeping bag onto the ground beside Brady and carried him onto it.

“Hey, what happened?” Riley demanded

“Shut up and go get Leena!” Ace barked. “Tell her to bring some Water of Noah.”

Riley nodded, not even flinching at of Ace’s sudden outburst. She then turned around immediately and walked back into the cave. He wondered why everyone was even in the cave.

“I hope that you are a true man, for this is going to hurt,” said Ace seriously.

“Agh!” Brady exclaimed because of a sudden terrible pain he felt in his shoulder.

Snap. Ace had broken the bolt in two pieces.

“Turn around for a moment, Brady-boy,” he said distractedly before turning Brady on his chest. “On three.”

Shit. Shit. Shit! Brady felt like his shoulder was spasming because of the pain.

“One…”

Brady’s respiration increased by the thought of the immense pain

he’d soon feel again.

“Two…”

“Could you be gentle, boss?” It was Jason.

Brady prepared himself for the pain.

“Three.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his jaws, but nothing happened.

“Four!”

“Ah!” Brady cried as he felt the other half of the bolt being pulled out of his shoulder.

When Brady opened his eyes again, barely conscious because of the pain, he saw three Aces leaning over him. “Brady Brady.” Ace shook. “Why did you have to be hit?”

Brady wasn’t sure whether he should tell them about his improvised plan and how it had been successful, because he didn’t want to sound arrogant.

“At least Alex thinks I – I – I’m dead now,” said Brady, smiling weakly. “So – so – so at least there’s that.”

He was cold and squeezed one eye shut because of the throbbing pain in his shoulder. He felt like throwing up.

Ace squinted at him as Brady rolled onto his back, feeling quite awkward lying in-between a standing Jason and a standing Ace, both who were looking down at him with suspicion.

“You got shot on purpose, to fake your death?” asked Ace, confused.

“N – n – n – not completely. I – I – I wasn’t planning on getting shot, but I used the opportunity to pretend to be dead.”

Ace looked at Jason. “But then why did you say he was dead?”

“He mouthed it to me, boss,” said Jason, smiling. “I was confused at first, but now I understand why he told me to do that.”

Ace’s raised his eyebrows and sounding genuine, he said, “Well, I am impressed, Brady-boy.”

Leena and Riley came out of the cave and approached him in a hurry. Jason glanced at them before staring into the cave, scratching his head. “What happened to Roderic?” Jason asked Leena.

Leena crouched down next to Brady, pushing Ace aside before getting a small, round, dark-brown clay pot the size of a baby’s fist out of the back pocket of her black jeans. “Roderic took a minor wound in the fight.” Leena twisted the cap off the clay pot. “Idu and Tunstall are taking care of him.”

“Roderic?” said Brady, wincing as Leena administered the Water of

Noah to the wound on his shoulder and the deep cut in his hand.  

“Yeah, but don’t worry,” said Riley normally. “Like Leena said: minorly wounded.”

Ace reclined near the fire just before Idu came out of the cave, his eyebrows down and together.

“Is he going to be alright?” Idu asked Leena.

Leena nodded. “It’s just his shoulder, and his hand is cut badly, but don’t worry. How is Roderic holding up?”

A smile appeared on Brady’s face. He was enjoying the tingling sensation in his hand and his shoulder that had replaced the pain, but he still felt weak and cold, and disgusted when he looked at the horror that was the long cut in his hand.

“Roderic seems to be doing okay, for now.”

Idu stood behind Leena and looked at Brady. Then Riley suddenly gave something to Leena. It looked like some sort of bandage, but not an ordinary one, which made him feel a little bit concerned.

“It’s a clean piece of leather,” Leena explained. “Don’t worry. We have been using these as substitute for bandages for years now, and before we even think about using them, we boil them in the water.”

Leena wrapped the bandage-like piece of leather around his shoulder carefully, and then signaled him to open his hand.

Anna’s throat that he had literally carved open had been a gross, slightly horrific sight, yet seeing such a deep and long cut in his own hand made his stomach turn.

Rather than pain, the wound tickled and tingled when Leena applied the bandage.

“Ace, what happened out there?” Idu asked. “And what about those people that attacked us? Ace? What happened to them?”

“We do not have to worry about Alex and his gangbangers anymore,” said Ace, staring into the fire distractedly.

“Why is that?” Idu asked, slightly annoyed with that vague answer.

“I do not know why, but killing Brady was at the top of Alex’s to-do list for some reason.”

“So? He failed. So he should come back for him, right? We should prepare for another attack.”

“Brady here faked his death, man,” said Jason. “Alex shot him in the shoulder with a crossbow, then Brady acted like he hit him in the heart. Now Alex thinks he killed him and left.”

Leena got off the ground.

“That was a very brave thing to do, Brady,” she said, smiling at him

appreciatively. “You helped us all, including yourself. Now we can prepare ourselves for this journey safely.”

He nodded, avoiding eye contact with everyone. “H – h – how long will this take to heal?”

“With the Water of Noah, about an hour or three, dear,” said Leena. “Maybe a little longer. You just relax now.”

Leena emitted these motherly vibes, and they made Brady feel warm and good. He could’ve done with a kiss on the forehead, though.

Everything was going to be all right now. Alex was gone. He was gone. For the first time in a couple of days, Brady felt relaxed, even up in his head.

Yet the murders he had witnessed today and the brutal murder he committed would stick with him for a long time to come.

Brady was aware of that. He was fully aware of that.

 

 

Chapter 20

Messages to Worry About

 

 

Three hours passed. It were three slow, tedious, useless hours wherein Brady hadn’t been able to do anything.

Leena didn’t allow him to get off the bed, even after a crust had formed on his shoulder and the long wound on his hand had started to look like a lasagna – red and brownish.

He had been allowed to get up once, and that was when Ace and Idu had moved the bed back inside of the cave so that he could go lie there and rest in peace.

Idu had tried to persuade Leena into allowing him to get up and remove the bandages – Brady had removed them every ten minutes for the past thirty minutes – but to no avail.

While the others were sitting outside, cleaning the remaining blood stains and burning the remaining bodies in a fire in the clearing where he had trained with Ace, Brady lay inside of the cave only several feet away from Roderic, who was a recoveree as well.

While lying on his bed feeling like a loafer and a waster of precious time, he had contemplated many things.

He had realized that soon, he would be leaving the area in which he had grown up.

Soon, he would enter a life of outside survival, taken to the extreme.

Soon, the chance of returning to his family would be gone, and he wouldn’t see them or his hometown for many, many years, and perhaps never again.

But there was one thing he dreaded, and that was arriving at the House of Great God Noah, where more people living these lives were.

As a new one, he would probably have to introduce himself to dozens of people, and Brady hated introducing himself.

He would be in the spotlight, and he didn’t even want to think about what the ritual was. “Brady,” said Riley. Brady removed his hand from behind his head and sat upright, his shoulder stinging. “Ace wanted to -- speak to us… privately,” she said before she pulled with the corner of her mouth.

Brady wasn’t sure why Ace would want to speak to him and Riley privately. “But Leena. I can’t – ”

“No, it’s okay,” said Riley. “She send me here to tell you that you

could get up, and then Ace told me, just before he left, that he wanted us to meet him at the farm.”

He looked at Roderic, who was lying a few feet away from him on a sleeping bag.

Roderic was sleeping. They had shared some words with each other, but that had only been in the first half hour of them lying in the cave together.

Riley helped him up. Luckily, he still had his clothes on. He had worn the same pair of clothes for almost four days now. Perhaps it was time to clean them, but before he could do that, he would have to ask someone where that was done.

He had been able to brush his teeth properly, though, with ashes from the campfire and water. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he had seen plenty of survival series on TV where people brushed their teeth with ashes, he would have been skeptical of it. Of course, when he had seen people brushing their teeth with ashes on TV for the first time, he had done his fair share of research before he had come to the conclusion that ashes were quite a plausible substitute for toothpaste, at least for oral health.

Also, if he remembered correctly – which he undoubtedly did – ash actually has the potential of whitening teeth. This is because it contained potassium hydroxide; a strong alkali that has bleaching properties.

Moreover, because ash consists of small particulate matters, it basically grazed material and debris off teeth, at least according that what he had read.

Looking at his clothes, he remembered he’d taken some extra with him.

While the blood on his black hoodie was nearly invisible, he still wanted to change and clean the clothes he wore currently before he’d pull them on again.

“Are – are – are we going together?” Brady asked.

“Yeah,” said Riley slowly. “Why else do you think I’m still standing here?”

Brady looked at her and gulped.

He looked around his bed, trying to remember whether his other pair of clothing was still in his backpack or lying somewhere among the items in the back of the cave, near Roderic, Mister Allister and Ace’s sleeping bags.

“Ehm.”

“Can’t find them?” asked Riley smartly.

He looked at her, broke eye contact and shook. “N – n – nev – nev – never mind,” he said. “I – I’ll just keep these on. The shirt isn’t dirty. Only the hoodie is.”

“Just keep on looking,” said Riley. “I don’t mind waiting for a bit.”

“No – no, it’s alright,” he said as he got up, placing a hand on his right shoulder, onto the bandage before opening his backpack and getting his recharger out of it.

“Okay.”

The two left the cave. Dusk was falling slowly and the sun, hidden partly behind the few clouds in the sky, was a bright, depressing mix of orange and red.

There was a pleasant, calm atmosphere in the camp. Jason was smoking peacefully by the fire while Idu and Mister Allister were talking about something with soft voices.

Leena was standing by the table, preparing dinner in the form of squirrel meat and nettles all the while a clay teapot was standing on the fire with steam rising out of the top.

Brady and Mister Allister’s eyes met and as always, Mister Allister’s expression was dark.

Mister Allister wasn’t wearing the cowl over his head for a change, allowing his unkempt, dark-brown, shoulder-length waves to wave in the few gusts of wind lightly.

Idu turned to them. “How are you doing, kid?”

“I – I’m alright,” replied Brady shyly.

Did the others know that he had killed? Did Jason and Ace know?

Jason and Ace hadn’t seen Anna’s body, but they had surely heard Alex crying her name hopelessly the moment the poor man realized he had killed her.

“What about the old man?” Mister Allister demanded rather than asked.

His tone was just as spiteful as Brady remembered.

“I – I’m not sure,” said Brady. “He’s -- sleeping.”

Mister Allister gave a short hmpf before he put his water skin to his mouth and drank.

Brady followed Riley to Leena, who showed him and her a brief smile before telling them not to take too long.

“We’ll be home soon, mo – Leena,” said Riley before shying away for some reason.

Leena cocked her head before looking at Riley sympathetically.

Brady’s mouth dropped open slightly when he realized that Riley had almost accidentally called Leena ‘mom’.

“Come here,” said Leena to Riley before spreading her arms.

Leena, who was between seven to nine inches shorter than Riley was, embraced her, and while the two looked nothing like each other at all, mainly considering that Riley was a Caucasoid and Leena was a Mongoloid – seeing them embracing each other as lovingly as this sure made Brady feel a mother-daughter connection between the two women.

 

For some reason, Brady found this to be a wonderful evening. Perhaps this was because after all the stress, violence, and murder he had witnessed today, on April the third, twenty-fifteen, this had been one of the only moments of peace and tranquility.

Standing low in the sky, the sun still provided quite some warmth, and even though the skies looked depressing, Brady felt okay.

Every now and then, he winced thinking about what he had done; repeatedly plunging the shard into Anna’s throat.

Every now and then, he winced thinking about what he had seen; murder, blood, gore and death.

Every now and then, he thought that perhaps, perhaps it would be a good idea to tell Riley about the murder of Anna Krestley.

Brady remembered that Jason had seen the body after he had checked whether the Brotherhood Trainee was dead.

Jason had told Ace. Ace had looked as well, and in spite of the pain he had been in, a smile had appeared on his face moments before he had thrown him over his shoulder and had run back to the camp.

Seeing the farm in the distance already, Brady knew that it was now or not before tomorrow.

He gulped as he clumsily followed a striding Riley through the oak forest, and when he thought about what he had done, suddenly, he felt the corners of his mouth pulling downwards and he couldn’t stop them.

His eyes grew watery and without warning, he wanted his mom or even his dad.

He didn’t even care which one of the two.

All he wanted was someone familiar, someone who he had known for his entire life, someone whom he could cry around without feeling completely awkward, and only his mother and his father fitted that picture.

Brady quickly dried his eyes, fearing that Riley would turn around, see him, and judge him.

Brady squeezed his eyes shut tightly, removed the remaining tears and took a deep, deep breath.

“I – I killed someone today,” he said normally, nodding in agreement at his own statement. His mouth was trying to betray his feelings, as were his eyes.

Riley, who walked about three feet in front of him, turned around all of a sudden and her beauty that Brady so often ignored and didn’t see suddenly made him forget partly about his sorrow.

She opened her mouth slightly as if she was about to say something, but then she simply cocked her head in a confused manner, even squinting with her eyes.

“I -- killed,” he said, making unsure eye contact with her before he broke it and looked at the ground of forest before looking up at her to make eye contact again, only to break it for a second time.

“I – I – I don’t even know what to say,” said Riley, and the tone of her voice confirmed that. She spoke carefully, softly and dubiously. Then she shook. “I – I’m not even sure why Ace took you with him to end Alex.” Louder, she added, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he do that? Does he want you to have a -- trauma or something?”

He couldn’t keep himself from saying it. “I also killed -- somebody else.”

Riley looked at him expectantly, her naturally on-fleek eyebrows pointing down and together.

“My – my friend. Uhb – ex-friend,” and before he knew it, he started rambling. “I – I’m not even sure how. I mean, I didn’t do it. I mean, it doesn’t feel like I did it. I can’t even remember, or I can, but not the actual killing part. And there were like, cuts in his body, but I don’t have my claws and neither did I have something sharp on my person so I don’t even know how and now the police – ”

“Shhh,” she said calmly. “… Look, why don’t you just calm down and… try to live with it, okay? Two killings, one of which you might as well have not committed at all, doesn’t have to crush you. Take your time dealing with it, and if you need someone to talk to, I’m here for you, okay? I may not have killed anyone, but I’ve never had much trouble understanding how others feel, and you need someone to be able to talk to about this, which is me, alright? So when you’ve had it, when you feel beaten, you come to me.”

He gulped before he gave a quick nod.

Riley looked at him before the hint of a sympathetic smile appeared

on her face. “I’m also up for hugging, if you need it,” she said.

That made Brady grin, and all of a sudden, he couldn’t even focus his thoughts on the killings and the deaths anymore.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Uh-uh, I’m waiting,” said Riley humorously, opening her arms for a hug. 

Brady winced. Hugging made him feel uncomfortable, especially with someone who he barely knew.

But he didn’t want to put Riley into an awkward situation, and knowing that it would have a good effect on his relationship with her and on himself – a proper hug can not only reduce anxiety and stress, but also loneliness and sometimes even sickness – he opened his arms as well and they embraced each other.

 

Riley entered the house first and Brady followed her inside. The last time they were here, he had seen an outlet. This was his chance to recharge his phone, and it could be his last recharge in a long time.

He got the recharger out of his pocket, put it into the outlet above the kitchen counter, just underneath a couple of cabinets, and then connected it to his phone. He wanted to see if anyone had called him or messaged him on Time2Chat. It was not as if he was going to respond, of course. He was just curious.

He still didn’t have credit on his phone, and his number had expired some time ago, which were the reasons that he was glad that his phone connected to the internet nearly everywhere.

“Riley,” Ace said, welcoming.

It didn’t sound like they were in the living room. They were in the room where Ace had killed the old couple owning this farm. He turned his phone on and then placed it onto the countertop near the outlet. He walked into the living room and found it to be empty. He was the only one there.

Brady proceeded to enter the old-fashioned hallway connected to the living room and made his way through it.

The floor consisted of light brown carpet tiles and like the ceiling, the walls were painted an even lighter shade of brown.

The hallway was filled with pictures of the couple and people who seemed to be their family. Sons and daughters, perhaps? As he entered the other room, he saw Ace and Riley standing opposite of

each other, discussing something. Riley seemed to feel uncomfortable in here, and he couldn’t blame her. The room was

filled with bloodstains. There were bloodstains on the walls, on the brown carpet floor and even on Ace’s hands and face for some reason.  

“What did you do with the bodies?” Riley asked curiously.

Brady pinched his nose. A strong scent of iron lingered in the air.

 “I… bu – bu – I burned them,” said Ace.

The room wasn’t very large and it was a real mess. A sturdy brown dinner table had been pushed over, shattering several vases that had been standing on top of it.

Several chairs lay broken on the ground.

An old, large TV – one of those thick ones – was standing on an old office desk. The screen was shattered and bloody and the files that had once laid perfectly stacked on the desk were now scattered on and around it, used carelessly in an attempt to wipe away some of the blood.

“Why did we have to come here?” Riley asked as she exchanged a brief glance with Brady as he entered the room.

Ace leaned on the sturdy table that had been pushed over and he had his arms folded. The area just below his right eye was blueish; Alex’s work.

“I wanted to talk to you two about the things that went down here earlier this day.”

“But we already – ” said Riley, but Ace interrupted her.

“Stop! We have talked about it… but we have not drawn a conclusion,” said Ace calmly.

“Well? Draw a conclusion,” Riley retorted, irritated.

Brady stood next to Riley, whom had her arms folded.

Brady felt a certain anxiety surging through his body as his eyes jumped from one bloodstain to the other.

While Riley was visibly uncomfortable in this room, she was acting nowhere near as uncomfortable as Brady was.

“Look, I killed the farmer and his wife, but it is not my fault. You two, screwed up,” said Ace before pointing at Riley with a bloody finger. “Especially you, Riles. You should have never used your claws near that old man. Conclusion: chores are yours until we leave on Monday. I will inform the others about this too. Only Leena will have to work, because she is the only one who can cook properly here, except for me of course. The rest of the chores are done by the

two of you, understood?”

“Sure,” said Riley before giving a snort of disdain.

Do not snort at me contemptuously, young lady,” said Ace, his eyebrows pointing down and together. “Do not.” His expression neutral, he turned to Brady. “And you? Do you understand

where your actions got you or do I need to repeat myself?”

“I – I understand,” said Brady.

 

Ace had left, but Brady and Riley hadn’t.

Because he didn’t have internet connection in the forest, he had decided to hang around at the farm for a while to check his messages and his calls.

Riley had decided to stick around as well. 

Brady was in the kitchen.

He unlocked his phone and didn’t even have to worry about connecting to the internet, for he had data.

Riley stood outside.

Brad saw that he had our missed calls and over a hundred messages on Time2Chat.

He knew that most of the messages he had received on Time2Chat were from his class’s group chat.

He opened the Time2Chat app and saw that he had received multiple messages from his parents.

They felt so close to him, yet so far away. It felt like he hadn’t seen them in months, and realizing that he still had the option to go home and hug them and talk to them made him breathe a long sigh.

Brady closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

“I’m just… I’m just…” he looked absently at the kitchen floor for a moment. “I’m just going to read one of each,” he said as Riley came inside.

He tapped on the chat with his mom and read one message.

Brady where are you? We are worried sick what kind of trouble have you gotten into? At lest call me back so we can talk about it.

Calling her would only make things worse, so he would obviously not do that. He backed out of the chat and then opened the one with his dad.

Where are you? What is the problem? Is it about school? Your grades? Something else? Let me know. Maybe I can help.

Typical. His dad thought it was about school.

He was going to read the other texts some other time since he was

curious about those other messages.

Brady saw that Daphne had sent him seven messages.

He opened his chat with her. The first message was sent on April the first. He left that day, if he wasn’t mistaken.

Why do you want to break up?

Hello? Are you there?

Brady!!! :’( :’( :’(

The following messages were sent on April the second.

Where are you? You weren’t on school?

I want to talk to you. Face to face preferably.

The remaining messages were sent on April the fourth.

I’m done waiting. Text me back if you want to talk it out.

Please?

Judging by the messages, Daphne didn’t know he had run away from home yet. Either that, or she hadn’t bothered texting him after that revelation.

Brady felt his heartrate increasing when he realized that his parents might not have even reported him as missing yet, and that that was why the police hadn’t found him yet.

He calmed down when he realized that the police had to know that he was gone considering he was probably the prime suspect in Logan’s unsolved murder.

Thinking about the police made him feel dizzy. If he were to be caught and locked up in a six by eight jail cell, they might as well kill him.

Only thinking about being locked up for twenty plus years and not being able to do anything productive and not being able to work on his future made him feel sad and depressed.

Suddenly, he hoped they would leave Yatawa sooner rather than later. If he was out of Yatawa, if he was on Mount Adams, he was safe.

Yatawa felt like a box to him now, and he was a rat stuck inside of that box. The journey to Mount Adams, the journey to the House of Great God Noah, was a metaphorical rope, and it was the rat’s – Brady’s – only way of escaping the box, Yatawa.

His heart skipped a beat when the phone vibrated in his hand.

Riley had disappeared into the back of the house. For a moment, Brady wondered what she was doing.

He’d received a message on an app called Slahp.

Slahp was almost the same as Time2Chat, only far less popular, but

you didn’t have to enter a phone number in order to be able to use the app. On Slahp, you were able to meet new people with the press of a button. There was this one girl he’d known for almost two months now because of the app. Her name was Bella Vastola, a very attractive girl from

Italy. He opened the Slahp app and tapped on Bella’s picture, which brought him to their chat.

She hadn’t messaged him in at least a week until now.

Hi.

Sry for not sending anything.

I apologize 4621 times.

Can you forgive me please?

She was still not done typing, and Brady took that opportunity to tell her that it didn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.

Bella stopped typing for a few seconds. Brady had this special bond with Bella.

Bella had some family-related problems, and she also had some troubles in her social life.

He was the one where she turned to when she needed someone to talk to about her problems. She didn’t literally turn to him, considering there were about five thousand six hundred and twelve miles between the state of Washington and Rome, but they would discuss it over text and he would offer her rational solutions to her problems.

Sometimes, she did what he said. Most of the time, she followed her heart, getting herself deeper into trouble.

Itdoesnt matter? I haven’t talked to you in weeks.

He didn’t blame her. While he had played her counsellor more than once, she wasn’t obligated to message him on a daily basis, or on a weekly basis for that matter.

No problem. What happened though?

He instantly regretted having asked that question that way. It sounded blunt and it made him sound clingy and overly interested.

If I may ask.

Frozen, he awaited her response.

Ofcourse you can ask. I ad troubles with my mom and stepdd. Got some bad grades so stepdad took my phone awy,

Her stepdad had confiscated her phone.

Ah, that sucks. Do you have it back yet?

Her status turning to ‘typing’ and stayed that way for about five seconds.

Yes you silly. How else do you think Im messhing you? I have to go now. ttyl x.

How long would it take her to send him something? Another week?

“Two lady friends at the same time?”

Riley was standing right behind him. She’d seen everything he’d just sent. He wondered how he had sneaked up on him as quietly as that.

“Was that… inappropriate?” she asked uncomfortably.

Brady caught himself staring at Riley, lost in thoughts. “N – n – n – no – no,” he said. “I -- just – ”

“Oh,” said Riley, relieved. She chuckled. “You were staring at me with those eyes like ‘What have you done?’, you know?”

Brady forced a smile, suddenly feeling obligated to explain to Riley why he had stared at her like that.

“I sometimes get lost in thoughts, you – you – you – you know? Then I stare and like, it gets – ” he winced. “ – awkward.”

“I can relate,” said Riley friendlily. “It happens. Now how about you tell me about your girl friends?”

“They aren’t my ‘girlfriends’,” said Brady shyly.

“I said ‘girl friends’, as in girls who are your friends.”

“Oh. Well, Daphne was my girlfriend, but I had to break up with her because I had to l – l – leave, and Bella is just a friend. She’s from it – it – Italy.”

Riley raised her eyebrows.

“Italy? How’d you meet her then?” 

 “The internet,” he replied. “An app.”

“Oh, yeah, of course,” Riley tittered. “I haven’t come in contact with technology that much over the past five years.”

five years. That meant that Riley had joined this pack somewhere in twenty-ten.

Brady remembered that she told him that everything had gone quickly for her because she turned seventeen only several days before new Morus got their claws. If he wasn’t mistaken, her birthday was August the twenty-fourth, nineteen ninety-three considering she was twenty-one years old.

 

 

 

Chapter 21

Back at the Camp

 

 

Brady, Riley and Jason had spent most of the next morning hanging out around the farm. Riley and Jason had discussed what to do with the cows and they had come to the conclusion that freeing them on the day of their departure would be the best course of action. The cows could use the canopy of the forest as shelter against the elements, and eventually people would find them.

The old couple had three daughters and two sons. One of them would find the house empty one day, and the room in the hallway bloody and gory.

He or she would know that the old couple – his or her parents – had been murdered, brutally.

Apart from discussing what to do with the cows, they had simply talked and explored the terrain for fun.

Both Jason and Riley were remarkably adventurous despite the fact that they were both adults.

Brady had managed to open up a little to both of them, but that had quickly changed on their way back to the forest, where he grew more reserved again.

He wasn’t sure why that had happened.

They were nearing the blackberry bushes surrounding the camp and it was already then that they could hear Ace shouting at somebody.

You have to do as I say, understand? I am the leader here, the pack leader. This gives me all the rights to do as I want. Understand?”

They accelerated their pace, curious to find out whom Ace was yelling to.

“Those -- kids… ran off,” said Ace spitefully, basically spitting out the word ‘kids’ as if it disgusted him. “I am sure they will return, though. And once they do – ”

Brady squeezed his eyes shut and momentarily, everything was like a haze to him as the heavy feeling in his head returned.

“Thou art in trouble.” the voice said. “Findeth a way to restoreth thyne bond with the alpha male. Maol ego tusohl vuhz jora, maketh him becometh thyne ally, and thee shalleth succeed. Then I shall leaveth thee, and shall not returneth.”

Before Brady could ask – or think, actually – any questions, the voice was gone.

Too late. If only I could control it. That would make things so much easier.

“Who is there?” Ace shouted as Brady, Riley and Jason made their way through the bushes surrounding the camp.

“It’s just us,” said Riley normally.

Ace’s eyebrows pulled down together.

“Where were you three this morning? Riley, Brady, I thought we had a chore agreement!”

Idu and Leena were sitting by the campfire, talking about something. Brady felt intimidated by the way Ace spoke to him, but Riley and Jason appeared to be feeling completely fine.

“I want an explanation!” Angrily, Ace alternated his glance between them.

“Boss, don’t look at me,” said Jason as if he didn’t want to be wrongfully accused, at least not by Ace. “If I would’ve known they needed to do the chores for… whatever reason, I

wouldn’t have just left with them without saying a thing.”

Brady suddenly felt guilty. Yes, they should have informed the others they would be leaving, but when they had woken up, it had still been so early and they’d been the only three to be awake.

Jason had been sitting by the campfire with Riley, and Brady – with a lot of effort – had managed to go to them in an attempt to converse with them and bond.

 “Brady? Riley?” Ace demanded.

They both didn’t know what to say. Riley probably didn’t because she didn’t see a reason, and Brady didn’t because he was just a little bit too intimidated to be able to think properly.

Ace looked at him and nodded slowly. “Next time, you tell me when you leave,” said Ace before pointing at their hands. “Otherwise, your fingers. One – by – one.”

 

Brady and Riley returned to the farm with permission of Ace soon after Mister Allister and Idu had left to go out hunting. He was now charging his phone again, preparing it for the long road ahead. He also wanted to see whether or not he’d received any more phone calls or messages.

As he turned on his phone, Riley finished checking around the house to make sure there was nobody else there.

He could see her through the small window as she approached the kitchen.

It was a nice day. The sky was clear and it was warm outside.

He opened Slahp first and then proceeded to open the chat with his Italian friend.

I’m back. How’s it going?”

The messages were sent yesterday. Then a picture of her feet.

I have ugly feet.

The fuck? Brady thought.

Luckily, Riley wasn’t standing behind him, otherwise he would have had some explaining to do. It seemed like she was exploring the house or something.

Why did you sent me a picture of your feet? Lol.

Just before he wanted to check Time2Chat, Bella came online.

Im not sure :P

He was about to type something, but then she sent him a picture of her face.

She had a black eye and some bruises. He raised his eyebrows in utter shock.

What the hell happened?

My stepdad beat me up.

Brady’s mouth dropped open. Domestic violence. He should inform the Italian authorities, but how?

Just thinking about calling the Italian police made him anxious. What if the person on the other side of the line couldn’t speak English?

What if they thought he was just messing with them and they would inform the American authorities about his minor infraction?

Brady froze when he realized that the police could track him using his phone, using his SIM card.

Jk its make up IM a real artist am I not? xD

But Brady couldn’t laugh at the joke. He had just realized that this entire time, he had risked being tracked down and caught by the use of the very last piece of technology in his possession.

