Runic Awakening Preview
Ampir leans back in his chair, watching as his four year old son Junior sprints from the sandy shore of the Great River toward him, a huge grin on the boy's face. Grandpa trails behind, hardly able to keep up. Junior rushes up to Ampir, nearly bursting with joy.
"I did it!" he gushes. "I skipped a stone!"
"Good job buddy," Ampir replies, leaning forward and tousling Junior's hair affectionately. Grandpa walks up from behind the boy, shaking his head ruefully.
"Nothing like kids," he pants, "...to make you feel goddamn old."
"I'm already feeling it," Ampir admits. Grandpa snorts.
"Bull," he gasps, "...shit!"
Ampir chuckles, then hears footsteps behind him. He twists around to see his wife Vera walking up to them.
"Time for bed Junior," she announces, kneeling down. "Give me a hug!" Junior runs up to Vera, giving her a big bear hug. Then he turns to Ampir, giving him a hug too. Ampir kisses the boy on the forehead, holding him close for a moment.
"Sweet dreams kiddo," he murmurs. "Love you."
"Love you too daddy."
"All right Junior," Grandpa interjects, picking Junior up and holding him at his hip. "Grandpa's gonna tuck you in tonight!"
"Mommy?" Junior asks. "What's bull-shit?"
"The fact that Grandpa keeps using bad words around you," Vera answers, giving her father a look.
"Sorry honey," Grandpa grumbles.
"Goodnight Dad," Vera says, kissing Grandpa on the cheek. "Don't teach Junior any more new words."
"If I do, they'll be good ones," Grandpa promises with another grin. "Come on, kiddo! Grandpa's going to tell you a hell of a story tonight!"
Ampir watches them make their way across the backyard to the house in the distance, then sighs, turning to face the Great River. Over two miles wide, the river flows slowly westward, flecks of orange light glinting from its dark waters. The setting sun sends a splash of orange-red across thick, angry-looking clouds. Beyond the river lies Stridon, the capitol of the Empire.
"See something you like?" Vera inquires.
He turns, seeing his wife sitting down in a chair across from him, her legs crossed in front of her. Her shimmering white nightgown clings to her slender body, making it quite clear that it is all she is wearing. Vera's auburn hair flows in gentle waves to the small of her back, her face strikingly...no, painfully beautiful. He finds his gaze lingering, and realizes that she's smirking at him.
"I do now," he replies with a grin.
Vera's eyes twinkle, and she stands, dragging her chair until it is beside him, then sitting back down. She wraps her slender arm around him, leaning her head on his shoulder. The faint musk of her perfume tantalizes him – the same perfume she'd worn the day they'd met. The day they'd first kissed.
"You okay?" she asks, stroking the nape of his neck. Ampir sighs, shifting in his chair. He fingers the ring hanging from the necklace around his neck. The engagement ring Vera had proposed to him with.
"I don't know," he admits. He glances back over the Great River, at the cityscape of Stridon miles away. Tall buildings rise up from the opposite shore as far as the eye can see, all of them dwarfed by the massive Great Tower. Over forty stories tall, its crystalline peak glitters like a jewel in the night sky. And above this stands the massive translucent dome of the Gate Shield, a four-mile-wide energy field protecting the Tower and its campus.
"You're sure you want to resign from the Council tomorrow?" she asks, her tone gentle. Ampir turns away from the Great Tower, gazing into Vera's beautiful brown eyes.
"The Council won't be happy," Vera warns. Ampir snorts.
"You're still the greatest warrior in the Empire," she presses. "And you're in line for the throne. They're going to wonder why you're quitting."
"They're afraid of you," she warns. Ampir smirks at her.
"They should be."
Vera falls silent. They sit there, the fire slowly dying before them. The dark clouds above roll slowly toward the city, blocking out the stars. Ampir feels Vera's other hand rest on his upper thigh, and turns to face her. The front of her nightgown clings to her every curve, and he finds himself staring again. His heart thumps in his chest, and he glances up, finding her gazing back at him, her eyes twinkling mischievously.
"Junior will be asleep soon," she informs, her hand sliding up his thigh.
Ampir turns his head, glancing back at their house...at the second story window of their son's bedroom. Four years old already, and Ampir had barely gotten to spend time with Junior, working day and night for the Council. Four long years, wasted on the Empire. That will change tomorrow.
"Have you decided what you're going to do with all your free time?" Vera asks, leaning close, her lips inches from his. Her hand slides further upward, making his breath catch in his throat.
"I have a few ideas," he replies, intoxicated by her closeness. Five years they've been married, and she is still as bewitching as she'd ever been. He leans in to kiss her, and she pulls away just before their lips touch.
"Oh really?" she murmurs, putting a warm hand on his cheek. "Do tell."
"You always did want a girl."
"Is that how you plan on staying busy?" she inquires playfully.
"Can't you wait until tomorrow?" she presses, leaning in again.
"I doubt it."
Vera kisses him then, her lips warm and soft on his. He kisses her back, relishing the experience. She pulls away then, standing up and turning back toward the house. A strong breeze blows against her nightgown, flattening it fetchingly against her curves.
"Well then," she says, offering a hand. He takes it, letting himself be pulled to his feet. "...I think it's time you started enjoying your retirement."
She pulls him back toward the house, giving him a radiant smile. He grins back, allowing himself to be led. Their home is a mansion sitting on some of the most prized land in the city. But compared to the other Councilmen's estates, it is relatively modest.
"I knew there was a reason I married you," Ampir quips. Vera laughs, reaching the rear door and pulling it open. She pulls him inside, toward the stairs leading to the second floor. Ampir's boots clunk on the wooden steps.
"Shhh," Vera warns, giggling under her breath.
Ampir reaches down and pulls off his boots, leaving them on the stairs. Vera arches an eyebrow, and Ampir bends down, gathering her in his arms and lifting her up. She stifles a squeal, and he continues up the stairs. Halfway up, he notices something in the periphery of his vision...blue light rising from his arms toward the ceiling. He pauses, and Vera frowns at him.
The windows shatter.
Glass bursts into the living room, and then the living room wall explodes inward, plaster and wood flying at them. A shockwave slams into Ampir, hurtling him backward into the stone wall behind him. His head bounces off of the stone, pain lancing through his skull. He feels himself falling down the stairs, the world spinning madly around him.
Then his head smashes into the floor at the bottom of the stairs, stars exploding in the periphery of his vision.
Time slows to a crawl.
Ampir hears Vera screaming, feels her land on top of him, her auburn hair spilling over his chest.
"Ampir!" she shouts.
