The ground raced by beneath Hiccup's pounding feet, the chilled autumn air stinging his lungs. As he ran, Hiccup felt his body enter that uncomfortable place of being warm on the inside but cold with sweat on the outside. He knew he'd pay later for not having warmed up or anything before launching straight into a full sprint.
He skidded to a stop and stared down the trail where, just ahead, the entrance to the woods. A piercing scream came from behind him. It was getting closer. He hesitated, taking a moment to breathe, to debate. He glanced skyward.
Through the smattering of clouds, three early night stars shone in the deepening blue, but it wasn't completely dark yet. Another piercing scream.
His mind made up, he darted for the forest entrance.
Rows of trees and thick underbrush emerged on either side of him. The farther into the woods he ran, the denser the surrounding forest grew. Overhead, the interlocking patchwork of hanging boughs worked to transform his pathway into a darkening tunnel. Through the lacework of limbs, thick clouds inched by.
Hiccup ran on, listening to the soft beat of his foot and prostatic foot as they pounded the dirt. Darkness crept in around him, spreading its fingers through the trees, working to smear them into a single black blur.
As he approached a fork in the trail, he slowed, but only to decide that he should keep going straight. He kept running, his breath the loudest sound in his ears. The only sound.
He frowned, at last admitting to himself that something had felt funny since he'd entered the forest. Only now, he could place his fingers on what.
He slowed his run to a jog, listening to the lonely, hollow clap of his feet.
Everything around him stood really still and really . . . quiet.
The breeze that had greeted him outside the forest had vanished somewhere between there and here, and he looked up now to find the tree limbs motionless, their leaves immobile.
Or were those leaves at all?
A black shadow moved in one of the trees, and Hiccup registered the silhouette of one huge black bird. It made no sound, though it seemed to watch him from its perch. One of the leaves at its side moved. Another bird. Soon, with a ruffle of feathers, he noticed another one and, on his other side, another.
One of them broke the silence with a caw, the sound falling harsh on his ears, rasping and raw.
Spooked, Hiccup picked up the pace again, glad that his high metabolism had somehow kept him in great shape. He wasn't the Berk's best runner, but he could keep going is he needed to, and right now, he needed to.
He wondered, an icy –water sensation rushing through his veins with the thought, if the thing had followed him. Could they follow someone? Stick to them like parasites?
Hiccup shook of the convulsive shudder that rattled its way through his shoulders. It wasn't impossible.
Maybe the stillness was just his imagination. After all, this was the woods. Woods were supposed to be placid. Serene. Maybe he just missed the sound of people. Besides everything died in the fall anyway, right? All the little crickets had chirped their last sometime back in the early season.
Still he couldn't help feeling that there should have been some sounds. Like a dragon roaring. Or a foraging squirrel. Or a rabbit or something.
He slowed to a stop again, this time so he could catch his breath. He leaned forward, clasping his knees, his own huffing all but reverberating in the silence. He glanced over his shoulder at the darkening stretch of trail behind him, black, like a ribbon of ink.
He looked forward once more. He wasn't sure, but he thought the entrance to the Cove lay straight ahead from where he stood right now. If he was right, he'd enter another small trail and be at the Cove in no time.
But something else felt wrong and it wasn't just the stillness.
Since he had stopped running, the air around him had seemed to compress, to grow denser. He couldn't explain it, but it felt as through the night itself, unnatural in its calmness, had begun to move in on him, to close in tight.
His nerves prickled. Along his neck and arms, all hairs raised to stand on end.
The idea that you could feel like you were being watched had always sort of struck Hiccup as being a corny in an odd feeling kind of way. Now, though, as he turned and looked around at all the black trees with their skeletal arms tangled in a silent fight for space, he couldn't help the sudden feeling that, somewhere among them, something watched him, waited for him to move again.
The birds were gone now. Which was weird, since he hadn't heard them take off.
Nothing. The silence grew, feeding on itself until it became a dull roar in his ears.
He continued down the trail, though at a slower, quieter walk, and just when he started to think that listening to the eerie nothing might be worse than actually hearing something, a hushed sound – a fast whoosh – broke through from the line of trees at his right.
Hiccup jumped, and ice pick of fear stabbing him through the middle so that, for a moment, he forgot how to breathe.
Whatever it was had been big. As big as a person.
Hiccup whirled. This sound had come from the trees directly across the trail. It came again from behind. Thunder rolled above him. He heard the pop of a branch and the crush of dry leaves. He spun in a circle, and despite the cascade of sudden nose, the rustling and crackling, he could not sense so much as the slightest movement in any direction.