Hahaha.

“Ri – Riley,” said Brady, wincing when he heard himself saying her name. He never liked hearing the sound of his own voice saying other people their names.

“Yeah,” he heard coming from outside.

He shook before he looked at the phone in his hand.

The Comet-B6, Brady thought. It was quite a sturdy piece of technology. He had dropped it many times on accident, yet until this

day, about two months after he had purchased it, the screen was still flawless.

He was pondering whether to leave his entire phone behind, destroy it or to simply remove and destroy the SIM card.

He decided to go with the fourth option: removing the SIM card, destroying it and turning his phone off and to never turn it on again.

He somehow just couldn’t destroy the phone in its entirety.

 

“Where have you two been?” was the first question Idu asked them when they returned.

Idu appeared to be slightly annoyed for some reason.

“Walking,” Riley answered before she sat down next to Jason by the campfire, opposite of Idu.

Jason was bobbing his head with his eyes closed.

Roderic was sitting next to Idu, reading a thick book with a brown, leathery cover.

Leena stood under the tree, by the table. She was busy doing something with a knife, but Brady couldn’t see what exactly she was doing.

“I apologize for my tone,” said Idu grumpily before getting the brown trucker cap off his head. “I am simply a little worked up because of that stoner over there.”

Brady and Riley exchanged a brief glance with each other before she gave a nod at an empty spot to Roderic’s left.

Just when Brady wanted sit down on Roderic’s left, Jason’s eyes opened widely and he screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Jason!” Idu shouted angrily before getting up and rolling up his tucker cap, his eyes spewing flames.

“I’m sorry!”

Brady gripped at his chest and exhaled slowly.

Idu growled like an animal before flinging his cap to the ground. “By Noah, what is wrong with you?”

“Let it go, Idu,” said Roderic calmly before turning another page.

Idu growled for a second time, picked up his hat and sat down again. “If that happens one more time, I swear – ”

“Idu,” said Leena disapprovingly.

Idu shot an angry look her way. “How can I be the only one who is even remotely annoyed by this?” he demanded.

“It is because you are the only who is not keeping himself occupied,” Roderic said before shutting his book. “Leena is cooking,

I am educating myself on the history of the Earth from the Morus their perspective, and Riley and Brady have just returned.”

“Also, we can’t forget to mention that Idu is kind of hothead,” said Jason slowly, obviously stoned.

Idu shot a dark look Jason’s way before turning back to Roderic. “So you suggest that I do what?” asked Idu angrily. Idu was grinding his teeth.

“Explore the forest with our youngest members or by yourself, play a game of Crazy Eights with Tunstall, educate yourself, or by Noah, comb that hair and that beard.”

Seething, his eyes filled with annoyance and anger, Idu said, “I do not like exploring, I do not like losing, and I have yet again been unable to take any books with me because Ace’s sudden impulse to leave the House.”

“Idu, what have I told you about blaming others for your mistakes and wrongdoings? It indicates an ego too high or an ego too low.”

“I agree,” said Brady without thinking. He froze for a moment, and he was genuinely surprised to find that nobody was looking at him oddly.

“Brady, I have been meaning to talk to you,” said Roderic. “Could you spare a moment of your time and accompany this old man to the cave? There is something I wish to ask you concerning some recent events.”

Roderic got up, turned to the cave and disappeared into the darkness.

Riley was talking to Idu now, something regarding Arge Bjändar. She sounded interested. Was she faking it?

Brady got up and followed Roderic inside. Roderic sat down on his sleeping bag at the end of the cave. Brady sat down on his own. Mister Allister was there too, but it didn’t seem like he was going to add anything to this conversation.

Mister Allister was shuffling a deck of French cards absently, staring darkly at the cold, stone ground of the cave.

“Do not mind Mister Allister,” said Roderic friendlily, looking at his friend. “The old chap might seem judgmental, but he has a good heart.”

“Agh, shut your pie hole, you old man,” muttered Mister Allister.

Feeling hurt for Roderic, Brady looked at Mister Allister, who then shot him a moody glance, still shuffling the cards while sitting on his sleeping bag.

“Do not worry for me, Brady. I appreciate it, but it is not necessary. I

know as well as Mister Allister himself that he would never attempt to hurt me using words.”

“Aye,” Mister Allister agreed solemnly.

“Brady, sit down,” said Roderic. “On Ace’s sleeping bag.” As Brady sat down, Roderic said, “Our Alpha seems to have taken a liking to you. Yesterday evening, when you, Riley and Jason were sound asleep, he spoke highly of both you and your recent actions in the second skirmish.” That made Brady gulp. Did Ace tell Roderic about Anna’s killing? “As the Elder of this group, it is my duty to… discuss those actions with you.”

Brady immediately knew that Roderic was talking about Anna’s murder.

“In a recent talk I had with Ace concerning your progress in and around the pack and with the members, Ace also gleefully mentioned your peculiar fondness of harming and killing small, defenseless creatures.”

Brady’s mouth dropped open in disbelief.

Ace had told Roderic about the stories he had told about the rabbits and the pigeon.

“Rest assured, he did not tell me this on purpose. I could see it in his eyes that he instantly regretted mentioning your peculiar liking. Might I ask you something?”

“Eh y – y – yeah?” said Brady, looking at Mister Allister who, while a being killer himself, really didn’t seem to like what he had just heard. Brady felt ashamed, and while Ace hadn’t told Roderic on purpose according to Roderic, he still felt betrayed.

“This might be an… uncompromisingly forthright question, but are you – ” Roderic cocked his head and squinted at him, fingering his bushy gray beard. “ – are you a one hundred percent?”

Brady didn’t understand that question. He wasn’t sure what Roderic meant by ‘a hundred percent’.

“I shall formulate the question differently. Are you mentally stable?”

Mister Allister looked up from the deck of cards, still shuffling it as he looked at Roderic, visibly not having excepted him to ask that question.

“Have you ever been diagnosed with psychotic or sociopathic behavior?”

Brady’s eyes slowly widened as he realized what Roderic was thinking of him. He felt blood rushing through his cheeks, and suddenly, he felt like crying.

“No – no – no – n – n – no,” Brady stammered.

“Allow me to enlighten you on the topic of these two personality disorders.”

Brady knew what both of these things were. He had researched both terms and what exactly each of them meant, but he didn’t want to sound like a know-it-all.

“A psychopath is someone who has a chronic mental- and personal disorder. These people are often more dangerous than sociopaths. Psychopaths have abnormal or violent social behavior. They are terribly hard to work with, like Ace for instance. Ace has never been diagnosed with it, but I know he is one. I suppose no one told you about Terrance yet?”

“T – Terrance?”

He noticed Mister Allister shifting positions uncomfortably.

“Ace is not only psychotic,” Roderic continued. “He is also a racial discriminator. I suggest you to not spend too much time around him, and by Noah, do not look up to him. About Terrance. Terrance was a born Morus as well. He lived in the Kingdom of Zilnoii until he stole from a farm to feed his family, burning and killing everyone inside of the farm as to not leave a trace. Terrance was caught but he fled prison as well as his trial and became an Anolor. I believe this happened about seven years ago, but he was sorted into our pack by Dorian Nawot and murdered by Ace not long after we left the House of Great God Noah that year.”

Dorian Nawot. If Brady remembered correctly, Dorian Nawot was Ace’s father.

“Is Dorian also – ” Brady asked, but he was interrupted by Roderic.

“Oh no, he has no problem with them. Dorian is cold, calculating, and is above basic human instincts.”

Brady squinted at that. “Is – is racism an instinct?” he asked curiously.

“It is,” said Roderic. “Many animals will always prefer their own race above others. It is an innate behavioral pattern, and it is something we will always subconsciously do, no matter our intelligence levels. But we are getting off topic here. I told you to come with me because I wanted to find out whether you have psychopathic tendencies. I wanted you to do a quick test.”

Brady loved tests.

“Roderic, Brady, Tunstall!” he heard Ace calling.

Brady looked at Roderic, who nodded slowly.

“At a later time, I suppose.”

 

Brady, Ace and Mister Allister were the only ones who were still

awake. The others were inside of the cave, sleeping.

It was a peaceful evening, and because it was dark outside, because his tummy was filled with warm deer stew and because he was tired, Brady was in a state of inner tranquility.

The three of them were not exactly sitting by the fire. They were sitting next to it, around a circle of ground, which they had flattened.

Brady was sitting with his back to the cave. In the left part of the circle, a small, neatly folded stack of cards was lying, faces down. Next to it, in the right part of the circle, a small, disorderly pile of cards was lying, faces up.

Ace - whom was sitting diagonally opposite of him to the right – had seven cards left.

Mister Allister – whom was sitting diagonally opposite of him to the left – had three cards left.

Brady had four cards left.

They were playing a game of Crazy Eights, and Brady had to admit that while he had dreaded taking part in the game the moment Ace had asked him to, it was actually kind of nice and cozy, the way they were surrounded by the darkness, sitting next to a crackling campfire.

Mister Allister – whom appeared to be good at card games, seemed to enjoy himself. His usual dark, spiteful expression had changed into a half, poorly-concealed grin.

He wasn’t wearing his cowl, revealing his unkempt, dark-brown waves, which fell to his shoulders.

The calmly flickering flames of the campfire lit up the left side of Ace’s face.

It was Brady’s turn. Ace had just thrown a Five of Spades onto the disorderly pile of cards.

“Come on, Brady-boy, let us see what you have got,” he said playfully.

While Brady wasn’t very good at Crazy Eights, he knew exactly how to play it. Back in the day, when he used to go to Italy with his family in the summer vacation, he’d often played Crazy Eights with his brother and his grandpa from his mother’s side

His current hand consisted of an Eight of Hearts, a Nine of Spades, a Ten of Clubs and a Joker.

With a little bit of luck, he could win this, so he decided to get rid of his offensive cards.

He grabbed the joker out of his left hand and prepared to toss it onto

the stack of disorderly cards, but then he began worrying that it might have a negative effect on his relationship with Mister Allister, whom already didn’t like him very much.

“Come on. Make haste,” said Mister Allister. “I am on a streak, and I am not intending on allowing some slowcoach to ruin it by not finishing his game.”

Brady exchanged a quick glance with Mister Allister. Screw you, then, he thought.

Brady tossed the joker onto the disorderly pile of cards, causing Ace to guffaw and clap joyously. “Karma is with this one.”

Mister Allister shot Brady a half grin. “Not so soon, Ace.” He tossed a joker onto the stack.

Ace’s smile faded and his eyebrows slowly pointed down and together as he realized what this meant for him. “Are you kidding me?” he said in disbelief. Then, angrily, “What is this shit?” Ace alternated his glance between Brady and Mister Allister and his expression slowly changed back into a smile. “Ah, I see it. You two have struck up a secret plot against me, huh? May Ahlorin nail the both of you up against a cross and beat your sacks into the Void.”

Mister Allister guffawed with great jo before looking at Brady, smiling. “Come on, ya cunt. Laugh at him.”

A hint of a smile appeared on Brady’s face before Brady turned his head to Ace, who looked at him as if he could kill him. “Laugh at me and I will eat you in your sleep, Brady.”

The hint of a smile he had had on his face vanished like frost under the morning sun before Ace and Mister Allister exchanged a smile with each other.
“Wha – what?” said Brady softly and confused.

Hah. I will not eat you for laughing at me. It was a joke.”

Brady didn’t understand what was going on anymore. The state of inner tranquility was nice when on autopilot, but now, now he actually had to think of something to reply to Ace, it was a hindrance.

“Huh?”

“Huh? Huh?” Mister Allister sneered. “Leave the explaining for someone who is not borderline retarded, Ace,” he remarked snidely.

“What is this, Tunstall, huh?” said Ace as he got up. “Why do you

think little Brady here is a halfwit?”

“I do not think it,” said Mister Allister, his teeth clenched. “I know

it.”

Ace gave a snort of laughter. He looked at Brady before turning to the disorderly pile of cards. “Gentleman.” Ace opened his hand with the cards in it and one by one, he slid the cards off his hand with his other hand, making them swirl down onto the stack. “One two three four five six seven I – win! Nighty-night!”

“Goodnight,” said Brady.

“Goodnight,” muttered Mister Allister, whose mood suddenly dropped.

Then it was quiet for a couple of seconds. He looked at the fire, feeling its emitted warmth radiating against his face.

It was so dark outside. If it hadn’t been for this campfire, Mister Allister would only have been a silhouette to him.

He turned back to the game, noticing Mister Allister looking at him darkly.

“Wha – wha – what?” said Brady unsurely, not knowing as to why Allister was looking at him like that.

Mister Allister’s eyebrows went down even farther. “Are you going to play or can I already brand you as ‘Sore Loser Number Two’?”

Brady gulped before he looked at his hand. An Eight of Hearts, a Nine of Spades, a Ten of Clubs.

“Roderic was right, you know?” said Mister Allister all of a sudden, speaking rather softly, as if he didn’t want the others to hear.

“A – about what?” asked Brady, unsure as to why Mister Allister suddenly said that. Ever since he had officially joined the pack, Mister Allister hadn’t initiated a conversation with him. Apart from shooting him a dark look every now and then, they hadn’t had much interaction with each other at all.

“About trying not to spend too much time with Ace,” said Mister Allister with a grumbling voice. “And also to not look up to him.”

Brady put his Nine of Spades onto the disorderly pile of cards.

Mister Allister bobbed his head absently, and when Brady looked at the man’s face, he suddenly felt sorry for him in a weird, unexplainable manner. While still stern and dark, there was something sad about it.

“I will elaborate,” Allister said, tossing an Eight of Spades onto the pile. “Before this, I was the leader of my own pack. We were with fourteen people.”

Brady retaliated by placing his Eight of Hearts onto the pile. Mister Allister didn’t remark on it.

“My wife and I did not know Ace, Roderic, nor those two lovebirds when our packs first crossed each other’s paths on that grim Tuesday evening. Ace and I figured that travelling together for a while could not do harm since we were heading into the same direction anyways, and the Council was hundreds of miles away.”

Showing only a slight sign of disappointment, Mister Allister grabbed a card from the neat stack of cards and looked at it bitterly for a second before adding it to his hand. While listening attentively – something that Mister Allister seemed to notice – Brady got a card off the neat stack as well; a Two of Clubs.

“After travelling with each other through the dense pine forests of Maine for about half a week, Ace began getting into increasingly more feuds with members of my pack, with my friends, some whom I considered my family. On day four, several of those feuds escalated, and me, Roderic, Idu and my wife, who was one tough bitch, had to break up several fights. The next night, I awoke to screams.”

Mister Allister had a wife?

Mister Allister added a Seven of Hearts to the pile before grabbing a new card from the stack. That action left Brady feeling puzzled momentarily, but then he remembered that playing a Seven – no matter what suit – meant that he next player had to skip a turn, and because Mister Allister didn’t have a right card to add to the pile, his turn involved grabbing a card from the stack.

“We slept in tents back then,” Mister Allister told Brady as Brady grabbed a new card from the stack. He was pleasantly surprised to see that it was an Eight of Diamonds. “My pack was doing quite well, you see. Combined, it had taken us several months to hunt that much deer, moose and caribous to make seven tents, as well as backpacks large enough to carry the tents in as well as food and all our other stuff.”

Mister Allister grabbed another card.

“I exited my tent, curious as to where the screaming was coming from. I followed the noise.”

Feeling comfortable looking at Mister Allister because the man wasn’t looking at him, Brady put his Eight of Diamonds onto the pile.

“Clubs.”

“Then I saw it,” Mister Allister continued bitterly, the thought still visibly angering him. “Somehow he had killed my entire pack and was now torturing my wife, having already beaten her past recognition.” Brady gulped at that. “Then Ace saw me. I was afraid and angry at the same time, but I froze. I did not know what to do.”

Mister Allister’s hands formed into fists, squeezing his remaining cards together before he flung a Three of Clubs onto the pile.

“Ace told me about how he had ‘monitored’ me over the course of the past couple of days, and that he had come to the conclusion that I was quite resourceful, that I would make for a fine member of his pack,” gnashing his teeth and visibly upset, Mister Allister continued. “Ace gave me two options. I could either kill my wife, or Ace would kill the both of us.”

Brady had divided his attention between listening to Mister Allister and focusing on the game. He realized that he could win. He could play a Two of Clubs and then a Ten of Clubs. Mister Allister had only one card left. Brady doubted that it was an offensive card.

With his head down, Mister Allister was looking up at him.

“An – an – and you – ” said Brady.

“Yes, I killed her,” said Mister Allister softly, his voice grumbly again. “It was the only thing I could do. I could not kill Ace by myself. He would have killed me. He had just murdered my entire pack. How could I possibly kill him myself?”

Mister Allister was obviously feeling sad at the moment. Rather than adding his Two of Clubs to the pile, Brady played his Ten of Clubs, throwing away the win. He knew that Mister Allister enjoyed card games. Perhaps winning and thereby adding a win to his streak would improve Mister Allister’s mood.

 “I was saving that woman, actually. She was maimed beyond recognition. Her face was beat up, cuts all over her body, her own fingers, lying right next to her,” Mister Allister gave a snort. “That monster even cut off the tip of her nose. She cried in pain and begged me to kill her… so I did.”

Mister Allister grabbed a card off the stack and looked at it briefly before adding it to his hand.

Brady grabbed a card off the stack as well. It was a Nine of Clubs.

He wasn’t sure whether or not to say the thing that had just come up in his mind, but he did so anyways. “But why – ” he gulped and even softer, he finished his sentence. “ – why don’t you just kill Ace in his sleep?”

Brady’s heartrate increased. What if this was just an elaborate plot

between Mister Allister and Ace to find out whether he was trustworthy and loyal or not.

Brady couldn’t keep his mouth from dropping open when he realized that.

“No.” Allister shook, tossing an Eight of Clubs onto the pile. “Diamonds. That will not solve anything. It will not bring those people back. And even if I did kill him, Dorian Nawot would eventually figure out I did it and put me in the dungeons, leaving me to rot for the rest of my life for killing the only son he actually thinks of as his son.”

It sounded like everything was about favoritism and cronyism up in the House of Great God Noah.

“Why did nobody lock Ace up for killing all those people then?” asked Brady curiously, making sure not to speak loudly.

Brady grabbed another card off the stack. It was a Three of Diamonds.

“Favoritism,” Mister Allister murmured. “As I said, Ace is the only son of Dorian whom Dorian actually thinks of as his son. After Thorren, Dorian will become the leader of the Anolors of Great God Noah, and because Ace is the only true son he has left, after his turn at ruling us, it will be Ace’s turn.

With half a grin on his face, Mister Allister finished the game by proudly adding his Ten of Diamonds to the pile.

“Hah,” he said, speaking with his teeth clenched before he gathered all the cards. “It has been a while since I played a proper game of Crazy Eights, but now I remember why I enjoy it so much.” Mister Allister inhaled sharply through his teeth before he got up with a groan. “It is the only thing where I do not suck at and the only thing where I can pull out some appreciation for myself.”

Mister Allister signaled Brady to give him his remaining three cards.

Brady did.

Before adding them to the deck, Mister Allister inspected them suspiciously. “Tell me, boy,” he said. “What was your last card after you played your Ten of Clubs?”

“S – S – Six of… Diamonds.”

Mister Allister alternated his glance between him and the three cards he had left after the game ended.

“Hmpf,” said Mister Allister before turning around. “I will see you tomorrow.”

 

Chapter 22

Time to Leave

 

 

Brady wasn’t asleep, yet he wasn’t awake either. His eyes were closed and he could feel his cold shoulders sticking just out of the warm and furry sleeping bag. Speaking of his shoulders, it felt like he had healed, but when he flexed his right hand slowly in the sleeping bag, he still felt the long wound that ran from his purlicue to below his pinky finger, where his hand was connected to his arm. The skin was raw still, and sensitive. His shoulder felt completely fine, though, except for a sharp tingling whenever he put too much weight on the spot where the bolt had come out.

Sounds, coming from outside of the cave.

Brady sunk deeper into his sleeping bag until only his head and the upper part of his neck stuck out.

He wasn’t lying on stone with the back of his head. The back of the sleeping bag had an extension that served as a pillow.

Brady could only imagine how much work was put into making one of these sleeping bags, let alone the fur tents Mister Allister had mentioned yesterday evening.

“Leave him alone, Ace.” It was Idu’s voice. “The kid is still asleep. Let him sleep.”

Brady closed his fist around the soft fur of his sleeping bag before he startled to a loud voice.

“Wake – up!” It was Ace.

Brady opened his eyes, his sleep rudely disturbed

“Wh – wha – what’s going on?” Brady asked, instantly remembering where he was.

He looked at Ace, who was looking down at him, smiling. “It is time to leave, Brady-boy.”

Ace then left him and Brady pressed his hands on his chest before heaving a sigh.

The nights in the cave were cold and so were the mornings, but he barely noticed considering the sleeping bag was warm and well insulated, as well as the fact that he used his black hoodie as an extra blanked for his upper body. Brady got up. He was the only one left in the cave, and when he looked at the back of it, he noticed that the pile of items that had once laid there was now gone.

Before he stretched, he made sure that nobody was looking at him.

Brady then pulled on his hoodie and inspected the bloodstains on his clothes. His gray Cuba T-shirt was flawless. Unlike his pants, it didn’t have tears in it, and unlike his black hoodie, it was free of bloodstains.

While they were there, the bloodstains on his black hoodie were barely visible because of the blackness.

Overall, if it hadn’t been for several small tears in his pants, he looked just fine.

Brady exited the cave and was greeted with several good mornings, which he all returned.

The first thing he did was checking out his water skin, which had hardened and dried until the point where it was beginning to feel leathery and beginning to change colors, starting to look browner.

“Kids,” said Ace, clapping his hands. “We’re leaving one day earlier. No point in staying here any longer, am I right? There are no ties that keep us attached to this place, except for Brady’s ties, which we will try to sever as quickly as possible. Riley, Jason – ” Ace turned to Brady. “And… what was your name?” he said, cocking his head. “Aha! Just kidding. Brady. You three can go do something else. The adults need to take care of some business.” Squinting, Ace turned to Idu. “Well… adults.”

Idu snorted. “Pssh. Get over yourself, man.”

 Leena, Roderic, Mister Allister, each of them was carrying a backpack where they were putting stuff in.

Clothes, leather, the sword, crossbows, bolts.

“I’m just going to…” Jason, who was sitting by the fire, couldn’t even finish his sentence before he passed out.

“By Noah!” Idu snapped. “Who gave him smokes?”

 

Riley and Brady were at the farm again for the last time.

He felt as if he were preparing to go on a vacation. He felt great. He was about to leave his hometown and family behind, but he felt great.

Thinking about the things he would learn and the things he would see filled him with glee.

They were going to travel for five days through the wilderness of the state wherein he had grown up. Ace had told them that they would even travel through the semi-arid Yatawa Valley. Now that would be cool.

It was chilly outside and when Brady looked at his phone, it became

obvious to him as to why that was.

It was only half past six in the morning.

As he opened Time2Chat, his thoughts wandered off and he began thinking about having to introduce himself to all those new people at the House of Noah, whom he had never seen before.

He countered those thoughts by thinking about how unique his life was going to be and already was.

While he got lost in nostalgic and not-so-nostalgic thoughts of his past every now and then, he was more of a future-oriented person.

Especially this schoolyear he had done a lot of thinking about what he wanted his future to be like and what steps he had to take to make his future that way.

It were many steps and most of them had to do with getting rid of anxiety and his reserved nature.

He wanted to be funny, confident and charismatic like Robert Downey Jr, or exceptionally smart like Einstein or Nikola Tesla.

Screw that. He wanted all four of those great personality traits.
Charisma, confidence, great wit and high intelligence were four of the things he wanted to possess more than riches.

Possessing even only two of these traits could make life a lot of easier, let alone possessing all four of them.

Currently, he didn’t possess any of these traits. Apart from having a nice smile according to some, he wasn’t charismatic. Apart from a natural aptitude for coming up with lies, he wasn’t witty. And while he was book smart, had deep thoughts and somehow just knew certain things, he wasn’t remarkably intelligent.

Confidence was something he barely had to think about. It was very clear to him that his confidence had hit rock-bottom some time ago, and while it had increased over the past year and especially over the past two or three weeks, he was nowhere near confident.

“Mom, dad, Daphne, group chat,” said Brady absently as he scrolled through his messages.

Riley was sitting outside against the wall, staring up at the sky.

Looking at her made him smile.

He noticed that he had another message; a Slahp message.

He opened the Slahp app and then opened his chat with Bella.

I want a bf, a british one and I want long hair and a swimmers body.

When they had first met, she had described herself to him as random.

Who isn’t random on the internet these days,” had Brady thought.

It was the same as describing yourself as ‘nice’ or ‘spontaneous’ and

as a ‘hard worker’ during job interviews.

On the internet, the term ‘random’ had become a synonym for normal, and ‘nice’, ‘spontaneous’ and a ‘hard worker’ had become indications of lack of depth in people.

He had never done a job interview himself, but he had attended some

on those days when his father had taken him with him to his work.

Apart from being the only engineer at J. West Demolitions, his father was basically the right-hand man of the boss and because his boss was away so often for business-related things, he often had to do the job interviews and then tell his boss what he thought of the interviewees.

Brady could recall at least seven instances of interviewees describing themselves as ‘nice’ or ‘spontaneous’ and as a ‘hard worker’, and because he had heard that so often, and because it had happened more of than not that it had been the only two traits interviewees had used to describe themselves, he had concluded that it would have to indicate a lack of depth.

Those people weren’t to blame though. Society was to blame. Brady had once read that people lose their true selves and become a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy around their forties.

Throughout life, most people lost their individuality, and while charisma, wit, intelligence and confidence were crucial traits for achieving success, individuality might as well be equally important.

So your boyfriend has to have long hair and a swimmer’s body?

Bella came online and after five seconds, her message appeared on the screen.

No, haha. I want a british byfriend and I want to have longer heir and a swimmers body.

That made more sense.

Oooh. But you already have long hair, right?

Yes but I want it to be even longer.

Brady knew what she looked like, and her figure could only be described as curvy.

He didn’t know why she wanted to have a swimmer’s body, since he liked girls and women with curvy bodies.

But then again, what he liked didn’t really matter to her.

 

“Peep,” said Jason, pressing Idu’s nose as if it were a button.

Seething, Idu looked straight forward, trying to ignore Jason the best he could.

“Peep,” said Jason again, pressing Idu’s nose, but this time a little longer.

Ace was sitting opposite of Jason and Idu, and he didn’t seem to think it was very funny either.

Brady and Riley made their way through the bushes surrounding the camp.

“Can someone please get this kid away from me?” said Idu.

Leena exited the cave holding a pile of clothes. “Jason,” she said as if warning a five-year-old.

Jason, stoned, the white of his eyes now a light shade of red, looked at her.

Leena put the pile of clothes on a piece of deer hide and started putting it into a light-brown fur backpack.

“Brady, Riley, are you ready?” Ace asked seriously. “Brady, there is food in the large pocket of your backpack. Your water skin, which is, for your information, ready to be used, is in the second pocket. The flint and steel you took with you for some reason is in the same pocket as your water skin, and your sleeping bag has been rolled up and bound around the front of your backpack.”

It seemed like Mister Allister and Roderic were still in the cave.

Most backpacks were lying on a heap right next to the cave; Brady’s included.

He walked to it and picked it up. He had expected it – accompanied by its contents and the rolled up sleeping bags bound around it with rope – to be at least a little heavy, but it actually wasn’t that bad.

With the backpack on his back, his minorly damaged jeans and a look of determination on his face, he looked like a true amateur adventurer.

The only things he currently felt were excitement and a lust for actual adventuring.

Roderic got out of the cave followed by a grumpy Mister Allister. They each had a backpack on their back.

“Tunstall and I are ready,” Roderic announced.

Ace got up and jubilantly high fived Roderic.                      

“The two of you look ready, ha-ha!” Ace remarked excitedly. “How are you feeling, old one?”

Roderic smiled appreciatively. “As I said, I am ready. Thank you for your concern, young one.”

“Do not mention it!”

Slowly but surely, everyone got their backpacks and put them on.

Brady’s hands – clasped around the black shoulder straps – were trembling with excitement, but that might as well have been the early morning chilliness.

Soon, everyone – even Jason – had a backpack on their back, standing near the center of the camp where not too long ago a campfire had still been.

“I lead,” Ace told them. “Tunstall behind me and Roderic behind me. Idu and Jason on the third row. Leena, Riley and Brady on the fourth row. Let us go, and remember: we do not leave anyone behind, no matter how difficult that certain person could make the journey for us. Broken bones or broken spirit, it does not matter. I will carry you all the way to Mount Adams if I have to. Now let us go!”