Ampir reacts reflexively, pulling cords of power into his mind's eye, twisting them around each other to form a throbbing knot in the center. He shoves the knot outward, and a translucent blue sphere appears around them...just as a second explosion hits. The living room disintegrates, debris hurtling at them at deadly speed. It ricochets off of the translucent blue sphere surrounding them, pieces of glass, stone, and wood scattering across the floor and stairs.
"Junior!" Vera cries in horror, pushing herself up from Ampir and pressing her hands against the inside of the blue sphere. "He's up there!"
Ampir grunts, pushing himself up from the floor. Rays of blue light rise from his body, the blue sphere surrounding them fading, then vanishing.
Vera scrambles up the stairs, and Ampir follows after her, feeling a wave of nausea as he does so. His right temple throbs terribly, and he feels something wet trickling down his neck. The blue light leaking from his arms grows fainter...his power is being drained. Fast.
"Come on!" Vera urges, grabbing his hand and yanking him forward. Ampir spots movement to his right, sees dark shapes spilling into the massive hole in their living room wall.
Ampir rushes up the stairs after his wife, pushing through the pain. He reaches the top, turning left down the hallway toward his son's room. His imagines his son's room in shambles, his lifeless body splayed across his bed.
Oh god oh god please no...
The door to Junior's room bursts open, and Grandpa rushes out, Junior clutched in his arms.
"Mommy!" the boy cries. He slides down from Grandpa's arms, running up to Vera.
"My baby!" she replies, picking him up and squeezing him tightly to her bosom. Ampir feels relief course through him, and walks up to his son, kissing him on the back on the head.
"What's going on?" Grandpa asks.
"We're under attack," Ampir answers. "They're draining our magic. We need to leave. Now."
Footsteps echo from the bottom of the stairwell.
"What do you mean they're..."
"Come on!" Ampir orders. He sprints down the hallway, struggling to pull more threads of power into his mind's eye...but nothing comes. Something is draining it. Something close.
He passes the stairwell, spotting a half-dozen men in black armor rushing up the stairs toward them.
"Go, go!" he urges, rushing down the hallway, Vera right at his heels, Grandpa at the rear. They reach the end of the hallway, then turn left down another, this one lined with windows on the right. Footsteps follow them, closing in fast. Ampir glances back, seeing the armored men turning the corner behind them. Starlight reflects off of the daggers in their hands.
"Ampir!" Vera warns.
A man smashes through the window to Ampir's right, slamming into Ampir's side and shoving him against the wall. Ampir pushes back, sees a flash from the man's dagger as it thrusts toward his belly. Ampir twists to the side, feeling a sharp pain in his flank as the blade grazes him. He grabs onto the man's wrist, forcing the blade back.
"Ampir!" Grandpa shouts, rushing up behind the man and grabbing his arm. The man twists around, jerking his wrist free and slashing at Grandpa's throat.
Grandpa's neck gapes open, blood spurting out of the wound.
"Daddy!" Vera screams.
Grandpa clutches at his own throat, his eyes widening. He stumbles backward, slumping against the wall and sliding down onto his buttocks. Blood sprays out from between his fingers, pouring down his neck and chest. Vera rushes to his side, pressing on his neck.
Their attacker spins around, his knife arm whipping down at Ampir in a deadly arc. Ampir grabs the man's wrist, stopping the blade's tip inches from his own chest. He hears footsteps, sees a half-dozen more black-clad men rushing toward them. He rips magic into his mind's eye, ignoring the searing pain in his skull. He weaves it into a tight knot, shoving it outward.
A shockwave bursts forward, sending the knife-wielding man hurtling down the hallway. Windows shatter, paintings flying from the walls. The half-dozen armed men are thrown backward, landing in a pile on the floor at the far end of the hallway.
"Go!" Ampir shouts at Vera, grabbing her arm and pulling her away from grandpa, toward the door at the other end of the hall. Vera resists, clutching her father tightly. The old man's eyes are wide and glassy, his skin pale and slick with sweat. Blood streams between his and Vera's fingers. He coughs, more blood spilling from his mouth.
"Daddy!" Vera cries, tears pouring down her cheeks.
"He's gone," Ampir states, his tone sharp and cold. He reaches down, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her bodily away. She wails, digging her heels into the floor.
"No," she yells. "No!"
Ampir ignores her, freeing one hand to grab Junior, and dragging both of them down the hallway toward the door. The door to their master bedroom.
And my armor.
Ampir reaches the door, shoving it open and pulling the two inside. He closes the door, rushing to the nearby dresser and pulling it to barricade the door shut.
"Help me!" he shouts at Vera, but she just stares at him, her eyes blank, her pale arms spattered with her father's blood. He grunts, shoving the dresser up against the door. He turns then, spotting the safe at the far end of the room, as tall as he is. Something slams into the bedroom door from beyond, pushing the dresser back an inch. "Hold that door!" he shouts, sprinting to the safe and opening it. Its power drained, the magic lock securing it is useless. The safe opens, revealing a full set of midnight-black armor, countless tiny runes etched on its surface. Unlike the safe, his armor cannot be drained so easily. It is possessed of incredible power, the power to make him nearly invincible.
The power to make him a god.
He hears a crack behind him, turns to see the bedroom door being shoved open another few inches. A black-clad arm appears through the doorway.
Ampir turns back to the safe, grabbing a black, metallic gauntlet from within. He pulls it on, knowing that with his magic nearly drained, it will take a few moments to recognize him, for its runes to activate.
He hears a grunt behind him, then hears Vera scream. He turns back toward the door, seeing men pushing through the gap in the doorway, streaming into the bedroom, their daggers gleaming in the starlight. One of the men sprints up to Vera, shoving her onto her belly on the floor.
"No!" Ampir shouts. He runs toward her, but another black-clad man rushes at him, slashing at him with his dagger. Ampir raises his armored fist, the blade bouncing off of it. The man rams Ampir, shoving him backward. Ampir stumbles, twisting his ankle, pain shooting up his leg. He barely keeps his balance, swinging his armored fist at the man's face. The black gauntlet connects with the man's cheek with a terrible crack.
The man drops like a stone.
"Ampir!" he hears Vera scream.
He sees her crawling on her belly toward him, her eyes wide with fear. A man grabs her legs from behind, dragging her backward. The man straddles Vera's legs, raising his hands above his head, a dagger clutched between them, blade down.
"Vera!" Ampir shouts, lunging forward. His ankle gives out in a burst of pain, making him fall forward onto his hands and knees.
The man straddling Vera swings his arms downward in a vicious arc, burying his dagger to the hilt in Vera's lower back.
