The journey from a war-zone orphanage to the heartland of the United States was a full-blown sensory overload for the six kids aboard the Citation Longitude private jet. The fact only one of the six had a clue what was coming, only made the whole thing much more nerve wracking for the other five, who had no clue what was really going on let alone where they were going.
For all but one of six of the kids, this all started at 0215 the morning before, when they were woken, one at a time, and moved to an out building on a very chilly and wet morning on September 25th, 2014. Shivering as the breeze blew in a misty rain through the broken-out windows, the kids looked around with confusion. However they remained silent. They had been warned in advance not to utter a sound. The militants were too close and had already proved they would not hesitate to open fire on civilians, including kids. Two had already been lost to sniper fire. The bullet holes in the old stone walls also gave testament as to the ruthlessness of those trying to grab more land for Putin and his thugs.
Right at 0245 a single military truck pulled up to the war orphanage just outside of Torez, Ukraine with lights off. Half a dozen heavily armed men hopped out, while a seventh spun the turret mounted Russian-made PK machinegun in the direction of the woods to the east. The latest ceasefire was still technically in place, but to those in and around Torez, it meant nothing. Casualties of military and civilians were still mounting, supplies were getting sparse, and winter's first fingers could be felt in this early fall night, as temperatures dipped deep into the low single numbers. (For those reading this, note we are talking degrees Celsius so while getting cold, it has still not dropped below freezing.)
At the same time the six men secured a safe path to the truck, two orphanage workers hustled the six groggy, hungry, and cold children out into the arms of the men, even while dozens of others slept huddled up with each other. Less than thirty minutes prior these kids had been doing the exact same thing, searching for warmth with each other, since there was no power or heat in the basement of the main building. All six kids glanced at the men. Seeing they were in Ukrainian uniforms helped some. All the kids had heard how Russian backed forces had forcefully taken orphans behind the lines to Russia. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian uniforms alone didn't prevent them from being scared; fear could be seen in the eyes of the six children as they made their way out of the bullet-pockmarked out building and into the hands of armed soldiers. In the distance, tracer fire arced upward from a Russian-militant position less than two kilometers away.
Fear in most of the kids only increased as they saw one of the men move over to one of their number, quickly shine a flashlight in the boy's face, nod, and hand over a large wad of cash to the orphanage workers. As soon as the cash was handed over and the boy hustled to the truck, two men closest to the truck pulled off over a dozen large boxes. While this was being done, the other three men gently, but firmly, forced the other five kids into the back.
Two minutes later the truck left the ramshackle orphanage and turned west on a dirt road. A couple of times the kids tried to speak, but a finger up to the lips of the offending child and a wag of a finger was all it took to prevent words from coming out. Only the sound of the truck going over the wet dirt road could be heard.
It wasn't until the truck turned on a main road and headed northeast did the military men relax but they still ordered the boys to remain quiet. After nearly a three-hour drive, the truck pulled off at a small farmhouse and pulled into a dilapidated barn with a couple of holes in the roof. The five men in the back jumped off, three moving to secure the perimeter before the last two motioned for the kids to get out of the truck and helped them to jump down.
The man who had handed over the cash to the workers moved up as the six kids looked around. "Boys, there is food and a place to relieve yourselves. Help yourself to both, but stay out of sight. We still have about two hours of travel before we get to Kharkiv, but it is getting too close to daylight to make it so we stay here until dark." The man then managed a smile at eleven-year-old Zoran Zagorec. "You, boy, come with me."
Zoran gulped as he glanced back at his five best friends in the whole world with somewhat fearful light blue eyes, but a slight smile on his lips. In his heart he knew his Uncle Symon had somehow come through and he would be with the best friends anyone could ever hope to have in a much better place. Still, he was determined; if they couldn't join him, he would not go no matter what.
The other five didn't get much of a chance to do or say anything as they were taken to the back of the barn, where a wood fire was cooking slabs of beef and foil covered potatoes. An elderly woman smiled warmly at the boys, "Oh, such a dreadful sight you all are. You all need to wash up. I will get you nightshirts while I wash what is left of the rags you are wearing!"
The five boys were about to protest, but a single, somewhat threatening, shake of the head of one of the uniformed men stopped them cold. One by one they went in a back area, took a very cold shower from an outside well as one of the soldiers pumped water, and slipped on nightshirts that were clearly meant for a small adult, not a boy. They then moved back out to the fire and ate the first real meal any of them had seen in weeks.
While this was going on, Zoran was also enjoying a plate of food as the lead soldier talked to him in a rather scolding voice, but well out of the earshot of the others. "I was also told to tell you, pulling this off with this many boys instead of just you has been very expensive for your uncle. He does not want any more complaints about you joining him."
"But what about Papa and Sofiya?" Zoran asked with a slight pout, since he pretty much already knew the answer.
"Young Master Zagorec," the soldier scolded, "you know they were behind the lines when the Russians sent their dogs into the Crimea and have not been heard from since. Now I have been paid well by your uncle to get you to him in one piece even if I have to, and I quote, "Hog tie him and ship him to me in a crate". There are no more complaints, no more being stubborn, none."
"And my friends?"
"You can tell them nothing until the plane takes off from London."
"So Uncle Symon is taking them all?"
"Yes, and spending more than I will see in three lifetimes to do so. So assure them as best you can, but they cannot know what exactly is going on. It sounds like there is nothing legal about this other than you, and even then... Well, cash greases wheels so he has full paperwork on you. The others are all under well-forged papers, but forged nonetheless and only in the United States. We need to get them there first."
The man moved up to Zoran spun him around and gave him a more than firm smack on the bottom, "That is for costing your uncle so much money and to remind you we will not hesitate to be more forceful if there are any complaints. Now go shower and comfort your friends. We stay here until dark and move straight to Kharkiv where there should be a plane waiting for you."
The day went by slowly, as the others were all scared and confused over what was going on. Zoran did his best, but all of the others had seen the money exchange hands. Most of the others were deathly afraid they had been sold, probably to some farmer to work his land. A couple of the others had much more nasty scenarios floating through their heads. In particular, Eleven-year-old Ludvik talked about getting sold and branded, even as he ran a finger over a long thin scar running from his left ear all the way down his neck to his collarbone. By late morning, when the old woman came back with their threadbare clothing and a snack, imaginations were really taking over.
The woman smiled as she heard one of the boys, Eleven-year-old Ladislav, talk about being put to work in some European coal mine. "Oh, such a silly boy, do not have such thoughts. Within days you will be living a dream and this will all seem a nightmare. Now here are your things, fully cleaned for what I believe is the first time in months. One of the nice soldiers also went into town and found good footwear for you all and a decent jacket. While used, it will certainly be better than nothing."
With full bellies and the barn warm from the fire, one by one the boys dropped off into an uneasy but fitful sleep. At least there were no sounds of bullets striking the outside of the building, no cannon fire, and no bombs. None of them woke until dusk, but none needed to be shaken, instead their noses, picking up the scent of chicken and dumplings, brought them all but instantly out of their slumbers.
As they ate, ten-year-old Alexey looked over at Zoran yet again, "You know where they are making us go, I can tell."
One of the junior soldiers moved up and pointed to the plate of food, "What he knows and doesn't know makes no difference, boy. He has as much choice about this as you do." The man then sent Alexey a truly chilling stare, "Unless you want to take option two, which is me taking you back to the front lines and turning you over to the invaders since you have a Russian name, Alexey Petro!"
The boy's face turned pale, "No! My papa Ukraine Army like you. They do bad to me if they find out!"
"Then enough talk." The leader spoke up while shooting the younger soldier a dirty stare. "Alexey, your father was a great man. He died fighting for all of us and we would never do such a thing. Now, listen and listen well, you all have a choice, a real one, you stay here or you go with Zoran. If you stay, we send you back to Torez, no questions, no arguments. I know you are scared, but where you are headed is going to be far better than the rat infested place we pulled you out of and I can assure you warmer as well. If I could find a way to go, I would be right there with you all.