Brady was the only one with a truly unique backpack. All the other backpacks were made of nearly the same color of light-brown leather, as were the rolled up sleeping bags hanging below everyone’s backpacks.

It was chilly outside and morning dew was still present on most of the grass.

This was a nice morning to begin such a long journey.

Ace led them through the blackberry bushes surrounding the camp and Brady turned around to make sure they hadn’t left any trails.

The cave and the surroundings looked all natural. It was almost like the cave and the roundish clearing surrounded by blackberry bushes hadn’t served as the temporary home of seven, and since recently eight people.

While the others made their way through the bushes, Brady turned around and cast one last glance at the cave – his hand clasped around the shoulder straps of his black backpack.

He was ready too.

 

The edge of the forest was nigh. There were less oak trees in this area and there was less vegetation in general. The ground was brownish and covered in green leaves and sticks.

Through the trees on the edge of the forest, Brady could see a small, square plot of soil surrounded by forest on all sides except for the part on the other side of the field, where there was an asphalt road instead. Sunlight filtered through the canopy. It was nice and bright outside, and while Brady preferred colder types of weather to warmer types of weather, he had to say that it was a nice day.

The atmosphere was convivial. Everyone was talking – some more than others – and they had been walking for about forty minutes now.

Brady was still walking in the back with Riley and Leena, who were

having a conversation with each other about a book Leena was reading. It was a book about the creatures in Caliptus, and while Brady had added little to the conversation, he had learned some things.

Idu was scolding Jason about his joint usage, and Mister Allister and Roderic were talking about Roderic’s son, Morden, who was forty-eight years old.

If he remembered correctly, like Roderic, Morden had been an advisor to the head of a minor noble house in the the Kingdom of Marghet.

The tone Roderic used to speak of his son made it sound like he was rather fond of the man. At first, that would sound obvious considering Morden was Roderic’s son, but Brady detected a genuine proudness in Roderic’s tone of voice.

“This is it,” said Roderic all of a sudden, prompting the others to stop talking. Roderic turned around and looked at Brady. “This marks the beginning of your new life.”

The others gathered near Roderic while Brady stood and did nothing.

Behind the plot of soil, Brady could see the outskirts of Yatawa, and behind that, part of the Yatawa Valley – a vast, semi-arid desert filled with hoodoos.

“If you follow us out of the forest now, it means that you have accepted your new life, and that you have agreed on joining us, as a Morus.”

Brady wasn’t sure why they were doing this. Hadn’t he agreed on joining them the moment he had returned to them that evening on April the first, when Riley and he had gone to his mom’s house to pick up the shard?

“I detect a certain -- confusion, in your gaze,” Roderic remarked with a smile.

“The cunt does not possess any wit, like I said,” said Mister Allister through clenched teeth before he inhaled sharply. “You would best explain it to him like you would to a half-wit.”

“Tunstall,” said Leena disapprovingly.

Brady looked visibly hurt, especially because he hadn’t expected Mister Allister to say something like that again, not after

what Mister Allister had told him yesterday, about his pack and his wife.

“Yeah, give the kid a break,” said Idu before showing Brady a reassuring smile. “Look, Brady, whenever someone changes and has agreed to join a pack, it is a tradition that that pack gives their new member a chance to return to his or her former life. We gave Jason a chance, we gave Riley a chance, and now we give you the chance.”

The others were now all standing with their backs turned to the edge of the forest, looking at him, which made him feel very awkward.

Suddenly he found himself thinking about returning home, but the thought of arriving at home and reuniting with either his father or his mother and his stepfather and having them tell him to wait so that they could inform the cops filled him with dread. Obviously, while he had been away from home for about four days now and while his parents and his other family would be relieved to see him again, it wouldn’t change the fact that he was a murderer. He would still be charged with Logan’s death, and Brady knew that once he was taken to the police department in Downtown Yatawa, he would break, even before the interrogation, and he would admit to the killing, even though he couldn’t remember the details.

He couldn’t remember anything apart from seeing Logan lying in the grass with his face covered in blood.

“Think about your decision, Brady,” said Roderic. “I think you know what the best option is, but is it what you want? You could return.”

“And get killed by those wretched assassins,” Ace added with a humorous laugh. “Returning is what you would do if you were actually as dimwitted as Tunstall claims you to be. Just think about the fun things we will be doing. We could travel literally everywhere, even to Caliptus, just not near any of the major cities. We have to make sure to visit the House at least once every two years, though.”

“Yeah, as if the Council would not turn a blind eye to you for not visiting the House for two or three years,” said Idu, folding his arms.

Ace chuckled sheepishly.

Brady remembered what Ace had told him they’d do just after Brady had told Ace about the rabbits and just before Ace had tortured the deer. Ace had suggested breaking into houses at night and killing the inhabitants. If killing was the thing Ace had suggested them to do, Brady wondered what other things Ace would want him to partake in.

Thievery? Rape?

While the thought of rape made Brady wince, thieving sounded quite exciting.

Apart from thinking about the things Ace had suggested them to do, Brady also thought of the things he’d learn during his time with the pack, and that excited him even more than the thought of thieving.

He’d learn how to survive out in the wild. He’d learn more about the Morus. Perhaps he’d even learn something about Caliptus.

Perhaps, like Ace had just said, they’d actually go to Caliptus.

A whole new world to explore, Brady thought wondrously. If we’re ever going to Caliptus, I could even run away from them and go to a city. I’m a Morus, and by then I’ll have my claws. I could become an adventurer, or help people for money, or I could become I smith’s apprentice.

Perhaps, once he was older, he could travel to Caliptus by himself.

What if he’d one day became the leader of his own pack?

Confidently, Brady took a couple of steps forward, joining the pack.

“I – I’m joining you guys,” he said.

The faces of the members of the pack lit up.

“You have made a good decision,” said Leena. “You shall not regret this.”

Riley patted him on the shoulder and he received a couple of gleeful handshakes before they turned to the edge of the forest and left it as one group, as one pack.

Ace Nawot, Riley Hudson, Jason Moorman, Idu and Leena Polun, Tunstall Allister, Roderic Aatu, and he; Brady Heliot.

 

“To our new member!” said Ace, triumphantly raising an aged, black mallet bottle into the air before taking a swig and passing the bottle to Roderic, who was sitting on Ace’s right side.

The atmosphere was nice and Brady wasn’t feeling anxious at all, even though the attention was almost solely focused on him.

Perhaps he wasn’t feeling very anxious and embarrassed with all this attention he was getting because it was evening, and because it had been quite a long day.

His head was literally spinning because he was so tired, and all he could do was smile, nod and utter barely intelligible responses to the questions he received.

“Does anyone have anything to say to our newest member?” asked Ace.

It was dark, but not too dark. Brady could still easily see his fellow pack members. Riley sat on his left side and Jason on his right. Leena and Idu were sitting on Jason’s right side with Ace next to them. Mister Allister and Roderic were sitting on Riley’s left side respectively. They were staying in an abandoned house this night on the side of a deserted road almost outside of town.

It was cold. They had not made much progress on their journey, but the beginning was there. This day, they had followed Main-Road Yatawa out of Yatawa Town – where Brady’s father lived – and they had continued to follow the same road through Downtown Yatawa – where his mother lived – through a part of Southern Downtown Yatawa, aka Purple Snakes territory.

Like the city of Detroit, Southern Downtown Yatawa suffered from urban blight.

This part of the city had fallen into disrepair and decrepitude. Nearly half of the houses were empty, especially this close to the edge of Yatawa. While the other houses were inhabited, they too suffered from neglect just like this entire part of Yatawa.

It was mainly the fault of the Purple Snakes, who basically treated Southern Downtown Yatawa like their personal playground.

While this part of the city made him feel uncomfortable, seeing all these abandoned, neglected, partially collapsed buildings, overgrown yards and littered streets filled him with awe. He had always felt a certain fascination towards things that had anything to do with the end of the world and dark times, and apart from several movies, Southern Downtown Yatawa was the closest thing he had ever seen that even remotely resembled a real-life apocalyptic setting.

The house wherein he currently found himself hadn’t been luxurious even before Southern Downtown Yatawa had become what it was today.

It was made out of light-green planks primarily, but the planks had seen better days. They had been reduced to peeling, splintering shadows of their former selves. The brown, carpet flooring on the first floor still looked quite good, and while he could feel the hard floor beneath it, pressing against his bottom, Brady couldn’t complain.

The master bedroom was a bland room, and apart from a queen-sized bed, it was entirely empty; scavenged long ago.

The door was closed and the broken window above the bed, looking out over the deserted streets, had been covered by a stained duvet

cover.

“I have something to say,” said Idu before he looked at Brady. Feeling his eyes wander because of tiredness, he listened. “Brady, I have not known you for that long yet, but you seem like a nice, spontaneous, honest kinda guy who does not seem to mind gettin’

his hands dirty. You are good in my book, especially after you said

that my name was ‘cool’, he-he.”

Except for Mister Allister, everyone showed signs of amusement, especially Ace, who guffawed.

“I hope you will be staying with us for a long time, pal. I really do.”

The other members of the pack applauded Idu.

“Thanks,” said Brady, not knowing how else to reply to it.

Idu gave him a nod before he took his cap off and put it back on straight.

“That was a nice thing of you to say, Idu,” said Ace, a whiff of amusement in his voice. “I personally find the part about him saying that your name was cool the best. Ha-ha. I think – I think the funniest part is – is that um, I do not know what Idu means in ‘Arge Bjändar’, but on this planet, it means – it means, get this, ‘Injection Drug User’. Is that not a funny thing, I mean, Idu’s name being related to drugs, the thing that he despises? Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Nobody really responded to it, except for Mister Allister. “It is vaguely ironic.”

“Now that, I agree on,” said Ace. “Let me make a suggestion. How about we make this a little bit more fun by throwing in something else, huh? How about – ” Ace snapped his fingers thoughtfully. “ – how about – a – a secret, of ourselves? Or something funny. For instance, I always sleep with my socks on, no matter where I am. Now how about you, Ids?”

“Um, let me think.”

“He – ” said Leena. “Id – Idu gets the hiccups when he feels flattered.”

They chuckled. Even Brady did.

“Leena,” said Idu, embarrassed. “Why did you have to – to say that?”

“What came to pass that made you discover that?” Roderic asked normally.

“It was on our third evening together,” Leena explained with a smile. “I complimented Idu on his ruggedly handsome looks, and then he suddenly got – ”

“Alright alright enough,” said Idu. “Can we please continue now? And Jason, could you put the joint away? It is starting to smell in here.”

“Ha-ha,” laughed Mister Allister mockingly. “Look at ya, trying to draw the attention away from yourself.” Mister Allister took a swig from the bottle. “Who is next?” He handed the bottle to Riley, who

then took a swig as well before grimacing a little and offering it to Brady.

While Leena volunteered to do the talking, Brady politely refused the offer of alcohol. Only thinking about all the bacteria and saliva around the lip of the bottle made him feel nauseous.

“Oh, yeah, never mind,” said Riley softly. “You’re not even old enough to drink, are you?”

A ten-second kiss could transfer around eighteen million bacteria, and that was a normal kiss.

On average, Ace, Mister Allister, Riley and Roderic had drunk from the bottle for about two seconds each, which would mean that the saliva on the lip of the bottle contained about sixty-four million bacteria.

While this wasn’t the definite number of bacteria currently on the lip, the thought of coming in contact with anywhere from around twenty to fifteen million bacteria, including those from an old man, still grossed him out.

Brady shook quickly.

“Right?” said Riley, waiting for an answer.

“Uhb – no.”

“Could you pass it on to Jase then?”

Brady grabbed the black mallet bottle and gave it to Jason.

“Brady,” said Leena. “I haven’t had the time to talk to you that much yet, but I think that during and after this journey, our bond will become stronger. May you be a part of this pack for a long time.”

Brady gave her a shy nod.

“Secret?” Ace teased.

“I’m not sure. I don’t have any secrets, really.”

“Everyone has secrets,” said Roderic seriously.

“And I know one of yours,” said Mister Allister impatiently, speaking through clenched teeth. “Come on, spit it out. You are a sore loser.”

Brady was genuinely surprised by that. He hadn’t expected Leena to be a sore loser.

“I had sincerely not expected you to be a sore loser, Leena,” said Roderic, surprised.

That was almost exactly what he thought.

“Everyone has heard Tunstall grinding his teeth whenever he is on the losing end, and everyone has witnessed Ace’s game-ruining outbreaks, but from someone as wise and intelligent as you are, I had not expected this.”

“It’s true, though,” said Jason before taking a puff. “She might not start yelling and screaming, but I’ve seen her crush several cards.” Jason blew out a cloud of grayish smoke that quickly disappeared into the darkness. “I guess it’s my turn now. Well, Brady – ” Jason turned to him, looking smugly. “ – I have respect for you, man. As you know, I was with you and Ace, hunting Alex down. I fought the Trainee and Ace fought Alex. You don’t even have claws and you just started fighting that girl.” Jason winced. “A shame you had to kill her, though, but respect.”

Both Mister Allister and Roderic looked up at Brady suspiciously at the mention of him killing, which made him feel rather anxious all of a sudden.

“Indeed,” Ace agreed, and for a moment Brady feared that Ace would tell them how it had happened. For a moment, Brady feared that Ace would tell them how he had stabbed at her throat repeatedly. “We still have Roderic, Riley, Tunstall and me who have not said anything yet to our fine new member. Shall I go first?”

No one seemed to mind that so Ace got up. He hoped Ace wouldn’t mention the things he’d said to him, like what he’d told him about those rabbits and about what he had nearly done to that deer.

Ace, who stood opposite of him, clapped his hands before looking at him seriously. “Well, Brady. We have a lot in common, and I assure you that after a while, our relationship will have developed into something beautiful. I want to thank you for the moments we have had with each other.”

Ace then bowed and sat back down. Brady wanted to say ‘thank you’ again, but he worried that that was starting to get a bit repetitive now, so he just gave Ace a quick nod and a cheesy smile.

“Oh,” said Ace before grinning. “Secret-time! Um, I secretly still love my brothers even though they got me, my father and my sister exiled from Caliptus.”

Exiled from Caliptus?

Brady couldn’t contain himself. “Wait. What?”

Riley! Roderic? Tunstall? Which one of you wants to go next?”

Exiled from Caliptus, Brady thought. He wondered why.

“Ahem,” said Roderic. “Brady, you seem like a good boy. I feel heartbroken for you that you had to leave your family as abruptly as you did, only because you have changed into a Morus. I think that you, as the good person that you are, deserved to be able to live peacefully amongst humans. I beg to Yuremir, hoping that he will

protect you and bring you good fortune and an enjoyable life, free of harm.”

They clapped, and Brady decided to join in with the clapping.

“My secret – ” said Roderic before he waited for the clapping to stop. “ – my secret is that I dread dying, and that the entire process of ceasing to ‘be’ fills me with solicitude and sadness.”

The atmosphere dropped and Brady saw even Mister Allister and Ace looking like they were feeling sorry for Roderic.

“Do not worry, old pal,” said Idu reassuringly. “You have still got several years to go.”

“Exactly, man,” said Jason, who had extinguished his joint specially for Roderic. “You’re like, what, seventy years old? You’ve got time.”

“I thank you for your compassion, all of you,” said Roderic, staring at the carpet flooring. “Yet my anxiety-filled thoughts of death will not stop. I have always been a future-focused individual, and my near future is death.”

That made Brady think about death as well, but rather than feeling sad about thinking of his own death, he felt sadness towards the thoughts of the deaths of his loved ones.

He had cried thinking about his father and mother’s death before. He had even cried about the thought of his younger brother growing up and his parents growing older.

Ace patted Roderic on the shoulder. “Bucker up, old man. Death is a part of life. You just begged to a god, you are part of a system of religious devotion and veneration, and now you are saying that you think death means the end of ‘being’?”

Roderic nodded absently. “I believe in Ancients, I believe in gods, but I am skeptical of the afterlife. As we all know, gods and goddesses were once men, and while I believe that they may be forthliving in Aecirium, I will not believe in their ‘planes of existence’ until I see them with my own eyes. I will continue to believe that death consists of endless darkness and nothingness.”

It was quiet for a moment.

“Research notes,” said Mister Allister to Roderic, his voice grumpy. “Have faith in your research notes.” 

Roderic gave Mister Allister a nod, and the old man visibly regained positivity after the mention.

Research notes, Brady thought. What could possibly be so heartening about research notes?

“Riley, Tunstall?” said Ace.

They looked at Tunstall expectantly. Tunstall rolled his eyes before he looked at him grumpily. “Brady, as your mentor, I hope you will find the time you are going to spend with us enjoyable.” Murmuring, he added, “Welcome to the pack.”

“Nice one, Tunstall,” said Idu.

“But we are not done yet,” said Ace. “Tunstall, secret?”

Chewing on both his cheeks, Tunstall looked at him vacantly.

“My secret.” Seriously, with his eyebrows pointed down and together and talking through clenched teeth, he said, “I am actually a real unsentimental asshole who possesses no compassion or sympathy towards others.”

Brady heard some unsure laughter that quickly turned into actual laughter. Like him, they probably had not known whether to laugh at it or not.

“Yes, that is what you want us to believe,” said Ace humorously. “But on the inside…,” he added suggestively.

Brady noticed that while not seething, Mister Allister didn’t appreciate that comment.

He wondered whether the others knew about what Ace had done to Mister Allister’s pack. Brady speculated that if they didn’t, Ace had probably threatened Mister Allister into covering it up with him.

Riles, it is your turn.”

Confidently, Riley turned to him.

Brady wasn’t sure what to think of Riley. While the personalities of the others were sort of clear to him, Riley her true personality was still unknown to him.

Sometimes, she seemed absent-minded, just like he was, but then at other times, like right now, she seemed so in the moment.

“In… the few days you’ve spent with us, we’ve been through quite some things together. We stole milk from a dairy aaand you kind of saved me from that farmer holding me at gunpoint. We broke into your mom’s house in order to get something for you with personal

value. We worked closely together during the fight at the camp and I think there’s a lot still to come. Like most of us here – ,” she said before giving Mister Allister an obvious look. “ – I already like you, and not just as a member of the pack, but as a -- low-key friend. I hope you feel the same about me.”

“Aww,” Ace teased.

The others clapped. Anxiously, Brady thought of a way to respond to

what Riley had just said.

“Yeah. I – f – f – I feel the s – s – same about you.”

He had the hardest time getting the word ‘feel’ and the word ‘you’ out of his mouth.

She smiled at him reassuringly.

“I want to thank everyone for saying these… nice things to Brady, but I think it is about time for everyone to go to bed now,” said Ace. “I do not want to be followed by a bunch of sleepyheads tomorrow, so get some rest.”

They all got up and walked around the dark house, trying to find a good place to sleep. There was some old furniture inside of the abandoned house, including a couch and the queen-sized bed in the master bedroom.

 

It was late at night. The broken window gave a view of one of the creepy, deserted streets of Southern Downtown Yatawa and the even creepier abandoned houses across that street.

Brady woke up feeling warm. It was cold inside of the house, so that had to mean that the fur sleeping bags were well insulated.

Brady, as well as Leena, Riley, Jason and Idu were sleeping in the empty entrance room of the house. Like the rest of the house, the entrance room was empty; scavenged of all the valuables and cheap items it had contained.

The floor of the entrance room consisted of the same carpet flooring as the master bedroom did, and without light, it was almost as dark inside of the house as it was outside.

Brady hadn’t woken up naturally. It was the heavy, headache-like feeling inside of his head that had woken him up.

“Bond with him,” the voice told Brady.

He looked around to see who the voice was referring to, and then he saw it. Ace was sitting on the wooden stairs leading to the second floor, staring absently out of a window across the room to his left, his head leaning on his right hand.

Brady, Idu, Riley and Leena were lying near the front door. Brady had initially expected it to be noisy outside considering the Purple Snakes were especially active at night, but it wasn’t that bad.

I thought Ace and I already had a good bond.

“It is noth strong enough. Thee might findeth out soon.”

Then what do I have to say?

“The alpha male is a social one. He shalt talketh to thee.”

Then the feeling subsided, and as it did, a feeling of anxiety returned.

The voice said that Ace was a ‘social one’ and that Ace would start talking to him.

Brady hoped that would be true, otherwise, it would become very awkward.

With little effort, Brady crawled out of the warm, furry sleeping bag, his clothes still on.

He’d been wearing the same pair of clothes for more than four days now.

Hesitantly, he approached Ace, who noticed him almost immediately.

“Brady-boy,” he whispered, surprised “What do you want?”

“N – n – noth – ”

Ace signaled him to stop talking. “Firstly, keep your voice down. There are people sleeping here. Secondly, you should do something about your stuttering and about your unconfident demeanor in general. People will walk over you your entire life if you keep it up like this. Just some friendly advice from good ol’ Ace Nawot.”

Brady couldn’t help but feel hurt at Ace pointing out his lack of confidence.

He looked at the carpet flooring, rubbing his arm softly while Ace stared out of the window again.

“We still have a long way to go, Brady-boy. Four days left till we reach the House.”

They hadn’t walked many miles today, but Brady was certain that they would make up for that tomorrow.

“Do you miss your family?” Ace suddenly asked, turning to him and showing actual interest.

Brady looked up at him and quickly broke eye contact. He found it to be a weird thought that he was here with them now. He was surrounded by people whom he had met only days ago, and he was supposed to be spending a lot of time with them.

Not only that, but soon, he would visit a place hidden from ‘normal’ humans where even more Morus would be.

Thinking about having to introduce himself to all those people already made him nervous.

“Helloh-ho?” said Ace. “I asked you a question, ya rude dick.”

“Eh – eh, no,” said Brady, having already forgotten about the

question Ace had asked him.

“Hmm, do you think you will miss them after a while?”

“I don’t hope so,” he replied.

“I did not asked you what you hoped,” said Ace lightheartedly. “I asked you what you thought.”

“Y – y – yeah, I think I will miss them after a while.”

Ace pulled with the corner of his mouth. “That is good. Missing someone may be a horrible feeling, especially if you know that you will not be seeing them for years, but it is your heart’s way of reminding you that you love them. Hm, I sure miss my pa, even though I said that I hate him. I said that, right?”

Brady nodded quickly.

“I do not hate him. My father and I are simply not very close, and he has always preferred my sister and my oldest brother to me, and I have a feeling that that is still the case even though it was my oldest brother who exiled my pa from Caliptus for his crimes.”

Brady wanted to ask Ace what his father had done, but he wasn’t sure whether that was an appropriate question to ask right now, if ever.

“Heh,” said Ace, staring up at the ruined ceiling thoughtfully. “Baxter, Paxy, Sav, even Vlad. I think he prefers all of them to me, and father has always given me that feeling.”

Baxter, Paxy, Sav and Vlad. Ace’s siblings, Brady figured.

It felt weird to think of Ace as someone’s little brother.

Ace gave a nod to the window. “That is where we are headed tomorrow. This desert is not that large. We might be able to reach the end of it by tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps even earlier. We do not want to get stuck in it at night. The desert is a horrible place to sleep in. It often freezes at night, and do not get me started about the sand.”

They talked for a while, and Brady did most of the listening. Their conversation was about the journey primarily, and that was mainly because Brady had been too tired to think of any questions he wanted to ask.

Eventually, after several seconds of silence, Brady realized that it was quiet, so he looked up at Ace, who smiling down at him.

“Roderic told me you were a listener. That is a good thing, you know? People are naturally drawn to listeners as opposed to people who just talk and blab and chatter all the time. They have to bring in people themselves using words and stories.”

Brady looked at Ace, not knowing what to say. He had always preferred listening to speaking, though, but that could just be the social anxiety Roderic had mentioned.

Ace got up. “Time to go to sleep now. I will see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah s – s – s… see you tomorrow.”

 

Like a mole sticking its head furtively out of the soft, recently raked soil of an old couple’s backyard, Brady stuck his head out of the sleeping bag, looking around, his eyes hinting at a mild tiredness.

He had slept well, despite having been woken up by the voice.

He had grown to accept the fact that the voice must be real considering it actually ‘sounded’ real, and considering it actually partly possessed him.

He looked around for a bit and noticed that Idu and Leena were gone. For a moment, he thought that the others were gone too and that they had left him behind, but then he saw two human-sized bulges in two of the four sleeping bags, meaning that Riley and Jason had to be here still.

This was the first time he could actually see where he had slept. The house was a mess. It seemed that it was not only neglected but also used to store trash as suggested by several black bin bags stacked in the corners of the room.

That was odd. He hadn’t smelled anything foul last evening.

“Good morning, Brady,” said Roderic, who came out of the master bedroom located to the right of the wooden staircase leading to the second floor.

He was pushing back his thick, gray, shoulder-length hair, revealing the tattoo on his left temple; a gray wolf, howling, and it was looking right at Brady with its ice-blue eyes.

“Goo – good morning,” said Brady as he got up.

“You must be wondering where the others are, young one,” said Roderic as he strode across the room towards a square window beside the door. “They are out searching for a clean source of water, on my suggestion. I figured that saving the milk for when we

actually need it would be a better idea. It is most fortunate that they are gone,” Roderic motioned to Jason and Riley, “and that they are asleep, for I have been meaning to talk to you about the girl who you have murdered.”

Brady didn’t want Roderic to think that he was some kind of crazy murderer. Roderic already knew about the rabbits he had slain, the

rabbit he had tortured and the pigeon he had tortured until its unexpected death.

Merely thinking about it filled him with shame, but he also knew that he had been young and confused back then, and while he was still young, and perhaps still kind of confused, he was nothing like that anymore.

“You mutilated her, or so I have been told. Intentionally or unintentionally, it does not matter.” Roderic turned to him, his hands resting at his sides. “I want to do that test, Brady, and I want to do it soon. It may seem exaggerated to you now, but it is of dire importance that you take this test. If you really are unstable, or if you are showing symptoms of becoming unstable, I might be able to help you before it is too late. I am familiar with playing the psychotherapist. My vast, widespread psychological knowledge has come in handy before.”

While Brady was interested in the test, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to know the results. Deep inside, he knew that he was okay in his head. The rabbit killing and the pigeon torturing were things from the past.

“Allow me to help you,” said Roderic carefully.

Brady didn’t think that the way in which Roderic said that sounded good. It sounded as if Roderic actually thought he was out of his tree, that he really needed help.

“I’m not mad,” said Brady normally.

“Brady,” said Roderic, his tone suddenly authoritative. “Jason told me that you repeatedly stabbed that girl in the throat with a small, sharp object until the inside was completely exposed.” Brady winced at the thought. “I have killed before, Idu has, Mister Allister has and even Jason has, yet none of us have ever killed someone that brutally, and with that little remorse, except for Ace, who, coincidentally, happens to be unstable.”

He didn’t want to get on Roderic’s bad side, and because he was interested to see what the test would look like, he agreed on taking it.

“Well, okay. I’ll – I’ll – I’ll take it.”

“I am relieved to see that you are willing to partake,” said Roderic. “We will be doing the test today. Stay behind if you want to take it in privacy. I would understand that.”

Roderic returned to the master bedroom leaving Brady thinking about what he should be doing right now. This was the first time in quite some time that there was nobody around who could give him something to do, and because of the lack of homework and technology on his person and in his close proximity, he didn’t know what to do either.

 

Around thirty minutes passed before Ace, Idu, Leena and Mister Allister returned, and an additional thirty minutes passed before everyone was ready to leave.

In the first thirty minutes, Brady hadn’t done that much other than the things which he usually did when there was nothing else to do, such as thinking, pondering and giving thought to.

In the second thirty minutes, Brady had watched how, outside, Ace had cooked the water that he and the others had found in a rain barrel a couple of blocks away.

Brady had seen how the ‘bottled murky’, as Ace referred to it, had become clean and free of germs.

The water hadn’t been particularly dirty when he had first seen it, but it was visibly clearer now that it had boiled on a campfire for fifteen minutes in two three-liter cooking pots.

Six liter water for eight people. Brady had been lucky to have been outside with Ace, for Ace had allowed him and Jason – who had also been outside at the time – to drink first out of the cooking pots once the water had cooled down.

Jason kept referring to Ace as ‘boss’, and while Ace didn’t seem to mind, it left Brady wondering why Jason did that.

They had left the house behind, and because they had stayed so close to the border between Southern Downtown Yatawa and Yatawa Valley this night, they were currently already in Yatawa Valley.

While not big, the Yatawa Valley looked quite impressive, and that was mainly because of the many columns and pinnacles of weathered sandstone dotting the sandy surface.

Some of hoodoos were barely six feet tall while others towered above their shorter counterparts.

The Yatawa Valley didn’t only consist of a sandy surface dotted with sandstone columns, though.