Ampir struggles to his feet, feeling his gauntlet finally reacting, tightening around his hand and forearm. Its tiny runes flare to life, glowing a faint blue.
The man on top of Vera yanks the dagger out of her back, reaching forward to grab her hair, yanking her head backward to expose her neck. He leans over her, bringing the cruel edge of his blade to her throat.
"Mommy!" Junior screams.
Ampir shoves his armored hand outward, a burst of blinding white light searing his eyes.
Kyle bolted upright in bed, yelling out as bright light seared his eyeballs. He threw his arms in front of his face, turning away from the deadly glare...then cracked an eye open, realizing that he was being attacked by gentle rays of sunlight peeking between the blinds of his bedroom window. He sighed in relief.
What a nightmare!
He flopped back onto his pillow, wincing as he landed on cool, wet sheets. He looked down, horror seizing him. A huge wet circle stained the sheets.
No, no, no!
He pulled the sheet up to his nose, but didn't smell anything. It was just sweat, thank god! He'd wet the bed so many times recently that his mom had threatened to take him to the doctor for it, and in response he'd threatened to take a swan dive out of his bedroom window. It was why he never went to sleep-overs; the thought of kids at school discovering his terrible secret made him want to curl up and die.
Kyle shot upright, glancing at the alarm clock on his nightstand. To his relief, it was only 6:30...his nightmare had woken him up early. He'd been having similar nightmares for weeks now. Unlike normal dreams, they were incredibly vivid, almost real, and he always remembered them, even days later. They were usually unpleasant, but this one had been the worst yet. He'd seriously considered asking his mom if he could sleep with her last night – something he hadn't done in years – but she and Steve had gone out to an early dinner, leaving him with his aunt. They'd told him they needed some "us" time, whatever that meant.
He sighed, rolling out of bed and walking over to his dresser, changing into clean, dry clothes. He walked to the bathroom, wetting his hair under the sink, then emptying his bladder in the proper place – for once. That done, he sprinted down the stairs, slowing down for the last few steps. His mom hated it when he ran down the stairs. She was a doctor – like his real dad – and she relished telling him stories about people who fell down the stairs, cracked their skulls, and turned into drooling vegetables. He walked to the kitchen, where Mom was already up, pouring him a bowl of cereal.
“Hey mom,” he mumbled, plopping down on one of the stools at the center island.
“Morning honey,” she greeted, handing him the bowl of cereal. “Eat up,” she added, “...or you'll be late to school again.” Kyle nodded, chowing down. “Slow down!” she scolded. “You'll choke.” Kyle rolled his eyes, but obeyed. That was the problem with having doctors for parents...they were always telling him that whatever he was doing could kill him.
Kyle looked up to see his stepfather walking into the kitchen, already dressed for work. Mom went to kiss him, and handed her new husband a bowl of cereal. They were both in a really good mood today...they usually were after having a night of “us time.” He didn't want to think about it.
“Hey Steve,” Kyle mumbled. He refused to call his stepfather “dad,” even though his mom had married again a few months ago. His real dad had left over a decade ago, and his parents had gotten a divorce soon after. Kyle had always wondered why they'd split up, but mom didn't like to talk about it, and he'd never mustered the courage to ask his dad.
“What's wrong Kyle?” Steve asked between gulps of cereal, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “You have another nightmare?”
“Nah,” Kyle lied.
“Didn't your dad get really bad dreams when he was a kid?” Steve pressed. Kyle nodded, but didn't say anything. It was weird to talk to Steve about his dad. “Well, I used to get nightmares too,” Steve offered. “I dream a lot less now that I'm old.” Mom glared at Steve, putting her hands on her hips.
“If you're old, what does that make me?” she retorted. Steve hid a smirk with one hand, then focused on his bowl of cereal as if it were the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen. Kyle ignored them, slurping up the last of his breakfast, then hopping down from his stool. Mom was already putting Kyle's lunch into his backpack by the door. He threw on his backpack, tolerating a quick peck on the cheek from his mom.
“Bye sweetie,” she said. “Have a good day at school.”
“Bye Kyle,” Steve called out.
Mom inspected Kyle's shirt collar, then gave him a tight smile. “Your father's going to pick you up from school today.”
“I know,” Kyle replied, unable to stop himself from grinning. His dad had been working a string of overnights at the hospital, and Kyle hadn't seen him for nearly a week. “Love you mom.”
Kyle waved goodbye, then turned to run out the door toward the bus stop. It was only a few blocks away, but the bus driver was notorious for being early – and not bothering to wait around – so most of the kids were already lined up there on the sidewalk. Sure enough, the bus came barreling down the street, passing Kyle and stopping before the line of kids. Kyle ran as fast as he could, his backpack bouncing up and down painfully on his lower back. He barely made it, reaching the doors just as they started to close. The old, frumpy-looking bus driver scowled at Kyle as he got on – as if the bus being two minutes early were his fault – and pulled the lever to shut the double-doors behind him.
“Kyle!” he heard a voice shout, and turned to see a familiar face; it was Ben, Kyle's best friend. Ben was sitting halfway down the aisle, and he'd saved Kyle a seat. Kyle grinned, walking down the aisle and plopping himself down next to his friend.
“Hey, check it out,” Ben urged. He reached inside his backpack and pulled out a handful of various candies. “Want one?” Kyle nodded, taking one and unwrapping it. His dad rarely let him eat candy, no doubt because it could kill him somehow, at least eventually. He plopped the candy in his mouth, sucking vigorously. Ben was always sneaking Kyle candy, and in return, Kyle let Ben play in his backyard when Ben's parents were fighting. They'd been arguing a lot recently, to the point where Ben was convinced they were going to get a divorce. If that happened, Ben might move away, and then Kyle would lose his best friend. They didn't talk about it much, but Kyle could tell it was always on Ben's mind. That was probably why Ben was always getting into trouble at school...which only made things worse at home.
The bus lurched forward, the driver guiding the bus slowly across town, stopping a few times to pick kids up. The seats filled up rapidly, and soon the bus reached its last stop...and the best part of Kyle's day.
The bus came to a halt, and a blond-haired girl in a blue dress stepped inside. She had crystal-blue eyes, pale, flawless skin, and curves that made him have to put his backpack on his lap to avoid making a scene. Kyle tried not to stare; her name was Desiree, and she was Kyle's first great love...not that she knew it. She'd never noticed or talked to him, not in the four years they'd been in school together. Probably because he'd never had the guts to talk to her. He'd always been useless around girls, terrified that he'd say something stupid, or get rejected. Desiree probably didn't even know he existed.