"Now eat up and get situated. We have two hours on the road and we will be going through a couple more checkpoints. There is to be no talking and if checked, you will be polite and tell whoever asks you questions, you have family in Kharkiv.” As soon as he saw a nod out of each of the boys, he moved past the man who had scared Alexey and cuffed him hard on the back of the head in front of all the others. At least this got a smile out of Alexey and a couple of his friends.
It took just over three hours before the truck stopped again, this time the boys could hear the roar of an overhead jet which caused them all the flatten themselves out on the bed of the truck and wait for the explosion they had all grown accustomed to. When none came, they exchanged looks and some of them even wiped their foreheads.
The lead soldier patted Zoran on the back as he smiled at the others, "You are out of the warzone, boys, but I credit you with fast reaction times. You all have the making of good soldiers. Now, I know this is kind of scary, but I need all of you, except Zoran, to slide into these black bags and stay real still until we tell you otherwise."
Ludvik eyed the black bags with near horror. They were body bags! "Uh huh, no..."
Before he could even try to bolt out of the back of truck and onto the tarmac, one of the other men secured the boy and injected him with a syringe filled with dark blue liquid. It took only a couple of seconds for the boy to go limp.
While the others all yelped in terror, the men each took one of the remaining boys and held them while the man with the syringe pulled out a small case with more needles. The boys started to cry, but none were able to get out more than a trio of sobs and a few tears before they, too, slumped unmoving to the ground.
The lead man then looked at Zoran even as his friends were unceremoniously zipped into body bags. "Your family, understood?"
The boy nodded even as tears of fear and worry leaked out of his eyes.
A man in a police inspector's uniform moved up as the truck made it to the checkpoint to allow it onto the runway. The man played his flashlight into the back, looked at the tears in the boy's eyes, and scanned the paperwork again. The man's eyes took on a look of sorrow and his voice was full of compassion. "I am so sorry for your loss, young one. May your life in the United States be much happier."
Without further inspection he waved the truck through.
Fifteen minutes later, with five body bags and a boy loaded onto a Citation Longitude jet, the control tower gave clearance for the craft to leave.
Four and a half hours into the flight the first of the five body bags started to move. Zoran wasted no time hustling over to each and unzipping them as they did so. Ten-year-old Valentyn was the last to wake after just under five and a half hours in flight. The boy was clearly a bit loopy and, like three of the others, sick to his stomach. He wobbled back to the bathroom with the help of Zoran and puked. After managing to down a drink form a paper cup he blinked and looked down at the bags, then out one of the oval windows, "Where are we?"
Eleven-year-old Nikolay stared out the window from where he was seated, "Considering I can see the lit Eiffel Tower, I would say not far from Paris!"
With his legs still shaking, Valentyn rushed over to look out the window. His eyes got wide as he spotted the landmark known across the world. "It is! We are over France!"
The boys all watched in wonder as the majestic sight disappeared from view. They then watched as the coast of France fell away. It didn't take long before the lights on the opposite side of the English Channel could be seen along the coast.
A highly American accented voice of the pilot came over the speakers. “Prepare for landing in London. I need each of you to take seats, buckle in and take one of the blue pills you will find in the arm rests of the captain's chairs. As soon as we are down get back into the bags on the floor. Zoran, you do not take a pill. I need you to zip your friends in and keep them calm. As soon as the wheels hit the ground I want you to put a drop from the brown eyedropper bottle into each eye. It is in the bar, in the top left-hand drawer."
Zoran nodded, "It's all part of the plan guys. Just do as you are told and we'll be fine."
Forty minutes later the plane was being refueled while two custom officials came aboard. One look at the body bags, with bodies clearly in them, caused them to balk. Seeing the boy with red, bloodshot eyes who looked like he had recently been crying softened their hearts. One of the men moved up to Zoran and spoke, "Do you speak English?"
Zoran nodded and wiped at his eyes. If someone had warned him how painful the drops were going to be he would have never put them in. One thing about them, the tears he was showing were real. "Yes Oskifer, I need more work, so me so sorry."
The man patted Zoran on the back even as he glanced at the papers the pilot had handed over upon landing. "So you are going to live with your Uncle?"
"Unk Symon." Zoran stated even as he tired once again to blink his eyes hard to get rid of the burning sensation the drops had caused about five minutes after he put them in.
"I know this is hard, but I have to see inside the bags..."
Zoran moved to the nearest bag and unzipped it just enough to expose the face of Valentyn, the boy was the closest in appearance to Zoran and could have easily passed for a brother. Per the pilot's earlier instructions, Zoran reached down and pulled the boy's face into his own chest and let out a little sob.
Seeing the body and the boy's reaction was enough for the inspectors, who certainly didn't want to put the youngster through any more pain. With an exchange of looks, they quickly signed the paperwork and one of them knelt and helped to zip the bag back up. They left the plane as rapidly as they could, talking about how horrible it must be for one lone boy to fly with dead members of one's own family in the cabin of a plane with him. They both knew they were supposed to check all the bags, but seeing one dead boy was more than they cared to deal with and the reaction of the living was something they didn't think could be faked.
Once cleared, a new pilot come aboard and took over while the second pilot moved into the back with Zoran. It took forty minutes to get the plane refueled and cleared for takeoff, but all in all it was just over an hour from wheels down to wheels up. The voice of the new pilot came over the speakers, this one spoke much better Ukrainian, "Zoran, there is a second eye dropper in a green bottle; use it to get rid of any burning you still might have. Also feel free to unzip your friends. They will wake in a couple of hours and will be thirsty and probably hungry. They will also have a hard time peeing. Tell them this is normal and they need to force themselves to go. It will help open the urethra. Captain Ezra has all the paperwork for you and your friends and will go over everything including getting through customs. From here on out, you need speak English as much as possible. The same for your friends if any is known. Where you will all go now, it will be language needed."
"One more thing, the five body bags need to be rolled up nice and tight and put into a hidden compartment under the round table in front of the back most captain's chair. There isn't much room so those bags need to get real small!"
One by one the others woke. As they become coherent, the first pilot handed them travel documents, visas, and informed them they were all being taken to live in the United States to live with Zoran and his uncle. At the same time, Zoran heated up frozen dinners for them.
Nikolay eyed the man, then Zoran, "Why not just tell us this?"
Captain Ezra shook his head. "We couldn't have any excited talk being overheard. The documents I am giving you are good, but the rest were not. Only Zoran was on good papers. The rest of you were shown as brothers and cousins killed when a Russian artillery round hit your house and caused a fire. The cause of death to each of you was smoke from the fire. This was a way to give good reason while you were all in one piece."
"Why take all of us?" Ludvik demanded to know as his finger once again touched the scar on this side of his face.
Zoran forced a grin, "I told Uncle Symon on the phone I didn't want to leave you behind. I only have five friends left in the whole world after the bombs hit our school. I know no one else and you are all like my family. I told him I would not leave any of you. We would have had Sasha here too..."
Several of the boys looked down or away as memories of them all tying to stop the flow of blood coming out of twelve year old Sasha's bullet pierced neck only a week prior flooded back into them. Zoran let out a combination sigh and sob, "Eight days... if the sniper hadn't shot him eight days ago Sasha would be here too!"
Valentyn wiped tears from his eyes, "He took the bullet for me..."
"He took it because he was the oldest of us from our school and saw himself as our protector, Val." Ladislav reminded his friend even as he blinked tears of his own out of his light brown eyes. "When I get older I am going to go find the man who shot him and kill him!"
Seeing all five of the others nod in agreement, Captain Ezra decided to say nothing. Having never seen anyone shot, nor having been in a war zone he knew in his heart he couldn't relate. Instead he took a deep breath as he spoke, "Boys, the war is now several thousands of miles away. Within hours you will be in the United States, safe and sound with someone who cares enough about his nephew to pay way more than I care to think about to get him and his buddies to safety. Concentrate on the future where you don't have to worry about people shooting at you. Also if you know any English, please start speaking it."