Dead bushes were also a common sight, as were several species of cacti and the occasional rodent or pack of coyotes in the distance.

The sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly, like one would expect it to do in a desert-like area.

But Brady didn’t quite have a desert-feel. The desert was broad but not long, warm but not hot. It bordered the southern edge of

Southern Downtown Yatawa, the southern edge of Yatawa West, the Western edge of Yatawa West as well as the western edge of Uptown Yatawa, yet the Yatawa Valley was short enough for Brady and the others to be able to see trees on the hilly landscape in the distance.

Each step he took, he went farther south and thus, farther away from his hometown.

Brady hoped that they would be out of the Yatawa Valley sooner than later. He was looking forward to the hill climbing and the hill descending and walking through the forests.

He also didn’t feel completely comfortable in an open area such as this. A crazy person with a sniper would be able to see them from miles away, and while hoodoos dotted the Yatawa Valley, they weren’t very common on the sides of the road or even near the sides of the road for that matter, allowing the sniper to have a clear shot.

Ace was walking up front and as opposed to yesterday, the other members of the pack were walking behind him in a disorderly fashion. They weren’t walking next to each other, or at least some of them weren’t. Rather, they just walked wherever they pleased, and it really was a coincidence that Brady had ended up walking next to Roderic.

Brady listened to the conversations. Mister Allister, Idu and Leena were talking about the House of Great God Noah while Riley and Jason were discussing the show Friends.

Ace kept his eyes on the road. Cars passed them every now and then, and while it hadn’t been obvious to Brady at first, it was now that Roderic had explained to him why they had to keep their heads down.

Roderic had told him that usually, when approached in public because of their odd appearances – while Idu, Leena, Jason and Riley wore modern, unobtrusive clothing, Ace and Roderic each wore a set of thick leather armor minus the helmet, and Mister Allister wore a set of refined leather underneath a dark-black cloak – they told the people they were nomads or gypsies.

A cliché tumbleweed rolled across the concrete road before a brown sedan passed them, leaving them turning their heads away from the drift sand.

“Are you ready for the test?” Roderic asked.

He wasn’t sure whether Roderic’s long gray hair and circle beard

would make this journey through the Yatawa Valley easier for the man – protecting him against the sun – or tougher – becoming warm and tickly.

Brady nodded quickly, not wanting the others to know what they were up to. One person suspecting him of having a mental instability was enough.

“Do you want to take it in private or…?” the old man said carefully.

Brady nodded yet again.

While the others continued their conversations, Brady and Roderic slowed down a little before proceeding to follow Ace and the others.

Brady doubted that they were out of earshot, but he also didn’t want to sound rude and suggest to Roderic that they should create some more distance between them and the others.

Brady tried to recall the average distance the sound of a human voice could travel, but all he remembered was that there was a recorded case of a human voice having been detectable at a distance of ten-something miles across still water at night.

The thought of hearing someone’s voice from the other side of a bed of water in the dark at night made him shiver.

“Let us commence, then,” said Roderic. “First question. What do you do when you feel frustrated?”

He remembered breaking his Game Boy Advance Special on multiple occasions over the course of three years over being upset and annoyed at being unable of achieving victory in certain levels over a variety of games.

It was always the screen that stopped working, because he would smash it against his head when angry. Also, if it was a person that would frustrate him – someone who wasn’t family nor his friend, and mainly with people who frustrated and bullied him often – he would imagine what he’d do to them if they were tied up or, in case of a physically weaker individual, alone in a room with them.

“I do not want you to lie,” Roderic warned. “For the results will then not be accurate then, and I would also like you to not think wishfully, for that will have the same effects on the results as lying.”

Brady analyzed the term ‘thinking wishfully’, and he came to the

conclusion that it had to mean something in the neighborhood of ‘making decisions according to what one might consider pleasing to imagine rather than making decisions according to what one would actually do’.

For example, on a test, when asked the question ‘what would you do if you saw a stranger being attacked by a gang of youths’, one would choose the option ‘help the stranger’ rather than choosing for the option ‘ignore it and leave the scene’.

Brady knew that the bulk of people wouldn’t help the stranger in a real-life situation, because on both the news and the internet, often, a crowd would gather near the fight and watch it in shock rather than doing something about it.

Of course, sometimes people would help, but often, they wouldn’t, which was completely understandable to him. He knew that he wouldn’t help the stranger. He wouldn’t risk his own safety, his own life, for that of a stranger.

Perhaps he would step in if it were a member of his direct family who was being attacked, or Robert Downey Jr, but he wasn’t certain about that.

That was when he remembered that he had risked his own safety for Daphne once, several days ago, but that had been a kidnapping, and not an attack.

Well, technically, it had been an attack, but the kidnappers had probably not attacked Daphne with the intention of beating her up.

“Brady?” said Roderic.

“Yeah?” said Brady, who only then realized that he had been staring off into the distance, thinking.

With a smile, Roderic asked, “Were you planning on answering the question today, young one?”

“S – sorry. Um, I’m general – generally a l – l – level-headed individual.”

Roderic looked skeptically at him before he gave a nod.

“Very well. Second question. What is your opinion on love?”

That was an interesting yet difficult-to-answer question.

“Take your time,” said Roderic. “We have got time.”

Brady winced. He wasn’t sure what his opinions on love were.

“Love is… eh… love is – ”

Enouncing the word ‘love’ made him experience an inward shiver that could only be described as disgust, just like enouncing someone’s name did to him.

“Technically, love is not an e – emotion. Like lust, it’s a state of mind, a primal instinct that is supposed to fool us into m – m – mating so that our species can continue existing. At l – least that’s what I think.”

Roderic was visibly impressed by that response. “I have not thought

of love that way before, and neither have I of lust. While you have not directly answered my question, you have certainly indirectly, which may be even more informing than a proper response to the question could have ever been. Onto the next question, the third question. What are your opinions on swindling, frauds and elaborate schemes for personal gain?”

The answer to that question was simple. It only depended on one thing.

“Are they – successful?”

Roderic fingered his gray beard. “Yes, they are.”

Brady opened his mouth but no words left it. He wanted to say ‘smart, but in a way mean and selfish’, but what if Roderic would interpret that answer wrongly?

“S – selfish,” said Brady.

Roderic bobbed his head. “Good, next question. This question is in a way similar to the previous one. What are your opinions on cheating?”

Cheating. Brady hated cheaters in online video games, but he knew that if he would have access to a mod menu, he would smartly abuse the powers it’d give him. He wasn’t sure whether he’d use it for good or bad means, but he was certain that the first thing he would do was using it for personal gain, such as adding in-game currency to his account, or giving himself experience points so that he would have access to more items and skills.

“Cheating is bad,” he said.

Roderic reached for his water skin.

“Your answers are becoming shorter, Brady,” Roderic remarked. “Next question. What about the weak?”

Brady didn’t quite grasp the question. “Um, wha – what about them?”

Roderic took a swig from the water skin before replying to that question. “That is what I am asking you.”

Brady repeated that question in his head a couple of times.

‘What about the weak?’

‘What about the weak?’

Was Roderic asking him his opinions on incompetent individuals, those without any money and those who were oppressed?

In a world where he himself would have been brave and powerful, he would have probably helped those people, for a small compensation and for the honor and the renown.

He would have certainly not helped them out of the good of his heart.

“Help them,” said Brady.

“All right, very well. Judging by your answers, you do not show any signs of instability, yet the way you replied to my question about love made me think that you rely on your head rather than your heart.”

The test was over, and frankly, Brady had enjoyed it. Roderic seemed glad with the answers given, and especially with the result, as was Brady.

“Before we conclude this test, I want you to promise one thing to me.”

Brady looked at Roderic very suddenly as if he expected it to be something dire.

“W – what?” he asked, stuttering because of his mild stutter rather than anxiety or nervousness.

“That you do not kill the ones who do not need to be killed. From now on, if you want to kill, make sure that you know that it is absolutely necessary for that person who you want to kill to be killed. When you kill, do it swift. No maiming, no torturing, no matter how much you hate that person. Give him or her a swift death. Ace and the others know how to handle themselves and they are all adults, so they know how to deal with the thoughts and experiences of killing. You do not, for you are simply too young, which is why I do not want you to meddle in our fights, understood?”

While not angry, Roderic obviously wanted him to take those words to heart.

Stay out of fighting and if only kill if it is absolutely necessary. Brady would remember that.

“Un – understood,” said Brady.

An appreciative smile grew on Roderic’s face. “I thank you for taking this test, young one, and I would also like to thank you for taking my words seriously, for in the world where we live in, as members of a pack, violence is inevitable, and one day, you too will

have to kill. Make sure that by then, you know how to deal with the concept of ‘taking someone’s live’. Now, if there is anything else, simply tell me, is that understood? That is why I am here, after all. That is why I am the Elder.”

 

 

Chapter 23

Bond

 

 

On all sides except for one, they were surrounded by desert. While they had technically managed to get out of the desert, they were still surrounded by it.

It had been Ace’s idea to set up camp on one of several strips of grass surrounded by desert but connected to a large forest to the west.

The strip of grass was dotted with lush pine trees. Pine forests, especially those in hilly landscapes or located near mountains, were Brady’s favorite kind of forests, for even if the forest was lush and wild, it was still not wild enough to not be able to make your way through, at least in his few experiences.

According to Ace, the road they would take was easy to explain. Tomorrow, they would follow the strip of grass west, to the forest, where there was a road called ‘Old Main Canyon Road’. They would follow the road, and after some time, once Mount Adams was in sight, they would head to the mount in a straight line.

Everything was better than spending any more time in that desert. While the cow milk – which, when consumed by a Morus, was very refreshing and energizing – had helped keeping him focused, the warmth in the desert and the general blandness of the sandy area hadn’t made today as enjoyable as he had hoped it would be.

They were camping near Simcoe Creek, and they had eaten all the meat that was left.

Tomorrow, the first thing they’d have to do would be hunting, and Brady hoped that he would be allowed to come with, only he didn’t want to go out hunting with Ace alone.

They had made a campfire, which was crackling and snapping peacefully, and they were sitting around it, enjoying the last moments of this cool evening before they would go to bed.

“Only three days left now,” said Ace conversationally after the brief discussion of Caliptian politics had come to an end. Brady had heard several new names, and by listening to the conversations, he had learned some more things about Caliptus.

Apparently, Nosch was a huge island and it was also one of the only places on Caliptus known to be inhabited by civilized men and men in general.

Nosch consisted of five kingdoms; the Kingdom of Zilnoii, the Kingdom of Marghet, the Kingdom of Vohri, Capitol Nosch and the Savihili Empire, with Capitol Nosch being the seat of the King of Nosch.

There was peace in Nosch, yet the peace was frail and none of the high-lords really liked one another, and neither did the King. While the Kingdom of Zilnoii, the Kingdom of Marghet and Capitol Nosch were primarily inhabited and ruled by Morus and Elmus, the Kingdom of Vohri was ruled by the Sifu and the Zlothi, and the Savihili Empire was ruled by the Vandirians.

Ace had referred to the Zlothi as scaled bastards, making Brady think that the Zlothi were a humanoid race of reptiles. Idu had referred to the Sifu as ‘the hairies’, making Brady think that the Sifu were either people with a lot of hair or humanoids as well, like the Zlothi. Idu had also referred to the Vandirians, calling them ‘those with horns’, but Brady already had a mental image of the Vandirians. According to Roderic, they were a race of enlarged felines with muscles that are more prominent, and a hunched back, standing on their hind legs.

So basically, while half of Nosch was ruled by humans, the other half was ruled by humanoids. No wonder that, according to what he had heard, the Kingdom of Zilnoii was the safest place in Nosch to be. What did people expect if they would allow humanoids and animals to rule kingdoms? Obviously, each of the races had its strengths and weaknesses, and if he wasn’t mistaken, Roderic had mentioned that the Vandirians weren’t very bright. They were strong and tough, which weren’t desired qualities in a leader. A leader had to be intelligent and charismatic, and while toughness and physical strength were plus points, they weren’t necessities.

Even a guy in a wheelchair could be a leader if he possessed the right amount of intelligence and charisma. Hell, even someone who wasn’t allowed to leave his or her bed because of a terrible illness could be a leader.

“Brady,” said Idu suddenly, pulling Brady right out of his train of thoughts and putting him back into the world he had forgotten about for a few moments.

“Yeah?” he said, meeting everyone’s eyes in an attempt to figure out who had just said his name.

“Do you… know, who bit you?” asked Idu uncomfortably, as if this question was about intercourse or genitalia, or both considering

genitalia were basically the main objects implemented in sexual

intercourse.

Pondering that question, Brady realized that he hadn’t spent a second thinking about who had bitten him, about who was the catalyst of this drastic change in his life.

Brady shook unsurely.

“That is a shame,” said Idu before pulling with the corner of his mouth. “I reckon we will not find it out then.”

Idu’s eyes met Ace’s.

“I reckon we will not,” said Ace. “But who gives a shit about it anyways? We do not look at the past. The future is all one should be worried about.”

“I’m gonna have to disagree with that, boss,” said Jason distractedly as he rolled his joint. “You can learn from the past.” He pointed the freshly rolled join at Ace. “Ya can’t learn from the future. You can only prepare for it.”

“I agree,” said Roderic seriously.

“And we all know that Roderic is always right,” said Idu with a smile.

“I detect a hint of sarcasm.” Mister Allister spoke with his teeth clenched again.

“I was not – I was not attempting to sound sarcastic,” said Idu defensively.

“I know that you were not,” Roderic assured Idu calmly. “Idu, while I appreciate your comment, I have to gainsay it. I am not always right.”

“You are being humble,” said Leena.

Bah bah bah bah bah bah bah,” Ace snapped, prompting everyone to look at him. “Let us not try to make ourselves sound as if we are a model family, alright?” he said, annoyed, his eyebrows down and together. “I – I mean, Idu complimenting Roderic, Roderic being humble, Leena pointing out his humility, I mean what is this? What are we doing? It sounds so scripted. We are people. We are beings filled with self-interest, filled with arrogance, filled with envy whenever someone does better than we do. Why can we just not show our true selves, huh? Like – like I am doing. I am being myself. You all, with the exception of Tunstall and Riley and Brady, and – and maybe even Jason, are just trying to be nice. You are acting.”

A painfully awkward silence arose, but it was quickly broken by Idu.

“So… about tomorrow. We just follow that road you were talking about? Then we head straight towards the mount? No matter what gets in our path?”

Brady found it to be odd that the conversation was dropped like that. He would’ve liked to hear them discuss the true nature of humanity.

“Indeed,” said Ace, still seething. He breathed a sigh, and it looked like the sigh expelled some of his anger as well, as his expression grew softer. “But we will have to hunt, and we need pelts too. We cannot climb that mountain wearing these clothes. Everyone remembers what happened last time, right?”

Riley rolled her eyes. “I would rather have you not start about it again,” she said, slightly annoyed. “I’m not sure what you find funny about someone nearly freezing to death.”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Idu to Ace seriously. “How about we do not make fun of near-death experiences.”

“Well I wouldn’t call it ‘near-death’,” said Riley. “But it hurt, it really hurt, especially when I warmed up again. It was like someone was sticking a thousand knives into me.”

“You have always been metaphorical with your descriptions,” Jason acknowledged lightheartedly.

Brady was enjoying listening to them, especially because he didn’t have to do any of the talking. He could just sit back, listen to their stories and memories and enjoy himself by the warm fire.

“Everyone does remember that we didn’t actually burn the fur clothing, right?” asked Leena. “We hid them, hoping that they would still be there when we would return to the mountain.”

“That is correct,” Mister Allister said, his voice gruff.

Idu murmured something to Leena before the pair got up.

For privacy purposes, the sleeping bags weren’t all placed in a circle around the campfire. Everyone had found their own little place in a radius of about twenty to thirty yards around the campfire.

“Either ways, we will be going to sleep now. Have a good night,” said Idu.

“Goodnight,” said Leena to them before following Idu to their sleeping bags.

It was quiet for a while. Brady listened to Idu and Leena. He couldn’t even see them properly anymore; that was how dark it was.

Roderic got up as well. “Goodnight to all of you.” And then he too left the fire.

Brady could hear Idu and Leena murmur and giggle.

“Pff, kids,” said Ace.

Jason got the joint out of his mouth. “I’m not a kid,” he remonstrated, thinking Ace had referred to him. “I’m twenty-five.”

“I was not talking about you, Jason. I was talking about Idu and… and Leena.”

As if he suddenly didn’t care anymore about anything at all, Jason put the join into his mouth, took a puff and blew a smoke ring. Then he blew another one, a smaller one, and blew it right through the former.

“Wow!” Ace clapped. “That are some smoke-blowing skills, my pothead friend.”

“I thank you, kind sir,” said Jason with a poorly imitated Upper Class English accent, which reminded Brady of Miss Jones, his English teacher.

Jason then placed the joint between his fingers and flicked it away, causing it to land onto the cold, slightly wet grass, still burning.

Ace shook his head. “Put it out before you throw it away,” he scolded. “Mother Nature does not appreciate your behavior towards her grasses.”

Jason got up as if he didn’t really care and pressed his heel onto the joint.

“Good job, ya dummie,” said Ace. “Next time you do something like that again, I will light you on fire and throw you off a mountain. Now how does that sound? Ha-ha!”

Brady liked how Ace could always threaten people like that with such a huge smile on his face. It made the threat only sound more intimidating to the receiver.

“Yeah yeah, fine,” said Jason before turning his back to them. “Alright. Goodnight everyone.”

Jason walked to his sleeping bag. It lay kind of far away from the campfire, the farthest out of all the sleeping bags, tied with Brady’s and Riley’s sleeping bag, because they lay almost next to it.

“You kids go too,” said Ace, pointing at Riley and Brady respectively.

Riley got up, and then so did Brady.

“Goodnight,” said Riley absently to Ace and Mister Allister.

“Good – goodnight,” murmured Brady.

He followed Riley to their sleeping bags and shortly before arriving at them, seeing Jason sitting on his own sleeping bag, the headache-like feeling returned.

Brady squinted and placed his hand on his head.

“Wherefore doth thee not as I sayeth?”

“Are you… okay?” Jason asked, tilting his head a little.

Brady nodded, attempting to act as normally as possible

He quickly got his hand off his forehead and sat down. Riley was lying in-between them, and there was about thirty inches of space between the sleeping bags.

What do you mean? Brady fingered the grass thoughtfully, which made his eyes fall onto his nails. They were short, as always. The skin around his fingernails was rough and discolored, having suffered from years of gnawing and biting.

Dermatophagia, it was called, according to the internet; a compulsion disorder of eating one’s own skin, typically at the fingers.

“Thou art not even attemptingeth to bond with the alpha male. It is of importance yond thee doth. Thee hast to, for I commandeth thee. Wen to him onceth the cowled man hast left his side.”

Brady lay down and waited for several minutes until Mister Allister had left the fire and everything was quiet.

He got up carefully, not wanting Riley or Jason to hear him, and then he quietly approached Ace, who was sitting by the campfire alone, staring at the flames.

“What are you doing here, Brady-boy?” he said.

Brady had totally forgotten to come up with something to say.

“I eh – perhaps – maybe we can go out hunting now?”

Ace tilted his head suspiciously.

“Why?”

“So that we don’t have to do it in the morning. D – d – deer and coyotes are active at night, but we can at least try. Then we can sleep in tomorrow morning.

Ace shrugged and then grinned enthusiastically.

“You have got a point. Let us go then.”

 

Dull thuds as Ace dropped the three and Brady dropped the one coyote he’d been carrying.

It seemed as though everyone was asleep. While burning, the campfire had been reduced to one single flame.

Ace proceeded to get a few ropes out of a backpack as Brady sat down near the campfire, thinking about how successful this hunt had

been. While he hadn’t done much, he’d been the one who had

spotted three of the four coyotes, and Ace had shown him quite some appreciation for it.

Brady had gone out to bond with Ace, for it were the voice’s orders, and he had succeeded, or at least he thought he had.

Ace tied two of the ropes to the low branch of a tree standing near the fire.

Ace then picked up one of the coyotes and tied the end of the two ropes to its hind legs.

He was going to skin it.

Brady had never seen an animal being skinned before, and while he would like to see it, he also didn’t want to see it because coyotes – like wolves – were closely related to dogs, and he loved dogs.

Ace got a sharp knife out of his backpack. The knife looked sharp and durable, and while the grip was made of a black material that looked like rubber, both the pommel and the cross-guard looked goldish.

Ace closed his fist around the knife with the blade pointing at the ground.

Brady wanted to ask Ace where he had gotten that, but what if Ace would find him annoying for asking?

“W – where,” Brady murmured, but he didn’t finish asking and he hadn’t even said the one word loud enough for Ace to hear.

It’s a bowie knife, Brady realized.

“You want to learn how to skin coyotes?” said Ace as he started working on the hind legs of the coyote hanging at the tree branch.

Brady nodded, and it was only a second later that he realized that Ace couldn’t hear him nodding.

“Yes.”

“Come here then, and be quiet.”

Brady got up and softly, he walked to Ace.

Ace kept cutting and stabbing the lower part of the coyotes hind legs, around the paws, until eventually, there was some loose skin.

He pulled some of the skin down from both the legs, and he did so with minor effort. Ace pulling at the skin sounded weird. It sounded like someone pulling a shirt in half.

Brady watched quietly and carefully as Ace pulled the skin all the way down to the knees of the coyote before crouching. The forepaws of the coyote were now on his eye level.

He removed both paws from the coyote’s forelegs, which made Brady wince, especially when Ace carelessly broke both bones

before pulling the forepaws off the forelegs and tossing them aside as if they were worthless, which they technically were. Brady hadn’t heard of anything that required the forepaws of coyotes.

Ace got up again and was now making a careful cut in the right leg. He scraped farther. First, the complete inside of the right leg, from paw to the end of the leg, then Ace continued between the legs and ended by the foot on the left leg. The skin now hung a little bit looser around the hind legs. He got the piece of skin on the outside of the right hind leg and pulled it down. He kept pulling and pulling until the entire right hind leg was exposed – a mix of white and light-pink flesh.

Ace moved onto the left leg and followed the exact same procedure. The left leg went faster than the right leg, though. Ace grabbed the loose skin on both legs and pulled the entire skin down until it reached the head of the coyote, revealing even more white and pinkish meat. It sounded just like his mom ripping apart his favorite shirts and T-shirts whenever they had holes in them.

Ace placed his knee onto the skin and pulled it down using his own weight this time. The forelegs of the coyote were naked too now.

Ace grabbed his knife and began stabbing at the coyote’s neck with calculated thrusts.

Brady shook his head disapprovingly when he realized that this was done on a massive scale with all sorts of animals every day.

Eventually, after draining what seemed like all the blood from the coyote’s body – Brady had to step away because he hadn’t been able to deal with seeing a dead animal related to the dog being treated as carelessly as this – Ace pulled off its head and cut away the last pieces of skin around the neck before removing the skin from the body in its entirety.

“That is – that,” said Ace, triumphantly showing Brady the coyote’s skin. Ace noticed his expression. “I thought you would like this,” he said, squinting.

“The – the learning process, yes, but, you know, dogs are my – fa – fav – ”

“Favorite animals? But this is not a dog, Brady-boy,” said Ace, his tone of voice a lot less rough and uncaring than it usually was.

“I – I know,” Brady said, feeling quite uncomfortable talking about his feelings. “But – but they’re related.”

Ace looked at him, confused, but then he gave a snort of laughter.

“So – so let me get this straight,” he said, dropping the skin onto the

ground carelessly. “You can brutalize a young, attractive woman without second thought, you can kill several rabbits and torture a rabbit and a pigeon for years until their deaths, but you cannot handle a dead coyote being skinned?”

Brady pulled with the corner of his mouth. Ace had a point. It sounded odd putting it like that.

“I just really like dogs,” Brady muttered.

Ace looked at him for a couple of seconds while Brady simply stared thoughtfully at the grassy ground.

Ace unexpectedly put a hand on his shoulder, which made him cringe. “To overcome this, you will need to skin a coyote yourself. It is a dead animal. Its days of living and pain are over. It is much easier than it looks, Brady-boy. Now it is your turn. I will leave you to it and only jump in if necessary.”

Ace deftly turned the bowie knife around in his hands before handing it to Brady.

Brady looked thoughtfully at Ace as Ace removed the naked coyote’s carcass from the tree branch, and when Ace picked up an intact one and bound it to the tree, Brady inspected it pensively, fearing that he would fail big time.

“You know what?” said Ace. “I am going to cook some of the meat already. If I do it myself, I know it is going to be good. Holler at me if you need anything.”

Brady nodded and smiled for a moment when he thought of his life as a video game, and of this as a tutorial.

Press E to start skinning coyote.

Carefully, Brady started peeling and cutting the skin between the coyotes hind paws and hind legs away. Then he crouched and cut at the forepaws. It was a messy and bloody process, and it was a lot tougher than he had first thought. He sawed rather than cut, and after what felt like a minute, the paws were finally loose enough. He took a deep breath as he put the knife beside him and he closed his eyes before closing his fists around the forepaws and breaking them. While dead, each time he made a bone snap, his heart broke.

Feeling guilty of corpse mutilation, he got back up again and made a cut in the insides of the hind legs. Then he proceeded to scrape down the knife until it was in between the legs. The two cuts crossed each other in between the legs, forming one large cut. Then… what then?

Brady couldn’t remember. When he had seen Ace doing it, he had

thought of it as being easy, but it was quite a long process.

Brady turned to Ace and was in two minds about whether to ask him for help or not, but before Brady could make a decision, he remembered the process.

He grabbed the loose part of the skin around the legs and pulled them down with all his strength. Ace had made it seem so easy. Brady pulled and pulled and pulled, causing it to get looser and looser. Then, finally, the loose skin reached the neck.

With the knife clasped tightly in his fist, he removed the last pieces of skin from around the forelegs before breaking his heart twice by snapping the coyote’s forepaws and then cutting them off.

He sighed before looking at the neck of the coyote, realizing that the toughest – not necessarily the hardest – part had yet to come.

Smiling faintly when he remembered that he actually had a memory of brutalizing someone’s throat, he began stabbing and cutting calculatingly, feeling the blood splat onto his gray Cuba T-shirt, which prompted him to zip up his hoodie.

He didn’t look when he cut straight through the neck, and he was relieved when he finally felt his hand giving away.

He let go of the coyote’s head and didn’t look at it for one second while he removed the last pieces of skin from the coyote’s neck and them removed the skin from the body in its entirety.

While killing Anna had simply been weird, this had been heartbreaking. He loved dogs and dog-like creatures, yet he doubted it would have been easy if it would have been a different large creature, such as a deer.

“I am done with this one,” said Brady.

Ace turned around and smiled at him. It was a wide, genuine smile. “Good job. Could you do the others as well?”

Brady’s mouth dropped open slightly.

Ace’s smile grew smaller, more caring, and then he gave him a nod. “Just kidding. Go to sleep, Brady-boy. You did a great job.”

The heavy, headache-like feeling in his head returned, but Brady barely had a physical response to it.

“A bond,” said the voice slowly. “A bond.”

 

 

 

Chapter 24

Split Up

 

 

A cool morning breeze licked across his face, waking him up and introducing him to a crepuscular ray shining right into his eyes. Brady squeezed his eyes shut before he sat upright, slowly reopening them and refamiliarizing himself with the area.

Pine trees and grass, and several yards in front of him, a campfire, reduced to a smoking pile of black wood. About thirty yards in front of him, the desert began, as did it on his left and on his right. Behind him, the strip of grass and pine trees met with the forest, and even farther back, there was a road, according to Ace.

While Riley and Jason were still sleeping beside him, the others had already gathered near the campfire, and they were eating and drinking and talking.

Suddenly, Brady grew excited. There was coyote on the menu. He had never tasted coyote before.

It didn’t feel completely right to eat coyote, though. The coyote was related to the dog, and while he would taste nearly anything if given the opportunity, he would never taste dog.

Thinking like that made him rethink about eating coyote, and whether it was the right thing to do or not.

Spiders, non-poisonous plants, pussies, he would try it all if given the opportunity. Brady pulled with the corner of his mouth. Pussy, he thought. It could be hairy, and it most likely belonged to somebody else.

Neighbor Gretel had eight pussies, but Brady had never really like pussies that much. He was more of a dog person. There was a certain taboo on eating animals commonly used as pets. Most Americans and Europeans would probably never eat dogs, just like most Indians and other inhabitants of Hindu countries wouldn’t eat cows, because they were thought to be sacred there.

With a grunt, Brady got up and walked to the campfire, thirsty and hungry, and worrying about how he would respond to the ‘good mornings’ and the other greetings he could receive.