Ben elbowed him in the side.
"Aren't you going to say hi to your girlfriend?" he teased. Kyle shot him a baleful glare.
"Shut up," he hissed, elbowing Ben back. "She'll hear you, idiot!" Ben laughed, making loud, wet kissing sounds and thrusting his chest outward provocatively. Kyle slithered down in his seat, mortified that Desiree might spot Ben's little performance. Thankfully she didn't appear to notice.
The bus slowed down suddenly, pulling up to the curb and coming to a stop in front of the school. The bus driver pulled a lever, and the doors opened.
“Everyone out!” the driver barked. Kyle followed the other students out of the bus, stepping down to the sidewalk and walking to the school entrance.
* * *
Kyle's first class was American Literature, with the usual dry, boring "classics" that were never enjoyable to read. Supposedly designed to make you think, all they made Kyle think of was closing each book and never reading them again. Then came Pre-Algebra, which he strongly suspected he would never end up using in real life. Then gym class, which was reliably sadistic. Finally – mercifully – there was lunch break. Kyle ran to his locker to get the lunch Mom had packed him. Ben had already beaten him there, and was offloading books into his own locker. They traded horror stories about the morning's classes, then turned to walk down the hall toward the cafeteria.
"Hey shrimp, what'd you bring me for lunch?" a voice called out from behind. Kyle turned around, seeing a tall, husky kid with a crew cut looming over him. Kyle's guts squirmed in his belly; it was Big Joe, one of the least academically gifted students at their school. He more than made up for it with his physical gifts, which he used to smack around anyone smaller than he was. Which was everybody.
Before Kyle could answer, Big Joe tore Kyle's lunch bag out of his hands. The oaf peered inside, pulling out a banana and a sandwich. He snorted, making an obscene gesture with the banana and tossing it over his shoulder.
"Thanks for the sandwich, Chinkerbell," he jeered, offering Kyle his lunch bag back. Kyle reached for it, but Joe pulled the bag away at the last minute, dropping it on the floor. Then he laughed, shoving Kyle to the side and heading off to the cafeteria. Ben yelled out at Joe, running after the big brute, but Kyle grabbed the back of Ben's shirt to stop him. Ben spun around to glare at Kyle.
"You're really gonna let that moron get away with that?" he accused.
"Who cares," Kyle muttered. "I'm not that hungry anyway," he lied. He was heartened that Ben wanted to stand up for him, but he hardly wanted to see Joe give his best friend a beating. And the last thing Ben needed was to get suspended again.
"Bet he feels real tough picking on a scrawny shrimp," Ben grumbled.
"Thanks for that," Kyle muttered. Ben shrugged, clapping Kyle on the back.
"Hey, you're short," Ben replied good-naturedly. "Nothing wrong with that." Kyle ignored him, retrieving his bruised banana and lunch bag from the floor. He hated the nickname Big Joe had given him: Chinkerbell. His real dad was white, and his mom was Vietnamese. He wasn't even Chinese, but it hardly mattered; almost everyone called him Chinkerbell now, when they knew the teachers couldn't hear.
The two walked silently to the dining hall, sitting at one of the empty tables and digging in to their meals.
"You shouldn't let Joe pick on you like that," Ben advised.
"What can I do, fight him?" Kyle shot back. "He'd murder me!"
"He doesn't pick on me," Ben retorted.
"Because you're a psycho," Kyle muttered. A few months ago, Big Joe had shoved Ben, and Ben had come right back at the brute, swinging his fists like a madman. Joe had beaten Ben up pretty badly, but Ben had gotten a few good punches in too. They'd both been suspended for a week...and that was the last time Joe had ever picked on Ben.
"Exactly," Ben stated proudly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Bullies are all the same. Stand up to 'em, they beat you once. Chicken out, they beat you over and over." Kyle sighed.
"I can't get suspended," he complained. "My dad would kill me."
"My dad's a piece of shit," Ben muttered. "I don't care what he thinks."
"Well I like my dad," Kyle countered. "My real dad, I mean."
"That's because he's not a douchebag," Ben retorted. Kyle lowered his gaze, not sure how to respond. "Hey, when you hanging with your dad next?"
"Tonight," Kyle answered. "I haven't seen him in a week. He's been working late."
"My dad stays late too," Ben replied. "...to work on his secretary."
Kyle burst out laughing, milk spewing out of his nose and mouth. Ben jerked out of the way just in time, dodging the spray, and Kyle fell into a fit of coughing, tears coming to his eyes. His nose burned, and he wiped it with a napkin.
"Sorry," Kyle mumbled. Ben grinned.
"That was awesome," he gushed. He grabbed an apple from his lunch bag, offering it to Kyle. "Hey, want this?"
Kyle nodded, taking the apple and chowing down. Thankfully, they changed the subject, spending the rest of the meal making fun of Big Joe in between bites of food. Despite Ben's apple, Kyle's stomach still growled a bit after he'd finished eating. The sandwich Joe stole had been the bulk of his meal, after all. And his parents always wondered why he pigged out so much when he got home.
After lunch, Kyle and Ben parted ways, walking to their respective classes. After suffering through history and art, Kyle's final class was science, easily his favorite. Mostly because Mr. Potts, the teacher, was younger and cooler than the other teachers. Today he was lecturing about black holes.
"Black holes," Mr. Potts explained, showing a picture of a giant black sphere on the projector screen, "...are massive. They're so massive that they generate an enormous amount of gravity. Anyone know why they're called 'black holes?'"
The girl sitting immediately behind Kyle – Sally Druthers, the class suck-up and know-it-all – raised her hand so fast Kyle was amazed she didn't dislocate her shoulder. Mr. Potts nodded at her.
"Because not even light can escape a black hole's gravitational pull," she answered with a smug smile. Mr. Potts, apparently not realizing that Sally was pure evil, smiled back.
"That's right," he replied. "Nothing can escape a black hole's gravitational field." He then went on to explain about how scientists had discovered black holes, but Kyle was too sleepy from weeks of nightmares to pay much attention. His eyelids grew heavy, and he stifled a yawn. A hand shoved him from behind.
“Wake up!” Sally hissed. Kyle scowled. Sally was the quintessential teacher's pet. She got straight “A's,” and made sure everyone knew it. He hated sitting in front of her. He imagined being married to her, and stifled a shudder. Apparently her mother was just like her; frankly, he didn't know how her father put up with it.
Then he thought of Desiree, looking across the room to find her. She was sitting perfectly in her chair, drawing doodles on her notebook. Kyle sighed, wishing he could sit next to her instead of Sally. Not that it would matter; he was too chicken to ever talk to Desiree, and he was short, scrawny, and awkward...the exact opposite of someone a blond bombshell like her would be interested in.