Nikolay cocked his head to the side showing more than a little trepidation in his own eyes, "So all talk of Amer-ika being fill with guns and killers not true? Snipers... I do not want get shoot by sniper."
"There are bad men and women everywhere, young man," Captain Ezra spoke with sadness, "but the news likes to focus on the bad, so it seems so much worse than it really is. You will all be in a nice safe town in the middle of Missouri where nothing bad can happen to you.
For the boys, the hours seemed to blend together. The flight from London to Philadelphia allowed the kids to shake off the effects of the strong sedatives, eat a pair of meals and play video games on the private aircraft's two TV's. For the two boys who didn't have any experience with the play station controls, it certainly didn't take long for them to pick it up with a little guidance from their friends.
Upon landing at Philadelphia, they made their way through customs. This was made particularly easy since none of them had luggage and Captain Ezra did all the talking. While all six boys knew some English, it was hard for most of them to fully follow the conversations. All they fully understood was, they were being taken in as war orphans and paperwork showed them to all be related.
Fortunately, their less than great clothing pretty much told the customs officials they really were who they appeared to be. This, coupled with their astonishment of the massive airport, meant none of them were acting. Instead they eyed the countless shops and food places, the massive crowds, the huge jets coming and going with wonder. All of this distracted them, so they said nothing about not really being related to each other.
The customs official eyed each of the boys as they went though the metal detector. He couldn't help but snicker as the fourth boy through set off the alarm, was told to step back, take off his necklace, and walk back through. The boy continued to look around in awe as he simply did as instructed. He then ran into the side of the metal detector on the second time through, because he was looking at a boy slightly younger than himself carrying a massive stuffed Disney character, with the words "Disneyland" on it instead of where he was walking.
As a matter of fact, Valentyn didn't fully realize he had run into the metal detector. Instead, he simply took a step back, rubbed the side of his head where it had connected with the side of the device, took a step to the side, slid though sideways, and got his small piece of jewelry handed back to him, all without taking his eye off the giant stuffed toy.
Those in line behind the boy couldn't help but giggle and snicker as they watched Valentyn. Captain Ezra simply rolled his eyes, as he all but pulled the boy out of the way so the line could continue to move.
Once clear of customs Ezra found he had his hands very full. Even going from the 'A' Terminal, where all international fights flew into, then by tram to the 'E' Terminal, where they were flying Southwest to St. Louis, proved challenging. Every time Ezra turned to make sure he had all six boys in tow, at least one had stopped and was looking at something never seen before. Finally he had to pull the boys into a group and tell them to stick close to him.
The three-hour layover, which Ezra had really been dreading, proved to be the easy part. He simply set boundaries and told the six amazed youngsters they couldn't go past gates E-1 and E-2. He then handed each boy a twenty-dollar bill, making sure they understood there were taxes, in addition to the prices listed, and set a hard rule they had to stay in at least groups of two, the six pretty much took care of themselves.
Ezra watched the boys for a few minutes, but soon realized they were more than content to watch the planes take off and land, or just window shop. Not one of the boys let go of the twenty-dollar bill, either. It stayed clenched tightly in their hands. Finally he pulled out his cell and made a call. The phone was answered by a very nervous sounding man after only a single ring.
"Ez, you got them?"
"Yeah boss, six totally enthralled, wide-eyed and happy boys are now in the US. We are in Philly and through customs."
Ezra took a deep breath, "Yeah, the oldest one, Sasha, was killed about a week ago."
"Damn!" Zoran's uncle shouted, "If the Russians hadn't help shoot down that airliner, I could have gotten clearance weeks ago for you to fly there! Those bastards just can't stop killing people! Do you know how the boy died?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Sasha was killed by a sniper and it sounds like he died in the arms of all six I have with me. A couple firmly believe he took the bullet to protect the youngest, Valentyn," Ezra sighed. "They are all real angry about it."
"They deserve to be mad. If I can find out who fired the shot I will spend a few more bucks to take the bastard out!"
"After meeting these boys I wish I knew how to fight so I could do it. You are doing a real good thing here, boss."
"Anything stick out? Anything I need to be ready for?"
"Well," Ezra let out a long breath, "You are going to need to do some serious clothes shopping. What they are wearing is all we have and they have gotten more than a few stares. They seem real close, and pretty tight-lipped, but I managed to pick up a few things.
"Nikolay is real scared of snipers. He was worried about all the gun violence in the US and even asked me about snipers. I guess the news of guns here makes it into war zones. Go fig." Ezra paused and shook his head. "Ludvik has a real nasty scar on his face he keeps fingering for some reason. I also overhead Alexey mention his dad was in the Ukraine Army and was killed by Russians." Ezra managed a grin as he glanced over to Valentyn, who was once again looking at a kid with a large stuffed animal from some Six Flags' theme park. "Oh, and Valentyn's eyes bug out every time he sees a kid with a big stuffed toy."
This got a bit of a snicker out of Symon Zagorec, "You got a company card, don't be afraid to use it. I know the airport shops are expensive, but I don't want any of my boys looking like ragamuffins. Get them some kind of bags to carry and get them a couple of shirts and maybe a hoody or something. Once you get into St. Louis, I'll take over and fill up the SUV with enough to get them through until I have a good handle on what they will want, need, and like. So what is the arrival looking like?"
"The fight shows on time, so we have just over two and a half hours till boarding."
There was an audible sigh of relief. "Ez, there is no way I can thank you enough for doing this..."
"It's no problem boss. Actually, this has not been nearly as bad as I expected. You are about to have six pretty darned polite boys, and you don't have to worry about language problems. All have a better than we expected handle on English. Alexey is the worst and Zoran is all but fluent. But even Alexey understands me without too much problems. I don't think you know this, but they were all in an English class when their school got hit. Only one kid in their class was killed, so them being there probably saved their lives."
"Russian dogs," Symon snarled. "Someone needs to put a bullet in Putin's ass and another in his skull!"
Ezra glanced back over his shoulder, "I believe you will soon be living with six boys who share your feelings, boss."
The next couple of weeks was one long nearly endless adventure for the six boys. They flew into St. Louis where they met the man responsible for pulling them out of the Ukraine, a man who had immigrated to the US in his early teens with his American mother an Ukrainian father, joined the US Army at age eighteen, and got a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Desert Storm just before his twentieth birthday. Symon came back from Iraq, got fitted with a prosthetic left arm, and figured out a way to make it grip better. His patent sold for more money than he ever figured he'd need; however, helping returning vets became a passion. Within six years he had nine more patents, all in prosthetics, was a multi-millionaire, and donated over half, back to helping his fellow vets with missing limbs.
He built a company on the outskirts of Columbia Missouri and hired people who shared his passion, many of them former vets like himself. When Russians invaded the Ukraine, he tried to get his brother and his family out, but it was too late. His brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew had been killed. How, exactly, Symon had yet to find out, but he knew one of the kids had not been killed. It took over a million in cash to find the boy, another hundred thousand to find a way to get Zoran on a phone and talk to him, then another two and a half million to get him and the five boys the youngster refused to leave out. However, for Symon the money had been beyond well spent. The moment his eyes saw the six sets of eyes looking at him, he knew in his heart he had done the right thing.
For two weeks he turned his business over to one of his war buddies, while Ezra kept a handle of the finances as always. Symon's sole focus was the boys, his boys. There was shopping to be done, more shopping than Symon had done in his entire forty-four years combined. Clothing, beds, outfitting six rooms in a newly built wing in his home; the one extra room the boys asked if they could decorate as if Sasha was still with them. This was hard, but Symon knew this would help them heal and the obvious pain of losing someone they all saw as their 'older brother' still weighed heavily on them all.