Idu and Leena were sitting with their backs turned to him, which was why they were the last to greet him.

“Good mornin’,” said Idu.

“Good morning, Brady,” said Leena.

“Good – hh – hel – hh – good – morrow.”

He felt his cheeks turning red and he could almost see the negative thoughts they had about him reappearing in their minds.

They probably thought he was weird and stupid. Mister Allister thought he was stupid.

Everyone returned to the talking and then Roderic got up. “I figure it is safe to assume that you have never tasted coyote before,” he said, sounding almost excited.

Looking at Roderic, Brady nodded unsurely before the former signaled him to follow him.

Brady followed Roderic to a nearby tree where several cold but cooked pieces of meat were dangling at a branch of a tree, bound to it by rope.

It were chunks of coyote rather than pieces of coyote – some were small and others were a bit bigger, but none smaller than a fist, and none bigger than a thigh.

“Have you?” Roderic asked, looking him in the eyes.

Roderic had probably not seen him shaking his head.

“No,” replied Brady, and fearing that Roderic would think of that answer as curt, he added, “The scientific name of the coyote is ‘canis latrans’, which translates to ‘barking dog’.”

A smile of surprise appeared on Roderic’s face. “That is… trivial, but interesting.” Roderic’s wrinkly eyes reduced to slits of suspicion. “How do you know?”

Brady alternated his glance between the chunks of dangling meat and Roderic. “I’m not sure,” he then said.

He didn’t recall having ever looked that up specifically, but he did remember having done some research on the animal population in the state of Washington. 

“Here,” Roderic reached for a piece of coyote meat, untied it and then handed it to him. “Eat it. Meat is good for you.”

Brady winced but he took the meat anyways. It was soft and squishy, and not warm. He looked at it thoughtfully.

“I have seen you eat meat before, so you cannot be a vegetarian, unlike my son, Morden,” Roderic gave a snort of laughter. “I take that back. My son is not a vegetarian. He tried it once.”

While Roderic had doubted his mental state, Brady still liked and respected the old man. Roderic was wise and nice, which was why Brady was starting to feel curious what his son was like.

Riley had told him that like Roderic, Morden had been an advisor to

a minor noble house in the Kingdom of Marghet.

Brady took a bite and chewed it for a bit, inspecting what was left in his fist as he ate.

“I do so miss my son,” Roderic continued, his eyes twinkling. “I am aching to recontinue teaching him knitting. The boy does love to knit, as do I, and as did his mother. It is how I met her.”

Brady wanted to think that the coyote meat tasted like chicken, but he knew that that statement was misleading. According to the internet, most animals tasted the same because they evolved from a common ancestor that tasted that way.

“How do you like it?” Roderic asked him friendlily.

“Meat is meat,” Brady replied distractedly.

“Ah,” Roderic tittered. “For I moment, your voice sounded like my son’s. He too abstains from giving his opinions on trivial matters, preferring to stay true to the facts rather than his thoughts. He is currently at the House of Great God Noah, advising Markus Thorren. Lord Thorren is a wise man himself, and several decennia older than my son. The thought of my own son advising Markus Thorren brings joy to my heart. The boy has truly made his father proud of him.”

Markus Thorren, Brady thought. If he wasn’t mistaken, Markus Thorren was the leader of the Anolors of Great God Noah.

He was currently speaking to the father of the advisor of Markus Thorren, and Ace was the son of Dorian Nawot, Markus Thorren’s successor.

He was a member of a pack that didn’t have one but two important people in it; the father of the advisor of the leader, and the son of the successor of the leader, so technically the successor of the successor of the leader.

 

They were walking on a concrete road. Old Main Canyon Road to be more exact. There were gentle slopes on each side of the concrete road, and those gentle slopes led right back into the pine forests.

There were still a few miles between them and the point where they would leave the road and head straight for the mountain through the forests.

According to Idu, the toughest part was over now. They were almost halfway there.

They were walking in line; Ace next to Roderic, Mister Allister next to Jason, Idu next to Leena and Riley next to Brady.

There were significantly more cars here; enough to make him worry.

Yatawa was several miles back, yet he was certain that people could still recognize him if the murder and his sudden, unexplained disappearance had made the news, which it probably had, so he made sure to keep his head down whenever he saw a car, and he kept his head down until it had passed them.

About half of them were walking on the asphalt while the other half was walking on the grass as to hinder the bypassing cars as little as possible. The last thing they wanted was agitating a driver and having him or her call the police.

There was a curve in the road. Brady rubbed his eyes.

“Police car,” Ace noted.

Brady’s heart stopped for a second. He looked into the distance and saw that the police car was heading their way.

Brady’s mind filled itself with worrying thoughts. The police car would obviously come to a stop and officers would question them about their business here, walking on the road.

They would recognize him. They would.

“Wha – what are they doing out here?” Brady whispered nervously to Riley.

He just wanted to roll down the slope and hide in the forest, but he didn’t dare to do that, as it would make the officers suspicious.

“I don’t know,” said Riley normally. “It’s probably nothing. It’s not the first time we come across a police car.”

Brady thought about the bodies they had left in the forest. They had burned a lot of them, but Anna’s body and the one of the Trainee were still there. They hadn’t burned those.

Brady shrugged nervously. This feeling made him sick, and for a moment, he felt like throwing up. The others didn’t seem to mind the police car at all.

Brady prayed to whoever was out there that they weren’t going to recognize him. For the first time in his life, he was actually praying to God.

Once close enough, the police car sounded its siren and flashed its lights before crossing the road and coming to a stop before them.

“Ho,” said Ace calmly, stopping, causing the others to stop as well.

Brady gulped and started fidgeting with his hands, chewing on his fingers.

“Don’t be nervous,” said Riley. “It will only draw -- I mean, it’s not necessary. Ace has got this. He always has.”

Brady noticed the quick pause. What Riley had meant to say was ‘it

will only draw attention’. That thought made him fidget even more.

He could hear his own breathing, and he felt like he was going to panic when the doors of the police car opened and two police officers stepped out, both wearing sunglasses.

“Hello,” said the one on the left, who was a bit broader than to the one to the right, but also fatter. The one to the right was lean, and his skin was a bit whiter.

Not only did they wear sunglasses, but they each wore a police cap, as well as a full suit.

“Good day, officer,” said Ace normally.

“IDs?” said the one to the right. “Names?”

“Eh – yeah. My name is… Carl -- Mitchells,” Ace turned around, facing Leena. “Eh – An – drea, you have the IDs, right?”

“Foreigners?” the officer to the right asked. “Your accent um – it’s hard to pin down.”

“Foreigners indeed, officer,” Ace replied, having regained his full confidence.

The officer to the left gave a nod to Ace and Roderic’s outfits while Leena rummaged around in the backpack she wore.

“What’s up with that? Is that leather?”

“It is,” said Roderic. “It is comfortable, light, tough and it does not get warm quickly. It is the ultimate outfit for a hiking enthusiast. ‘For nearly all circumstances’, I quote.”

The officers exchanged a glance with each other before the one to the left pushed up his sunglasses. “We’re waiting on those IDs.”

Brady felt Riley’s hand brushing past his, which prompted him to look up at her.

“Don’t worry,” she mumbled.

“Hm, that’s odd. I suppose I forgot them,” said Leena, confused. She closed the backpack and put it back on.

“It’s alright,” said the one to the left. “Four grown men, a grandpa, two women and a kid. I highly doubt you’re some kind of killer family on the run,” he joked.

The one on the right got something out of the pocket of his blue police outfit. It was a picture, and when Brady saw it, his eyes widened.

Brady startled when Idu pushed his sweaty brown trucker cap onto his head.

“Not a word,” Idu whispered to him.

“Do you know this boy?” the police officer asked Ace. “People are

looking for him. We are looking for him.”

Brady was panicking. He didn’t breathe and his eyes were wide open, his heart pounding and his hands clammy.

The officer handed the picture to Ace, who then looked at it. “Hm. I cannot say that I have seen him before. Do you… think he is somewhere around here? It says here that he is from Yatawa. It seems pretty weird to me that a city-boy like him could get all the way over here without dying a horrible death in the desert.”

The police officers exchanged a confused glance with each other, probably because of Ace’s last words.

“Not exactly ‘around’ here. We are just searching this road for him. There are a few additional officers patrolling these roads in their cars, and even more in Yatawa. You see: we really have to find this boy. We really have to.”

Brady realized that this adventure might come to a premature end. He thought about being taken back to Yatawa. He thought about being interrogated, prosecuted and being taken to jail. Those thoughts terrified him.

Ace tilted his head and squinted. “Well, good luck with that. I suggest checking Yatawa Valley. You cannot miss him if he is there considering the flatness and blandness of the landscape.”

“Hey, do not insult Yatawa or its surrounding areas,” chuckled the police officer to the right. “I grew up here and I will die here.”

Ace opened his palms to the sky.

“It is my opinion, officer,” he said. “Yatawa is nice, though.”

“It surely is,” agreed the officer to the right. “We’ll be going now. See you around, and take care.”

“Yeah,” said Ace unsurely as the officers returned to their cars. “Take it easy on the donuts,” he joked. Then, when the doors of the police car closed, referring to the police officer to the right, he added, “Especially you.”

The police car drove back to their side of the road before continuing their drive to Yatawa.

Brady breathed a sigh of relief.

“I told you,” said Riley. Brady looked at her and she gave him a reassuring smile.

“That is my hat,” said Idu jokingly before taking it back.

Brady noticed Ace walking towards him. “Why is the police looking for you all the way over here?” he asked suspiciously.

Brady shrugged, his hands trembling, and not only his hands.

His entire body was trembling. “My – my p – parents must’ve reported my d – d – disappearance to the p – police,” he explained.

“Hmm,” said Ace thoughtfully. “We better keep on moving then.”

Several minutes passed, and it was just when Brady reattached his water skin to his backpack that he heard something behind him. It was a crunching sound, and shortly after that, two doors that opened.

“Hands up now, folks.” Brady recognized the voice, and instantly, his body tensed up and his eyes widened.

It was one of the police officers. They knew. They knew! They’d take him in, bring him back to Yatawa and lock him up for murdering Logan.

He didn’t want to go to jail. He didn’t want to wither away behind bars.

He didn’t want to waste his life.

Brady looked to the others desperately, but each one of them slowly raised their hands. He didn’t even dare to look up at Riley, fearing that he might get shot if he would. Brady couldn’t believe it. He had imagined so many ways of how this journey could go – most of them unrealistically positive – and being taken back to Yatawa to be put in prison wasn’t one of them.

Brady’s eyes jumped from Idu to Mister Allister, and from Mister Allister to Roderic, and finally to Ace, whom hadn’t raised his hands yet.

Hope didn’t return, but yet Brady hoped that Ace would put his recklessness to good use.

“Ace,” hissed Idu. “Put your hands up, damn it! Ace!”

“Ace,” Roderic shouted authoritatively.

Please, thought Brady. If you safe me, you’ll be my number one hero.

“Sir, I am not saying this again,” the officer said. Then, through a speaker, “Put your hands up!”

“Step aside,” said Ace, not to the police officers, but to them.

“Ace – ”

Step, aside,” he insisted, his teeth clenched.

Slowly and unsurely, they moved aside a little before Ace raised his hands up in the air and turned around, walking towards the officers.

“You know the drill,” said the heavy police officer to Ace. “Bob, cuffs. Mister Mitchells, stop and get on your knees.”

The other police officer lowered his gun and got a couple of handcuffs off his back.

“Mister Mitchells,” said the heavy police officer. “Stop. Stop! Mister Mitchells!”

“Alright alright,” said Ace, stopping with only six feet between him and the officer.

Everyone was focused on Ace. After all, he was their only hope.

Brady tried to figure out what Ace was doing, and when he took the distance between Ace and the heavy police officer in thought, he realized what was about to happen.

Ace didn’t get onto his knees. The other police officer showed the handcuffs to the heavy police officer, who was, like them, looking at Ace.

“Mister Mitchells,” said the heavy police officer warningly. “Mister Mitchells, you have to get onto your – ”

And in a heartbeat, Ace extended his claws and slashed at the heavy police officer’s throat.

The other police officer cringed and dropped the handcuffs in shock. “No! What?”

“Ha-ha!” Ace laughed, pointing down at the heavy police officer, who had fallen against the police car and was now desperately clutching at his bloody throat, choking on his own blood. “Got ya!” Ace guffawed.

Brady gasped when he saw the other police officer reaching for his gun.

“Ace!” Idu called.

Ace turned to the other police officer and was quick to disarm him, cutting off his right hand in one quick swoop but not before the officer could shoot, the bullet hitting the ground right before Ace’s feet.

“You cock!” Ace exploded before kneeing the officer in the balls and hitting him against the lower right side of his face as he fell, the claws penetrating his cheeks and coming out on the other side.

The officer landed onto the concrete road and reached for his maimed cheeks as Ace cleaned his claws on the heavy officer’s outfit. “Ah. Aaah!” the other officer screamed.

“Shut up!” Ace bellowed, turning to the other officer. “It is only a flesh wound, alright?”

Brady heard the heavy officer’s death rattle, hinting at his end.

“Will you kill him now?” Idu snapped.

“Indeed. We have to get out of here,” Roderic urged. “The gunshot resounded. It will not be long befoer others to arrive at this scene.”

Brady wanted to turn around but Riley stopped him. “Don’t – look,” she warned.

Sllkt. “Argh,” the other officer said.

“That is that,” said Ace.

Eeeoooeeeoooeeeoooeee.

“Shit. Shit!” said Idu.

“Run!” yelled Ace. “Get off the road and split up! We will meet by the intersection!”

Almost instantly, Ace darted to the side of the road, descending the gentle slope before tripping and rolling and coming to a rough stop against a pine tree. “Ah, damn it!”

Mister Allister, Roderic and Jason followed Ace while Leena and Riley followed Idu to the left and denser side of the forest. Brady was left alone on the concrete road, alternating his glance between the left side and the right side of the forest.

“Kid!” Idu yelled.

“Brady, this way!” Ace bellowed.

Eeeoooeeeoooeeeooo.

Brady didn’t know what to do. If he would go with Ace, Idu might feel betrayed, but if he would go with –

“What are you doing?” Ace shouted.

That brought him back to reality, and for a moment, he found himself being out of his head.

Everything seemed so much more real all of a sudden, and for a second, he could actually think straight without other thoughts getting in the way.

He crossed the road and descended the slightly steeper slope into the left side of the forest, where Riley, Leena and Idu were waiting on him.

“Come on!” said Idu. “Do not stray off. We are in this together now.”

They ran for a while, not saying anything. He knew that in each second, there was a tiny chance of a police officer climbing down the slopes to see if anyone was hiding out in the trees. Anxiously keeping an eye on the road, seeing police cars racing by, lights on, flickering, he ran.

And he just ran.

 

About half an hour had passed. They could hear the sirens in the distance, but they were far away.

They were safe, for now. However, that thought quickly disappeared when he heard something.

Flac-flac-flac-flac-flac-flac-flac.

A helicopter.

“Get down,” Idu hissed before basically dropping himself to the ground.

Brady, Riley and Leena lay down as well, using the grass as cover.

They lay there for a few more seconds, in the grass, between the leaves, just to make sure that the helicopter was gone.

Brady peeked over the grass and saw a caterpillar, a ladybug, a beetle and several ants along with the corpse of a recently deceased grasshopper, all in close proximity of each other.

It made him back off a little.

Idu slowly got back up, and then so did they.

“This is some serious shit,” said Idu before breathing a sigh of agitation. “I hope the others are okay. Let us move a little faster. I do not want to get caught by those guys.”

Brady’s heart beat like a machine again. If they were to be caught, not only would he be punished for Logan’s murder, but also for the murders of those two police officers.

Then he suddenly got a bright idea. He could blame it on Ace and the others. Logan’s death, he could tell the police that he was blackmailed by Ace and the other members of the pack into doing it, and that they kidnapped him later that day.

He could get away with it scot-free and have them locked up for a crime he committed, as well as for the murder of those two police officers.

Brady could tell right from wrong, and the police was right while they were wrong.

If they were to be caught, and once he would be interrogated, he would blame it all on them. That thought calmed him down a bit.

I’m only sixteen, he thought to himself. They’ll believe me. I know they will. But in reality, Brady wasn’t sure if they would.

The ground of the forest was covered in brown, and green vegetation, and the canopy was thin. If they hadn’t lain down onto the ground, the men in the helicopter could have spotted them.

At least this side of the forest was denser than the other side of the forest, where Ace, Mister Allister, Jason and Roderic were currently walking around in.

“That was so close, I thought we were done for,” Idu remarked

before gulping – possibly at the thought of actually being caught.

“What then?” Brady asked.

“I cannot say for sure,” Idu replied. “But I am glad that did not happen.”

Brady looked up at the sky, which was getting increasingly cloudier.

The minutes crawled by. He wasn’t enjoying himself. He had thought of strolling through the pine forests in this region as calming and fun, but his pounding heart, shaky breath, trembling body and worrying thoughts ruined it for him.

Through the trees in the distance, he could see a road. The forest continued on the other side of the road.

It wasn’t just one road, Brady noticed. It were four roads. It was an intersection. This was where Ace had told them to come. This was where they’d regroup.

“The intersection,” Leena noted. “We should be able to see Jason and the others any moment now.”

“Yeah? Well where are they then?” Idu asked impatiently.

“They’ll be there,” said Riley. “They have to be. Ace won’t let himself or the others get caught.”

“Since when do you have such a positive opinion of Ace?” Idu sniped.

Brady squinted, but he understood why Idu said that. Idu was on edge because of what had happened, and Brady could relate.

“Idu,” said Leena disapprovingly. “You know Riley doesn’t mean it like that, and you know that she is right. They won’t catch Ace. Not alive, at least.”

“No,” said Idu grumpily. “He will leave the others behind if that gets him out free.”

“You know that Ace would not do that,” said Leena. “He might be crazy, but he has fought for us before.”

Idu wanted to disagree, but all that left his mouth was a short grunt of annoyance.

“He didn’t mean it like that, Riley,” said Leena.

“I’ll believe it when it comes from him,” said Riley, lowering her eyebrows.

“I am just a little tense, okay?” said Idu, turning around, his eyebrows down and together. “Do not tell me you are not feeling apprehensive about getting out in the open with the police out there.”

That made Brady a lot more nervous again.

“I just hope they are alright,” said Leena. “I will stay positive.”

Idu gave a snort. “Yeah, me too. I hope the three of them make it. Ace can be shot for all I care. He may be keeping himself in check now the kid’s around, but that will not last, I am calling that now.”

“The ‘kid’ has a name,” said Leena, giving Brady a quick look.

“Hey Brady,” said Idu. “You have been alone with Ace a couple of times now. Has he done any ‘funny’ stuff? Stuff you can consider immoral? Stuff that normal people would not do?” Idu’s tone of voice made it sound like he was hoping for a negative answer so that he could continue his rant about Ace.

Idu had mentioned that Ace was keeping himself in check. That meant that Ace hadn’t even shown his worst side yet.

Brady wasn’t sure whether he should tell Idu about the elderly couple on the farm and the deer, but the glance of warning Riley flashed in his direction helped him decide.

“Eh – ”

“Stop it, Idu,” said Leena. “That is enough. I understand that you may be feeling a bit tense, because I am too, and I am sure Riley and Brady are also, but that doesn’t justify what you are doing now.”

They reached the edge of the forest and made their glances follow the currently deserted road.

Many trees on the other side of the road had been cut and a couple dozen logs were lying stacked beside the road, secured with ropes.

As they crossed the road, he saw something to his right. It were four men.

Ace spread his arms gleefully before Brady heard him guffawing.

 

The dark sky rumbled and rain was crashing down upon the earth.

It was cold and he was wet. His clothes had become a burden rather than protection, and he didn’t even want to think about his wet, mud covered shoes that squelched each time he took a step.

The rain was so loud that when somebody talked, it was almost as if he or she were mouthing something rather than actually talking.

The canopy of the pine forest was too thin to protect the underlying ground from the rain, which was why the entire ground of the forest had been turned into a dirty, muddy mud bath of sticks and pine needles, hence why they hadn’t been able to find a proper place to sleep yet.

They had stuck to the road and had kept it on their left hand, but they couldn’t actually walk on the road because not only was it dangerous because of the darkness and their lack of light, but it was also risky

because if the passengers of a car would see them, they might tell the police.

But Brady had a backup plan for if he were caught. If he were caught, he would blame everything on them, and with ‘them’, he meant Ace primarily.

He was tired. It had been a long and stressful day, and judging by the expressions of the others, he wasn’t the only one who was tired.

He walked next to Riley and Jason. It was quiet. Nobody talked. Idu had his arm around Leena’s neck while Leena had his arms wrapped around his waist. They were keeping each other warm. Nobody was complaining. Not even Roderic, who was kind of old, and should, in Brady’s opinion, not have to walk so much each day.

But he had heard that Roderic was tough multiple times, and he also had to take into account the increased endurance of the Morus.

Riley was walking in-between him and Jason.

“How are you holding up?” Riley asked, her voice barely audible over the rain crashing down upon the earth, turning dirt into mud and roads into cold swimming pools.

“I would be complaining even less if I had a warm cup of chocolate milk and a chocolate chip cookie,” said Brady.

He hadn’t expected Riley to actually titter at that, and it boosted his confidence slightly. If his life were actually a video game, he wondered what his stats would look like.

Brady scanned Riley’s outfit. He was cold, but considering that Riley only wore a red flannel shirt on her upper body, she was probably colder.

He wanted to offer her his hoodie, but he wasn’t sure whether that would be a good idea right now. He didn’t know how Jason would respond to that. Also, Riley had already denied his hoodie once. He didn’t want to be annoying.

“And – and you?” Brady asked.

“‘Whispers of Magic’,” said Riley as if she were quoting something. “It’s a book Roderic once lent to me. It was thick, and while it had its fair share of boring parts, it was an interesting book, especially for someone who grew up in a world where magic is considered to be non-existent. I read about an ancient spell that could warm the body.”

Cool, Brady thought, amazed.

“I wish I could cast such a spell,” Riley chuckled. “It would make surviving the winter and weather like this so much easier to bear.”

“Wasn’t it described in the book how the spell worked?”

“That’s not exactly how it works,” she explained with a whiff of humor in her voice. “Magic exists on Caliptus, but as you can judge by the book’s title, magic isn’t exactly common. If it were, I’d already be a warlock.”

Brady squinted and cocked his head. “You’re a girl – ” his heart skipped a beat and his eyes widened. “ – I mean, woman, right?”

He felt himself turning red and he also felt his heartrate increasing. What if she would take offense to him calling her a ‘girl’?

“I prefer ‘girl’,” she said. “I’m only twenty-one. You can call me a woman once I’m thirty or so, if we’re still in the same pack by then.”

That thought fascinated him, and it also made him stray from the subject; something that he noticed.

“Yeah, but you are a woman – I mean – ”

“A girl,” she corrected humorously.

“Y – y – yeah. Sorry.”

She rolled her eyes and a smile appeared on her face. “Don’t apologize. Come on, this is an informal conversation.”

He stopped talking and tried to regain his calm demeanor. It was a mess inside of his head right now. In the last ten seconds, he had made a fool of himself thrice.

“You are a woman,” he said before facepalming himself.

Girl, he thought.

“I can’t tell whether you’re doing this on purpose or if you’re really this absent-minded,” she said lightheartedly.

Now she suspected him of being an attention seeker.

“No – no – no, I’m not – ” he stammered.

“It’s a joke,” she explained. “You stutter, you frequently repeat yourself, you’re obviously uncomfortable whenever anyone speaks to you, and I see you staring off aimlessly into the distance in the evening by the campfire. Brady, if I have learned one thing about you over the past couple of days, it’s that you would not ever ever do something like that on purpose. You’re, like, the definition of absent-minded.”

Hurt, he looked at the ground. Now she thought he was absent-minded.

“Why did you point out that I’m a woman again?” she asked.

“Because you said that if m – m – magic could be learned from those books, you’d be a warlock by now.”
“And?” she chuckled.

“Warlocks are men who practice witchcraft, and not women.”

Riley gave a snort. “Really? We went through all that just for you to tell me that? Ha-ha, and that in the rain.”

He agreed with her. This really wasn’t the time to discuss this. It was raining and they both had to raise their voice in order to be able to hear each other.

Thinking about how the others could have heard him stutter and fail made him feel very self-conscious.

“Logging camp!” Ace shouted.

Brady snapped out of his thoughts of self-pity and peered into the distance. Ace was already on his way, running through the dirt and through puddles of water in order to get to the manmade clearing on the side of the road near a bend where something that looked like a large, white caravan was standing.

Brady wasn’t sure what it was called, so he settled with the term ‘caravan’.

The others followed him quickly.

“Sweet mother, it is large enough for us all,” said Idu, who had been acting grumpy and curt ever since the split-up, gladly.

The loggers would not return until at least somewhere in the morning. They had enough time to eat something, drink something and rest a little.

Within seconds, they had gathered in front of the caravan; dirty and cold and trying to look inside through the windows with greedy eyes.

The clearing was surrounded by tree stumps, wood shavings, large holes filled with water and mud left by trees and logs that had yet to be moved.

The caravan was like a God ray in the darkness, and the darkness was the muddy mess that surrounded the caravan.

The pack stood by the rounded, fiberglass door of the white, fiberglass caravan, waiting on nothing.

“I understand that you are a fierce devotee of Great God Noah, but he will not open the door for you. You understand that, I hope?” said Roderic.

Ace guffawed. “You are a funny old man, Roderic.”

Roderic smiled appreciatively before Ace grabbed the door handle and attempted to open the door.

It was locked.

“The bastards locked it,” Ace noted.

 Brady’s eyes wandered off to a sign imprinted on the caravan beside

the window to the left of the door.

‘Kenny Loggers’, it said with big, black letters on an oval, yellow background.

Kenny Loggers. He had heard of that company before. Their headquarters was based somewhere in Yatawa. He wasn’t sure where.

Ace was about to kick the door open, but Roderic stopped him from doing so.

“Ho ho, what are you planning on doing, Ace?”

Ace turned around, a puzzled look on his face. Brady thought Ace was going to yell or something, but he didn’t do that.

“Why not?” Ace asked.

“You might trigger the alarm, boss,” said Jason. Brady hadn’t seen Jason smoking a joint once this day. “You killed two cops today. If

the alarm sounds and if they find us now and recognize you, it’s blam blam and you’re dead.”

“Well I really want to get inside,” said Ace. “And, if the alarm is to sound, we can just run off in the woods. If we leave now, we are basically doing the same thing, only at a far slower pace.”

Jason wanted to disagree, but then he nodded.

“Boss has a point.”

“It seems he has,” said Mister Allister, his teeth clenched.

Brady hadn’t heard Mister Allister talking in a while. Perhaps he just hadn’t noticed.

“It is morally wrong,” Roderic protested. “I do not agree with stealing normally, so I will definitely not agree with this. I am certain that you will back me up with that, Tunstall.”

Tunstall pulled with the corner of his mouth. “Aye,” he said, but his dark-brown eyes below his thick, black eyebrows said otherwise.

Brady had thought that he had figured everybody in the pack out with the exception of Riley, but he took that back. He hadn’t figured Mister Allister out either. On one hand, he seemed like a good guy, but on the other hand, when he talked about killing and stealing, his morals seemed non-existent.

“Does anybody else have an opinion?” said Ace. “Because while I might give several shits about what you all have to say, I am still the Alpha, and you people would be wise to remember that.”

Idu gave a snort.

“Roderic is right,” said Idu. “Morally, it is wrong, but we have to think about ourselves. The rain does not seem like it will be stopping

anytime soon, and we cannot stay on the move this entire eve and the night.”

“It pains me to say, but I have to agree,” said Leena.

“Very well then,” said Roderic. “It has been democratically decided.”

Ace showed them a crooked smile before he turned to the door, climbed one step of the aluminum staircase and then kicked open the door.

Brady closed his eyes in preparation for the deafening sound that was the alarm, but apart from the constant sound of rain and the occasional booming thunder, there was nothing.

“I knew it,” said Ace proudly before entering the caravan. “Nothing to worry about.”

While fearing that somehow they might be caught here, he was looking forward to looting this place, and he was also looking forward to sleeping.

“I do hope that it’s not a silent alarm, boss,” said Jason positively as he entered the caravan.

“Ladies first,” said Idu, lingering by the doorway as to allow Leena and Riley to enter the caravan before him.

Mister Allister climbed the three aluminum steps to the caravan door and looked at Idu, who was still standing by the door. “Ladies first,” he grunted to Idu with something that could’ve been a smile.

“He-he,” said Idu as he entered the caravan. “I did not know you could be funny, Tunstall.”

“I can be many things,” he grumbled before disappearing into the caravan as well.

