“Discouragement can hit you many times in life. But one only fails when they stop trying and instead decide to blame others”. –I. Winifredd
He awoke to the sounds of brushwood snapping in the distance. Sky moaned and groggily pulled himself into a sitting position. With a stifled yawn, he leaned forward and peaked through the undergrowth he had slept behind. The woods were still except for a furry animal scampering across the grounds and into the darkness beyond his blurry vision. The storm has lessened to a light spell of rain at last and Sky looked down at himself, noting the thick layers of caked on dirt, wet leaves, and broken twigs on his clothing and hair. I could go for a shower right now. With a grunt of effort, he pulled himself onto his knees and rose slowly to his feet.
What time is it? He wondered and scratched his head.
With a decisive sigh, he burst through the underbrush and began to wander through the endless maze of towering trees. He yawned and stretched his tender limbs over his head, satisfied with the popping sound of joints in his ears. He looked up and admired the stars twinkling against the black sky like polished diamonds, the full moon hanging in the middle to cast its silvery glow on all below it. Sky couldn’t help the smile that crept up on his face. He always enjoyed these long walks through the woods by himself. He loved to let his mind travel to the other imaginary worlds he created in his head with unknown species and mysterious languages.
If only he could actually go there. He had dreamt once of a kingdom tucked away on the island that floated in the sky where he was in line as an heir to the throne. In this world, his father had been the king and his mother his trusted queen. They had ruled harmoniously over a peaceful kingdom until an incident occurred in which the king and queen were forced to escape to another world where they assumed the identities of plain peasants and settled for new ordinary lives. Sky never remembered what caused them to flee, bravely venture out and leave their loved ones behind.
But strangely, he hadn’t had the dream recently. The familiar story and characters seemed to elude him as if late for reasons he could not explain.
He thought about Ian Joshua sitting in a clamped prison cell, his mother standing over a dying patient in the hospital, pleading for her to save their life. What did they leave behind when they decided to get married and have him? His supposed father had said that he came from a very wealthy family who shoved all of their responsibilities on him at a very young and that when he and his father had a huge disagreement; he quietly vanished into thin air and never saw or spoke to his family again. His mother…she was even more of a mystery than he was. At least he had been forthright about his past, but she always just stood off to the side with a vacant look in her eyes like a protective shadow looming over them.
What was so bad about her past that she refused to tell him about it?
His active mind conjured up many theories: she was homeless, she came from an abusive home, or she ran away with the love of her life her parents did not approve of. He pictured them together in his mind; Ian Joshua, big and boisterous with a hearty laugh and a smile that crinkled up the corners of his pale blue eyes. With a more subdued and reserved Serena Joshua on his arm, soft and gentle in appearance but standing tall and firm with an inner strength that he often wished he had inherited.
His felt the pang of guilt in his heart.
She must miss the man she loved. How was she feeling waking up every day in an empty bed? The only person who seemed to be at her side even before he had come along in her life. How did she feel having to live in a house with him as a living reminder of what she had lost? Sky shook the thoughts out of his head. All the more reason why he couldn’t go back to her. His presence only seemed to make her uncharacteristically bitter most of the time. She would be so much happier without me, he realized with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
But what could he do at thirteen? By now, his mother must have called the police to search for him. Even if she didn’t want to see him, she was still his legal guardian and she would get in deep trouble if he wasn’t accounted for. Sky’s heart skipped a beat. He looked around again and felt the dread sink into him as he could no longer see the trail he took when he first ran into the forest. He slowed to a stop and bit his lip in concern. How far off the trail did I go? He spun around in a full circle and suddenly couldn’t remember what direction he had come from.
“Hello?” he called out though he knew no one would hear him.
He held his breath and listened. Several seconds ticked by and he sighed in disappointment. No babbling brook on the other side of the trees, no singing campers around a raging fire, no police sirens blaring through the air. He was completely alone in the middle of the night in the woods.
“Hello?” he called again and began to walk slowly on aching legs. “Is anybody out here? I’m lost!”
Lost. He hated what that word meant. Wandering without reaching a destination. He wrapped his arms around himself and dug his nails into the material of his muddy jacket. There’s no one out here, he grasped. He had never told anybody about his secret activities in the only place in town that had given him comfort and freedom. Then how are they going to find me? He wiped the nervous prickle of sweat off his lip.
And he was off again, running blindly through the night.
His eyes were watering from the sharp sting of the wind, his hair flying around his head like a halo of disheveled waves. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins, blood pounding loudly in his ears. I have to get out of here! He leapt over a fallen log, ducked under the thick branches jutting out before him. The goose bumps were back on his skin and the hairs stood on end on the back of his neck. He looked up at the sky. Did the moon get darker? Its silvery light seemingly dimmed into a watery gray. He shook his head in denial. It’s just your eyes, he reasoned and ran around the dead carcass of a headless squirrel. The acid in his stomach churned at the grizzly site.