School was also a concern, but after some debate and the kids showing some fear about going to a school since they had almost been killed inside a classroom by an artillery round, Symon decided to invest in computers and a high-end, online school for the six boys. He also found and paid a considerable amount for a home-school teacher to come over three evenings a week for two hours to work with the boys on any and all issues they were having, because, other than math and English, Symon knew he was not the right guy to be helping with school work.
The weekends were spent at Symon's private spot, his hide-away he bought after selling his first patent. It was an abandoned property with a rundown house all but forgotten. As it happened, it was not far from where spent his teenaged years in De Soto, Missouri. The property was actually in Blackwell, but it was perfect. It had a long, third-of-a-mile, private road, a large outbuilding, which was instantly transformed into a workroom to play with prosthetics, a four-bedroom house, with an open basement, and a smaller out garage. It sat on sixty-five acres of land, which was mostly forested and gave him all the peace and quiet he needed to work on his inventions.
The boys instantly fell in love with the property. It was a place away from everything they had grown to fear. It was also a place where ten and eleven-year-old fifth-graders could run wild to their heart's content. There were woods to explore, a stream to play in, a few shallow caves to investigate, and just to the west of the property was a large farm, with two slightly older boys, who were only more than happy to go fishing with the younger boys on the shores of the Big River and show them all the best spots. They were also only more than happy to tell the six younger boys about the local ghosts of area, including the well-documented ghosts of Black Tram Bridge.
As legend has it, the old bridge, which had been torn down and replaced by a much newer bridge, was used to hang people, especially escaped slaves, off of. Local rumors say taking away the bridge structure didn't end the haunting however. All of Upper Blackwell Road and the new bridge were known to be heavily haunted. The real eerie part was the bridge was less than a mile from Symon's cabin on foot, and while not on Symon's land, there was nothing but forest between the house and the bridge. It didn't take long at all for the six boys, led by the two teens to hike up to the bridge and cross over it so they were on the haunted Upper Blackwell Road.
The older boys, seeing their stories were making an impact, decided to go deeper into the legends of the area, for as luck would have it, the property Symon purchased included part of Dark Hollow. While the two young teens didn't know exactly why it had the name Dark Hollow or who had named it such, they had no problem pulling it up on Google Maps to prove to the wide-eyed fifth graders they were not lying about it being there. All the teens really knew was what they had heard. Dark Hollow was thought to be a place of power by the Native Americans, a place where the spirits could cross over. While this caused some unease in the younger kids, it certainly didn't dissuade them from wanting to go down there to investigate it over and over again.
By Late October, the boys were eagerly looking forward to their weekend getaway to the "cabin" which was what Symon referred to it as. On the other hand, Friday was Halloween and they also had every intention of going trick-or-treating, and in this Symon took great pleasure in helping the boys with the most amazing costumes he could help them to make. For there would be no store bought cheap junk, nothing cheesy, not for his boys. This was his first "holiday" with his boys and he had every intention of making it as awesome as he could. He also wanted a reason to get lots of pictures of the boys since he found himself missing their smiling faces while at his work desk back in the office.
One thing Symon had noticed over the prior few weeks was each of the boys, with the exception of Ludvik, had a piece of jewelry. Each clearly held some significance to the boys because getting them to take them off, even for bed, proved to be something akin to impossible. Even the necklaces worn by Zoran, Ladislav, and Valentyn stayed on as they slept. Although, after a long conversation with Valentyn, the boy reluctantly agreed to go to a jeweler so the chain tie tack, which he had managed to somehow get around his neck, was formally changed into a much nicer necklace with a heavier gold chain and a proper clasp. The gold starburst with the small diamond in the middle and rubies on each point of the four-pointed star remained, a reminder of his father and the only thing the boy had left of his family.
The other thing which seemed odd at first was three of the pieces of jewelry were Celtic in design. Zoran had a silver necklace with a Valnot on it, Nikolay a silver and ruby earring in the shape of a Sheildknot, and Ladislav a silver necklace with all the Norse runes on it.
However, the pieces fell into place as Zoran told him Nikolay, Ladislav and Zoran had bought them at the same store, paid for by Ladislav's father while on a sleep over at Ladislav's home well before the war started. Until this point, he didn't realize most of the boys in his home had been friends for years prior to the war. In fact, their friendship was one of the reasons all of them were alive. They decided as a group to take the English class, which was in the section furthest from where the artillery shells hit on the school grounds. Of all the boys in his care, Valentyn had joined the group 'late' and was also the smallest and weakest of the group. Because of this, they all took over as 'big brothers' to protect him at the orphanage, including Alexey who was only a month older, but some of his solider father had rubbed off on the lad. He was a pretty tough little guy.
Alexey's piece of jewelry was different since he had not been at the sleepover because he had been grounded at the time. However, at some point, Ladislav's father took some pity on the boy and bought him a bracelet with an oriental dragon on it since the boy loved dragons. Alexey's love of them had became apparent to Symon almost from the first day, since his room had over a dozen dragon figurines in it before many of the kids figured out what they wanted to decorate theirs with.
However, since the only one of his boys who didn't have a piece of jewelry of his own was Ludvik, he allowed the youngster to pick out something he liked online, then bought it without hesitation. The boy found something that fit with what most his friends wore and his eyes lit up. Even Symon had to admit silver necklace with the golden medallion of Odin's Horn surrounded with all the letters of the Norse people was pretty spectacular. He didn't even bother to look at the price. He put it on his credit card and put it in for next day delivery.
By Wednesday mid-morning, October 29th, Symon knew he wasn't going to make the kids happy unless he pulled out all the stops. With a smirk, he loaded up the boys and took them to his factory for the first time. He moved to where he normally looked out over the production of customized prosthetic body parts and let out a sharp whistle. Employees safetied their machines and looked up seeing six wide-eyed boys huddled on the rail looking down at them. "Gentlemen and ladies, you have all heard me talk of my recent adoption of my nephew and a few of his friends. First off, I would like you all to meet them. Second, and even more importantly to them, they need so help on their highly intricate costume desires and I told them I have just the right people to help them. Take thirty to finish the parts you are working on then all lines shut down until my boys have the look they are going for. I'm offering overtime if needed to get it done tonight!
One glance around the room brought a big smile to his face. His people took to the change of pace with an exuberance Symon found surprising. Men and women moved up from the production floor, took the boys into a conference room, and let them tell of their deepest costume desires. Once Ladislav asked if he could learn to use some the machines to help make his costume, and all five others nodded with a hint of excitement as to their own desires to want to learn and work on their costumes, it was clear his boys were going to be welcome whenever they so much as showed their faces.
Zoran wanted to be mini Viking warrior complete with real chain armor. One man instantly recommended making it out of aluminum to keep the weight reasonable. A pair of daggers, a boot knife, an axe, and shield with a hammer of Thor on it rounded him out well, but with the help of two men he made leather boots for himself and a leather backpack with straps to hold the axe. The men then helped him put some mystical looking runes on the axe blade. The weapons were lightweight and real, albeit dulled.
Nikolay wanted to go with a blend of a pirate and ninja, his idea was to have the look of a Viking pirate in studded leather armor, but with ninja throwing stars instead of daggers and a katana over his shoulder. However, one of the men was a bit of samurai buff, so before night fell the boy ended up looking like a full-fledged swordsman with Japanese style armor, a Katana, but with an added bandoleer of throwing stars, and gauntlets. Much like Zoran, the weapons made in Symon's shop and were real, just without a sharp edge to the blades.
Ladislav desired to have a more magical feel. He wanted to be a Nordic wizard or priest with the centerpiece of his costume being his Norse letter necklace. Once he showed he wasn't afraid to really get his hands dirty to help, three men jumped in and added a great deal of extra flair to his outfit. His belt became interlocked shield knots with a Valknut buckle which held his black robe closed. One of the women then sewed thick shield knots appliquéd to the outline of the robe. However, one of Symon's more mischievous employees went above and beyond. He made the boy a wooden staff decorated with Nordic runes with a horned beast's skull on the top, but didn't stop there. With a push of a button, a lighter-like device ignited a small charge to produce a blast of eerie green flame out of the skull's mouth. The entire center of the staff held the charges so he could do it almost a hundred times before it ran out, and refilling was made easy. All the boy had to do was unscrew the top, pullout the inner tube, and put in a new one. He made four such extra tubes. Symon didn't know whether to give the guy a pay raise or fire him. The look of glee on Ladislav's face made the decision an easy one.