Brady entered the caravan after Tunstall, and Roderic entered the caravan lastly before closing the door.

Brady looked at it to assess the damage and he saw that while the door could still close, it was standing very loosely in its hinges.

It was rather big inside of the caravan. It would be cozy, but there was enough space for all of them and then some!

“It does not seem like we will have to be drawing straws to decide who will be sleeping outside tonight,” Idu joked.

“I suggest measuring cocks rather than drawing straws,” said Mister Allister humorously with his growly voice.

“Oh, so you are basically volunteering to sleep outside tonight then,” laughed Idu.

That made some others titter as well.

Brady didn’t understand the joke, though.

“Hardy-har,” Mister Allister muttered.

“There is even a coffee machine,” said Jason as he patted the black apparatus as if it were his pet dog.

Ace turned around and saw it too.

“Awesome. I hope you know how it works, Jase.”

The layout of the caravan was pretty basic. On both far ends of the caravan there was a brownish couch nearly surrounding a black, granite table.

On the sides entrance, there were no means of storage while on the opposite side of the entrance, there was a fridge standing near the left couch next to several light- brown upper and lower cabinets.

The floor was somewhere between orange and light-reddish.

Brady walked past the others over the plastic floor of the canteen and then opened the fridge at the far end, which was standing near two inbuilt couches, which had a table standing in-between them. There was all kinds of stuff in the fridge; small blocks of cheese, cola, bottled water, a few small packs of sliced meat and even bread.

Jason joined him. “Check the fridge,” he said. “There is so much stuff in here.”

“This is going to be a good evening,” Ace smiled as he looked inside of the fridge. “And with a good evening, I mean a really good evening.”

 

A strong odor entered his nostrils. Coffee. Fresh coffee. He heard the coffee machine simmering and it caused him to open his eyes a little bit. Through a window, he could see that it was completely dark outside. It scared him a little. It looked kind of creepy, honestly. He really was not a fan of the dark.

Brady lay on one of the couches. Jason was sleeping on the couch on the other side of the table. Riley, Mister Allister and the others were still awake. They were sitting on their sleeping bags around a small light that was connected to an outlet next to the white, plastic cabinets by the fridge. Mister Allister drunk something out of a mug. It was probably the coffee that Brady smelled. Ace was eating some of the cheese blocks and Idu and Leena were too. They were all engaged in a seemingly interesting conversation with each other. Some of them even laughed sometimes.

The people of this pack are like a dysfunctional family, Brady thought before he closed his eyes again and tried to return to the

sleeping.

He’d have to. Otherwise, he would be tired tomorrow.

Brady closed his eyes again, moved around a bit until he was comfortable and then tried to sleep again.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 25

Bad Omen

 

 

The smell of fresh coffee still lingered in the caravan. Everyone was getting ready for the short road ahead. Only two more days now and they’d be there.

While Brady liked the smell of fresh coffee, he disliked coffee. It was too bitter. He didn’t like food or drinks that were bitter. Bitter chocolate was the worst. It would get stuck to his teeth and it almost always made him feel like throwing up.

“Anyone wants some coffee in their water skins?” Leena asked.

They were all doing something. Roderic, Jason and he were putting some of the stuff from the fridge inside of the backpacks – even though Roderic had protested against staying at the caravan.

Ace and Mister Allister were removing as many trails as possible and Riley and Idu were keeping watch. After all, it was morning and they didn’t know when the loggers would be back.

Ace opened the fridge. “We still have a few packs of sliced meat, butter and bread left. We will just take it with us.”

Roderic looked incredulously at the man. “What?”

Ace turned around, looking at Roderic.

“We will take all the stuff in the fridge,” Ace explained, and he made it sound like there was no way that that wasn’t going to happen.

“No,” Roderic protested, but keeping his cool, as always. “I am wholly against that. We cannot take all of it. Taking some of it, we might. But we have to think about the loggers.”

Ace snorted.

“He is sort of right, boss,” said Jason. “We stayed here because there was absolutely no other way, but now the rain has stopped and we can go out hunting again, I don’t see a point in taking anymore from these people. You remember what we agreed on, right? No stealing, unless it is absolutely necessary for survival.”

“Hmpf, fine. But if anyone grows hungry, Jason, I might cut off your fingers and cook those, understood?”

“Of course, boss.”

Roderic gave a snort of laughter.

“Won’t coffee damage the water skins?” asked Riley, who was standing on the aluminum steps while keeping an eye on the road.

“It is cold, sweetheart,” Leena explained. “And even if it weren’t, I highly doubt a bit of hot coffee can damage the water skins.”

Brady was rolling up the sleeping bags while listening to their conversations with fifty percent of his consciousness. The other half of his conscious was in his head, which was the reason why he was staring blankly at the floor of the caravan while he did his job.

“One good thing: just a few more miles and we do not need the road to guide us anymore,” said Ace. “We are getting closer, people.”

“Left side or right side of the road?” Leena asked.

“Right side,” Ace responded. “Less obstacles. Today, we will stop somewhere near Mount

Adams Lake. There may be people there so that is why I specifically mentioned that we would be staying ‘near’ it.”

 

Small clouds of smoke ascended into the sky as they walked through the pine forest. They had been descending a gentle green hill for a while now and the view was simply amazing.

He really liked being outside, even though he was in his head most of the time.

The stinky smoke was ready to give a small contribution to the global warming process, and when Jason breathed out another cloud of the reeking smoke, Brady coughed in disgust before feeling bad for Jason. He didn’t want Jason to think that he did that on purpose, of course.

“God damn it, Jason,” said Idu angrily, but not loudly. 

“Hey-ey-ey-ey!” said Ace. Then, calmly, he said. “Watch your mouth, Ids.”

Ace then spread his arms and looked at the sky as if he were trying to get it to embrace him. “Now you see, those gods you keep cursing are the magical beings that created this world. They created the very grass and dirt your sorry self is walking on at this very moment. They created the sky, the animals, vegetation.” Then Ace turned to Idu and smiled warmly. “They even created that Godlike mustache of yours, so show them some respect you ungrateful cock!”

Idu didn’t know what to say. He was completely baffled by those statements.

But Ace wasn’t done yet. Ace pressed the palms of his hands together and closed his eyes, as if he were praying while standing.

“Tell them that you are sorry, brother-brother.”

Idu’s eyes narrowed. “What? We are two days away from the House.

I can curse whatev – ”

“Say sorry!”

Idu shook and heaved a sigh of annoyance.

PETHEOW. They startled. Even Ace did. The sound – a gunshot – resounded at least three times.

PETHEOW.

“What is that?” Idu said, his eyes widened.

It sounded like a hunting rifle.

“It was a gunshot,” Ace replied. “Did you not hear it? We have to investigate.”

“I agree, boss. They might pose a threat to us if they catch us off guard.”

“That is exactly what I thought, Jase.”

They followed Ace further down the hill towards the sound of the shot, and soon, three orange tents in a small clearing entered their vision.

A campfire was crackling in the center of the small camp on the side of a steep hill.
A man had his back pointed towards them. The man was standing in between the tents, aiming at something in the far distance. He was wearing a blue baseball cap, a woodland parka and he was of heavy built.

There was another man standing by the campfire, completely focused on the cooking.

They approached them, and while Brady felt apprehensive because they had guns, Ace seemed like he was feeling quite the opposite.

“They have got guns, man. Are you sure of this?” Idu asked.

“You all stay back,” said Ace with the hint of a smile on his face before approaching the campfire confidently.

“Gentleman,” he said, spreading his arms.

Idu shook and softly, he said, “Someday, he is going to get us all killed.”

“I have to agree with that statement,” said Roderic.

The man standing in-between the tents turned around quickly. “Who the hell are you?” he exclaimed.

He carried a hunting rifle, and a long one, but without a scope.

One of the tents opened and an additional man came out.

He wore a woodland parka as well, but he was thinner and had a mean face.

The man by the campfire got up and pointed his handgun at Ace.

Like his two companions, he wore a woodland parka as well, but he also wore a pair of brown, woolen gloves.

Neither of them seemed really intelligent.

The one who had come out of the tent had a large hunting knife clasped in his fist, and while his face was mean as opposed to his companions, he seemed hesitant to use it, his hand literally trembling.

“I say again, who the hell are you?” demanded the man with the hunting rifle, his stupid face a mix of curiosity and fear.

“My name is Joe Randall,’ Ace said confidently as he stared his potential death right into the eyes. “I am an official and proud member of the WSP.”

The men looked at each other for a second, their eyes widening in fear.

“Well, you ain’t going nowhere then!” said the man with the pistol before taking a couple steps closer to his friends.

Ace guffawed mockingly. “You are really cute with your guns and tents and stuff, but I have to interfere. I am sorry. I really, really am.”

Brady heard the man with the rifle breathing an anxious breathe.

“What is he doing?” Idu said.

“N – no,” said the man with the rifle before pressing the stock against his right shoulder and looking through the iron sights. “If you do, we gonna have to – have to shoot your ass.”

Ace pulled with the corner of his mouth before taking a couple of leisurely steps closer to the fire. “You seem like men of intellect,” Ace extended his claws. Shikt. “I am sure that the three of you know that neither of you will be able to shoot a human being.”

“What the hell are you?” said the one with the knife, horrified. “You are not from the WSP.”

Ace shrugged. “You got me. I am not from the WSP. My name is Ace Nawot, and I am a very – nice – guy.”

The fat one lowered his rifle unsurely. “Oh. Are you a hunter too? Where did you get those knives?”

“They came out of his body,” hissed the one with the gun. “I don’t think he is actually a human.”

“An – an alien?” said the one with the knife.

“Technically,” said Ace. He gave a nod at the one with the rifle. “Check this out.”

“Brady,” warned Roderic.

But Roderic was too late. Ace slashed at the man with the pistol before slicing upwards at the man with the knife.

Brady blinked and stared blankly at the two men before they fell – one forward into the fire and the other backwards against the orange tent farthest to the left.

“Do not look,” said Roderic before grabbing Brady by the shoulders and turning him to him. “Did you close your eyes?” he asked.

Brady made an odd movement with his head; a mix between a nod and a shake.

“He has seen death before,” said Idu. “What is the fuss about?”

Leena jabbed her elbow into Idu’s plexus. “Oof.”

“Of course we cannot allow him to see all this death,” snapped Roderic at Idu, causing the man with the rifle to glance at them for a second. “Try to unsee it, Brady,” he continued calmly.

But Brady couldn’t. He appreciated Roderic’s concern, but it was unnecesarry, as he hadn’t felt anything watching those men die.

Slowly but surely, the others turned their heads away as well. Only Mister Allister watched how Ace approached the man with the rifle, but even he didn’t do it with a smile.

“You!” said Ace loudly. “Show me where your food is.” Calmly, he added, “We need some. I mean like, we have some, but we need more.”

The man looked at Ace as if he had seen a ghost.

“Well?” Ace boomed, causing the man to cringe.

“B – b – b but y – y – y you just killed my friends. Why did you do that?”

“Is anyone going to show me that food? I would like to see it, now.”

“Just leave him, Ace,” said Roderic loudly. “Kill him and be done with it.”  

“Yeah,” Idu agreed. “I do not even know why you killed them in the first place. Why did you even show them? They are merely hunters.”

Ace turned around and looked Roderic and Idu. “They did not flip out because they thought I was with the WSP for nothing. These are no ordinary hunters, my friends. They are either criminals, or illegal hunters, depending on whether it is hunting season or not, and whether they got permission. They deserve what they got and are still getting.”

The WSP stood for Washington State Patrol, which was the state police agency for the state of Washington. An ordinary citizen wouldn’t have reacted like that to what Ace had said.

These men might and might have been poachers, yet death seemed a little overdone for such a crime.

“I – I – I – I’ll get it. J – j – j – just a sec.”

“Sir,” said Ace as he watched the man disappearing into the orange tent in the middle. “Refer to me as ‘sir’.”

“Sir,” said the man who then came out of the tent, carrying a blue cool box in his trembling hands.

“Damn it, Ace,” said Idu. Nobody seemed to like what Ace was doing currently, and Brady couldn’t blame them.

“Food, Idu,” said Ace as he watched the hunter put down the cool box and open it for him. “It is called the food chain. They had to die so we could live.”

Roderic shook slowly as Ace opened the cool box. “This is why, Brady,” he murmured.

Ace dropped down onto his knees and looked inside of the cool box. “Look at that. We have got ourselves some venison.”

The man stayed on his feet on Ace’s left, looking anxiously at the cool box before he turned to look at his friends.

Tssjk. Without even batting an eye, Ace had stabbed the man in the guts. The man froze as his eyes widened. If he would’ve still carried the gun, he would’ve dropped it by now.

“Look, mister,” said Ace, as if he suddenly felt mildly sorry for the man who dropped onto his knees beside him, grabbing desperately at his bloody belly. “I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you for fetching this… cold box for me.” Ace’s right arm disappeared into the cool box before he got it out of it, a large chunk of reddish meat in his hands. “That is some fine meat right there. Hey, Idu. Search through the tents. They might have a few pelts or something.”

“Ace, put him out of his misery,” said Roderic, but Ace didn’t respond. “Ace!” he exploded.

“Fine, fine,” said Ace. He dropped the chunk of venison, which hit the bottom of the box with a splat, and stabbed the man just behind the chin, his claws disappearing into the head. He cleaned his claws on the man’s woodland parka jacket before the man fell backwards.

Brady didn’t know what to think. Ace had just taken the lives of these men, yet Brady felt quite normal except for the pounding of his heart.

It felt so abstract; Ace having killed these men, and the men being dead. It felt unreal, and like such a small, insignificant deal.

Brady hardly cared. He felt a little shocked, but he hardly cared.

 

They had left Ace to search the tents on his own. Ace was a known murderer, but they had just witnessed three innocents dying. Ace had killed three innocents.

They were waiting on Ace at the foot of the hill. This was part of the

pine forest as well, and if Brady looked up, he could see the top of one of the orange tents.

They were just out of earshot.

“We have to report this to the Council,” Idu bellowed as he pointed his finger angrily at Roderic, with whom he was arguing.

The two were standing directly opposite of each other, only inches apart. Leena was almost standing in-between them, acting as an unnecesarry mediator. Both Jason and Mister Allister were leaning against one of the trees, and standing near the center of it all were Brady and Riley.

“Like I said: That is not going to help!” Roderic snapped. “What do you think that the Council is going to do about it? They have always covered for Ace. Always. It is not worth getting in trouble over.”

He had never seen Roderic as angry as this before, but Idu did not flinch. As Roderic and Idu continued their argument and Leena continued to try to solve it, Brady’s attention was suddenly drawn to Riley.

“I know what you must be thinking,” she said.

He didn’t know what she was talking about.

“This is not how it always goes. We don’t kill everyone we see.”

It sure looked like they did, or at least, it sure looked like Ace did. In what was not even a week, he had seen more real-life murders than he had in the first sixteen years of his life, which were zero.

First, the farmer and his wife, then those guys from that brotherhood, then Anna – who he had killed himself – the two police officers, and finally, these three men.

They might’ve been poachers, but death seemed like an excessive punishment for that.

“I kno – know,” said Brady. “

“I just wanted to make sure you knew. Are you alright by the way? Roderic seemed pretty shocked when he saw you looking at Ace killing those men.”

Brady gulped and then nodded. He felt oddly dispassionate when he thought about Ace killing them.

“This is taking too long,” said Idu through gritted teeth.

“It is,” agreed Roderic. “I am glad that you agree with me now, Idu.”

Idu folded his arms and looked up at the hill. “Yeah, well do not get used to it.”

 

It was a cold night at Mount Adams Lake. The day had flown by. Only one more day and they would arrive at the House of Great God

Noah. Thinking about the hands he had to shake, the names he would have to remember, and all the new faces made him anxious.

It was too dark to enjoy the view, but Brady could see the silhouette of Mount Adams in the distance nonetheless.

They were out of the forest, yet they were still surrounded by it, and while they were near Mount Adams Lake, they were not exactly ‘at’ it.

No roof over their heads this time. They were completely dependent on what the weather would do.

If it would rain, this would be a long night, but the skies were currently clear, so there was no need to worry about it.

By the sound of it, or rather the lack of it, everyone was asleep except for him.

He was lying on his back only several inches away from Riley and Jason, and he was staring up at the starry sky, thinking about his parents.

He had dreamed about his family for two consecutive days. He didn’t want to dream about them too often. He wanted to forget about them. He wanted to forget about them, and he wanted them to forget about him.

It was a beautiful evening, or was it night?

Brady couldn’t tell. He never wore watches and his phone was turned off.

Several feet away from him, near Ace, Mister Allister and Roderic, the campfire was still burning, but very weakly.

What had once been a proud fire had now been reduced to a single flame, struggling to stay alive in the cold with frequent gusts of wind and no tinder to feed on.

Brady closed his eyes, trying to think of blackness and blackness only. He always did that when he had trouble falling asleep.

Blackness, other colors, blackness, hoodie.

It was a cold night. The grass was wet and his sleeping bag was damp.

It’d been a good decision to take his hoodie with him. Not only did it finish his outfit, but if he would’ve left it home, it would’ve made this trip harder.

It had also soaked up the blood splatters that would have otherwise turned his gray Cuba T-shirt red.

Blackness, police officers, blackness, parents.

Then he remembered someone who he hadn’t thought about in a

while.

Lisa. Everything that he had been through in his last days in Yatawa seemed so far away. It was like it had happened ages ago rather than not even two weeks. Some of it hadn’t even happened one week ago.

Lisa. He wondered what she was thinking about him now that he was gone.

He had been so close to being with her.

What about Daphne? He had actually been with her.

And what about Ashley?

After Logan had knocked her out, unintentionally saving him from Ashley’s blackmailing, he hadn’t heard from her anymore.

Thinking back at the things that had happened in his last couple of days in Yatawa made him feel like he was thinking about a movie, starring him.

 

It was misty outside, and judging by the sky, it was early in the morning.

Drips of water had formed on his face, and he quickly dried it off.

Riley was sitting right beside him, he noticed, and she looked worried.

“Are you okay? You were crying in your sleep. Had a nightmare?”

He didn’t understand what she had just said.

“C – crying? I wa – I wasn’t.”

“Ace told me to keep an eye on you and Jase considering the both of you were still asleep. I know what I saw, but hey, you don’t have to tell me what you dreamed about. I just hope you remember what I told you a couple of days ago, on our way back to the farm.”

He remembered. They had hugged, and she had told him to come to her if there was something wrong.

He was ashamed of himself. He had cried, in his sleep.

“Did I really – ?”

“Yeah,” she said. “You really did.”

 

Chapter 26

Noah’s Embrace

 

 

It was nice and sunny day. Within a few minutes, they would arrive at Mount Adams. They still had to climb part of the mountain, which would take some time.

The view was spectacular. He had never been this close to an actual mountain. He allowed his gaze to wander from one point of the mountain to the other.

Most of the mountain was covered in snow, but the lower part consisted of sand, stone and grass, and even had trees.

If he remembered correctly, Mount Adams was about three thousand seven hundred meters tall, which was over twelve thousand feet.

He wondered how they were going to get to the House of Great God Noah. Where on the mountain was it even?

Idu had managed to craft some more clothing out of a deer Ace had managed to catch this morning, and that, along with the fur armor he had made from the animals skins they had harvested and found overtime and the parkas and pants of the three hunters Ace had killed had set them up with almost enough, if not enough thick, warm clothing to be able to climb Mount Adams without freezing.

He could see Mount Adams and its surroundings, which mostly consisted of brown soil and rocks.

Some birds flew past them. Smoke was rising into the air on their left side. It was kind of far away. Probably a campfire.

Because they were walking through the wilderness and because they didn’t have to worry about being seen, they were walking in a disorderly fashion again. Ace was leading, walking by himself several yards before them.

Behind him were Mister Allister and Roderic, Jason and Riley, and finally, Idu, Leena and Brady.

Leena said something to Idu. She wasn’t exactly whispering, so Brady could hear that it was about him, which made him feel self-conscious for a second.

“So,” said Leena conversationally to Brady. “The journey is almost at its end. How are you holding up?”

Brady did something that looked like a combination of shrugging and shaking his head.

“I – I’m alright,” he said, and because he didn’t want to sound curt,

he added, “And you?”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how are you feeling about your family? It has been nearly five days.”

He had dreamed about them for three consecutive nights now, yet he didn’t feel like he was missing them. Then again, he had never been very in tune with his feelings. He was in his head too much for that.

“I – I – I have dreamed about them,” he said, feeling uncomfortable speaking about what he felt to Leena, despite her good and caring nature.

“You have dreamed about them?” she asked.

Idu wasn’t paying attention to the conversation, but then again, he didn’t seem like someone who liked discussing feelings – his own or other’s – either.

“And do you miss them?” she asked interestedly.

Brady shrugged, looking at the grass they were walking on.

“I’m not an expert on dreams, but I think you actually might, if you are dreaming about them.”

He narrowed his eyes and tilted his head slightly. That wasn’t something that he wanted to hear. He didn’t want to miss them. Homesickness and anything even remotely related to it would only serve as obstacles for him on the journeys to come.

“Brady is a man, Leena,” said Idu, giving Brady a lighthearted smile. “And men do not enjoy talking about their feelings, do they now?”

“N – not really,” said Brady, appreciating what Idu had just done, but suddenly feeling worried that Leena might not like that response.

“B – b – but it’s n – not li – like – ”

“I understand,” Leena chuckled. “There is no need to justify that. Idu never talks about his feelings either, but trust me, conversations about feelings are what can keep a relationship alive for much longer.”

“Hey,” said Idu disapprovingly before the smile reappeared on his face. He pointed at his wife. “Is that a passive-aggressive comment on the state of our relationship? Did I – did I miss something?”

“No, you didn’t,” Leena tittered. “I am saying that it might be a good idea for you to open up to these types of conversations more.”

“I am not a feeler, Leena,” said Idu. “I am a thinker.”

Looking at Leena and Idu made him think of Lisa.

He was fretting.

He was fretting about decisions in a life that looked so far away.

Looking straightforward at the mountain was the only thing that was

keeping him going at the moment.

 

They were officially on the mountain, and it was freezing. Brady could see the others’ and his own breath each time they or he exhaled.

They had climbed a gentle mountain ridge and they had followed it out of the Mount Adams Wilderness.

They were not yet walking on snow, but he was shivering, and he was so cold that he couldn’t even make fists out of his hands anymore.

Perhaps he was a cold frog after all, because while the others showed signs of being cold, they weren’t shivering and their teeth weren’t chattering nearly as much as he was and his were.

The mountain ridge was wide and a misstep didn’t mean certain death yet. Looking down the ridge, Brady figured that even if he were to somehow slide down, he could survive with a couple of scratches, some minor wounds and perhaps, perhaps a broken bone.

They weren’t high yet, but he could look down at the canopy, and perhaps, if it weren’t for the trees, he might have been able to see his house from here.

Not, obviously, considering the atmospheric conditions of Earth. The small particles floating around in the air and even air itself blocked and scattered some of the light passing through. 

“Halt!” said Ace suddenly before turning around, a cloud of condense leaving his mouth. “It is time to dress up.” With a mocking smile, he said, “I do not want any of you to freeze and fall down the mountain. How am I supposed to explain that to the Council now, am I right? Ha-ha!”

“As if they would care,” Mister Allister muttered.

They dropped down their backpacks onto the mountain ridge and got the clothes out of it.

The fur armor Idu and Roderic had made weren’t of top quality, and some were thinner than others, yet they could pull them on and they would keep them warm, at least for a while.

“I would be so glad if we could just teleport up the mountain,” Idu sighed. “My legs are killing me.”

“Only a little more now, sweetheart.”

They got into their clothes and once Brady had pulled the fur armor on, he looked at the others.

They didn’t look ridiculous.

The fur armor actually reminded him of a video game he used to play.

The problem was that whenever he started playing it, he would get addicted to it and his grades would drop.

“I am sick of this excruciatingly slow pace of ours,” Mister Allister complained. “How about we move faster? I cannot be the only shithead thinking of this.”
“You are not,” said Ace seriously. “Everyone agrees? We increase our pace?”

Most of them nodded. Brady did as well. He liked snow and cold and all, but the sooner they were at the House of Great God Noah, the better. Ace turned to Roderic. “How about you, old man?” he asked normally.

“I should be able to handle it, for some minutes at least. I cannot promise anything.”

Ace patted Roderic on the back. “Good. Now, if anyone falls behind, you are on your own.”

Ace turned back to the mountain before turning around again. “Ha-ha! Just kidding of course! But I will be very annoyed with you, and so will the others. So everyone, keep up. Let us get a move on.”

 

They were in a cave. A frozen, cold, stone cave. While it had a higher ceiling, the cave was shorter than the one back in Yatawa, but at least back there, you could sit down without your bottom freezing stuck to the stone, figuratively of course, considering that while it was cold, it was certainly a lot less cold than it was outside.

The walls and ceiling of the cave were a mix of ice and snow, and the stone ground was slippery.

Closer to the entrance of the cave, the ground was covered in snow, but in the back it wasn’t.

It was snowing outside, and it was snowing hard. It was a blizzard, and shortly before they had stumbled upon this cave, they hadn’t been able to see a thing.

They were high up Mount Adams, but not at the top. Not even nearly at the top.

Brady didn’t know what he had to expect from the House of Noah. Was it built in a crevice somewhere up the mountain, or was there a secret way into the mountain?

Ace was sitting near the exit of the cave, looking outside in disappointment.

Mister Allister and Roderic were sitting a few feet behind him, on a rock. They were playing a game of Crazy Eights, and for some reason, it felt good to see Mister Allister laughing and looking triumphantly in general as he owned Roderic at the game of cards.

Idu and Leena were sitting with their backs against the wall of the

cold, cold cave. They had wrapped bodies and were talking about something softly.

Riley, Jason and him were sitting in the back of the cave, where it was a lot warmer than near the entrance, but that could as well just be the clothing they wore.

He was starting to feel slightly comfortable around Riley and Jason, and perhaps that was because they were the only two in the pack besides him who weren’t older than thirty.

“To think that the most dangerous part is yet to come,” said Jason conversationally to Riley.

Brady had been listening absently to their conversation, but he felt like it was about time to join in, even though he felt apprehensive about doing so.

Not knowing how else to join in, he responded to what Jason said, even though it was meant for Riley.

“What?”

Both Riley and Jason’s eyes shot to him.

“The most dangerous part, man,” said Jason, who was sitting in the far left corner of the cave, very relaxed, while Riley was sitting in a cross-legged position on her sleeping bag a couple of feet away from him, turned Jason’s way. “There’s this foggy area higher up,” he explained. “It is the most dangerous part of this journey. There’s this sign near the fog that says ‘Turn around, death ahead’. A few feet behind this sign, deep within the fog, there is a thin bridge of ice that we use to cross a gap.” Jason snorted smugly. “Some friendly advice: don’t look down once shimmying over that bridge, my friend, because then you might just plummet to your death, hence the sign.”

Brady hated heights, and the bit of information he had just received from Jason made him feel apprehensive about something that wasn’t shaking hands and introducing himself.

A thin bridge of ice in the fog used to cross a gap. Does the universe want me to die?

Brady knew that he would look down once he was on the bridge. He looked at Riley for reassurance, hoping, no, praying that this was a

joke.

“He isn’t kidding,” said Riley seriously. “That bridge is a big deal.” Softly, she continued, “I don’t mean to scare you but, people die crossing that bridge.”

His frowny expression fainted and was completely taken over by

worry.

“Is there – there no way around – around?” he stammered.

“Nah, man,” said Jason. “But take my advice to heart, man. Look down and you’re dead,” he chuckled.

“Don’t say it like that,” said Riley disapprovingly. “People die crossing that bridge,” she explained to Brady. “But not every single day. Not even every single month. Perhaps not even every single year. Just be careful, take what Jason said about not looking down to heart and stay focused on keeping your balance while at the same time thinking about other things. Anything that keeps you from thinking that you’re going to fall is a good thing.”

Brady gulped. He wanted to go home now.

“How is it that nobody except for the Morus have ever found the Hou – House?”

“The Hou – House.” Jason gave a snort of laughter. “The howdy-house?”

“You’ll see,” said Riley.

Jason nodded in agreement.

“Alright, everyone,” Ace said before he got up and turned to them, his hands on his hips as he stood in the entrance of the cave. “I think the best thing we can do now is to just go to sleep. We will continue tomorrow. It is not like the House is going anywhere, am I right?”

“Sleep in here?” Idu exclaimed. “How do you think we are going to do that? There is no campfire, and I doubt putting our beds on the ground will help anything against the cold much.”

