To Pacian, ‘effort’ was a four letter word. There was nothing he enjoyed more than dozing in a field on a sunny day like today, far from home where his parents couldn’t assign him any chores. In spite of his obvious laziness, Pacian never liked being called out on it and went to great lengths to prove otherwise, which resulted in him being challenged to a race by his best friend.
“Why bother, you’re just going to lose anyway, Aiden,” Pacian said with a shrug as they stood side-by-side on a field of long grass. “You know I’m faster than you.”
“If you’re so sure you’re going to win, what are you worried about?” Aiden pointed out with a sly grin. “Besides, it’s my birthday and I reckon turning thirteen makes a difference. I bet you a copper jack I beat you to the forest.”
“Make it three and you’re on,” Pacian countered, trying to bluff his way out of the race, a fact Aiden was well aware of. Although the fastest kid in town when he applied himself, Pacian lacked the stamina for greater distances and the tree line on the other side of the field was very far away indeed.
“Deal,” Aiden agreed, much to Pacian’s dismay. Unable to squirm his way out of this one, he resigned himself to the race and before he knew it, they were both speeding through the long grass towards the finishing line. While he began with a burst of speed, Pacian fell behind as Aiden, his dark hair flying wildly behind him, slowly inched his way past and gradually left his friend far behind.
Aiden stumbled out of the field and leaned against a tree, his chest burning from the effort as he grinned breathlessly at his mate, who had apparently been unable to keep up with Aiden’s new-found speed.
“Pay up,” Aiden demanded between breaths. Pacian merely waved dismissively at him as he staggered to a halt, unwilling to waste his breath by shouting across the dozen yards that remained between them. It had been Pacian’s idea to ditch their chores in favour of something more entertaining and although reluctant to abandon his responsibilities, his friend had been very persuasive.
They’d left the village of Coldstream, the only home either of them knew, far behind them. The two boys had been friends since they were little, a source of some concern to Aiden’s parents as Pacian had a knack of getting into trouble and liked Aiden to be there when it happened.
“I let you win, since it’s your birthday,” Pacian explained casually, taking the time to tidy up his short blond hair and absently brush non-existent dirt from his tunic. “Any other day I would have beaten the pants off you.”
Aiden laughed scornfully, knowing that Pacian’s pride wouldn’t permit him to admit defeat, but he decided to play along with this little fiction to spare his feelings.
“Okay, enough fun” Aiden sighed as the laughter subsided. “If I stay away any longer my parents are going to notice.”
“Just before we go back,” Pacian responded, “I wanted to show you something.” He started walking into the forest, evaporating Aiden’s light mood in an instant.
“But that’s the Cairnwood,” he protested, gazing with trepidation at the dark shadows in the thick forest. “We’re not supposed to go in there.”
“I don’t see anything dangerous about trees, do you?” Pace asked as he looked around innocently.
“You’ve heard the stories. There’s something in there besides trees. Something bad.”
“Such as?” his blond friend prompted. Aiden was at a loss. All his parents had ever told him was that Cairnwood was a dangerous place, and sometimes people who went in there never came out again. He was never told anything specific, such as if they were eaten by bears or ghosts, or possibly the dreaded Ghost Bear Pacian had once told him about.
“Look, we’re only going in a little way,” Pacian confided. “You’re not scared are you?” Despite knowing better, Aiden was thirteen now, practically a man and would not stand for being called a coward.
“Of course not,” he stammered in reply. Pacian grinned, then turned and walked into the forest with Aiden following cautiously behind him. He suppressed any feelings of trepidation at leaving the sunlight behind and focused on keeping up with his friend. His reputation was at stake, and he was unpopular enough with the other children of Coldstream that it mattered.
They walked between the thick trunks for some time, their footsteps muffled by the fallen leaves of late autumn that lay in a thick blanket on the soft grass. For a place that was forbidden to them, Cairnwood seemed pleasant enough, though Aiden couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t supposed to be here.
The wind blew gently through the boughs and the sounds of birds could be heard in the distance, all contributing to a sense of peace. Aiden was about to ask how much further they had to go when he suddenly felt the sensation of floating in the air, quickly followed by an explosion of pain on his chin that stunned him.
The next few moments were a blur as he tumbled and crashed downwards, before finally coming to a stop on a hard, rocky surface. Bewildered and smarting from half a dozen scrapes and bruises, Aiden struggled to clear his head. The daylight had disappeared except for a small shaft coming from above to pierce the darkness.