Ludvik took a more active role in his costuming. He worked with a couple of the men to make him look like a vampire hunter. A belt of wooden spikes, a silver cross necklace, a wooden mallet, a real crossbow with a quiver of fifteen silver tipped bolts, and his centerpiece, a large cross he could hold out, but with the flip of a lever became a knife, a real one, a sharp one... This caused Symon some grief, but the boy promised he would never hurt himself with it and he made it with limited help. Seeing the boy's pleading eyes, Symon knew the fight was over before he started arguing, but tried for a few seconds nonetheless.
Alexey decided to stick with something he knew yet wanted to blend in with the others at least to some degree. With his true love being archery, he quickly angled toward being an English Longbowman. This caused three men to study how to make a bow, a real one, arrows, and figure out how to make it look wooden while not actually being wood. Their answer was carbon composite with a wood-finish looking epoxy coating. They then made sure Alexey could actually pull and fire it before etching it with a pair of dragons to match his bracelet. Two bows went into the trash before the third proved to be beyond impressive, as did the boy's aim. While they pulled up everything they could on bow and arrow making; two others were only too happy to make him a chain vest, leather undershirt, britches, boots, leather arm guards, quiver for fifteen arrows, a short sword and dagger, all with dragons etched on them. By the time the sky was turning dark, Alexey was actually getting a feel for stitching leather under the close supervision of one of the women.
It was Valentyn who tossed the employees a serious curveball. He wasn't really into the whole ancient warrior thing. Instead he was a serious science fiction lover and after living in a war zone, realized the idea of a post-apocalyptic warrior was in line with his vision of a cool costume. He had no problem telling those around him he wanted a laser rifle hooked to a backpack power unit, metal armor with a robotic look along with a helmet that looked like it had a HUD. He also really wanted a powered serrated blade. Three men and two women all looked at each other, exchanged grins, motioned the boy over and went to work. It was well after the boy's normal bedtime before he exited the production floor with everything he wanted and more. The blade was battery powered with fiber optics running along the edges, which changed color, the laser rifle had a laser sight and flashed with a trio of laser pointer lights of red, green, and blue when he pushed the trigger. His HUD didn't just project a crosshair like he expected and asked for. Instead the two women ditched such a basic idea. They did what many would expect women to do: they went shopping! A couple of hours later they came back with a bag of electronic items all bought on the company's dime. They spent the rest of the day and deep into the night installing them so the HUD ended up giving an actual temperature, time, and GPS coordinates depending on what button he pushed on the left and side. While the right hand side of the helmet ended up controlling a built-in MP3 player, along with FM radio reception, and a ten-channel walkie-talkie. Finally, they put in a Bluetooth so he could talk on his cell phone through the helmet. Those looking at the boy's face could see the display change as he touched buttons too.
Symon saw the looks on the other five and shook his head as Valentyn played with his new, very high tech, toy. With a shake of his head and a roll of his eyes, he handed the women a company card and walked away. There was no question what he would be paying them to do over the following two days.
By the time Friday came, the boys were chewing their fingernails as they sat in front of their computers doing schoolwork. They knew they had the best costumes in the world and they also knew the man, all of them were now calling Unk Symon, was taking them to trick-or-treat and then to a party where they would surely stand out! The time moving on the bottom of the computers seemed to slow down with each passing minute.
By the time they finished their daily lessons then finished making up for missing Wednesday, Symon was pulling into the drive. He dropped down a trio of pizzas with a wide smile, "Eat up boys so you can get into your costumes! We need to be in my old neighborhood in about an hour, then an hour and a half for hoarding sweets before we go to the party I was telling you all about!"
While the boys ate, he went back out to his SUV and brought back five more helmets, each designed to fit with the outfits the boys wanted, even Ladislav's wizard hat and Ludvik's wide brimmed vampire hunter's hat. The women had made them so the display visor could be pulled up into the brims and hidden, or dropped down to have access to all the information. He also informed the six astonished boys, the two ladies were working on something more stylized and in a bike helmet for all of them, including himself, while admitting he was working on a patent to sell them on the open market.
As expected, the six youngsters were a hit, both on the streets and at the party. By the time he loaded the boys into the back of his SUV, Symon was sure there were gigabytes worth of pictures taken of the six kids and the costumes did exactly what he had hoped they would. The somewhat self-conscious boys each had several phone numbers of new potential friends plugged into their... Well their hats!
On the drive home, the still energy filled boys talked, but as they approached the turnoff to head to the 'cabin' Ludvik spoke up, "Unk Symon, is the bridge haunted?"
Symon glanced back using the mirror, "I have heard hundreds of stories about it, Ludvik, but never seen anything. Where did you hear about it?"
"The Vorigan brothers," Zoran responded. "They showed us all sorts of stuff on Google about the bridge and the road. There are even a few stories saying a road sometimes appears!"
Symon grinned, "Well here we are, just a few minutes before midnight, on Halloween night; let's find out if we can see anything!"
In the back the six boys exchanged nervous snickers but all nodded as they looked out the windows with eager anticipation. Only Zoran looked out with a little sadness. "This would be so much better with Sasha."
One by one, the other kids nodded in agreement. Sasha had been a storyteller. What he would have done with such a chance as this they could only guess. Almost in turn by ages, each shook their heads in anger over their close friend not being around to enjoy this moment and in hatred over the unknown person who had taken his life so needlessly.
Nat far away an entity stirred. It was a strange night the humans had once per year. They looked for the scary, they dressed as creatures of horror, they used Ouija Boards in far greater numbers, they went out to places where the barriers between worlds were weaker in far greater numbers. It was a time where its core could actually feel the pathways weaken between its home world and those calling themselves human. Long ago it was worshiped by some and feared by most, but those days had all but vanished until it and those like it were joked about by most. Now it was just resting, biding its time. But as the witching hour came and the day the humans liked to play with scary things receded into the distance, the barriers blocking it were mere threads, easily broken by the humans. It was then this mostly forgotten entity felt a twinge. A believer? No, not really. Just another hopeful... but AH, there was not just one but six, and they had anger... Oh, not just anger, hatred! There was something the entity could latch onto and it was in abundance. Even better, it could feel twinges of fear, the very thing it fed on!
For the first time in many, many years it didn't just send out the remnants of those it had drained nearly dry in the past, just to get a quick and joyous twang of panic out of a few humans. No, not this time. The gates were down and there were six delicious young ones to feed on. The seventh, a much more resistive fellow, well he would just have to learn to be a believer, for the time was perfect!
Symon couldn't help but smile as the boys looked out the window, both hoping to see something and nothing all at the same time. Over the years he had heard of the haunting of Upper Blackwell Road. Many in the area were convinced and more than one would swear on a bible they had seen "something". It was all a bunch of nonsense of course, but if it got a glimmer out of the boys, then it was worth the time. The only troubling part was their sadness at their friend not being with them, but in a way, Symon felt this was a chance for healing some of those wounds, and this was a good thing as well.
He slowed as he crossed the new bridge, to let the kids take in the spookiness of the area, and enjoyed the time with his boys, but then it happened. Out of the mist a pair of men holding muskets blocked the road, yet he could see right through them! "Holy mother..." He stated to say only to hear the kids gasp.
Knowing they were not looking forward, he glanced out the side window. He was on the bridge, but the outline of the old one with the metal sides could be seen. Hanging off both sides were ghostly bodies, the nooses around their necks. They were twitching and kicking! Fear overtook him. He punched the gas, blowing right past... No... Right through the men who were definitely wearing Confederate uniforms!