“Oh come on, Ids,” said Ace. “This is not the first time we slept somewhere cold. Remember that night in December, two years ago? I doubted we would all survive that, yet we did. This is nothing in comparison to that night.”

Idu nodded, but it didn’t seem completely sincere. “Hmpf.”

“Let us rest, then,” said Roderic.

“Let us finish this game first,” Mister Allister objected.

“Come on, old man,” Ace teased. “You know how gleeful Tunstall gets when he utterly defeats someone at Crazy Eights. Finish the game.”

“Heh, funny,” muttered Mister Allister sarcastically.

Still wearing the fur armor, Brady crawled into his sleeping bag and curled up, hoping that that way, he’d be able to stay warm this night.

 

“What’s that problem you have?” his mom asked, concerned.

“I don’t -- want to tell you,” said Brady uncomfortably. “It will change the way you look at me.

He was sitting behind the table in his mom’s living room, playing a game on his laptop.

“Come on,” his mom insisted. “You know you can tell me everything you want. I’m your mother.”

He got the ear buds out of his ears and looked at his mother, who was standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

“I can’t.”

“Why did you mention it to me if you never planned on giving me the full story anyways?”

He heaved a sigh. Then he put his ear buds back in. He had the sound of his laptop turned off. The ear buds were actually unnecessary right now.

“Fine. Then I’ll just guess it,” she said seriously. “Are you gay?”

“What? Gay?” Brady asked indignantly. “No, I’m not gay.”

He spat out the word ‘gay’, but it didn’t seem to work. His mother now thought he was gay.

“So you are?”

“It’s – no. I – I hear voices… inside of my head.”

 

Even though the sun shone brightly it was snowing lightly.

Some of it landed on him, causing it to return to its liquid state almost instantly.

For the last ten minutes they had followed a snowy path alongside a steep drop on the right and a sharp wall of natural stone on the left.

It didn’t seem like this path was walked on often. Brady wasn’t even sure whether Mount Adams was a popular climbing or hiking location or not.

There was a sharp turn to the left, and when they took it, Brady noticed a sign standing only several yards away from them to the right, near a steep edge, and when he realized what that meant, his heartrate increased.

He was about to do something very dangerous.

The path continued, though, but there was another sharp turn to the

left in the distance.

He shivered, not because it was cold, but because he was nervous.

Brady remembered Riley and Jason’s words. People had died crossing this bridge, and looking down meant death. A long drop.

His hand accidentally brushed Riley’s, but she successfully managed to ‘unawkward’ the situation by reassuringly squeezing his hand for a second.

Alright,” said Ace before they stopped. “We are nearly there. As I always say, do not be afraid of the bridge. The bridge is overrated. People are scared of it for nothing. The last time someone fell off this bridge was months ago, if not longer.”

“Why do you say that every time we get back here?” Idu asked, not normally, but not particularly grumpily either.

“Just shut up and follow me. We will do this one by one. I will go first and then you all follow me. Take it nice and easy. No need to hurry. And I am saying this because I do not want to have to tell the Council that one of you died.”

They arrived at the sign, which was standing several inches before a wall of cold and ice.

The thick fog started on the first inch of the icy bridge.

The bridge wasn’t as thin as Brady had expected it to be, yet the long, seemingly endless drops on both sides of the bridge made it look intimidating.

If this were a video game, the part behind the bridge would have been a new area.

The fog, the ice wall and the bridge made the area that lay beyond

seem mysterious and otherworldly.

The bridge didn’t seem like it was made by men. It was long. At least sixty feet, it seemed like.

Brady looked at the bridge. It wasn’t snow. It was literally a thin but thick bridge consisting of only frozen water and whatever had been in the water when it had frozen this way.

How did it freeze this way? Brady thought about it and figured that the bridge had once been thicker, and that the constant gusts of wind had slowly but surely chiseled away most of it.

He peered down the drops but could barely see a thing because of the mist.

It was a shame that the icy wall to the left of the bridge stood just a couple of inches too far away from it. Otherwise, Brady would have been able to lean on it.

That would diminish his changes of slipping over the edge of the bridge and falling to his death.

“Pay careful attention, Brady-boy,” said Ace, pulling Brady out of his train of thoughts.

They had gathered in front of the bridge and one of Ace’s legs had already disappeared partly into the fog.

“See you on the other side,” said Ace confidently before he disappeared entirely into the fog, leaving only his silhouetted figure for them to see.

The fog rolled silently, but it was never-ending.

“The smoke is cold,” Idu noted to Brady.

“It’s called fog, Idu,” said Leena, “and yes, it is cold. You should give your body a moment to get used to it before you walk across the bridge, okay?”

Brady nodded.

“Mind your language, boy,” rebuked Mister Allister. “Speak with two words.”

“Tunstall,” said Roderic disapprovingly.

“Soft treatments make soft people,” Mister Allister retorted through clenched teeth.

“And in my opinion, the world would be a better place if there were more soft people,” said Leena.

“Yeah, exactly,” Idu agreed, styling his grayish-black horseshoe mustache.

Brady kept an eye on Ace’s silhouette until it completely disappeared in the fog.

“I am here,” he heard vaguely.

“You are up, Tunstall,” said Idu.

Brady wondered why Idu hadn’t chosen to become the leader of his own pack. He was a little hot-headed and stubborn, but Brady thought he’d make for a good leader.

Tunstall disappeared into the fog, and then it went fast. Seconds later, Leena stepped onto the bridge, shortly followed by Idu, and then by Roderic.

“Next!” he heard Idu calling from the other side.

Brady’s heart was in his mouth. He wasn’t sure whether he could do this.

“Who volunteers?” said Jason, who hadn’t smoked yet.

“Do you want to go?” Riley asked Brady, causing him to grow even more nervous. He did his best not to let it show. “I imagine it’s better

than staying here until it’s just you.”

He was scared. He didn’t want to fall off, but he was a hundred percent sure that he would.

He attempted to think of a moment where he’d felt more nervous and scared than he was currently.

Brady remembered last year, when he was waiting for the results of his finals, knowing that he had screwed up.

That had been horrible. The entire day Brady had felt nauseous and dizzy.

“Hey,” said Riley, placing a hand on his shoulder. “It’s going to be okay. Right, Jason?”

“Yeah,” said Jason, biting his thumb. “Like I said, just don’t look down or you’ll – ”

“Ye-ye-ye-ye-yeah. Don’t listen to that. You’ll make it. I know that telling you not to be nervous won’t help, so I’ll settle with telling you this: you won’t fall. Extend your arms like this and focus on one point. If you do that, you’ll never lose your balance.”

He muttered a ‘thanks’, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly.

“Hello-ho?” said Idu from the other side.

Brady looked at the fog before he looked at Riley from over his shoulder.

She gave him a reassuring nod, basically non-verbally telling him that everything was going to be okay.

Stay positive, he thought. You will make it, he thought.

But swiftly, his own mind disagreed with those thoughts, as they weren’t his.

You’re not an optimist, you’re realist, he thought. You know that there’s a chance of slipping and falling to your death, he thought.

He took a deep breath and tried to clear his mind, but that was impossible.

Brady breathed a sigh.

Completely dismissing Leena’s suggestion, he put a foot on the bridge and then another foot before he began shuffling forward, moving slower than he ever had before. Instantly he felt his muscles tensing up, and Brady clenched his jaw hard, but not voluntarily.

“Pff-ff-ff-ff-ff.” He was already shivering hard and he hadn’t even been in the fog for ten seconds.

Sixty feet, it seemed like. This bridge was about sixty feet long.

He shuffled and shuffled, just hoping that he wouldn’t suddenly slip, lose his balance and fall to his death.

Looking down was something he wanted to do, but he knew that he shouldn’t.

Forty-five feet to go.

“F – f – f – f – fucking fuck fuck,” he hissed to himself.

He saw small icicles appearing on his clothes, and that was when he remembered what Riley had told him.

He extended his right arm to the right and his left arm to the left before he looked straight forward and focused only on that point while also minding his balance.

The cold went right through the fur armor.

Thirty feet to go.

Halfway there. Just another thirty feet over this cold, slippery, icy bridge of death. This was by far the scariest thing he had ever done. The Freefall on the fair in Downtown Yatawa was nothing in comparison to this.

He felt his muscles tensing up even harder. It almost hurt, and that only added to the anxiety Brady felt.

Fifteen feet to go.

Through the fog, he saw five hazy silhouettes.

His eyebrows were frozen, just like his eyelashes, his cheeks, his entire face actually.

He could feel something that felt similar to a brain freeze.

Seven more feet.

The vague silhouettes became slightly clearer. He could identify them now.

“Just a few more steps, Brady!” he heard Ace saying.

He shivered, and it was then that he felt weird. Suddenly, he found himself looking at the others, and when he glanced at his feet, he realized that he was standing on snow rather than on ice.

He had made it.

I made it, he thought in disbelief.

He had actually thought that he would die falling off the bridge. Technically, it would have been hitting the ground that would have killed him rather than the fall, but yeah.

“Well done. Well done!” said Leena.

“Good job, kid,” said Idu.

“Yeah, now get off that edge before the temptation of pushing you

off gets to me,” Ace joked.

He took two hasty steps forwards and stopped next to Roderic, whom patted him on the shoulder.

“I knew you would make it,” he said normally. “Yet you made me proud.”

Brady smiled before he looked at Mister Allister, who was standing on Roderic’s left side.

Mister Allister gave him a grumpy nod.

The moment he realized this journey had come to an end, he felt relieved.

He could stop worrying now. No one was going to find him here. No one. He was a free man, or boy since he wasn’t even seventeen yet, but he would turn seventeen in about two weeks from now.

Thinking about meeting all those new people at the House of Great God Noah couldn’t even make him nervous for the moment. He was so glad, he doubted that anything could make him nervous.

Brady turned to see what the House of Great God Noah looked like, but there was nothing. Behind him, there was a flat plateau of snow and rocky outcroppings.

Nothing caught his attention, except for the entrance to an underground cave near the left edge of plateau. The cave didn’t look particularly wide, and tall people like Ace, Mister Allister, Roderic and Idu would probably have to duck to get in.

Brady was too busy theorizing where the House of Great God Noah would be and how they would get there that he neglected the fact that Jason and Riley still had to cross the bridge.

It was only when Jason appeared that he realized.

They congratulated him before Jason walked to him.

“And?” Jason asked Brady before reaching into his pocket and getting a freshly-rolled joint out of it.

“It was scary,” said Brady, now completely focused on the mist, waiting for Riley to appear.

“Bucker up, pal,” smiled Jason before he lit the joint. “You made it. I made it. Riley will make it. The times of worry are over. Try to enjoy yourself.”

Brady dismissed that comment and nodded a little as a response to it.

The fog rolled peacefully, forming a wall that disallowed him from seeing Mount Adams from the snowy plateau.

Riley appeared. Now the journey was really over.

He breathed a short sigh of relief.

Riley was congratulated by the others before she too joined his side.

“Good job,” she smiled at him.

“You too,” said Jason.

Riley gave a snort. “You don’t need praise for this, Jase. You’ve done this more times than I have. How’d it go, Brady?”

“I’m just glad I made it. I’m trying not to think about having to cross it again.”

“Ha-ha, yeah.”

“Stop bidly-badling and let us move!” said Ace, signaling them to follow him.

They approached the cave. Brady expected the cave to be long and ginormous in order to be able to accommodate the House of Great God Noah, but they reached a dead end almost instantly.

The eight of them could barely stand in the cave together; that was how short it was.

But there was something peculiar about the stone wall blocking their way, and there was a thin, perfectly rectangular slit in the wall to his left, near the wall blocking their way.

Ace extended his claws and pushed the one attached to the knuckle of his right index finger into the slit.

“There – we – go,” said Ace, somehow turning the slit clockwise before getting his claw out of it, causing the slit to move back to its former position.

Brady didn’t have anything to say. He simply watched as the wall blocking their way produced a heavy scraping sound as it moved a little. Small rocks and stone dust fell onto the ground of the cave.

It moved again, slightly, producing that same heavy scraping sound, and then, suddenly, the wall was pulled backwards, disappearing into the left wall of the cave, allowing them to continue.

But there was no secret pathway. There was no secret chamber.

All that was behind the wall in the dark cave was a seven-foot stone gate, or portal, rather, because the stone gate was filled with what appeared to be a yellow, syrupy liquid that just floated around in there.

Brady could only stare at the stone gate. What the fuck is that?

“A portal?” Ace asked himself. “Yes, a portal, Brady.” Then Ace turned around, looking at him. But rather than explaining it to him, Roderic started talking.

“You could say that we are going to Caliptus, but we actually are

not. The packs consider Noah’s Embrace to be a part of Earth rather than a part of Caliptus.”

“We are going to Caliptus?” Brady asked pleasantly surprised before he turned red.

These people hadn’t seen him excited yet. He worried about what they would be thinking about him now.

“Practically, not theoretically,” said Roderic.

“Aye,” Mister Allister agreed.

Idu rubbed his hands. “Who goes first? I will be honest: I cannot wait to set my teeth in some juicy ribs.”

“I just want to shake off the cold,” said Jason.

“Let us not linger here for any longer then, huh?” said Ace before he walked through the portal, simply disappearing.

Brady’s mind was blown. He couldn’t even start comprehending what had just happened. He had seen Ace disappear into nothingness upon touching the yellow, syrupy liquid of which the portal primarily consisted.

Roderic walked through, quickly followed by Leena.

It was quite a remarkable thing to witness, someone being teleported to another place.

At least that was what Brady assumed to be happening here.

Jason and Riley entered the portal, followed by Idu.

The three disappeared as they walked through, leaving only Brady and Mister Allister.

Mister Allister’s sigh made Brady look away from the portal.

“It is not your fault if I will not be chosen to become your mentor,” he said.

Then he signaled Brady to go.

Allister’s words floated through his mind as he walked into the syrupy liquid, disappearing instantly. He hadn’t even felt the texture of the liquid.

Suddenly the coldness was gone, replaced by an almost tropical warmth.

It was dark, but when Brady looked up at the sky, he realized that that was because of a very thick canopy.

They were in a forest, a forest of wide, lush trees.

“That was easy, was it not, Brady-boy?” Ace smiled, putting his hands on his hips.

Like Ace, the others were standing opposite of him, several feet before the portal.

Brady turned to look at the portal. The stone gate looked exactly the same as the one in the cave, and it was positioned right in front of a rocky outcropping that was part of a hill or mountain. The mountain disappeared in the thick canopy.

Looking at the portal again, Brady saw a hand, followed by an arm, a leg and then the rest of Mister Allister’s slender body.

“Tunstall!” said Ace, enthusiastically spreading his arms. “How have you been?”

“Yeah,” answered Mister Allister dismissively.

They followed their pack leader – Brady’s head filled with theories as to how the portal and the movable wall worked – and not even two minutes later, they stood on the edge of the forest and on the edge of a large but not gigantic field of grass surrounded by gray, natural stone walls that were about fifty feet tall, and that had jagged edges on the top.

A gravel path led from the forest through the grass, splitting the field of grass in two equally sized fields. Near the end of the field of grass, the gravel path continued in a roundabout that had a statue standing in the center of it just before it ended in front of a mighty fine granite castle, a castle with black roofs and a black iron double door. Brady’s mouth dropped open and he stared at it in awe.

The castle stood against, and seemed to be partly merged with the tall wall standing behind it, the tall wall that seemed to surround the area they were in – Noah’s Embrace.

The field of grass housed about ten farms – five on each side of the gravel path – and near the forest, there was a thin river running horizontally through Noah’s Embrace – from one side of the wall to the other.

A rounded, wooden bridge had been built across it.

While not incredibly large, the castle was big enough to house at least a two hundred people.

The castle had four corner towers, and those corner towers had cone-shaped roofs made of the same black material as the rest of the roof.

Between the two corner towers on the front were several turrets, and in the center of the castle, there was a keep, only slightly shorter than the corner towers.

A tangerine flag that had a thin, white, four-pointed star imprinted on it waved proudly on the top of each one of the corner towers and on the top of the keep.

This is amazing. Holy – holy shit. He had never expected the House of Great God Noah or Noah’s Embrace to look like this.

“Welcome, Brady,” Ace turned to him, spreading his arms. “Welcome, to Noah’s Embrace.”

 

 

One of Them

 

 

Brady was thrilled to finally be here. It had taken them five days. They had survived a battle in which they had been outnumbered, they had survived a night in Southern Downtown Yatawa, they had nearly been arrested and they had climbed half a mountain, and now they stood here.

They had left on April the fifth, and they had arrived at their destination on April the ninth.

It hadn’t even taken them five days to get here. It had taken them four days and a couple of hours.

Brady’s eyes shot from one place to the other as they followed the gravel path to the wooden bridge built across a thin river, which source lay beyond the wall surrounding and shielding Noah’s Embrace.

The sun had risen in the east and using the wall, it casted a large shadow on the left part of Noah’s Embrace, but the shadow didn’t even come close to the farms and their crops and animals. 

His eyes shot from the tall, dark-gray wall surrounding Noah’s Embrace to the wooden, single-story farmhouses, and from the thin river to the cows, pigs and chickens walking around freely. Finally, his eyes rested on the House of Great God Noah, a castle which highest points – the tips of the flags on the tips of the cone roofs of the corner towers – reached about fifty feet.

Behind the thatched, wooden farmhouses lay several large gardens filled with crops, and some even with trees.

After having crossed the bridge, they continued to follow the gravel path.

Farmers were working on the farmhouses, tending their farms and caring for their animals. Brady heard laughter, and most people were working with smiles on their faces, while some looked very determined.

Judging by the amount of people working around the farmhouses, Brady guessed that each farmhouse housed up to around seven people.

Brady saw kids at well, but most of them were younger than he was, and others were in their early twenties. In short: he didn’t see any children of his age.

Their hairstyles were typically medieval, as were their clothes –

woolen and dyed.

As he looked around, he noticed that everyone seemed to be quite happy around here. Something must be motivating them, Brady thought. Either that, or they actually like what they are doing.

While Brady could understand that, he didn’t share those same opinions. Brady didn’t like getting his hands dirty.

While it was busy outside of the House of Great God Noah, the gravel path was deserted, except for two people – excluding them – standing in front of the roundabout, which was located several yards before a wide granite staircase leading up to the black, iron entryway of the castle.

One of the two people was a young boy with shiny brown hair that reached to about his ears – a farmer’s boy, judging by his clothes – while the other was a man who appeared to be around his late forties. The man was sitting on one knee before the young boy. They were both looking into the boy’s cupped hands.

“No, that is a dolomite rock,” the man explained smartly to the boy. He had Northern English accent. “It is a sedimentary carbonate rock and it contains a high percentage of?”

“Calcium -- magnesium carbonight?” the boy replied hopefully.

“Almost,” smiled the man. “Calcium magnesium carbonate.”

This man seemed to know his stones.

“That is my boy,” said Roderic to Brady.

Brady’s eyes widened. That man was Roderic’s son, Morden Aatu.

The boy was the first to notice them walking their way, and then Morden turned to them as well, getting up before dismissing the boy with a pat on the head.

Morden appeared to be of around Idu’s height – six feet and two inches tall –  but some years older. Morden had frown lines on his forehead. His hair – or rather what was left of it because of recession – was grayish-white, as was his long stubble. His mustache was blackish-gray as opposed to his hair and his beard.

“Morden,” said Roderic gladly.

“Father,” Morden replied with equal gladness.

The two men embraced each other tightly before letting go and patting each other on the shoulder. Morden’s frown turned into a smile. “I have to say that I had not expected you return this soon,” he remarked.

Morden,” said Ace.

“Ah, Little Lord Nawot,” Morden greeted.

“Really, Morden?” said Ace in disbelief. “That is how you greet me after all those months? You know that I hate being called that.”

“My sincerest apologies, Little Lord, but this is the title I am officially supposed to use to refer to you. High-Councillor Nawot has never adultirized you.”

“That might be, but that was a mis … ugh. Just call me Ace, as I said last time. ‘Little Lord’ sounds so – ,” Ace winced, “ – god.”

Morden made sure to shake everybody’s hands before he arrived at him.

Roderic appeared next to Morden, and Roderic smiled down at Brady while Morden inspected him with a frown. “Ah, and who is this?” he said, his hands behind his back.

“This is Brady Heliot, son,” explained Roderic to Morden. “He is the newest addition to our family.”
“The newest liability, you mean,” Mister Allister grunted.

A crooked smile appeared on Morden’s face before he turned to Mister Allister. “I see that you are still the same,” Morden remarked lightheartedly. “Have you not listened to my advice? Going to bed earlier might help you get rid of that grumpiness you seem to be carrying with you wherever you go.”

“Pssh,” said Mister Allister through clenched teeth. “I forgot how much of know-it-all you are. Cannot say I have missed ya.”

“Cannot say the same.”

While he had a frowny resting face, Morden looked like a happy man, like someone who didn’t take life, or insults for that matter, too seriously.

Morden wore a black linen tunic and a pair of matching trousers along with dark brown leather boots. Something told Brady that this was his leisurewear, because it looked like the medieval equivalent of a sweat suit.

“Let us go inside, shall we?” said Ace, but there was a lack of confidence in his voice. He sounded almost apprehensive.

“High-Councillor Nawot has not changed much, Little Lord Nawot,” said Morden to Ace. “Expect his usual coldness.”

“Do not speak of my father that way, Morden,” said Ace. “We might be distant, but he is my father.”

Dorian Nawot. Not only have I met Roderic’s son today, but I’ll also meet Ace’s father.

They followed the roundabout around a tall, light-black statue of a man dressed in armor and with a sword in his left hand, and they

approached the granite staircase leading to a black iron double door.

Brady heard Ace breathing a nervous sigh. Ace wasn’t walking up front this time. It were Roderic and Morden whom were walking up front, and Idu as well.

Brady had expected Morden and Mister Allister to at least like each other considering Morden was Roderic’s son and Mister Allister was pretty close to Roderic, but no.

Instead, Morden seemed to consider Idu a friend rather than Mister Allister, the latter with who he seemed to have a one-sided, argumentative relationship.

“Nervous?” Riley asked Brady.

They and Jason were walking in the back, just behind Leena and Mister Allister.

Brady shrugged. He was nervous, yes. The euphoric feeling he had felt when he had realized that the journey was over and that they had arrived at their destination was now gone, and the anxiety was slowly returning.

He feared that he would stutter once people would start introducing themselves to him.

He tried to think of his life as a movie, because it was sure starting to look like one. Perhaps that way, he could trick his brain into thinking that this was all fake. His anxiety would surely reduce then.

The doors opened slowly before they had even reached the final steps. The parting doors revealed a tall and slender man and with him came an air of dominance that immediately killed the atmosphere, yet there was something tranquil about the man all the same. The man was of Roderic’s age and had broad shoulders and cold, honey-brown eyes. Like his fourth child Ace, Dorian had black-brown hair, but it was turning gray and had receded to about his crown.

He had a scruff, his gaze could only be described as piercing, and he didn’t look nearly as fun-loving as his son.

His clothing was fancy. He wore a midnight-black leather jerkin with golden buttons over a wine-red shirt. His trousers were black as well, as were his high leather boots.

Two men dressed in hard leather armor open the iron double door farther before they followed Dorian Nawot outside. The hard leather armor wasn’t a suit. Rather, it was held together neatly by several straps of leather, and underneath the hard leather armor, these men wore black, linen tunics as well as a fitting pair of trousers and

boots. Their hard leather helmets looked more like buckets with rounded bottoms.

The leather armor seemed to be naturally brownish-orange. Undoubtedly, they had chosen this armor because of its colors, because orange was one of the main colors in the insignia of the Anolors of Great God Noah.

The two guards – Brady assumed it were guards – each carried an Anolor Steel Longsword, but they lacked a shield.

“Halt!” commanded the two guards in unison, their swords pointed at them, their expressions alert.

Dorian rolled his eyes slowly, his hands behind his back. “Pardon the guards. They are merely doing their jobs.” Dorian spoke in a highhearted manner. His voice was loud, and piercing, much like his glance.

Brady felt unnerved by Dorian’s presence.

“Father,” said Ace, a glimmer of hope in his voice.

“Acius,” said Dorian coolly. “I see you and your pack have survived another travel.” Dorian’s eyes met Brady’s and Brady quickly looked away, shocked, which might have been an overreaction, he realized.

“Who is the newling?” Dorian asked, but it didn’t sound like he was actually interested in knowing the answer.

“This is Brady Heliot, High-Councillor,” replied Morden with a nod. “He is from…” Morden looked thoughtfully before turning his head to his father. “He is from?”

“Yatawa,” said Roderic normally. “He was turned. If not for the unknown Morus, Brady might have lived a normal life. I suggest interrogating those who arrived within the last three weeks.”

Judging by the atmosphere, Brady wasn’t the only one who felt unnerved by Dorian’s presence. Dorian emitted this confidence and dominance, but an aura of tranquility all the same. Dorian Nawot struck him as stoic, intelligent, a man who took the first step, a leader who led without remorse and did what needed to be done. Dorian held his head high and it almost looked as if his arms were frozen on his back, the way he had them folded there. Only Morden and Roderic appeared to feel comfortable around him.

“I am not going to start a witch-hunt within these walls, Elder Aatu. I am certain that whoever did this is not an Anolor.” Solemnly he added, “Punishments for turning are known.”

Morden cocked his head and squinted. “But High-Councillor, I – ”

“Quiet, Lord Aatu. I can consider objections, but I do not wish to discuss this outside. Now, Brady Heliot. Do you not think it rude that you have not yet properly introduced yourself?” Dorian’s voice was calm and controlled.

Brady froze. He hadn’t even even known Dorian for five minutes, yet he had already managed to make a crucial social mistake, which was forgetting to properly introduce himself.

Brady felt Jason’s hand in his back, which caused Brady to climb the

stairs, suddenly standing face-to-face with Dorian Nawot, the High-Councillor of the Anolors of Great God Noah, whatever High-Councillor had to mean.

When their eyes met, Dorian’s flashed curiously before he extended his right hand while keeping the left one on his back.

Analyzing the term ‘High-Councillor’, Brady figured that Dorian Nawot was the leader of this ‘Council’ he had heard the others mentioning a couple of times.

Dorian cleared his throat expectantly and Brady snapped back to reality before quickly shaking the man’s hand.

“Dorian Nawot. I am the High-Councillor of the Anolors of Great God Noah, as well as Archdeacon Thorren’s successor. I assume you have at least heard of those names before?”

Brady nodded, but remembering how Mister Allister had scolded him for doing that, he added a quick ‘yes, I have’.

“Hmpf,” Dorian Nawot gazed at the sky for a second before his expression softened. “It is quite a shift in environments, is it not? Minutes ago, you stood on a cold mount. Now you technically find yourself in the Kingdom of Marghet, where the sun shines and where the temperature is moderate.”

While his expression had softened, Dorian wasn’t smiling.

Brady wanted to say that the sun always shines, but he didn’t think Dorian would appreciate being corrected, and considering that Dorian’s son had a smile on his face while killing people, he decided to just not say it.

“It’s a change, yes,” Brady agreed.

“Indeed it is. Follow me, all of you.”

Dorian returned inside with his two guards and Ace and the others followed him

Jason placed a hand on Brady’s shoulder before they headed in. “Beeee careful around him, alright, man?” he said.

The guard closed the iron double door once everyone was inside, and

Brady was feasting his eyes. Not only was he interested in apocalypses – nuclear apocalypses primarily – but he was also a huge fan of the medieval era, and being in an actual castle was like a dream to him.

Like on the outside, on the inside, the castle was light gray primarily. It didn’t look as neglected as some castles in medieval movies did. This one actually looked like it was taken care of on a daily basis,

and as if it was constructed with love and patience. The floor consisted of light gray stone slabs, each about three by one and a half feet long.

The walls, while obviously made of stone on the outside, looked like they were made of darkish-gray planks on the inside, but when Brady brushed his hand past it, he could feel that the planks were definitely made of stone.

The ceiling could only be called impressive. It was made of bricks and consisted of many patterns.

It wasn’t dark in the castle, since light entered through the large windows high up in the walls next to and above the black, iron double door.

The entry hall in which they were currently standing, looked awe-inspiring overall. Perhaps he thought of it that way because he liked medieval era stuff so much.

A light gray pillar supported the landing opposite of them, and two broad, curved, stone staircases led up to it.

They could also take a left and a right on the first floor, but the short hallways ended in doors.

On the thin landing of the second floor, looking past the black, iron railing, Brady could see more doors, one of which was a large, wooden, reinforced double door located opposite the staircases. Judging by its size, it led to a large chamber.

The other two doors each led to a left wing and a right wing.

Also, on the first floor, hanging at a chain at the tall ceiling was an imposing, black chandelier. It was so grand and looked so heavy that Brady wondered what damage it could do to the floor beneath it, let alone to a person who happened to be standing underneath it if it once were to plummet down.