Despite his protests, his body was slowing down.
No! He urged his tired body to keep going. I need to get home! Keep going!
Instead, his body came to a clumsy stop. He tripped over his feet and fell into the sticky ground on his face. With a startled cry, he spat out the soggy earth in his mouth.
“Gross!” he exclaimed and wrinkled his nose in disgust. He scrambled to his feet and looked down at the ground—at the bloody antler poking out of the ground, illuminated by diffused moonlight.
Sky clutched his stomach and staggered back, a low moan sounding from his throat. An antler? His stomach flopped uneasily. Where…where is the rest of the animal? He cautiously looked down at his feet and saw the blood smeared on his sneakers. He doubled over and heaved the contents of his stomach, body wrenching wildly. His hands flew to his neck, coughing and spitting out a foreign object surprisingly lodged in his throat. What is this? He dug his nails into the skin and attempted to drag the object upwards to his wide open mouth.
But the object was stuck inside.
Sky gasped and hurriedly jumped his feet, fingers clawing at his neck. His eyes were spinning, his breaths coming out in short, shallow pants. Somebody help me! He was wheezing and the world was spinning around him. He dropped to his knees, his lungs burning for air. The swelling pain in his head was agonizing, the edges of his vision blackening. Is this death? He wondered as his arms fell lifelessly as his sides. With a final breath, he let his eyes flutter shut and waited for the vastly approaching darkness to claim him—
Snap! Sky’s eyes flew up in alarm. With a fearful whimper, he leisurely pulled himself up and assessed himself. I can breathe? He felt around his neck with rickety fingers. The mysterious object he had lodged in his throat had somehow vanished. Did I just imagine the whole thing? He took another careful breath and calmed himself down. “Hello?” he shouted in a raspy croak. “Anybody there?” he turned slowly. His eyes only met darkness. He felt the adrenaline run cold in his veins again. I know I heard something. He took a hesitant step forward.
“Hello?” Another step forward. “I need help.”
He received no answer. Sky took a deep breath and shook out his arms. Probably just an animal. He resumed his trek through the endless jungle. He knitted his hands together.
Crack! Sky froze in place, eyes widening like saucers in his skull. He felt his chest tighten in fear. Maybe it’s a rabbit or something. But he could not help the doubt creeping up his tingling spine. Mom did say that lots of animals are always roaming around at night. Determined to escape his unseen stalker, Sky sped up his pace, his mind whirling with frightful answers. What if it’s not a rabbit? What if it’s a bear? What if…it’s a drunken hunter with a rifle? Sky broke into yet another sprint, keeping to the shadows of the late night. He ducked low into the thorny bushes, jumping high over several disfigured corpses of random animals in his path.
What kind of a hunter does something like this?
The heads were missing as well as the intestines from their hollow stomachs. Sky looked away and sucked in a breath of cool night air. Better not make myself sick again. He pushed through the overwhelming exhaust of his muscles and ineptly plunged into another huddle of barbed vegetation. He held his breath. Let’s hope I’m safe here. Biting his lip, Sky drew his knees up to his chest and waited for the supposed hunter.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sounds grew closer, footsteps heavy and purposeful. The stalker was upon him. Holy crap! Sky didn’t dare make a move. He sat, rooted in place, as a pair of black combat boots stepped into the small circle of moonlight just minutes where he last stood. The folds of a heavy cloak came next, swirling majestically around the angles of a shrouded hulking figure. Its head swiveled back and force and though its eyes were obscured by the hood of its attire hanging low on its face, Sky could feel its eyes searching the landscape for him.
The figure raised an arm and Sky could make out the thick band of muscles flexing through the thin fabric of its clothing and a sharp contour of a stubbly square jaw. Sky swallowed loudly. Who is this guy? Why is he following me? The hooded man signaled for another unseen ally to approach him and with another gloved hand, he skillfully drew a broad blade from its sheath chipped the weapons belt on his hips.
Sky’s ears twitched as the crunching of leaves came from somewhere to his left. Another hooded stalker? He cautiously ground his fingers into the spongy dirt beneath him.
“K’ya!” the man hissed and Sky jumped at the acidic tone of his voice.
He didn’t bother to look over his shoulder and see whether or not his companion was with him. “Is he nearby?”
Sky’s heart seemed to leap into his throat. Is he talking about me?
It bounded out of the trees and into the light only seconds later. It was large, furry and on four legs with an unnaturally large head and a silky ebony pelt that glistened like obsidian. At the end of its paws, Sky could see long talons and a bushy tail wagging behind the enormous creature. He clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle a troubled scream. The massive wolf lowered its head to the ground and began to sniff. Oh no, oh no, oh no! It moved slowly with patience and skill, a predator hunting its defenseless prey.