Before he could catch his breath, however, four men with a cannon appeared in front of him, while off to the south a dirt road appeared, a road he had never noticed before. But unlike the ghostly figures, these looked more solid. Then the cannon fired. Not wanting to take any chances Symon cut the wheel hard to the right and took the dirt road.
Down in Dark Hollow, the entity laughed, oh yes he would feed tonight!
The SUV was built for some off-roading, but Symon realized it was something smaller, more of a wagon path with ruts where the horse-drawn wagons pulled the wheels though the mud. The SUV careened down the hill. Symon saw the river and tired to slam on the brakes, but nothing happened. The SUV continued down the hill. He turned with terror in his voice, "Boys, roll down the windows so when we hit the water you can all get out!"
However, not even this basic law of physics held. The truck hit the embankment bounced once and then went across the river. To those in the SUV, they could hear the wheels going over what sounded to be a wooden bridge with separation in the slats, but there was only water below them. By this time the boys in the back held on to each other while Symon gripped the steering wheel and kept his foot firmly on the brake even though neither did any good. Something had them and he could do nothing to stop it.
The SUV's steering wheel recoiled from Symon's grasp one more time, hard, while the vehicle bounced wildly down toward the deepest part of Dark Hollow, miraculously avoiding trees and rocks, until at last, the front end crumpled as it hit a large rocky outcropping. The jolt was hard enough to knock everyone in the vehicle unconscious.
A red swirling form came out of a small cave. It floated in and out of the open windows, touching and tasting the boys. It snickered. They had been here before, had poked their heads into its home, never knowing just how close they had come to becoming a victim of its hunger for hatred and thirst for fear!
Seven humans to play with. The number was unacceptable. No, the large one, the adult, had to go. It could not have seven, but six, yes six was a perfect number. With power it had not used in longer than it could easily remember, the form pulled four of its former human playthings out of its cave and pointed to the man. "Take this one to the upper part of my hollow. Let it find its way home. It is nothing to me and seven..." It shuddered noticeably, "No, I need six!"
The four figures, two Confederate soldiers, a Union drummer boy, and an escaped slave lowered their heads. As the form fed them enough to become whole for the first time since it had drained them of life by sucking on their fears, they took a moment to savor a real smell and feel a random gust of breeze. Knowing they had no choice, they pulled the man out of the front and took him up the hill. However, for this, the entity took a rare bit of pity on them and released them as they came back down the hill. The four exchanged glances of astonishment even as the felt their essences flow once and for all to the waiting afterlife they had been so cruelly kept from. Only the drummer boy looked back down toward the hole he had come out of with regret for his father, the unit's commanding officer was still being held. However, he knew his father would understand and would want him to go. So, after a few seconds of hesitation and feeling the entity start to take hold again, the boy faded until the remaining rags of his century and a half clothing fell into a heap where he had just been standing.
With the lingering taint of a seventh out of the way, the entity once again swirled in and out of the ruined SUV, gaining strength from their hatred and tasting the deepest buried fears of the boys. Oh, it had been so long since it had fed like this. This needed to be savored! However, the barriers between worlds would not stay this frail for long, so after a few more seconds of running its red wispy tendrils over the boys, it formed into a ball and sent out six pencil thin extensions of itself. One went into the nostril of each boy, traveled down into the boys' mouths, down into the stomachs and spread out. From there the entity took over every bit of the boys' bodies. It controlled everything. All five senses, the feelings of every nerve, and above all else, had access to all memories. From this information it made a plan to literally scare the boys to death. It would feed on this fear and by the time the first hint of light appeared to the east, the boys would join the others the entity held, but they would be fresh and so much fun to play with.
Tendril one took over Ladislav and found the perfect fear. The tendrils coursing though the boy's body caused him to twitch and his eyes to open. However, he didn't see where he was really at. Instead he found himself in a mine. He shouted and looked around wildly. He shouted out for his friends, for Unk Symon, but the entity prevented anything from truly exiting the body in the form of voice. Ladislav heard his voice, however, since his eardrums were under the control of the entity.
From here on out Ladislav's body did nothing but jerk a little, still buckled into the seat next to his friends but for him, he was in a mine. He stood and looked around. A pick was at his feet. He stared at it for a moment but suddenly his back took the strike of a whip. He fell screaming. A man with a horribly sacred face move up, “I paid for you to work! Now dig dog!"
"Where is Unk Symon?"
The man snapped the whip centimeters from Ladislav's face, "Boy what are you talking about? Didn't you see the cash change hands? I bought you boy!" The man spit in Ladislav's face, "Now dig!"
With trembling arms Ladislav picked up the pick, but as he did so, he saw an old metal mining cart on a track. To this, the man pointed, "There be coal to dig, boy, and you don't eat till this is full!"
Ladislav looked up with huge eyes, "Just me?"
The whip cracked again, "Do you see anyone else, boy?" The man then moved back and pulled a lever; a loud clang sounded from above and a solid metal plate with rivets in it dropped down, cutting Ladislav off from everything but the pick, the black wall, which he assumed was coal, and the mining cart. He screamed in pure fear as the single lantern flickered like it was about to go out.
The center of the entity glowed brighter as it started to feed!
The second extension of the entity took control of Nikolay. It entered the boy with a tingle. The fear in this boy was positively palatable!
Nikolay jerked awake to the sound of gunfire. Beside him a Ukrainian soldier he had never seen fired from behind some sandbags. From somewhere in front of the line of bags, a young voice pleaded for help. A bullet struck the rock less than a meter from his foot, even as the sounds of a bullet hitting a body could be heard from the other side of the sandbags. He had heard the sound before. It was burned into him from the moment Sasha had taken the bullet clearly meant for Valentyn.
On the other side of Nikolay, a man in an officer's uniform nudged him. "You're up, get him before the sniper puts another bullet into him!"
Nikolay shook his head, but even as he did so, he realized he was dressed in the uniform of a Ukrainian lower enlisted soldier, and all around him were boys his own age!
The man slapped Nikolay hard enough to leave a hand imprint on his face, "Boy, that is your friend, your comrade out there!"
With terror running though his veins he peaked out over the line of sandbags. What he saw made him scream, for it was his best friend before he moved to Torez lying in a pool of his own blood, his hand reaching out for help. Even as friend did this, another bullet tore into the body, putting a hole clean though the hand reaching out in hopes of someone saving him.
The man shook Nikolay, "How many bullets are you going to force him to take, boy? When we paid for you we were told you were his buddy!"
Angrily, the only other adult grabbed Nikolay and tossed him over the sandbags, "Get him or die!"
Nikolay screamed as a bullet tore though his canteen, narrowly missing flesh. The entity grew brighter.
The third tendril stroked the face of Ludvik, following the scar from where it started to where it ended a couple of times. This would be easy, too easy. It darted it knowing what it was going to do.
Ludvik shook his head and glanced around but it was too dark to make much out. Something was wrong. He started to sit up but stopped as he felt the heavy chain around his wrist. He turned and eyed his wrist. There it was an iron band with a chain leading to a chain on the floor. The rattle of other chains caught his attention. Where was he, why did he only have boxers on, and why was he chained?
Suddenly a door opened, which let in light. It hurt his eyes, but allowed him to see he was in a wooden building with dozens of wooden slats where boys about his age were lying down, some softly crying. He didn't really understand how he knew, but he was certain shouting and crying would be a bad thing and talking probably worse. Still he had to try. "Hey," he whispered to the boy next to him. He was not surprised at all when the boy's eyes went wide and shook his head in both fear and warning.
Down the line of bunks, a man looking more like something out of a movie of a roman slave master than a real person, grabbed a boy, "You! I heard you speak, what part of not talking don't you get!" The man then picked the boy up by his hair and shook the offending child. The screams drowned out all other sounds.