In the end, Sally's efforts to reform Kyle were in vain, as he found himself studying the clock – and Desiree – more than the seemingly endless parade of celestial bodies presented. After an eternity, the bell rang, and class was over. Everyone stood up, and Kyle followed the rest of the students out of the classroom, walking to his locker to pick up his books. Ben, who had once again gotten to his locker before Kyle, observed with amazement that each of his classes managed to suck worse than the one before it.
"Let's go," Ben said after they'd gathered their things. "You wanna hang out at your place?"
"I can't," Kyle replied, throwing his overstuffed backpack over one shoulder. "I'm with my dad today, remember?"
"Oh, right," Ben replied. "Maybe tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I'm with my mom then," Kyle agreed.
They walked side-by-side down the hallway, reaching the double-doors at the entrance to the school. Throngs of fellow students were already pouring through them, and Kyle and Ben joined them, stepping out into the hot summer sun. Ben said goodbye, then made his way toward the waiting school bus while Kyle scanned the parking lot for his dad's car. He spotted it almost instantly...and saw his dad getting out of the car. Kyle broke into a run to meet him.
"Hey big guy," Dad called out. His father always called him “big guy,” even though he was the second-shortest kid in his grade. Dad tousled Kyle's hair, then started walking back toward the parking lot. “How was school?”
“You ask Desiree out yet?” Dad pressed. Kyle's cheeks flushed, and he shook his head. His dad was the only person – other than Ben – that knew how he felt about Desiree.
“Nah,” he mumbled.
“She'll just reject you anyway, right?” Dad guessed. Kyle nodded. “Yeah, you're probably right.”
“Gee, thanks,” Kyle muttered. Dad grinned, patting him on the shoulder. They both got in the car, and Dad started the engine, pulling out of his parking space.
“How was work?” Kyle asked, eager to change the subject.
“Boring,” Dad answered. “Any nightmares recently?”
“Yeah,” Kyle admitted. He'd told his dad about his nightmares, although not in detail. Just that he'd been getting them for the last three weeks. Dad used to get nightmares too when he was a kid – about that, Steve had been right.
“Bummer,” Dad replied. “I still get them sometimes,” he added. “Used to get them every night after I woke up from my coma.”
Kyle nodded absently, having heard the story many times before. His dad had been found lying unconscious in the middle of the street as a young boy, his face all bruised and swollen. A passer-by had called an ambulance, and he'd been rushed to the hospital. The doctors there had discovered that his father had bled around his brain, and that both of his lungs had collapsed. And there'd been a bleeding stump where his left big toe should have been. He'd laid in a coma for a few days before coming to, and the injuries to his brain had all but wiped out his memories. He had no idea who his real parents were, and no one had come to claim him; a nice middle-aged woman – a widow – had heard about Kyle's father on the news, and ended up adopting him.
"Ah, home sweet home," Dad declared, turning into the driveway that led to his house. He parked in the garage, then turned to face Kyle. "Rejection isn't so bad," he stated suddenly, putting a hand on Kyle's knee. "Sometimes you have to take a big risk to get a big reward."
"Desiree," Dad clarified. He grinned ruefully. "Take it from a really, really late bloomer. You'd be amazed what can happen if you take a chance."
"Sure," Kyle mumbled. They got out of the car, walking into the mud room. Kyle deposited his backpack and shoes there, and they both walked over to the couch in the living room, plopping down on the comfy cushions with tandem sighs. Dad laughed.
"Long day, huh?" he asked.
"Things any better with Steve?" he pressed. Kyle shrugged.
"What's wrong?" Dad asked.
"He's nice and all," Kyle admitted, "...but he's not you."
Dad leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees.
"That's true," he conceded.
"Mom wants me to call him my stepdad," Kyle muttered.
"And you don't want to?" Dad asked. Kyle shook his head.
"He's not my dad."
"You're right," Dad replied. "He isn't." He paused then, rubbing his hands together. "But just because he isn't your father doesn't mean he can't be a father-figure to you." He smiled then. "I've had a lot of father-figures in my life."
"Yup," Dad confirmed. "Some better than others. But I learned from all of them. Some taught me what to do," he continued, "...and others what not to do." He tousled Kyle's hair, shooting him another smile. "Anyway, it sounds like Steve is really trying," he said. "Maybe you can try too."
Kyle kept his eyes on his lap, saying nothing.
"How's Ben doing?" Dad inquired. Kyle had told his father about Ben's parents, and how they might get a divorce. It'd been awkward to talk about, for obvious reasons.
"Okay I guess."
"Probably not," Dad countered gently. "He's probably really hurting." He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees, and glanced sidelong at Kyle. "Divorce hurts everyone."
Kyle said nothing, staring straight forward, afraid to meet his dad's gaze. He was seized by the sudden, mad urge to ask about his own parents' divorce. To finally figure out what had happened...what had really happened...once and for all. But fear got the better of him, and he said nothing. Dad sighed, leaning back into the couch.
"You look beat," he observed. "You get any sleep last night?"
"Not really," Kyle confessed. Three weeks of nightmares had taken their toll.
"Why don't you take a nap?" Dad suggested. Kyle frowned; he hadn't seen his dad in nearly a week. He hardly wanted to waste their time together sleeping. But Dad was insistent. "I need a nap too," he confessed. "These overnights have been kicking my butt. We'll hang out after."
Kyle nodded, walking toward the staircase. He trudged up the stairs, then went into his room, flopping unceremoniously onto his bed. Something hard jabbed into his back, and he sat up, spying a small ring on the bed. He picked it up; the band was shiny and silver-colored, with a large yellow gemstone set on top. The yellow turned to a pale blue color at the edges...it was actually pretty cool looking. Intricate symbols were carved in the band, with tiny bluish crystals dotting the sides.
It was his father's ring, or at least it had been until a few weeks ago. Dad had given it to Kyle for his birthday. Of course, what Kyle had really wanted was a paintball gun like his uncles had, but Mom had refused, saying something about losing an eye. Instead, his dad had given him this ring. Kyle frowned at it; he could've sworn he'd left it on his dresser, but with his recent insomnia, his memory wasn't what it used to be.
Kyle stared at the ring, rolling it between his fingers. It'd been clutched in his father's hand when he'd been found beaten and bloodied on the street as a boy. Dad had kept it all these years, insisting that it had been his father's, although he had no real memory of who his father was. He'd given to Kyle on his birthday three weeks ago, much to Kyle's disappointment. There was no way he'd be caught wearing the thing, after all. Luckily he'd gotten some money from his grandparents, so he could buy himself a real gift. He glanced at his left wrist, where he wore the new watch he’d bought. It was an outdoor survival watch...equal parts waterproof, shock-resistant, and awesome.