Only thinking of the sound made him wince before smiling.

Morden and Roderic joined his side as Dorian let them up the left curved staircase.

“To think that this castle was constructed in the first era,” said

Morden, and it took Brady a second to realize that Morden was talking to him rather than to Roderic.

“F – first era?” Brady asked unsurely.

Morden tilted his head suspiciously and squinted for a moment before he gave a nod. “Ah, for a moment I had forgotten you are an Earthling. You speak in years. We speak in eras and years. It is – ” Morden looked thoughtfully for

a split second. “ – twenty-fifteen. In Caliptus, it is the third era, year three hundred and twenty-eight.”

Judging by his facial expression, Morden seemed to like explaining things. It was one of the only moments that he wasn’t frowning.

“While we are both well-versed scholars, I opted to immerse myself in human psychologies while my son here selected to deepen his historical knowledge,” Roderic explained with a proud smile on his face.

Dorian arrived at the landing and one-by-one, they did too. Brady was thinking about what Morden had said. This castle had been built in the first era. Today, it was the third era, year three hundred and twenty-eight. If each era consisted of at least three hundred and fifty recorded years, it would mean that this castle could be anywhere between seven hundred and a thousand years old. Simply fascinating.

That meant that this castle could have been built anywhere in-between the years one thousand fifteen and one thousand three hundred and fifteen.

Brady, too, arrived at the landing and they regrouped before the reinforced wooden double door.

While long, the landing was rather thin – there was about six feet and seven inches of space in-between either of the staircases and the wooden, reinforced double door.

At both the left and the right end of the landing, there was a wooden, reinforced door, both of which probably led to a separate wing.

“Morden, if you would be so kind as to show Brady Heliot his quarters.”

Morden seemed surprised with that task. “But High-Councillor, I am an advisor – ”

“And I am your superior and you shall do as I say,” Dorian retorted dully.

“Morden,” said Roderic.

Morden, seemingly unbothered, placed a hand on Brady’s shoulder

and guided him to the left wing.

He opened the door and they entered a long hallway with rounded, wooden doors on each side.

As opposed to the entry hall, it was rather gloomy in here, and the lack of windows or bars for that matter made that even more apparent. They could see solely because of the candles hanging at the walls.

“I see you and my father get along well,” said Morden lightheartedly. “I can tell instantly whether he does not like someone or not. He is warm to the people who are good, and cold and distant to those who are not.”

Brady wasn’t sure what to say, but this was Roderic’s son, and Morden seemed like a very nice man, so Brady put some extra effort into trying to come up with something to say.

“And you and Mister Allister?” he asked, feeling uncomfortable prying into others personal relationships with each other.

“Oh, do not worry about that,” Morden assured him as they walked past room by room. “Tunstall does not like most people, me included, and he especially does not like people who are loved. Tunstall has a dark past, lad.”
They walked for a while. The hallway was long. They had just walked past rooms ten and eleven.

The general gloominess of the hallway made him feel safe and comfortable somehow.

“What is your relationship with Tunstall like, then? Distant? Cold? Antagonistic? Most relationships Tunstall has can be described with one of those words, he-he. My father is one of the only people he truly likes, but then again, apart from his special ability to meddle himself in things that do not concern him, what is there to detest about my father?”

Morden and Roderic seemed to have very positive views of one another. Brady had to agree with Morden, though. Apart from the meddling, Roderic was a great guy.

“I agree,” said Brady.

“Well, cheer up, lad,” said Morden to him, well-intended. “Smile a bit. Life is short.”

Morden was probably referring to his natural scowling expression. Ironic that Morden remarked on that, considering that Morden had a natural frowny face and didn’t look that happy either.

They stopped and turned to the left, facing a door that had two small,

iron figures attached to the wood, right above the doorknob. It were a one and an eight.

“This one should be available. If I am not mistaken, Jason usually picks room nineteen, Roderic room seventeen and Riley room sixteen. You seem like someone who can appreciate some familiar company.”

“Th – thanks, then, f – for picking this room.”

“Ah, lad,” he said, placing a well-meant hand on his right shoulder.

“My father can tell a good heart from a bad one by looking a man into his eyes, and a friend of his is a friend of mine. Welcome to the House of Great God Noah. Settle in, and I will fix you a key. I will see you soon.”

Morden then left his side. Brady placed an unsure hand on the doorknob of room eighteen and then twisted it. The door opened and Brady walked in before closing the door behind him.

Suddenly, what had happened over the past couple of days all came to him, and in a heartbeat, it all seemed like a faint memory rather than a series of very recent events. For the first time in several days, he was truly alone and could properly reflect on everything that had happened to him in his ‘new life’.

Brady breathed a long, exasperated sigh before he took a moment to take in the room.

The room was cozy and not nearly as gloomy as the hallway. That was because of the light entering the room from the single window opposite the door.

There was wooden bed standing horizontally in the far right corner of the room, right next to a wooden closet.

The closet was large, but the bed disappointed him. It was a simple wooden frame. The mattress wasn’t a mattress. Rather, it was a heap of hay. The pillow looked like a sack of leather filled with wood shavings, and the blanket was a light-brown cowhide.

Brady figured that he could place his sleeping bag on the bed, and perhaps he could make it even more comfortable by covering himself in the fur armor he was currently still wearing.

He grunted as he got his black backpack off his back and dropped it to the ground.

Apart from the bed and the closet, the room was empty, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was small – not prison cell small – it wouldn’t have been cozy at all.

He was about to peer outside of the window overlooking Noah’s

Embrace, but then he heard someone knocking on the door.

“Morden is nice, isn’t he? I knew he would put you in room eighteen. Either that, or room fifteen, or fourteen. What do you think?”

“It’s – it’s alright,” he said, looking around the room.

He looked at Riley for a second before breaking eye contact.

“By the way,” said Riley. “I remember why I came here now. Are

you – um – crazy?”

Brady’s heart skipped a beat. Had Roderic told Riley?

“No – no I’m not, we – we did a test,” he stuttered.

Riley cocked her head suspiciously. “What? Never mind, because I was referring to when you met Dorian.” She chuckled oddly. “Did you really zone out while you were introducing yourself to him? Like, do you even know who he is? What he can do?”

Brady’s was starting to feel less and less comfortable discussing Dorian.

“N – no,” he said softly.

“He was the king of Nosch once, of all the five kingdoms, and if he wasn’t betrayed by his two oldest sons, I’m not even sure whether we would be standing here right now.”

A cold shiver ran down his spine.

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter for the moment. I just want to tell you to be careful around him, okay? And try not to zone out while speaking to people who could literally order someone to kill you at any given moment.”

That made his heart freeze for a second. Was Dorian that mighty around here?

“Ace wants to discuss something with you about the ceremony. It was the second reason why I came here.”

“But Mis – Mister Allister – ”

Riley ran a hand through her thick, armpit-length hair. “Yeah, I don’t know,” she said disinterestedly before she stretched herself, intertwining her fingers above her head and slowly making them come down behind it. “Ace thinks you want him as your mentor, and not Allister. You don’t have to call him Mister Allister per se, you know that, right? At least, not around me and Jase, I mean. Come.”

He hid his backpack below his bed and closed the door behind him before following Riley through the hallway.

“W – when is the ceremony?” he asked, already feeling nervous for

it even though he didn’t know what it would look like at all.

“Tomorrow. This evening. This afternoon. Your choice.”

The exited the left wing and entered the large chamber between the wooden, reinforced double door, which were now opened.

The room was about as large as a proper school gym, and the ceiling was even higher than the one in the entry hall.

Like in the rest of the castle, the floor was light-gray and consisted of stone slabs while the walls were made of darkish-gray planks that were also actually stones.

The room was well-lit, and this was because of the torches hanging at the walls. Ten long, wooden tables were standing vertically next to each other, but there was enough space in-between them. Many of the tables were empty, but some were occupied by some sitters. In total, excluding himself, the pack and Dorian, about thirty people were sitting in this room.

Opposite of the entrance on the other side of the room, there was another landing, but this one wasn’t only thin, but also short. The two steep staircases located on either side of it allowed one to access the landing, and in turn, the landing gave access to another black, iron double door.

Brady was immediately curious as to what was hidden behind that door, considering that that part of the castle was where the castle was merged with the wall.

There were around thirty people in the dining hall, including the members of his pack.

Ace, Idu and the others except for Morden were sitting at the wooden table farthest in the right of the room.

Ace and Mister Allister were talking to Dorian, who was standing rather than sitting, while Idu, Leena, Jason and Roderic were talking to each other.

Dorian noticed them coming his way.

“Brady Heliot,” he said. “We were just discussing your mentorship. Have you decided?” Dorian was attempting to sound interested, but the man wasn’t very good at faking, and Brady could immediately tell he was forcing it.

Both Ace and Mister Allister looked at him. Ace looked hopefully, and Mister Allister darkly.

Initially, Mister Allister would have been his mentor, but Ace was the son of the person who would become the leader of the Anolors of

Great God Noah one of these years.

It would be beneficial to have a good relationship with the son of the leader, but considering Ace and

Dorian’s relationship was distant, Brady wasn’t sure exactly how beneficial a good relationship with Ace would be.

He had heard a few things of Mister Allister’s way of fighting. Mister Allister used speed while Ace used brute strength and rage. Mister Allister was also agile, even though he didn’t look like he was.

“I will be his mentor,” said Ace quickly before turning to his father, who then looked down at his son disdainfully as if Ace were a bug on the table. “I will be his mentor.”

Brady met Mister Allister’s eyes and didn’t detect any signs of disappointment or sadness, so he figured that it didn’t matter that much.

“Brady,” said Riley. “What about Mister Allister?”

“Brady Heliot? What say you to this?” said Dorian

“Y – yeah. A – Ace will – be.”

Roderic turned around and looked at him, puzzled, as did Idu and Leena.

“Very well,” said Dorian before audibly blowing air out of his nose. “I will have that recorded.”

Dorian then turned to the right staircase and approached it.

“F – father,” said Ace quickly, getting up from the bench connected to the table.

Brady saw Dorian squeezing his eyes shut in annoyance before putting a foot on the first stair. “Yes?” he said, obviously impatient.

“Can I maybe be adultirized if Brady succeeds his training?” Ace asked hopefully with a glimmer of desperation present in his voice.

“No,” replied Dorian, his tone suddenly raised. He gritted his teeth. “I will spare you the public embarrassment, but if you so desperately wish to hear again as to why I will not adultirize you, I suggest you meet me in my chambers.” Normally, Dorian continued. “Hmpf. If only I were not contractually obligated to listen to your petty objections. It would make my life so much easier.”

Brady hadn’t realized that everyone in the room was looking at Ace and his father. Did they all know of Ace’s distant relationship with his father?

Brady’s eyes met those of a broad man with a rough beard and smiling eyes, sitting at a table with people wearing linen tunics and trousers.

As soon as Dorian had reached the top of the stairs and as soon as the black, iron double door closed behind him, the man said, “Little Lord.” Then he laughed and louder, he said, “Little Lord.”

The people at his table, about five of them, tittered, but most of the others kept quiet and continued their conversations

Hurt, Ace looked at him, and for a second Brady felt sorry for him. He knew how it felt to not be loved by your father. Not from experience, but somehow, Brady felt what it had to feel like.

“The ceremony will be held tonight,” said Ace before turning back to Mister Allister, who then got up and sat down next to Roderic.

Brady felt guilty all of a sudden. Mister Allister and the others had

expected him to pick Mister Allister to be his mentor, but he had chosen Ace out of selfishness, out of the hopes of being able to somehow get closer to the higher-ups of the Anolors.

 

Roderic had suggested Brady to rest, telling him that if he wasn’t rested well enough, the ceremony might cause him to pass out.

That made Brady even more curious and more nervous. He wanted to find out what this ceremony was exactly, and why it could cause him to pass out, but at the same time, he didn’t want to find out.

Morden was taking him to his room, and this time, Morden had the key.

“Father told me ya picked Ace,” said Morden, his hands folded behind his back, looking sideways at Brady.

Brady simply nodded.

“Why?” Morden asked. “I know that Tunstall may seem like a bit of bore, but he is a capable teacher, once you get on his good side.”

“And – and how is someone supposed to do that?”

Morden pulled with the corner of his mouth and shrugged before cocking his head and looking thoughtfully. “By beating him at Crazy Eights, of course, he-he. Frankly, I am not sure. Tunstall is reserved and usually only speaks when he has to or when an opportunity to berate someone presents itself, and aside from Crazy Eights, killing and bringing people down, I do not know what he is interested in. Either way, Roderic wanted me to tell you about the ritual. This evening, you will have to drink Ace’s blood.

“What?” said Brady, not sure whether Morden was joking or not.

“You will have to drink his blood. While that will not change anything physically, or even spiritually for that matter, it is symbolic.”

They arrived at room eighteen, and Morden handed him the key.

“Rest for a bit. You will need it. Ace will come pick you up once everything is ready.”

Brady gave Morden a nod before he entered his room. He turned, but Morden was already on his way back to the others.

Brady closed the door, crossed the room and plopped down onto his bed before he got up again, realizing that in order to make it even slightly comfortable, he would have to combine the bed with his sleeping bag, and possibly his fur armor. 

The headache-like feeling suddenly returned. He found himself in the presence of the voice again.

“Has’t thee forgotten what thou art to doth?”

‘No,’ Brady thought.

“The alpha male trusts thee. At which hour he is’t in teen, in pain, thee has’t to toucheth him and whispereth: acceptance.”

Then the voice was gone.

Acceptance, he thought as he went to sleep.

 

Three knocks on the door woke him up.

Confused, Brady sat up right, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

Dung dung dung.

Brady quickly removed the fur armor from his body, got out of his sleeping bag and then accidentally rolled off the bed before he jumped back up and dusted himself off.

“Y – yeah? Who’s there?”

“It is I, Acius Nawot.”

Brady opened the door and saw Ace standing in the hallway, looking solemnly at him.

“Are you ready?”

Brady shrugged. Just the thought of having to drink Ace’s blood made him cringe on the inside. It was almost the same as drinking someone’s spit, or spermatic fluid.

Brady locked his door.

“Morden informed you about what you can expect?” Ace asked as they made their way back to the large chamber on the second floor.

Brady nodded.

They exited the left wing and entered the deserted chamber behind the wooden, reinforced double door opposite the two curved staircases.

Crossing the chamber, Brady wondered what time it was.

Ace had said that the ceremony would be held in the evening, but it could as well be night because of the emptiness of the chamber.

As they climbed the steep staircase on the right side of the landing to the third floor, Ace said, “I hope you have a photographic memory, because this will most likely be the only time you will see what is behind this door.”

They arrived at the landing and Ace opened the black, iron double door, which closed behind them shortly after.

The hallway behind the black, iron double door was short. Excluding the double door, there were three doors; one at the end of the short hallway, one on the left in the center and one opposite of the left one.

All three doors were rounded, sturdy, and made of reinforced wood. A deep-red carpet connected all doors with each other.

Like the rest of the castle, the floor consisted of slabs of light-gray stone – each three by one and a half feet long – and the walls and the ceiling also looked pretty much the same.

“Come on,” said Ace. They approached the door on the other side of the hallway. “Nervous?” he asked with a slight whiff of humor in his voice.

Brady didn’t want to sound scared and weak in front of Ace, so he simply shrugged.

“Tunstall is right, you know?” said Ace lightheartedly. “You should talk with two words more often.”

Brady pulled with the corner of his mouth as Ace opened the door, revealing a dark hallway that was several yards long. While the previous hallway was lit by two candles, this one was completely dark.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, and when they finally had, they had nearly arrived at another door, although this one was guarded by two men wearing the same armor as those men who had accompanied Dorian the first time Brady had seen him, earlier this day or yesterday.

These men, too, wore brownish-orange armor held together by black leather strips. Their helmets looked like buckets with a rounded bottom as well.

“Little Lord,” said the guard on the right with a mean smile.

“You do know I can slit your throat and those of your family and that nobody would give a shit, I hope?” Ace retorted. 

The guard, a man with a full beard and a mustache, widened his eyes before he looked at the floor.

“What he meant was we will open the door for you,” said the other guard, trying to keep the peace. Whispering, the guard told Ace, “He has only been promoted yesterday.”

Ace turned to the other guard again. “It would be sad if your career as an Anolor Paladin would come to an end this swiftly, would it not be?” Ace chuckled.

The Paladin nodded quickly before they opened the door.

Brady and Ace stepped into the gloomy room and the guards closed the door behind them.

A strong, metallic smell entered his nostrils. The room was a square and about four times as large as his own bedroom – not the one in the

House, but the one in his mom’s house.

The gloomy room was lit by four torches – one attached to each wall of the room – and a pedestal stood in the center of the room. On the stone, engraved pedestal stood a large, bronze chalice, and it was filled with a liquid.

On the other side of the room, a stone, rectangular, engraved table was standing, and three people were standing behind it wearing bright-orange cloaks decorated with a white, four-pointed star.

When Brady looked to his left, and then to his right, he could see four more people standing, two by each wall – four in total – and they were chanting something in an alien language, their hands and arms hidden in their sleeves, and their heads down.

The chant sounded mysterious if anything, and perhaps even slightly intimidating.

But there was something wrong. The walls didn’t seem… clean. They had stains and smears on them, and until Brady knew what the stains and smears were, he wouldn’t be able to feel comfortable in this room that smelled so metallic.

Brady didn’t recognize any of the robe-wearing men and women, except for one. Dorian Nawot stood beside a man who was about an inch shorter than him, and who had a long, gray beard, and that man was standing beside a woman who was about five feet and eight inches tall.

“Acius – Nawot, son of Dorian Nawot,” said the old man on Dorian’s left. He talked slow and confused, hinting at his old age.

“Present,” said Ace.

The old man cleared his throat. “Brady Heliot.”

“P – present,” said Brady.

He wondered who this man was. Brady noticed that while the robes these men and possibly women wore looked a lot like each other. The one of the old man seemed larger and more prominent, and that wasn’t because of the old man’s stature. The shoulders especially looked bigger in the old man’s robes.

Also, he wore an amulet around his neck, yet it wasn’t light enough for Brady to be able to see it properly.

“Acius Nawot and Brady Heliot,” said Dorian seriously. “You find yourself in the presence of Markus Thorren, Archdeacon of the Anolors of Great God Noah, Chosen by Him, Bringer of Balance, and Wolf of the West. Kneel, or be bekneeled.”

Bekneeled, Brady thought. He hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it meant.

Ace kneeled, and so did Brady.

“Rise, and stand before the Blood Chalice,” said Markus Thorren, his face hidden behind the cowl of his robes, just like those of his inferiors.

His voice sounded old, and as previously stated, he talked slowly and confused, hinting at his old age.

Also, he had a poor posture. His shoulders were rounded and his back was swayed, but that all was probably just because of his age.

Brady followed Ace to the bronze concrete and they stopped before it, Ace looking at Dorian and Markus, but Brady looked at the syrupy, dark-red liquid inside of the bronze chalice.

Is that… blood?

“Anjay wara beeeeey maaaahz bora siqu wera sjora – ” the four Councillors chanted.

“Silence, Councillors,” said Markus Thorren normally.

The chanting stopped, but the Councillors weren’t completely silent. They hummed monotonously.

“Brady Heliot. Before the blood of our God, the God of Gods, do you pledge allegiance to the Anolors of Great God Noah, and with that, to Great God Noah himself?”

Brady squinted. Nobody had told him that he was supposed to swear allegiance to this cult of religious fanatics that called themselves the Anolors of Great God Noah.

He thought he had come here to make it official that Ace was now his mentor.

Brady looked at Ace, who then looked at him from the corners of his eyes, nodding.

Not feeling too sure about what he was doing, Brady decided to simply say ‘yes’.

“Yes.”

“Acius Nawot. Before the blood of our God, the God of Gods, do you vouch for Brady Heliot?”

“I do,” said Ace.

“And do you accept his wish for you to become his mentor?”

“I do.”

“Then I hereby make it official. Before the blood of our God, the God of Gods, you have become student and mentor, mentor and student. To show Great God Noah that this ceremony was successful, please, Acius Nawot, extend your palm, cut, and fill the vial.”

Dorian handed Ace a glass vial before Ace extended his right arm, opened his palm, extended his claws and made a cut in his right hand. Ace then allowed some blood to seep into the thin vial, filling it about a quarterway before he offered it to Brady.

Brady grabbed the vial but made sure to brush Ace’s hand and whisper the word ‘acceptance’ before he properly closed his fist around the vial.

He had done it so quickly and suddenly that he hadn’t even had the time to be nervous for having to whisper that to Ace.

Hesitantly, Brady looked at the vial, now filled with Ace’s blood.

“Consume the blood of your mentor, Brady Heliot.”

And so Brady did. Like he drank the orange juice his mom always used to make him drink before bedtime to stay healthy, he drank it, but before he had even finished the vial, he suddenly felt very warm.

 

Brady woke up in a dark room, in a bed, head and shoulders exposed. Brady immediately hid in his sleeping bag, under the fur armor.

It took him a full minute before he remembered where he was, and then it took him an additional thirty seconds before he was brave enough to look around the room and check for monsters.

Eventually, he got up, made sure he was wearing clothes and then stepped on the iron key to the door of his room.

He picked it up, unlocked the door of his room and exited the left wing, knowing that if anywhere, he should go to the large chamber on the second floor to meet with Ace and the others.

It felt weird, walking through the castle all by himself.

He had become used to never being alone and always having someone at his side.

The doors were already open, and apart from Ace, Riley, the others and about fifteen other people, the room was quite empty, leaving Brady wondering where all the other packs were.

Obviously, most were away, but were there really this few people currently in Noah’s Embrace?

Ace and the others were sitting at a table in the right part of the chamber, in the back.

Leena and Riley were the first to see them, and once they had notified the others, they too turned to him, causing Brady to turn red even before he could sit down.

It felt odd, walking towards them and knowing that this were the people who he’d be spending the next years with. This was his

family for now, and perhaps forever, or at least until he died.

His old family was gone now, at least to him, and they were replaced by Ace, Riley, Jason, Leena, Idu, Roderic, and Mister Allister.

“Brady-boy! How are you doing?” Ace asked before he extended his arm.

“I’m – I’m alright,” Brady said, shaking Ace’s hand and freezing for a moment when Ace suddenly pulled him in and hugged him briefly.

“Sit down, Brady,” said Roderic, who then also offered him a hand.

Brady shook Roderic’s hand as well before taking a seat in-between Roderic and Mister Allister.

“How was it?” Jason, who was sitting diagonally opposite of him, asked.

“C – confusing,” said Brady.

The black, iron double door opened, causing everyone to look at it.

Dorian walked through, followed by Morden Aatu.

Morden gave him a nod when he saw him before going down the stairs by Dorian’s side.

“Father,” said Ace, who got up again, gladly.

“Good evening,” said Dorian coolly. “Brady Heliot, you fainted after drinking the blood. I cannot say I am surprised. Earthlings often faint upon ingesting the blood of a Morus. Not that we get Earthlings here oft.”

“Indeed we do not,” Morden agreed before showing Brady a reassuring smile. “Most choose for the student life, at Creighton. I would be a liar if I said I would not understand that decision.”

“Father. Father,” said Ace.

“Yes,” said Dorian coolly before stopping before their table. “What is it? And be quick about it. I have several things that need my attention.”

“I can confirm that,” said Morden before exchanging a brief smile with his father Roderic.

“I – I know you are all really going to like this,” said Ace excitedly. “It is something not many get to do, and it was by accident that I – that someone told me.”

Brady grew curious. Perhaps this was about their next adventure.

“Well?” said Dorian. Brady could almost feel the contemptuous feelings Dorian felt for his son.

“The Ancient’s Amulet. We are going – after the Ancient’s Amulet.”

Idu and Leena exchanged a glance of confusion with each other, and Roderic, Morden, Dorian and Mister Allister looked equally puzzled, yet their eyes were focused on Ace.

“When will you quit bringing the Nawot family shame, Acius?” Dorian asked dismissively.

“High-Councillor,” said Morden, his hands folded behind his back. “If you do not mind me saying: the Little Lord does not look like he is lying.”

“Does he not, Lord Aatu?” Dorian asked, sounding as if he didn’t believe that.

“Father, I know where it is,” said Ace. Softly, he added, “He told me.”

Dorian cocked his head and his eyes were reduced to suspicious slits.

“I know exactly, where it is,” added Ace mysteriously. “Exactly.” Ace turned to Brady and the others. “My friends, we are going to Canada!”

“Huh?” said Jason.

“W – w – what?” Idu stammered, puzzled.

Canada, Brady thought. Even the border was almost two hundred miles away from here, and Brady doubted that the Ancient’s Amulet – whatever that was – was near the border.

This would be a long journey, but Brady didn’t mind.

Thinking about the things he’d learn, the things he’d experience, made him feel excited.

He was one of them now, and he would have to start getting used to this life.

One of them, Brady thought.

It made him smile.

One of them.

 

Vora hanged at his arms in the darkness, dangling around like the useless bag of meat, bones and blood he was.

For days, he hadn’t seen a thing. For days, he hadn’t eaten. For days, he hadn’t slept. For days, he hadn’t heard a thing but the echoes of footsteps coming from behind the brick wall where he had been staring at hopefully and desperately for the last couple of days.

He knew why he was here. He had followed Master Chikame’s orders. He had attacked the boy, and he had turned him, but he had gone too far. He hadn’t tasted blood in hundreds of years, and it had driven him wild. He had nearly killed the boy. He had nearly ruined Master Chikame’s plans.

Vora was about to cry again. The first tear was already rolling down his pale face, down his sunken cheeks.

But then, a sound. At first, Vora thought it were merely the footsteps of the Found Torturers, but then he heard a click and a long creak.

Light seeped in through the crack between the rusty iron door and the cobblestone wall before him. An orange light filled the room, and finally, Vora saw where the metallic smell was coming from.

He knew that this were the dungeons, and he knew what blood smelled like, but he hadn’t expected to be thrown into one of these cells. The stains and smears were blood, and not only were they on the walls, but they were also on the floor, and even on the door.

“Master?” Chikame peeped at the door. Someone had yet to step in.

Vora looked down at his body. He had once been a proud Paladin serving in the Brotherhood of Peace, but the many years in Chikame’s plane had reduced him to a pale, emaciated shadow of his former self.

“Master?” Vora said again.

A shadow, followed by the dark silhouette of a tall, tall man, who then remained in the doorway, shaded by darkness.

“Master,” Vora said. “I – I could not resist. The blood. It is highly addicting.”

Master Chikame didn’t move. He stood in the doorway, surrounded by darkness, light behind and before him, and looking at Vora.

“Master. Please. I beg of you. One last chance. Nothing that I would not do for – .”

“I succeedeth,” said Master Chikame, his voice dark and intimidating. “Thou hast lost thyne usefulness to me. If it had not

been for the disappointment thou art, I might have alloweth thou to go free, and be my equal.”

Another tear rolled down Vora’s cheek.

“Master Chikame. Please, understand that I have not tasted in hundreds of years. It was overwhelming, and I simply lost myself.”

Chikame just stared at him some more for a moment before he finally clenched his fists.

“I hath worketh thousands of years on this plan!” Chikame boomed before pointing at him. “Thou came close to ruiningeth it!”

One last chance is all that I am asking for,” Vora cried. “Please, Master Chikame, I thought we were friends!”

“We were!” Chikame bellowed. “And we were more. We were partners,” he hissed. “Thou wereth my right-hand. Thou would have been the one to stand by my side, whileth I brought balance to both

worlds!”

Chikame opened his right hand and something that could only be described as an orb of true darkness appeared in his hand. “I kill my enemies,” Chikame then said normally. A sob. “But I torture those who failed me, until the end!”

Chikame shot the ball at him, and Vora closed his eyes instinctively.

“Ah! Aaaah!” Vora suddenly screamed as thousands of little black dots began eating away at his lower legs.

Chikame then clenched his other fist. 

A ball of orange appeared in Chikame’s left fist before he shot that at Vora as well. It disappeared into Vora’s chest.

“Welcome to true immortality. May your pain remain forever.”

“Master! Master!” Vora begged. The black dots were like hot knives peeling at his flesh, yet the flesh remained undamaged.

Vora was immortal, but now he was also unscatheable, yet not unhurtable. While he could not die, he could feel pain, and he would do so for all eternity.

“Aaahhh! Please! Aah! Maste – ! Aaah!”

Chikame closed the door loudly and the room returned to true darkness once again, but this time, it would be like this forever.

He could not even hear the echoes of Master Chikame’s footsteps dying off into the distance, for his own screams were too loud.

“Master! Master!”

 

-----The Beginning-----