The huge man then moved down the line and stopped directly in front of Ludvik, but turned to the boy across from him. "Number twenty-six, we have a buyer for you." the man reached down, unlocked the chain attached to the heavy chain on the floor and pulled the boy to his feet. The massive brute then held up a long metal rod with a squiggly emblem on the end. He held it up to the boy's shoulder. "Yes, your owner's brad will fit nicely there."
Even as the boy was forcefully dragged out, Ludvik used his free hand to touch his scar, but he was shaking so badly he couldn't even run his finger down it. The memory of lying in the rubble of his school, the spring wires sparking only centimeters from where he lay pinned under debris filled him, then one thin white-hot wire falling on his face and neck came back as if it was yesterday. "No..." He muttered, "No..." All around him the other boys shook their heads and tried to edge further away as best they could.
The man tossed the other boy out the door and made his way right up to Ludvik, "Number sixty-six, you are lucky there is buyer for you, or your speaking would get you a lashing the likes of which would peal the skin off your back. As it is, it is time to take you to branding. This time the man held up a massive brand, pulled Ludvik's leg straight, and checked the size, which would run from Ludvik's hip to his ankle. "You will certainly look decorative for your new owner with one of these on both legs!"
Ludvik fell in front of the huge man and started dry heaving in overwhelming panic. At the same time, the boy who had just been taken out was tossed down so Ludvik could see. Another man, with the small brand in hand, used a blowtorch to heat the metal till it glowed red, then slammed it into the child's shoulder. There was no way to tell who screamed louder, Ludvik or the branded boy. The entity flared brightly as it fed.
The fourth finger moved over Valentyn as if it was petting the boy before driving into the boy with a great deal of speed showing its eagerness. Valentyn shivered as he woke. There was a cold bite to the air. He opened his eyes but saw nothing but blackness. A moment later his foot stepped into something squishy. It was then he realized his feet were bare. This was also when the stench hit him. It was putrid, but it was a smell Valentyn knew, swine... Nasty, horrible, mean, swine. Why was he smelling swine?
Suddenly a rope around his neck was pulled tight, forcing him to take another step forward into more squishy nastiness. As a new wave of stench surrounded him, he knew he had just stepped into swine crap, just like he had back on his great-aunt's farm when he had been all but forced to help her over a summer, with his older brother after her husband had died. He also realized he had something over his head and a rope around his neck. Finally, something was pulling on the rope. He tried to reach up to grab the rope, but his hands were also tied and secured to something around his waist. "What is going on?" He shouted as his fear spiked.
A mean sounding woman's voice responded, "I was told you know how to work a farm, brat, so I bought you. I bet I get a good thirty years of work out of you, which will more than pay for the cash I handed over for you!"
Each step his bare feet seemed to go deeper into the foul smelling mush under his feet, Valentyn tired to jerk, but the rope tightened around his neck. He started choking. The woman laughed, "You go nowhere until the pig barn is mucked out, boy, nor do you eat."
The rope loosened allowing the boy to get a breath of air, but this proved to be almost as bad as not being able to breathe. The reek was so bad in the air he could taste it! Yet he had no choice but to take another step forward. The grossness was now up to his calf. There was a moment of nothing, but then he felt the rope around his hands get cut, freeing his hands. He stood unmoving for several moments, a cold breeze chilling him to the bone. Finally the voice of the woman came from much further away. "Well, boy what are you waiting for, get to work before you freeze. I ain't gunna let you get clothing dirty cleaning this place out neither!"
Valentyn removed the hood felt crushing despair as he found himself in a barn totally full of swine crap. He wore nothing at all, and through the wide-open windows of the barn, a few wispy snowflakes fell. At his pig-feces covered feet and lower legs was a bucket and a shovel. Tears of terror rolled down his cheeks.
This cause the glowing red ball to swirl with complete satisfaction as this flowed into it.
The fifth tentacle descended on Alexey. It didn't linger. The boy had one overriding fear. This was simply too easy.
Alexey woke up in a bed with only a mattress and a toilet sink combination unit. The only other thing in the room was a huge Russian flag. He stared at it, fear already causing his heart to beat fast.
The single door opened and a kid his age was tossed in. The boy hit the ground hard, but only let out a moan. Alexey jumped off the bed and knelt. The kid was a mess of bruises, a bloody nose, had two dislocated fingers, his shirt had been all but ripped to shreds, a human bite mark on his shoulder, and one of his toes bled form where the nail had been removed.
Before Alexey could fully comprehend the damage he was looking at, a tray was slid through a slot at the bottom of the door and a man's voice spoke up, "Fix him up so the Russian boys can play with him again!"
"What!?" Alexey shouted.
The boy next to him managed to speak with a wheezing sound, "My Papa, he was Ukraine Army. They put me in a room... It had older kids... All ones my Papa killed the papa's of... Please don't let them take me again..."
The voice at the door laughed, "Ukrainian dog, you are in Russia! You will not die but will wish you had. Look closely, Alexey of the Ukraine, even now we are rounding up those who will get to play with you! We even have one coming with a desire to play with knives since your father gutted his father! Now eat, you will soon need your strength!" The sliding door slid closed to the sounds of the man laughing.
Alexey wrapped his arms around the boy with him and cried knowing he would soon look as bad, if not worse, then the boy in front of him.
The glowing mass of swirling red got a bit brighter. Yes, Alexey was just too easy, so he would make this one last the longest. A slow drain of life forces, through ever increasing fear, was so much fun!
Finally the last offshoot maneuvered around Zoran, yes, it felt the fear but it was nothing solid. Fear of what had just happened, fear of the unknown, but it could find nothing to really latch onto. There was also anger and hatred, but this was not unfocused rage toward a whole group of people like the others who all hated Russians with a passion. This boy hated a few, those who caused the invasion of his country, in particular a man by the name of Putin, those who prevented him from reuniting with his father and sister, and finally the single man who shot Sasha. All justifiable and targeted, not random. This made things so much harder. The strand jerked back, it did not like this, but the whole needed six, not five, to fully break down the barriers and take the boys in. With the adult out of range, it had no choice if it wanted the others, and want... Oh it wanted... It lusted... It NEEDED...
The wispy thread went forward once again, but rebelled. This was not a good one to feed from. The whole, however, demanded and so it went in to take over. It went with the only thing it could really find as a deep fear.
Zoran shook his head. His ears were ringing and his arm hurt bad. He tired to sit up only to find rubble covering him. It was too heavy to lift off. "How..." He spoke for a second then his demeanor hardened. If he was here so were his friends, they had been together! "Alexey, Val, Ludvik, Lad, Nik! Can any of you hear me?"
At this the center of the entity dimmed slightly. The boy was afraid, but not as much for himself as he was for his friends! This would ruin everything! It refocused its energy, letting up on the other five to push deeper and harder on and into this last whelp!
Zoran cringed and pulled himself under the rubble as far as all the weight on him would allow as a shell hit just outside wherever he was. Chunks of debris rained down on him, but this only gave him an adrenaline burst. He twisted with everything he had.
Inside the ruined SUV Zoran's body jerked hard. Had the seatbelt not held him, he would have fallen out the opening where the door had been sheared off in the collision with the rock formation.
Once again the glow of the ancient being dimmed as the branch it had sent into Zoran was yanked hard. It tried to withdraw, but it couldn't! This was not possible!
Zoran gritted his teeth as he twisted again, this time a chunk of the rubble on top of him shifted enough to allow him to squiggle free. Another shell hit. This one pelted him with rocks and knocked him back down. Zoran picked himself back up with a snarl, "Guys! Call out so I can get to you!"
With the weakest link being Alexey, Zoran's voice pushed all the way through the entity's body and over to his friend.
Alexey, in his cell with the battered boy, heard a voice, it was distant but it was Zoran defiantly shouting out, looking for him. "Here, I am here! Help me!"
