Jesse hit the ground so hard he bounced, rolling over into prickly bushes that scratched at his bare skin and caught at the shorts he’d been sleeping in. He struggled to pull in air, forcing himself to breathe in through his nose and let it out through his mouth until the stabbing pain in his chest eased. Above him the sun blazed painfully hot in the brazen blue sky, bringing sweat up on his skin and stinging at the half-healed sunburn across his nose. He pulled himself out of the bushes, gritting his teeth when they only seemed to dig in, and escaped with only a few bloody scratches.
He’d barely reached his feet when the elf backhanded him across the face, knocking him back down again with the taste of coppery blood filling his mouth. He stared up at her wide-eyed, one hand pressed to his flaming cheek, then hurriedly scrambled up when she pulled a wicked-looking knife from the sheath on her hip. When he reached for his magic to defend himself, power surged into him so hard it almost escaped his control. He shoved it back down again and threw himself to the side when the elf—Kith’s mother, he saw, now that some of the shock had worn off—swiped at his unprotected belly with the knife.
“What did you do to my son?” she asked pleasantly, crowding him back against the prickly bushes and slashing at his chest. The tip of the knife scored a narrow red line on his skin and he stumbled backwards, biting off a yelp of pain.
“What did I do?” Jesse twisted away from the bushes and moved out into a more open area of yellow grass. “I didn’t do anything. He’s the one who kept coming on to me, lady, and hey, I’m not the one who decided to murder my own kid because some old women decided he’s useless, so let’s keep the judging to a minimum, okay?”
She gave him a tight smile. “He is useless. Lazy, arrogant, and too focused on the present.”
“Well, hey, he takes after his mother then.” Jesse ducked another slash, aware that she was just toying with him like a cat with a mouse, and wondering if he dared risk trying to cast a spell. The air felt as hot as an oven around him and he was beginning to get sluggish, already tired and sore. Sweat slid down the back of his neck and he made a mental note to tell Kith that they had very different versions of the perfect summer day. If he managed to escape alive.
“Does your sister know it’s your fault we were able to get through?” Kith’s mother asked, straightening up slightly but still crowding Jesse back towards the straggly trees behind him.
“Is it?” Jesse glanced back over his shoulder. The trees were thin and spindly, but there were a lot of them and he thought he might be fast enough to escape into their cover. “How?”
“Uncertainty in a mage is never a good thing. In the case of a power like yours, well, uncertainty tends to play havoc with the barriers between worlds.” She moved to the left, as though to flank him, then changed direction suddenly. Jesse was slow to move with her and she caught him up against one of the trees, driving the knife into the meaty part of his upper arm and pressing her face close to his. “You will cause your sister’s death.”
He kicked at her knee as hard as he could, biting back a whimper when the movement jarred the knife embedded in his arm. Kith’s mother lost her grip on the knife and stumbled back, her face momentarily going slack with surprise. Jesse scrambled away from her, bolting into the trees as fast as he could, his injured arm held awkwardly against his chest. Behind him he heard her laugh, but he didn’t dare risk a look back to see if she was gaining on him, instead forcing himself to run deeper into the woods. The trees gradually thickened and began to grow taller, until he was running, breath tearing in his chest, through an enormous towering forest.
Exhaustion forced him to slow and then stop, and he ducked behind a wide tree trunk to catch his breath, grimacing at the sticky feeling of blood drying on his arm. The blade of the knife had kept the wound from bleeding freely, but his arm hurt from his shoulder down to the tips of his fingers. Trying not to think about poison, he peeked around the tree, relief making his knees feel weak when he saw nothing but the sun-dappled sleepiness of the forest.
He leaned his good shoulder against the trunk and stayed there for a while, waiting for his heart to stop slamming in his chest. His head ached and he felt dizzy, his mouth and tongue sticky with the heat. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out from behind the tree and limped on bare feet down a game trail, hoping it would lead him to water. Under the trees he was at least out of the worst of the sun, though it was so muggy that he could barely think straight and the sweat and blood on his skin was attracting biting flies and other bugs. He rubbed a hand across his face, wiping away sweat, and stumbled over a tree root sticking up from the ground, unable to keep the whimper quiet this time. Catching his balance, he made himself take another step forward, and another, trusting in momentum to keep him going for at least a little while longer.
He heard the sound of water before he saw it and managed to push himself to a shambling trot, his good hand clamped around the hilt of the knife to keep it from bouncing free. The trees thinned out as he approached a wide, dark stream, its water moving lazily past the grassy banks. Jesse made his way down the gentle slope and sank onto his knees, scooping up water in his hand and sucking it down. The water tasted a little brackish and metallic, but it was cool going down his dry throat and he gladly used it to rinse out his mouth and wash his face before turning his attention to the knife in his arm.