He laid back down on his bed, holding his ring out in front of him; it didn't really fit on any finger other than his thumb. He slid it onto his left thumb, staring at the center gemstone. His eyelids grew heavy, and he closed them, feeling his mind wander.
He jerked awake suddenly, opening his eyes and looking upward.
A ripple appeared in the center of the ceiling, spreading outward.
Another ripple appeared, as if the ceiling were the surface of a lake, and a pebble had been thrown in.
Suddenly the ceiling ripped open, revealing a black hole that grew rapidly, engulfing the entire ceiling. The blackness spread down around the walls, tiny pinpoints of light appearing, then streaking outward in all directions. The pinpoints grew painfully bright, coalescing into a single, blinding white light.
Then a force slammed into Kyle, shoving him against his bed. Agonizing pain shot through his chest, ripping upward into his jaw and down his left arm.
He tried to scream, but no sound came out.
Kyle clutched his chest, his vision blackening. Pain lanced through his ears, his skull feeling as if it would explode. The bed dropped out underneath him, and suddenly he was falling. He flailed his arms, screaming silently.
And then the blackness took him.
Ampir shouts, a beam of white-hot light shooting out of his armored palm. It slams into the man straddling Vera, taking his head clean off of his shoulders. He falls forward onto Vera's back, a charred stump all that is left of his neck. The dagger he'd held against Vera's throat falls to the floor with a clatter.
The other men in the room freeze, staring wide-eyed at Ampir. Then they burst toward him, daggers gleaming.
Ampir sweeps his armored hand from left to right, another beam of light shooting outward from his palm. It annihilates everything it touches, burning through his enemies' flesh at their mid-sections. Their upper bodies topple from their waists, falling to the floor in a smoldering heap.
"Vera!" Ampir calls out, limping up to her. She tries to get up, then stops, grimacing in pain. The back of her nightgown is stained with blood.
"Are they...?" Vera begins.
"They're dead," Ampir confirms.
"Mommy!" Junior cries, rushing to Vera's side. Ampir lifts her nightgown up, exposing her lower back. Blood wells up from a narrow gash to one side of her spine, trickling down her side. He'd seen wounds like this before, in the military. Small wounds that hid devastating internal injuries. He had to get her to a surgeon...fast.
"Grandpa," Vera says, grimacing as she pushes herself up to a sitting position. "He's still out there!"
"He's gone baby," Ampir replies, but Vera shakes her head, rising unsteadily to her feet. She pulls him toward the bedroom door and into the hallway. There, propped up against the wall, is Grandpa.
"Daddy!" Vera gasps, rushing forward. They reach the old man's side, and Vera kneels before him. Grandpa's eyes are open, but they see nothing.
"No Daddy, no!" Vera cries, tears streaming down her cheeks. She hugs her father, pressing her cheek against his.
"Honey," Ampir begins, then stops himself. He waits, though he knows that more enemies will be coming. No one would be stupid enough to try to kill him and fail. "We need to go," he says at last, putting a hand on her shoulder. She pulls away from his touch, turning on him.
"You let him die out here!" she accuses. "You..."
"You're going to die," Ampir interrupts, his tone sharp. "You and Junior, if we don't leave. Now."
She stares at him silently, her eyes filled with rage. He grabs her under one arm, lifting her up, and she lets him. But he can feel something different between them now, something that had never been there before. A wound that might never heal. The thought terrifies him.
"Come on," he urges, guiding her back into the bedroom. Junior is still there by the doorway, his face deathly pale. The boy says nothing, but Ampir can tell he'd heard everything.
I let his Grandfather die.
He walks past Junior, gently setting Vera on the bed, then stepping up to the safe. He puts on his armor, until he is covered from neck to toe in black metal, runes pulsing blue in random, shifting patterns on its surface. He grabs a silver visor from the safe, pulling it over his eyes. The room instantly brightens, the visor sharpening every detail.
Before, he was mortal. A man. Now he is a god.
They were going after my armor, he realizes. It's the only explanation for why they hadn't simply bombed his home into oblivion. They must have been afraid they'd destroy his armor.
Still, they'd almost succeeded. And whatever had drained his magic earlier was still out there, close by. While he has little to fear with his armor on, Vera and Junior are still vulnerable.
He turns to Vera and Junior, both sitting on the edge of the bed.
"We're going," he tells her, "...to get you to a surgeon."
Vera says nothing, pushing herself up from the bed, wincing with the effort. Ampir steps forward, slipping one hand under her legs, the other around her shoulders, and lifts her up. With the power of his armor, she seems to weigh next to nothing.
"Junior," he calls out. "Get on my back." Junior hesitates, still standing by the doorway, his eyes wide with fear. Ampir takes a step toward the boy, then feels a vibration in his skull. Something big punches through the ceiling above their heads, slamming through the floor beside them, leaving a gaping hole there. A large metal cylinder.
"Junior!" Ampir yells, bolting toward Junior. He yanks strands of power into his mind's eye, weaving them frantically into a tight knot and shoving it outward.
* * *
Kyle's back slammed into something...hard.
The air burst from his lungs, making him see stars. He gasped for air, clutching at his chest, the pressure and pain there excruciating.
And then, as quickly as it had come, the pain vanished.
Kyle laid there for a moment, taking deep, gulping breaths. The blackness in his vision faded, revealing dozens of stars glittering in an inky black sky far above.
Kyle grimaced, propping himself up on his elbows. A bed of dirt and dry, dead leaves lay beneath him, small stones poking his buttocks and the backs of his legs. All around him were tall trees with gnarled branches, their leaves lined with a faint blue glow.
Kyle froze, staring at the trees. His heart began to hammer in his chest, a cold sweat trickling from his armpits down to his flanks.
Where am I?
He hesitated, then pushed himself off of the ground, rising to his feet. He spun around in a slow circle, seeing forest all around him.
Okay, he thought, fighting down a rising panic. He took a deep breath in, and let it out slowly. I was just in bed. I fell asleep.
And then the ceiling had ripped open, and he'd fallen...and now he was here.
I must be dreaming.
If so, it was by far the most vivid dream he'd ever had. He could feel the hard dirt and tiny twigs under his feet, poking into his socks. But there was no other explanation. He'd fallen asleep, and then started dreaming about all of...this.