At this the entity let out a howl of pain as it realized it was no longer the predator; it was the prey. The love the urchin had for his friends was beyond powerful. Not even threat of death was stopping the human child from trying to save his friends. This was the Achilles heel of the entity and now, with Alexey gaining hope and loosing fear, it could not pull out of either boy. It was just a matter of time before the power it was expending on the others would weaken under this unexpected onslaught of the most accursed thing in the multiverse, self-sacrificing love... It was then the entity realized this was nothing new for this human. He had done this once before, willing to stay with his friends rather than abandon them back in the Ukraine. If the boy had done this in real life, there was no chance of tricking the boy into not doing it in the mental-scape!
This power, now radiating out of Zoran, woke a second being. Not in countless decades had anything given this second being power to fully manifest other than the one time of year when love seemed to flow in abundance, but it was too soon for this. The time was just over two moons away before the gifts, the songs, and the compassion of the season should allow it to wake. This caught its full attention. It moved through the hole between worlds and looked in with curiosity. What it saw was something beyond amazing. It watched for a few moments.
Zoran finally broke out of the rubble and started to dig. The shout of Alexey was at first nothing more than phantom voice, but as he continued to toss rubble trying to find his friends, even as bullets and rocket fire all but exploded around him, he heard the plea and moved toward it.
The glowing ball dimmed further as it was wracked with pain the likes it had forgotten it could experience. The fibers of its being were being stretched too thin and it was losing the ability to stay manifested. As this happened, the others under its control started to hear a voice, which in turn offered them the dreadful thing called hope!
The second form moved close and spun around the dimming red ball, "Well, well, well, it seems you have sunk your teeth into something with a bite of its own."
The center of the red mass formed into a beastly face, "Be gone, Thunderer, I am Windigo and will not be berated by your kind!"
The soft white glow sparkled with electrical energy as it felt the Windigo weaken further even as the boy, it now knew as Zoran, pulled more fear back away from the fear sucker. "Let them go. You are stuck and the gates are closing."
"No! I will see their spirits split first! I will rip their essences from their bodies!"
"Ah, now, I cannot allow this and you know it. For as you grow weak, I grow strong. I will prevent any such thing."
"Thunderer, I will not see you win, I will simply stay here and let this part of me die first..."
"Now, now, if you let such a thing happen, those you control will be loosed upon this realm and with their manifested spirits walking this land, it will only be a matter of time before the humans here realize there is a spirit realm. Void will then follow. You have no other world to escape to, nor do I. Do you really wish to see what you have now in the hands of Void?"
At this the Windigo growled and even shuddered some.
The Thunderer took on a form of a winged man with a drum hanging down from his neck with a hammer made of lightning to strike it with. The man's face gave the Windigo a smirk. "I thought not."
The horned head and misshapen face of the Windigo took on a snarling expression, "You would lose as much as I!"
"Yet you just stand there! Help me take these six before it is too late for both of us!"
At this the Thunderer only laughed, "Not even a good try, you have lost much of your touch since last we met face to face. No, I have a better idea, one even you can see the merits of."
By this time Zoran was making serious headway. He had gotten to a door where he could hear Alexey on the other side. He picked up a large rock and started pounding on it. For Alexey's part, he could see dents starting to appear in what he thought was a thick metal door. His hope grew.
This wracked the Windigo with nearly intolerable pain. It let out a gasp of agony. "Fine," it managed to hiss out even as it desperately fought to keep the 'door' between the boys closed, "speak!"
The Thunderer knew it had the upper hand this time, so its smile broadened. "It seems to me the gates are down and you have stumbled upon six who, if put in the right place, could give Void a real fight. I will help you send them there, you will help me make their costumes real, and together we add in the man you had unceremoniously dumped up the hill, so they have an adult to support them. We then wait seven years and let them back into their bodies here. For us a moment, for them seven years, then back into bodies only hours older.
"Void takes a beating and we give this world protectors to help make sure Void never reaches here."
"They will die! There is no way this group of human pups can fight Void!"
"Then their bodies will be found here, in this horseless buggy, and your Hollow gets an even bigger reputation. Maybe we start gaining enough power to at least give Void a good fight when he finally finds this realm."
"You get two sevens, seven years and seven beings and I get..."
"You get to live and not have to admit defeat to a pup," Thunderer snickered, "remember, your words not mine!"
As the hope of the boys grew it was inundated with even more pain. Windigo relented, "Fine! Let's play this game and watch. But I pick the place, and I choose to bridge them to the place of my birth, Dark Glade!"
"Oh... well... there is an almost certain death, but sure. For I have something you never will have, faith. I have faith these pups will surprise not only both of us, but Void as well and if they fight as valiantly as they tear at you, Dark Glade will not be as dark!"
Windigo screamed in total anguish as Zoran finally broke the door down and rushed to Alexey, wrapping the boy in a hug. As this happened, the hold Windigo had over Alexey collapsed and suddenly the boys were in a clearing and could hear the voices of their friends. While totally confused, they exchanged glances and raced toward the sound of Valentyn crying.
Windigo finally relented, as he knew the torment of the two finding one more would be too much to bear. With defeat, it sent out one more extension of itself and gave itself over to the Thunderer.
Zoran and Alexey stopped running as the distant barn with Valentyn's voice coming from it exploded outward as a massive bolt of lightning slammed into it. Three more bolts descended downward, destroying three more structures. As this happened the sky suddenly bubbled with energy that was tangible.
The boys shook their heads as a glowing tube opened. A figure of a winged man with a drum and holding lightning stepped through. As this happened, all their friends appeared, walking toward them as if they had stepped through doorways. They were all badly shook up, but wearing their costumes and were unhurt. "My, my, my," the winged figure spoke, "very impressive, but the love you have for one another will be needed for you to be able to truly go home, for you are in the Dark Hollow and the only escape is to take the fight to the force which is about to threaten your entire world.”
Seeing Zoran about to speak, the figure held up the lightning bolt and slammed it into the drum. The resulting thunderclap knocked all six boys on their butts, "Human, this is something already bargained and done. You are about to go to a world where the dark force of Void is on the verge of winning. If it does, your bodies in the Dark Hollow die, as do you. However, if you take the fight to this being and help the world you are about to go to, you can return in seven of the rotations of your planet around its star. Your bodies will flow back into the bodies you are now out of and it will be dawn of the day following your journey.
“You each have a piece of jewelry. In seven years time, it will transport you back to this spot, so you can step back into your bodies in the Dark Hollow."
It then pulled off a ring its own hand and tossed it to Zoran, "Your adult guardian will need this, for I have bargained for him to join you and he will need a way back to the Hollow with you. He will also need a weapon of power, so here." The winged man tossed down a blade just under a meter in length, along with a sheath. “Good luck!"
With those final words, the winged man extended his fingers and added in energy from the Windigo. The skies cleared and the boys found themselves back in Dark Hollow, only the trees were twisted and sick looking. At the same time they were infused with knowledge of how to use the props for their costumes and knew in their hearts all their weapons and gear were now real, ready to use, and deadly.
Valentyn pulled up his blade turned it on and swung at one of the branches. The glowing edge cut through, like the branch was made of butter. As he did this, Zoran pulled his axe and realized the runes on the blade were glowing. He, too, swung at a tree and watched in amazement as he lopped off the very thick branch as if it were a mere twig.
Another glowing hole opened and Symon tumbled out. He turned as a disfigured mountain lion leapt off a tree and aimed for his throat. It never made it. Instead it fell to an arrow, a crossbow bolt, and a red laser ray, which burned a hole all the way through it. Alexey, Ludvik, and Valentyn all readied themselves to fire a second shot if needed.
Symon looked down at the cat, which had rows of shark-like teeth and a scorpion-like tail. He turned to look at the boys with color draining from his face. "So this is for real?"
Nikolay moved up to the beast and with a single swipe of his katana cut off its head since he saw the thing twitch. "Me guessing yes, Unk Symon, but I take this over where me just was!"
Even as Symon eyed Nikolay with confusion all the others, except Zoran, nodded. Symon glanced down at the beheaded creature then back at the boys. He almost asked what could be worse than what was at his feet, but the looks in the eyes staring back at him told him he really didn't want to know.