The hooded man looked on expectantly as his hairy companion turned in Sky’s direction.
Move, Sky, move! But he was paralyzed with fear and wander.
The hooded man chuckled darkly as the beast pushed its nose into the bushes with a subtle wince. He raised the sword and began to swing carelessly, the rapier gleaming dangerously in the night. It’s a giant wolf! He choked out a small gasp. He blinked several times. I’m not seeing things. That guy and his mutt are really looking for me. In an instant, he felt the sudden horror wash over him.
The beast let out a long howl before turning to its partner.
The man dragged a colorless tongue over thin, pale lips. “You will not escape!” he bellowed and swerved his sword at Sky.
With a horrendous scream of fear, Sky reeled out of the way and scrambled out of his hiding spot. He was on his feet and dashing away in moments, his heart galloping away in his chest.
“Help!” he screeched and stumbled overgrown tree roots. “Somebody help me!”
He didn’t dare look back at his enemies. But he could hear them. Their footsteps were steadily chasing after him, their jeering laughter and ferocious howls following with them. There was a sharp swish of a sword cutting through the air followed by the crashing topple of a tree tumbling to the ground. Sky screamed in terror. Did he just cut down a tree? With only a sword? His throat suddenly felt dry. I have to lose them! His body was wearily slowing to a pathetic stagger. The color drained from his face. But how? Any minute now that wolf thing will jump and—
He was falling to the ground now with a desperate shout. He cried out and rolled over to watch the menacing duo stop before him, a perilous glint gleaming in their eyes. Oh man, oh man. Sky crawled backwards, shivering like a leaf in the wind. His mouth opened and he willed something, anything, to come out and attempt to sway his approaching attacker. But nothing came out. A moment of tense silence passed between them. No one moved or spoke. Not a sound was made.
“This,” the hooded man said slowly, voice heavy with disgust, “is the one you led me to? This quivering imbecile?”
Despite himself, Sky felt a ting of annoyance at his comment.
The wolf growled in affirmation. The man sighed and raised his steel high over his head, mouth turned down in a frown of disapproval. Thump-thump. Sky could hear his heartbeat in his ears. His stare was fixed on his assassin. He could not bear to look away as time seemed to freeze around him. The monstrous beast let out a throaty chuckle. Sky could see the humor dancing in its narrow golden eyes.
“Alas,” the hooded man whispered. “My slaughtered brethren will be avenged. My anger shall finally come abated.”
Sky squeezed his eyes shut and raised his arms over his head. The hooded man let out a conquering battle cry and swung.
“Sky!” a voice screamed hysterically through the darkness. The weapon paused midway through the air. Sky slowly opened his eyes.
The bushes rustled and moments later, Chelsea burst into sight, bewildered and nervous. She pointed a dark finger at the hooded man. “Get away from him you psycho!” she hissed and raised her tiny fists up in an amateur fighting stance. Sky gawked at her.
“Mom! Mrs. Joshua! I found him!” Chelsea declared and scowled as the hooded man let his sword fall to his side.
More rustling could be heard in the bushes. Sky dragged himself away from the glaring wolf.
The tears were falling freely as Mrs. Kedzior and his mother appeared after Chelsea, heavily panting and sweating. “Mom!” Sky cried and woozily climbed to his feet.
Mrs. Joshua snapped to attention. “Get down Sky!” she ordered and hurdled forward with the agility of a panther.
Sky nose-dived to the ground. The hooded man swung with blinding speed. Mrs. Joshua ducked to the side and reached into her coat pocket. She swiftly whirled around and seizing the hooded man’s arm behind his back, she placed the dagger at his exposed throat. Her voice was frosty when she spoke. “Who are you and what do you want with my son?”
“What in the world…” Mrs. Kedzior gawked as Chelsea cheered. “Your mom is awesome Sky!”
She really is, he mused and felt welcomed relief overtake him. The immense wolf, however, growled in disagreement and bared his teeth.
Mrs. Kedzior pulled her daughter behind her protectively and withdrew a small revolver from her purse.
Chelsea gasped. “Mom!” she said. “You have a gun? What are you going to do?” Her face was crestfallen. “You’re…gonna kill him?”
The wolf tensed readied itself to attack. Mrs. Joshua narrowed her eyes. “Call off your mutt or you will die here and now.”
The hooded man barked a laugh. “I will not die without bringing back the head of Elian.”
Mrs. Joshua stiffened. Mrs. Kedzior aimed the gun. “What’s he talking about, Serena? What the hell is an Elian?”
Sky met his mother’s eyes. “Mom?” he whimpered.
Mrs. Joshua shifted her hard glare to Mrs. Kedzior. “I want you to take Sky with you and get the hell out of here. Run away.” She twisted the man’s captive arm higher on his back. He hissed with pain. “I can handle this man. He is a bounty hunter wanting to collect a bounty.”