"Well then," he mumbled. He looked at the tree nearest him, spotting crescent-shaped fungi clinging to the base of the trunk, a faint orange glow pulsing from their underbellies. He took a step closer, putting a hand on the tree's rough bark. He spotted something crawling on its trunk – a small, caterpillar-like insect with glowing red spots on its back. It was crawling right toward his hand; he withdrew it quickly, and the insect froze, the spots on its back flashing bright red. Kyle took a step backward.
The caterpillar split in half, falling to the ground.
Kyle stared at the fallen insect, then squatted down, grabbing a small stick. He poked at one of the caterpillar halves with it, but it didn't move.
Maybe it's playing dead, he reasoned. If so, splitting in half sure made for a convincing act!
He stood, spotting something to his right...a tree much larger than the others, about fifty feet away. It was as good a destination as any; he stepped gingerly toward it, suddenly wishing that he was wearing shoes. The tree was huge, and thick green vines spiraled up the massive trunk and branches. Some of the vines hung down from the branches, extending all the way to the forest floor, where they lay in long, tangled loops. Small, white, root-like appendages lined the sides of each vine, each one digging into the smooth bark.
Kyle walked up to one of the vines on the ground, squatting before it. He poked at it with his stick. Nothing happened. He wedged the stick under the vine, lifting it upward. There was a glowing yellow stripe on its underside, and some sort of slimy goo. He grimaced, dropping the stick and standing up.
Suddenly his legs shot out from under him, a sharp pain lancing through his left calf. He fell flat onto his back. Something tightened around his leg, and he reached down, feeling something cool and slimy there...a vine wrapped around his calf! Little white root-things sprang out from the sides of the vine, poking into his skin. Kyle screamed, kicking his leg. He grabbed the vine with his hands, trying to pull it off, but the vine tightened its grip, squeezing his leg so hard that it turned purple. Kyle screamed again, flipping onto his stomach and trying to crawl away. The vine coiled up his leg like a snake, its slimy underbelly wrapping around his knee and lower thigh. Its grip tightened, his foot starting to go numb.
Then the vine went slack.
Kyle scrambled forward on his hands and knees, feeling the slick vine slip off his leg. He sprang to his feet, backing away from the vine quickly. But to his relief, it didn't move. Kyle followed its length with his eyes, then did a double-take.
The vine had been severed, thick, yellow fluid oozing from each end. The glowing stripe on its underside had faded.
He glanced down at his left leg, seeing a spiraling double-row of tiny red dots marking his skin there. He imagined them burrowing into his flesh and sucking on his blood. A chill ran down his spine. His dream had nearly turned into a nightmare!
The wind picked up, howling through the forest, making the vines on the huge silver tree swing on their branches. Kyle shivered, then turned away from the tree, walking back the way he'd come. The forest seemed darker now, the soft orange glow of the mushrooms on the tree trunks the only indication of the trees ahead. He stepped carefully through the darkness, wincing as a rock jabbed into the sole of his foot.
He heard a snap behind him.
Kyle froze, goosebumps rising on his arms. He turned slowly, peering into the darkness...and froze. There, not fifty feet from where he stood, two iridescent eyes stared back at him from deep within the shadows.
Kyle blinked, half-expecting the eyes to vanish, but they didn't. They floated there in the darkness, staring silently at him. Kyle took a step backward, swallowing in a suddenly dry throat.
Okay Kyle, he told himself. Dream's over. Time to wake up now.
The eyes moved, seeming to grow as they weaved sinuously through the shadows. Kyle took another step back, his heart racing. The disembodied eyes moved...right toward him.
Time to wake up Kyle!
He made out a dark form around the glowing eyes, thick tufts of black fur sprouting from a long, arched back. Two cropped ears standing erect above a large, wolf-like head. He heard a low growl, saw a row of razor-sharp teeth shimmering in the starlight. Silver cords of slimy drool hung from the beast's mouth.
It stopped, staring at him. Lowered itself to the ground slowly, crouching, now only some forty feet away.
Then it lunged forward!
Kyle cried out, breaking into a mad dash away from the beast. He heard a thump behind him, followed by rhythmic grunting.
Oh god oh god oh god...
Kyle ran as fast as he could, leaping over a fallen log and nearly crashing into another tree. He glanced back, spotting the beast bounding toward him with frightening speed, its teeth bared in a vicious snarl, ears flat against the back of its head.
Then his left shoulder slammed into a tree...hard.
He spun around, tripping over his legs and falling forward, landing on his right shoulder. Pain shot through his arm, and he cried out, scrambling to his feet. The beast lunged at him, slamming into his back and knocking him onto his belly on the ground. He felt something sharp rip down the center of his back.
He twisted around frantically, seeing the nightmarish creature looming over him, thick cords of saliva dripping from its razor-sharp teeth. It snapped at Kyle's face, and he threw his hands in front of him, feeling its teeth slash at his forearms. Blood poured down his arms, dripping into his eyes. He cried out, frantically beating at the beast's head with his fists.
The beast drew back, then lunged for his face again, twisting its head sideways, its jaws clamping down on his temples. Kyle felt its teeth sink into his flesh, clamping on his skull. He shrieked, grabbing at the creature's head blindly, trying futilely to push it away. His right thumb sank into something soft.
The beast yelped, releasing Kyle's head and backpedaling, pawing at its left eye.
Kyle scrambled to his feet, stumbling away from the horrible creature. He gained speed, weaving around the trees, pumping his legs as fast as he could. He heard the beast's rhythmic grunting behind him.
No no no!
He saw a gap in the forest ahead...the edge of a cliff dropping to a river some twenty feet below. He sprinted toward it, hearing the beast's grunting getting louder as it gained on him. He neared the edge of the cliff, seeing the sheer drop to the dark waters below. He hesitated for a split second, fear twisting his guts.
The beast slammed into him from behind, shoving him off of the cliff. He screamed, his stomach lurching as he entered into free-fall. He felt the sudden shock of icy wetness enveloping him, soaking instantly through his clothes. He swam upward, bursting through the surface of the river and taking a deep, gasping breath. He looked back, spotting the wolf-like creature standing at the edge of the cliff twenty feet above, its iridescent eyes following him as the river carried him slowly away from it. The creature stared at Kyle for a moment longer, then turned away from the cliff.
Thank god, Kyle thought, staring at the terrible beast. Oh thank you god!
Then the beast turned back toward the river, running and leaping off the edge of the cliff, plummeting to the river behind Kyle.
Kyle kicked his legs madly, swimming downstream away from the creature. His heart pounded in his chest, his breath coming in short gasps.
It can't swim that fast, he hoped. It can't possibly...