Gritting his teeth, he curled his fingers around the leather-wrapped hilt, took a deep breath, and pulled the knife out in one smooth motion. Blood flowed down his arm in bright red streamers, but he could see it was beginning to clot. He dropped the knife on the grass in disgust, then picked it up again to help him tear a ragged strip of cloth from the bottom of his shorts, using that to gingerly clean the bloody hole in his arm. He knew it needed professional attention and stitches, but he had no intention of trying to find a doctor here, or of attempting to fashion a needle and thread from his surroundings.
Rinsing the cloth out, he wadded it up and held it to his arm, letting his head hang for long minutes until the pain started to subside. He raised his head when a bird twittered nearby, the sound oddly echoing, but nothing moved in the darkness of the forest. Jesse closed his eyes for a moment, trying to settle the throbbing pain in his skull, then opened his eyes again and awkwardly cut another strip from his shorts, using his teeth to help tie it around his arm and the makeshift padding. His fingers felt stiff and numb, and all he wanted to do was find somewhere soft to rest his aching head, but instead he leaned forward to wash his hands and get another drink.
He saw the face in the water an instant before a pale, blue-tinged arm shot up and long fingers tangled in his hair, dragging him head-first into the stream. Cold water went up his nose and he choked on it, flailing with his good arm and kicking with his feet in an attempt to free himself. The hand in his hair released him, but only to grab him by the back of the neck and shove his face into silt and mud. Panic flooded through him and he managed to get one knee underneath himself, using it to push up as hard as he could, his lungs screaming for air.
He broke the surface just long enough to gasp in a breath before he was yanked back under, dark water turning every shape into a shadow. Long hair like seaweed rubbed against his bare skin. Sharp nails dug into the back of his neck, and when he lashed out, he scraped his knuckles on scales like sandpaper. His magic surged up and he grabbed for it, desperate to save himself before he ran out of air, still shoving and pushing and reaching with his good hand for anything he could use as a weapon.
Something cool and hard filled his palm and he pulled it in close, realizing through the haze of terror that he was holding a hockey stick. He didn’t bother to wonder why or how, just tightened his grip, brought the stick around, and slammed the butt into what he thought was his attacker’s face.
The watery shadow reared back with a shriek and lost its grip. Jesse shoved himself away and broke the surface, staggering to the bank with the hockey stick gripped so tightly in his fist that his knuckles strained against their cover of skin. His feet slipped in the muck and something slimy wiggled through his toes, but he made it to the bank and scrambled up into the grass. He turned to face the stream, panting for breath, the hockey stick held defensively in front of his chest.
The water rippled and a tall, feminine shape rose up from it, her pale body angular and bony under the fall of her dripping, dark green hair. She stared at him for a moment, her large eyes lightless black pools, then she gave him a slow wink and a smile full of piranha teeth before she sank back down into her stream.
Jesse waited for long minutes, shivering so hard his teeth clicked together, before he could force himself to unlock his fierce grip on the hockey stick. He backed away from the stream until his knees gave out and he fell on his backside, dropping the stick and hugging himself until the urge to vomit had passed. The bird twittered again, the sound almost mocking this time, and a gust of wind sighed through the trees, rustling the faded green leaves. Jesse looked over his shoulder, sure he was being watched, and picked up the stick again, laying it across his lap so he could fix the bandaging around his arm.
When he was done, he let his good hand rest on the stick, so numb with exhaustion that he didn’t know how long he sat there, staring blankly at the slow-moving stream, before he could rouse himself enough to get to his feet. He looked at the hockey stick he was leaning on and couldn’t help a rusty chuckle when he recognized it as the hockey stick that Kith had given him, a little warped by whatever journey had brought it but still sturdy. Tucking it awkwardly under his arm to use as a crutch, he glanced up at the sky, where the sun was beginning to slide slowly down towards the horizon, and made his way back into the forest to look for shelter.
He walked until dusk without finding anything except more forest, until the dark and the dizziness drove him to crawl under a pile of fallen trees and vegetation that had formed a snug green cave. Old leaves and moss were the only things between him and the ground, but Jesse was so tired it couldn’t have been better if it had been a feather bed in a five-star hotel. He settled himself as comfortably as he could and looked out at the dark forest, wishing that he had Juliet with him. He let his eyes close and tried to relax enough to sleep through the throbbing and burning in his arm. His fingers rested on the cool shaft of the hockey stick and eventually he drifted into an uneasy doze full of fragmented, feverish dreams.