The twigs that snapped under the next footfall echoed louder in Alex’s ears than the pounding of blood in his ears. The voice that followed was barely a whisper, though he might have been bellowing. “Come out, hands up.”
Slowly, Alex pried his fingers off of the fir tree, jaw clenched as he stepped out from behind his cover. The man standing on its other side was surprisingly young, his cheeks still round with baby fat and dotted with stubble. His hair was dark, buzzed close on the sides and barely longer on top, and the bags under his eyes were yellowed and faintly puffy as if from too little sleep. His camouflage jacket was a size too large and hung off of his shoulders to reveal a white tank-top pulled over a light paunch. The jeans he wore were faded, the knees permanently wrinkled from wear. He looked like he wanted to grow up to be a biker.
A glowing red dot wavered next to the man’s right boot, and Alex followed it up to the gun in his hand. “You don’t need that,” Alex said, trying to keep his voice level and his heart out of his throat.
“You never can tell,” the other man said, grinning. “These woods aren’t exactly friendly. Now turn around and put your hands on the tree.” He flicked the wrist holding the revolver, nodding in emphasis.
Alex did as he was told, eyes closing as he turned towards the fir; the bark was rough against his skin. “What do you want?”
“That’s a good question,” the man riposted. “Why don’t you answer it?”
Alex’s fingers shook against the trunk of the tree, and he clutched at it to try to still them. He tried to speak, but no words would pass his suddenly-dry lips, stuck to swollen and sticky tongue. I want to go home! he screamed inside his head, but nothing came out of his mouth.
A low chuckle interrupted his attempts. “Was that your car I saw on the way in? Four miles north of here?” Alex could hear the grin in his voice. “Looked pretty bad, what with the two flat tires and the broken windscreen. I called a tow truck for you. I guess I’m just a Good Samaritan.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed; his car had been in good shape when he arrived. “Bastard,” he spat in return; it was the first word he managed to force himself to say, and he instantly regretted it, the bottom falling out of his stomach even as the bear-mind loomed within.
The dot of light that Alex had seen at the man’s feet suddenly lit up next to one of his hands on the tree, shaking slightly against the trunk. “Where… are… the… rest?” Each word came out as a distinct sentence unto its own, deliberate and even.
A warm wetness spread across Alex’s jeans, followed by a flush in his cheeks. A chill ran down his spine and his knees began to buckle. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. His stomach knotted in fear. I can’t do this. I can’t— His fingers clenched against the fir tree, nails digging into the bark, and he inhaled sharply, ignoring the sour stink of his own fear. Great Mother— Words deserted him, but he didn’t care. They wouldn’t help him. They couldn’t help him. The bear-mind filled his thoughts, smothering his fear. He forced himself to breathe out, then in again. Out, and in. Ignoring the rapidly cooling stain over his crotch, the quivering laser pointer next to his left hand, and everything else; he leaned against the tree, and prayed.
A cold, metallic clack rang out as the hammer snapped back into place. “I won’t ask again. Where are the others?”
Alex didn’t answer; his focus remained inward, on his breathing, on the bear-mind within his own. His eyes stayed closed, the air moving in and out of his nostrils, carrying the sharp tang of his urine, the fading smell of his sweat. He was shaking, still, but the fear that had gripped him before had largely faded. His lips moved in slow meditations, attentions completely turned inward. In his mind, the image of a tan-furred hare, scampering madly towards him, zigzagging erratically as she charged. Her ears were flat against her head, her eyes showing white all the way around, but she was running towards him, not away.
Alex snapped open his eyes to the sounds of rustling grasses and paws frantically pounding the ground caught his ear. “Do you hear that?”
The dot of light wavered, then lowered. “Yeah, I do,” the man agreed. “Don’t move.” Alex heard the shuffling of fabric and then a second heavy metal clunk. “Damn rabbits….”
The bottom fell out of Alex’s stomach, a fresh wave of panic flooding him. “Briar!” The word was out of him before he had time to think, a bellow that sent him lurching off of the tree, slapping at the man’s arm with his hand and then barreling into him bodily. He pulled the trigger late, the bullet flying wide into the trees but still sending Alex sprawling to the ground, his hands clapped over his ears. Then something slammed into the back of his skull and stars flashed in his vision, adding to the sensory overload.
The spiders in Alex’s brain, almost forgotten, flooded back with a vengeance. A second sharp kick to his back sent a spasm of nausea down his spine. He wanted to curl into a ball, to wrap his arms around his head, to escape the pain and fear, but the bear-mind roared and drove him to roll onto his back, to grapple the man’s legs. Heedless of the other gun, Alex forced himself to his knees, then half-fell against his assailant, trying to grab him.
A familiar scent hammered his senses, and then a blurred shadow passed overhead. Alex opened his eyes, squinting to focus them as the hare that had moments before been charging the two men suddenly unfolded, body twisting, stretching. In midair, it turned, seemingly in slow-motion, and then Briar slammed both hind-paws into the other man’s chest with a sickening crunch, sending him slamming into the tree, then sprawling to the ground in a twisted tangle of limbs. The Child of Rabbit twisted as she fell, landed next to Alex, and rolled into a crouch in a single easy motion, then skittered sideways and darted back, turning to run back into the trees.
“Briar!” Alex cried out again, his voice hoarse. His head throbbed with every syllable, but he forced himself to his feet to stagger drunkenly towards the Child of Rabbit. “Stop! Stop! It’s…” He lurched backwards, waving an arm at the other man, now sprawled on the ground. “Go get… Dancer. Please. Need his help.” Alex dropped to his knees, grabbing the discarded guns and tossing them aside before dropping on top of the other man and pressing a hand into his throat to stop him from struggling. “Move and you’re dead,” he growled, looking blearily down at their disarmed attacker.
Briar hesitated at the words, looking down at Alex’s hand, but at the other man’s weak gurgle, she looked back to the shaman-in-training and nodded before dashing into the woods. Once she was gone, Alex looked down at their attacker, tightening his grip on the other man’s neck. “Now,” he said darkly. “I’ll take you to them.”