He felt something clamp down on his leg, pain lancing through his calf. There was a sharp tug, and suddenly he was underwater, icy blackness enveloping him.
Kyle kicked his legs, clawing his way frantically upward, but it was no use. He felt another tug on his leg, pulling him deeper into the water. His lungs started to burn, specks of light appearing at the edges of his vision. He grit his teeth, kicking violently, raking his hands through the black water...to no avail. His lungs were on fire now, the urge to breathe overwhelming.
Then his body betrayed him, his lips opening of their own accord, his lungs pulling fluid into his mouth and down his throat. He coughed violently, bubbles spewing from his nose. He took another breath in, water coursing down his windpipe and into his lungs, burning it as went. He flailed his legs uselessly, the world beginning to fade around him, his body going numb.
And then the tugging at his leg stopped, the weight there vanishing.
Kyle scrambled upward, his head bursting through the surface of the river. He coughed violently, water shooting out of his mouth and nose. He gasped for air, feeling more water trickle down his windpipe, and coughed again. Then he took another breath in, feeling air – sweet air! – rushing in.
He took deep, gulping breaths, feeling life seep back into his limbs. The stars in the periphery of his vision faded, the burning in his chest subsiding. He stared up at the night sky above, just treading water and breathing.
A giddiness came over him, a mad joy, and he laughed, his voice echoing in the cool night air.
He felt a sudden bolt of fear, remembering the horrifying beast. He spun around in the water, his eyes darting across the rippling surface of the river, but saw nothing. It was gone...or was it?
Get out of the water, he told himself.
Kyle spotted the shore some thirty feet to his left, and swam toward it, the current pulling him further downstream. His toes scraped against mud and rocks below, and after a few more strokes he was able to get his feet under him. He stood, trudging slowly toward the shore. His legs wobbled as he made it out of the water, and he lowered himself onto his belly, resting his temple on the rough sand. He felt suddenly exhausted, the mere thought of continuing onward overwhelming.
It was then that the pain in his back returned, going from a mild burning to a sharp, throbbing pain. Kyle groaned, reaching around and feeling the center of his back. His fingertips dipped into a deep, moist crevice there, his pain suddenly worsening. He jerked his hand away, staring at his fingers.
They were covered in blood.
Kyle's heart pounded in his chest, a wave of nausea coming over him. He felt suddenly dizzy, his lips and fingertips tingling. He stared at his forearms, seeing the deep gashes in them, blood pouring from the wounds and staining the sand. His temples throbbed terribly, and he touched them, feeling slick blood trickling down his face.
Oh god oh god...
He clenched his teeth against the rising pain, his breath hissing in and out.
How can I be hurt? This is a dream!
Kyle reached around, pinching his own forearm...hard. The pain was sharp, and immediate. He felt a surge of panic, his pulse pounding in his ears.
This wasn't a dream...it was real!
* * *
Kyle lay there on the sandy shore of the river, his breath coming in short gasps. He dug his fingertips into the sand, gritting his teeth.
Don't panic, he ordered himself. That's what his Dad had told him to remember if he ever got hurt. Breathe.
He laid there, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths.
Get up, he told himself.
Kyle slid his hands underneath him, pushing himself up onto his knees, then rising slowly to his feet. He staggered to one side, a wave of nausea coming over him. He caught himself, then took one step away from the river, and another. Ahead of him, the sandy banks of the river gave way to dense forest, the leaves on the trees no longer glowing as brightly against the steadily brightening sky. He continued forward, ignoring the twigs and small stones jabbing into the bottoms of his feet.
The ground on either side rose steeply, forming two rocky cliffs. A narrow dirt path snaked between them, and Kyle followed it. He felt something trickling down the back of his legs, and reached down, feeling slippery wetness there. When he withdrew his hand, it was covered in blood.
He stared at his soaked palm, feeling woozy.
He focused ahead, pushing forward through the narrow path, the cliffs on either side throwing cool shadows over him. The path widened over time, the cliff sides giving way to a field of tall, golden grass. Each blade was as broad as his palm, and easily a few feet taller than him. The grass grew so densely that it was impossible to see beyond it, forming a veritable wall in either direction as far as the eye could see. Kyle stopped before it, his head swimming. He licked his lips, having a sudden, desperate craving for ice-cold water. He imagined himself holding a tall glass, bringing it to his lips and feeling cool liquid pouring down his parched throat.
Kyle pushed through the grass, parting it with his hands, leaving streaks of blood on the broad blades. He continued forward blindly; after a few minutes, the tall grass ended abruptly, opening up to reveal a broad dirt road, beyond which another line of tall golden grass waved in the wind. Kyle stepped onto the road, looking left, then right; it cut a swath through the grass on either side as far as the eye could see. He stood there, swaying a little, feeling as if his head were rising from his body.
He looked up and down the road, his mind wandering. He shook his head, digging his fingernails into his arms.
Come on, he scolded himself. Think!
There was no sign of anyone on the road, and no buildings in the distance. No way to know which way was the right way to go to find help. But if he didn't choose soon...
He paused, then turned right, walking down the road. The sun rose behind him, sending a long shadow out in front of him. He shivered despite the warmth of its rays on his bare skin, feeling strangely disconnected from his body. He looked down, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.
One, two, three, four…he counted his steps, building a rhythm. Five, six, seven, eight…
His left knee gave out suddenly, and he stumbled forward, landing face-first onto the dirt, his head bouncing off of the ground. Pain exploded from the center of his forehead, and a wave of nausea overtook him, bile pooling in his mouth. He swallowed it back with a shudder, pushing himself up from the packed dirt with his hands, then rising shakily to his feet.
He took a deep breath in, swaying slightly. Then he continued forward, putting one foot forward, then another.
His mind began to wander, and this time he let it. The pain in his back was gone now; he felt numb, as if his body belonged to someone else. Onward he shuffled, watching as the tall fields of sun-kissed grass on either side swayed majestically in the breeze, like waves in a golden sea. He closed his eyes, feeling that warm breeze glide over his bare skin, bringing a light, sweet scent to his nose.
After a few more minutes, his legs started to wobble, and he felt himself falling, his knees slamming into the ground, then his face. There was no pain this time. He felt nothing at all. He opened his eyes, turning his head to the side and staring at the long blades of grass dancing in the wind, sunlight glittering through them. It was hard to think now, hard to concentrate on anything.
I'm dying, he realized.
He closed his eyes, feeling himself drifting away. There was no fear, only exhaustion; an exhaustion so complete that he yearned for sleep. He gave into it, feeling his life slipping away.
Something cold and wet pressed onto his back, and then the world went black.
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