“Aiden, are you okay?” Pacian called from above. Slowly, Aiden raised himself on shaky legs, relieved to find that he hadn’t broken any bones in his fall.
“Yeah… I think so,” he called up to his friend with a tremor in his voice. Aiden judged it to be around twenty feet straight up and he felt lucky to be alive at all. Tentatively, he touched the walls but met nothing but loose dirt and rocks for hand holds. “I don’t think I can climb back out. Go and get help.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Aiden cried in exasperation.
“How about I find some rope?” Pacian hedged. Aiden found this reluctance baffling, until it dawned on him that they had ditched their chores and entered Cairnwood without permission and Pacian was responsible. Knowing his unreliable friend, he wasn’t about to own up to any wrongdoing unless Aiden was in real danger. Apparently falling into a deep hole and injuring himself didn’t qualify.
“Okay go and get some rope, but hurry,” Aiden relented.
Pacian sprang into action. “I’ll be back before you know it. Wait here!”
Aiden groaned inwardly at the poor attempt at humour, but at least help was on the way. Aside from the light streaming in from above, there was only blackness before him. Stretching out his arm, he encountered nothing solid, so what he had thought was a hole had in fact turned out to be some sort of cave. He crouched against the wall, too scared to leave the shaft of light and trying not to think of the horrible things that could be lurking out there in the darkness.
As his eyes adjusted to the deep gloom before him, Aiden thought he saw a soft blue radiance in the dark. Curiosity getting the better of him, he crawled towards it, judging the light to be only a few yards away. Small rocks on the ground gouged his knees as he felt his way forward, but after brushing some of it aside he felt a smooth, solid surface underneath, almost as if it were made of metal.
Aiden reached the dim blue light and discovered it was coming from something on the floor, a globe of light no larger than his fist. He reached out and grasped the sphere, and the instant all of his fingers came into contact with it, his entire world changed.
* * *
With a coil of rope over his shoulder, Pacian slowly crept through the shadows of old man Clifford’s barn, his ears pricked for the sound of approaching footsteps. Not far away, he could hear the deep voices of two men talking, but their casual tones hinted they were unaware of the boy stealing their belongings only a few yards away.
Worry was starting to gnaw at him, for he had been gone for half an hour and if Aiden was badly injured, Pacian was going to take the blame for it. Spurred on by the thought, he hurried to the doors and peered through the gap, noticing with alarm that two farmers were heading straight for the barn. Glancing around frantically, Pacian dashed behind a nearby cart laden with hay just as the men came through.
He watched them stroll past, talking about repairing some of the rickety barn’s walls and other boring matters while Pacian eyed the doors, wondering if he could make it out without being seen. The farmers walked further into the barn, with the older of the two pointing out areas where the wood was rotted or broken and Pacian finally saw his chance to move.
With slow, measured footsteps, he emerged from hiding and crept towards the open doors, but just as stepped out into the afternoon sun, a cry of alarm came from one of the farmers who’d turned around at precisely the wrong moment and spotted him on the way through.
Pacian bolted without a second thought, threading his way through the cluttered yard, almost stepping on an unsuspecting chicken in the process. Through a flurry of startled birds he dashed, finally clearing them on his way out into the fields beyond, leaving the sounds of angry grown-ups far behind.
He was completely out of breath by the time he reached the hole Aiden had fallen through and collapsed on the ground next to it, puffing hard and shuddering at the ridiculous amount of healthy exercise he’d endured today.
“I’m here,” he called down into the hole once he’d caught his breath. “I’ll tie off the rope and throw it down to you.” He knotted it around the nearest tree and tossed the loose end down to his stranded friend, but there was no response from the darkness.
“Aiden?” Pacian called, worrying that he was too late. No answer was forthcoming, but as he peered into the darkness Pacian thought he saw a dim blue light. Curious and concerned, he clambered down the rope and soon discovered a small cave, with his friend standing with his back to the entrance.
“Aiden? I’m here,” Pacian said, his voice echoing along the walls. The blue light seemed to be coming from something Aiden was holding in his hands, and when Pacian lightly touched his shoulder, it dropped to the ground and shattered like glass. The blue light flickered and faded, but before it did, Pacian saw a look of absolute horror stamped on Aiden’s face.