Hiccup felt his throat constrict and his chest tighten. His heartbeat sped to triple time. He turned and broke once more into a run, taking the trail as hard and as fast as his legs could carry him. His palms, cold and sweaty, tightened into fists.
Whatever it was in the woods, it followed him. Out of the corner of one eye, he thought he saw the edge of a dark something. Then there was another to his left. Figures, tall and long, rushed through the black gate of trees on either side of him. Their movements too fast. Impossibly fast.
As he sped up, so did the dappled forms.
They seemed to multiply as, out of his periphery, he spotted yet another. The one glided away from the others to rush along the group of trees directly beside him. it moved through the trees, through undergrowth, dashing over the dry ground – a rippling form.
Hiccup risked a quick glance, head-on, but saw nothing, only blackness and tangled branches and stillness. But that was impossible!
"Go away!" he screamed.
He couldn't outrun them, whatever or whoever they were. He couldn't gain even the slightest bit of distance, and already a stitch the size of a small ball had begun to knot itself in his side. He blocked out the pain, pushing through the pain. Run. Run. Run!
"Run!" he heard someone hiss. A man.
It came from the line of trees beside him.
Hiccup tried to cry for help, but couldn't find the breath, able only to choke out a low sob. He couldn't stop to scream, but he couldn't keep going like this, either. He couldn't breathe anymore. His lungs stung from the cold while his sides ached with stiffening pain.
Why hadn't he just gone with Toothless? Why hadn't he just –
Straight ahead. There! He could see it.
Dizziness wafted in around his temples, but he wouldn't stop now. Somehow, he knew that if he could just clear the thick roots, he would make it. He'd be all right.
Reaching the entrance, Hiccup clasped a hand on to the root and as he vaulted over, felt the stabbing reward of a thick splinter as it entered his palm. His feet hit the dust and dirt pathway beyond. He teetered forward from his weight and slammed to his knees.
He picked himself up again, stumbling, scrambling, running even as his body begged him to stop. The stones on the inside of the Cove rattled. Whispers and hisses. Someone laughed, but the sound morphed into a high-pitched shriek. He heard a splintering shatter – like a crash of plates.
He dared not turn around. But now he was trapped. To his left and right, stone walls surrounded him. He decided to climb up the other side. He tore past everything, even when he miraculously made it to the other side, he did not slow.
He willed his body to keep moving in spite of his screaming muscles, the torturous ache in his lungs.
The sound of his voice whisked by him, caught by the wind and then list in the rush of leaves scattering around his feet. He had heard it, though. His name. Someone had whispered his name.
That, at last, stopped him and brought him stuttering to a halt at the edge of the wall. He wheeled around, eyes scanning. He gasped for breath, sucking air in huge gulps.
Whoever it was said his name. That meant they knew him. As though triggered by the slip of a switch, rage replaced his fear.
"Who's there?" he shouted, heaving. "Who is it? Why don't you just come out?"
He wiped his running nose with his sleeve, not caring.
"Snotlout?" he roared toward the gathering of oak trees. "Tuffnut? I know you're there!" This he turned on a row of bushes
"Snotlout, if that's you, this isn't funny, I swear to Thor it's not! Wherever you are - whoever you are - !"
As he shouted, Hiccup spun in a circle so that his voice could echo all through the trees and bushes. So everyone, everything could hear him.
Hiccup turned and saw the silhouette of a dragon. He couldn't tell what kind, but he was grateful to find something familiar. And if this was the culprit, he'd find a way to forgive.
Suddenly the dragon slowly turns its head to face Hiccup. It's skin porcelain white, deep blood-red skin. His mouth went dry as paper, and his stomach plummeted to the floor. He froze, his eyes locking on a jagged black hole that marked its cheek, as though an entire chunk of his face had been knocked out, like a chink in a porcelain vase.
He could see straight through, to the hollow jaw and two rows of red daggerlike teeth within. Fear pulsed through his veins and yet stood hypnotized.
In one blinking movement, the dragon lunged at him, jaw unhinging, the black hole in his face widening. Teeth bared, claws outstretched, it unleashed an ungodly sound, something between a woman's death screech and a demon's howl.
It happened too fast for him to form his own scream, too fast for his raised arms to do any good. His claws rained down. It's form loosened into violet smoke.
The ground beneath Hiccup's feet opened up. Darkness swirled inside it like an in ground whirlpool. Hiccup fell backward. A shrieking torrent of jet scales engulfed the light.
And like a demon sucked into hell, Hiccup vanished into the dirt.