Brie hailed a wagon pulled by a hardy-looking Kookeram. The Rattlesnake driving the cart agreed to loan the wagon to Richard, since Richard was experienced at driving carts and wagons. He was frightened when Brie told him where they were taking the wagon, so he told them to simply leave the wagon in Falling Stars…
“…If you ever make it out of Red Dawn alive,” the Rattlesnake hissed as he slithered off, holding a pike in his hand.
Richard gulped loudly, but Danielle smiled at him reassuringly. “Don’t worry uncle, we’ll be fine. No monster will harm us, I’m sure. Besides, I like monsters anyway.”
“Just hop into the wagon and let’s get going already!” Brie cried with a wave of her hand.
Danielle and Desmond climbed into the back of the cart, and Richard flicked the reins. The Kookeram raised its head and dashed off past the huge court building on top of the hill and down the dirt road, racing towards the Red Dawn woods.
There were quite a few lovely cottages and mansions built at the edge of the woods. There were no buildings that lead deeper into the forest, just much of the beginning. Some of the trees were bioluminescent, and so were many other plants, such as vines, bushes, and large, outlandish ferns.
“This forest isn’t that bad,” Danielle responded, watching the landscape as the wagon bounced along the path.
“She has a point, though,” Desmond agreed. “It’s a nice forest, and I’m not seeing any monster around. Guess the Hangman isn’t real at all, is he?”
Desmond snickered, and Richard laughed along with him, but Danielle kept a serious face, and so did Brie.
“I wouldn’t make fun of a monster,” Danielle said sternly. “Especially one that roams in these woods.”
“The girl’s right, you guys are making quite a mistake,” Brie warned in a sing-song voice. “Monsters don’t like being degraded, especially in their own home. Dealing with a monster is like fighting a dragon in a suit of armor that is made out of wood. It’s a bad idea, and I want nothing to do with your mistakes.”
Richard turned around and read his same old book while the wagon picked up speed. The Kookeram ran through the woods, its mighty paws thudding against the dirt forest floor. Bioluminescent trees flew past like whirling storm clouds, appearing blurry and dark.
Suddenly, something flew out and struck the wagon reins, snapping them in half and freeing the Kookeram. It roared and thudded down the path while the wagon slid to a halt in the middle of the road. The Kookeram kept running down the path, until it completely vanished from sight.
“We’ve been attacked!” Richard cried in fear. “It’s the shadow men!”
The shadow men in their ninja suits jumped from the trees and attacked, unsheathing curved knives from their belts.
One man grabbed Danielle, covering her mouth with one huge gloved hand. Danielle tried to scream but her voice was muffled. A second man pressed his blade against Desmond’s neck while a third man tied a rope around the boy’s hands. Desmond tried to struggle, but a fourth man clapped his gloved hand over Desmond’s mouth.
“I’ll save you, kids!” Brie shouted, releasing a pulse of energy from her paw. It hit the group of shadow men, sending them tumbling into the forest. She took one man’s knife and slashed at Desmond’s rope around his hands, and he shook himself free of the ropes.
“You better run, because the bad guys are coming!” Richard yelled as more shadow men jumped from nearby trees like evil ninja.
Desmond and Danielle hopped from the wagon and ran as fast as they could down the dirt path. The ninja ignored Brie and Richard completely and came after the twins like hungry sharks.
Danielle tripped over a root and tumbled down a small hill. Desmond screamed and ran carefully down the hill after her, his face creased with worry. The ninja jumped over fallen trees and stumps and fern plants, trying to zone in on Desmond’s location, but the boy had vanished.
Danielle landed hard in a patch of tall fern plants, her arms and legs bruised but not bleeding. She moaned as the world around her slowly rotated like the hands on a clock, and as she sat up, she heard a voice.
“Hey kid, up here, in the trees!” the voice hissed. “You badly hurt, or are you fine?”
“I-I’m alright, thanks for asking,” Danielle responded, rubbing her arm. “Who are you?”
“I shouldn’t tell you right now, but if you’re being chased by ninja, just climb this vine up here. They won’t be able to find you.”
“Danielle, are you ok?!” Desmond exclaimed, rushing over to his sister.
“Shh, keep your voice down kid!” the person in the tree hissed. “Just climb the vine and get up here!”
The person in the tree threw the vine down, which was thick and very long. The twins shimmied up the vine onto the tree trunk just as the shadow men came down the slope. They looked around, but eventually gave up and ran off into the woods.
“That was a close one,” the stranger breathed, sitting on the trunk of the tree with his legs hanging over the side. “I saw those guys chasing you, so obviously I decided to help. You should be fine now, hopefully.”
“Who exactly are you?” Desmond asked, sitting up.
The stranger shifted away from the twins a little. “My-my name is Harrison,” he stammered. “But…the people of Nightopia call me the Hangman.”
Danielle gasped and almost fell out of the tree, but Desmond pulled her back up.
“Y-you…are the H-hangman? A…a monster?” Danielle stuttered.
“Pretty much,” Harrison replied. “Perhaps I ought to show you two what I really look like.”
He slowly stalked out of the shadows on the trunk, and the twins gasped in surprise. Harrison-aka the Hangman-was certainly not normal looking. His shirt and light brown pants were tattered and torn, with dark brown fur poking through the little holes. His fingers and toes were long and slender, much like a squirrel’s, and his long tail was serpent-like with a patch of dark brown fur on the end, much like the tail of a vermillion dragon. He had a sash tied around his pants, but his head and face was rather bizarre. His head was slightly dog-like, and his eyes were huge like an owl’s. He had mouse ears, a small cat-like nose, and a strange helmet on his head, with three spikes pointing behind his head and two smaller horns (attached to the ‘helmet’) that looped halfway under his ears, shaped like the blades of knives. Two tufts of fur stuck out from his cheeks.
“I know I’m not normal, but I’m no people-eater,” Harrison mumbled, the slit pupils of his eyes darting back and forth between the twins. “I’m not going to hurt you, or anybody, I swear!”
“You’re perfectly fine, Harrison,” Desmond said with a smile. “You actually look really cool! Are your looks some kind of adaptability?”
“Yeah, it is adaptability,” Harrison responded shyly. “My eyes can see things from super far away, mostly because the pupils of my eyes are slits. That’s how I saw you guys in danger. I have these long fingers and toes to climb the trees in this forest, and my claws are retractable. The tail can let me hang upside down and it provides balance.”
“That is so cool,” Danielle said with a grin.
Harrison smiled, but then he looked away sadly. “Everyone thinks I’m a monster because of my looks. Sure, I stay away from most of society, but I never hurt anyone! My ancestors are the ones to blame for people getting hurt. In fact, I was human before; this body is a genetic curse, and it cannot be cured.”
“Wow, that’s kind of sad, really,” Desmond said with a frown. “Hey, maybe you can come with us to Falling Stars! You could be a bodyguard or something!”
“But what would the citizens think?” Harrison whined.
“We aren’t exactly human, just so ya know,” Danielle pointed out. “We twins are part Sage, you know, the Sage of Light, if you’ve heard of them. Also, our leader of our little group is a stuffed animal, so you wouldn’t stand out much.”
Harrison smiled, tears brimming his eyes. “Thank you guys so much, I am forever grateful!” he looked down at the forest floor before throwing the vine over the side. “Might as well get going before those ninja men come back.”
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