“A—a b-bounty?” Mrs. Kedzior stammered. “Serena I—”
“Go!” Mrs. Joshua snapped and tightened her grip on her blade. “Hurry and call the police. I won’t let him get away.”
The hooded man chuckled darkly. “You think your pathetic law enforcement will save him…Serena?”
Sky glared at him. He didn’t like the mocking way he had his mother’s name. The wolf slid its glowing eyes to its master. Mrs. Kedzior ushered them towards the trees. “What is going on here? That’s the biggest wolf I’ve ever seen! Serena, you will have to explain this to me when he’s arrested!” her brown eyes widened at the sword clutched in his hand.
“Drop it!” She cried and aimed. “Kids, get away from here and get help!”
“No!” Mrs. Joshua argued. “Leave with them! They can’t go on their own!”
“I’m not about to walk away from you!” Mrs. Kedzior retorted. “I’m standing my ground!”
“This is no time for showmanship!” Mrs. Joshua snarled. Both Sky and Chelsea flinched at her tone. “I said leave! Get out of here!”
“Aww,” the hooded man cooed sarcastically. “The two runaways trying to protect each other. How fitting.”
Both women stared at him. “But…both of you will die! Attack!”
The wolf howled and pounced into the air, teeth and talons bared. Chelsea bawled and dropped to the ground and Sky followed after her, throwing his body over hers. Mrs. Kedzior cursed and pulled the trigger. The wolf maneuvered around the bullets and dashed to the side.
“No!” Mrs. Joshua protested. The hooded man grinned.
In a fast motion, he twisted out of Mrs. Joshua’s grip and shoved her to the ground. She stumbled and clumsily whirled around, fists up in a defensive stance. But the hooded man was faster. He struck out with a spinning kick to Mrs. Joshua’s head, sending her flying across the ground. The dagger she held skittered away from her. “That boy,” the hooded man shouted and grabbed a fistful of Mrs. Joshua’s silvery hair. She screamed as she was jerked up into the air. “Has the blood of Elian in him. He is a spawn of that murder.”
It wasn’t a question. Sky rose slowly, hearting racing in his chest. Is that why he’s here? He tightened his hands into fists. Because Dad killed someone that he knew? He left a flicker of resentment ignite inside him. Out of the corner of his eye, the wolf sprung into the air again and tackled Mrs. Kedzior to the ground. Chelsea wailed and pounced on the beast, beating her fists into its side. “Sky!” she called out. “Sky, help us! It’s gonna eat my mom!”
His eyes dropped to the unconscious Mrs. Kedzior on the ground.
I have to do something. Instead, he dove for the dagger lying half buried in the dirt and picked it up. “Leave them alone!” he ordered though his voice faltered. The hooded man dropped his mother and delivered a sharp kick to her abdomen. “Sky…” Mrs. Joshua slumped but kept her eyes open. “Run…”
“Come!” The hooded man bellowed and beckoned the wolf to his side.
Chelsea slugged it once more, but her hits had no effect on the enormous fiend. “Get away from my mom!”
Instantly, the wolf flicked its tail and Chelsea was at once in the air, face frozen in pure shock. Sky tottered forward and held his arms out. Chelsea crashed onto him and both children landed on the ground. “Are you…okay?” Sky croaked and winced at the sheering pain in his shoulder. Chelsea nodded grimly. “Yeah—for now anyway.”
The hooded man cursed. “It is time to do away with you, spawn of Elian!”
He jumped into the air and brought the blade down. Both of them scurried in opposite directions and rolled back onto their feet. The weapon struck the slippery ground with a heavy slunk. With an outraged cry, he wheeled around and swung again. Sky jumped back and duck away, narrowly missing the tip of the blade slicing his chest open.
“Stop this!” he commanded. “Stop it now!”
“Silence!” the hooded bounty hunter roared. “I will have my justice!”
Sky stumbled and threw his arms over his face. Chelsea screamed and bounded in his direction. “Move Sky!”
“Sky!” Mrs. Joshua croaked and dragged herself forward, one hand clutching her stomach.
The hooded man dragged the sword in an upward arch. He felt the burning sensation in his arm as the blade sliced into the skin of his left forearm.
Sky yowled and plummeted to the ground, clutching his bleeding lower arm with his hand. He dragged himself away from the laughing bounty hunter, sobbing loudly and shaking his head in disbelief.
Chelsea was horrified as she watched the blood gush through Sky’s scarlet fingers and pour onto the dirt. She glanced behind her at her incapacitated mother and felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. The wolf seemed to grin at her as it lowered its big snout to her mother’s exposed neck.
The hooded bounty hunter paused in front of the crying teenager and raised his foil one more time over his head. “You will die!”