OTW Book 1 – Prologue

It was a perfect, quiet, lazy evening. The sun streamed down through the foliage, dappling the forest floor below, and everything was the perfect temperature: warm with a cool, refreshing breeze every few minutes or so. The kind of evening meant for lying in a hammock and taking a nap, or reading a book on the back patio while you listened to the birds and the squirrels as they carried on with their lives all around you. A point in time clearly meant for relaxation and fun, not… whatever it was Ryder was doing.

Avery huffed in mild annoyance as they trudged up the steep hill behind their friend, who was keeping a pace a bit too brisk for their liking. The two land spirits had been hiking to who-knew-where for over thirty minutes by now, and Avery was quickly becoming confused, having been given almost no explanation as to what was happening, nor why Ryder had suddenly appeared to distract them from their stone skipping competition with themself to drag them all the way out here. So far, all they had figured out was that Ryder was tense and that something out-of-the-ordinary was going on. Nothing else. They knew it was selfish to be so irritated when their friend was very clearly in some form of distress, but Avery couldn’t help it. Ryder was usually so calm and collected and reasonable that it peeved Avery off more than it should have that they were breaking all of Avery’s usual expectations about them just to drag them along on… this. This unexpected hike on a Saturday evening that Avery already had plans for, or whatever it was they were doing right now. Not that Avery disliked hikes, of course. Hikes were lovely! Just not so suddenly, and definitely not without any kind of explanation behind them.

“Where…” Avery managed to huff out as they made their way up the incline after Ryder, “are we… going?”

Ryder, much to Avery’s dismay, did not respond. They simply kept going, like a combine harvester through a field of wheat, moving effortlessly and not pausing for even so much as a second, which was surprising, given Ryder’s delicate build and small stature. It was mind-boggling to Avery how their best friend in the world could somehow get up such a steep slope with such ease while they, the one who was usually more fit for situations like this, were struggling so immensely. It just didn’t add up.

Finally, after what seemed like centuries but was really only a few more minutes, the pair crested the top of the hill onto a nice, flat surface overlooking the road. With a dramatic sigh, Avery threw themself against a nearby tree, allowing themself to sink to the floor as they caught their breath, still wondering what on Earth was going on.

“Oh come on, Avery. Don’t be so dramatic,” Ryder remarked, striding over to the edge of the hill closest to the road. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Avery huffed once more, reaching up to remove the white mask covering their face, hands gently sliding over the smooth ceramic as they went, and turned to face their friend as they placed it in their lap, absentmindedly stroking the brown fur attached to it that usually covered their neck and the back of their head. “Ryder, you just dragged me along on some impromptu hike to a random hill by the side of the road with no explanation. Cut me some slack,” they responded, internally flinching at how serious they sounded. They had really meant it to be said in a more joking tone, even though they were still pretty indignant about the whole situation.

Ryder was silent for a moment, sheepishly rubbing the back of their neck as they tried to think of something to say, the gold trim on their blue-gray cloak flashing in the afternoon sunlight as they moved. They sighed, face flushing slightly in embarrassment as they turned, doing their best to stay their mature, rational self. “Sorry Avery, I just… I had a weird feeling that something was going to happen today, and I didn’t think I’d have the time to explain in time for it to happen. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Avery began with a small sigh, “I meant to sound more lighthearted. Sorry.” 

This was definitely out of the ordinary for someone as logical and collected as Ryder was, but they were also Avery’s best friend, and Avery forgave them. They knew better than to stay mad at them after they had apologized with such sincerity behind their eyes and besides, whenever Ryder got a weird feeling, something interesting usually happened, and Avery liked interesting things. Whatever was about to occur would probably be worth the trek.

After a few moments of silence, Avery stood up, having finally caught their breath, and made their way over to Ryder, coming up next to them and putting their mask back on, making sure the two antlers attached to it were centered properly on their head so it wouldn’t tilt to one side or the other and mess with their vision. Avery then proceeded to squint off into the distance in every direction, trying to see if there was anything out of the ordinary that might be the cause of Ryder’s worries, but quickly felt their heart sink in their chest a bit. Even though they were scouring the landscape with their eyes, they didn’t see anything that they thought could be the cause of Ryder’s alarm. Just trees and a road beneath a pale blue sky. Avery thought for a second about mentioning the fact that there was nothing to their friend and suggest that they might not be in the right place, but watching as the other land spirit tapped their foot on the carpet of leaf litter beneath the two, a clear sign of anxiety coming from them, they decided against it. Ryder’s pitch-black brow was furrowed in worry, and the hood of their cloak was pulled up further than usual over their head, as though something was bothering them enough that they wanted to hide, and all of it was making Avery uneasy as well. Even if they didn’t see the cause yet, they knew it was there, and it bothered them.

They reached out and took Ryder’s smaller hand in their larger, blockier one, holding it up to their chest so Ryder could feel their heartbeat, hoping it would reassure them. It didn’t seem to do much, but they did watch as their fellow land spirit’s shoulders relaxed upon feeling Avery’s body heat. Despite the fact that Ryder was still very clearly on edge, the anxiety seemed to fade from their face a bit, and if Ryder had any visible mouth, Avery got the feeling a soft smile would be gracing their features now.

Suddenly, and rather worryingly, Ryder seemed to jolt into unexpected alertness, startling Avery slightly. Ryder pulled their hand away, moving quickly yet quietly to Avery’s other side as they craned their neck out to see… something. Avery didn’t know quite what.

“Ryder?” Avery inquired softly, fear creeping into their voice, “What’s wrong?”

“Shh,” Ryder began as they reached a hand up to cover where Avery’s mouth would be if they had one, “Look.”

Avery’s pale, bone-white eyes widened as a red car made its way up the mountain road, and they clenched their fists, normally pitch-black knuckles turning into more of a charcoal gray color because of the tension in their flesh over the white bone beneath. This has got to be what Ryder was talking about, they thought to themself as the car moved along. It was being followed by two trucks, both of which had “JOE’S MOVING SERVICE” printed in big blue block letters in all caps on their sides, along with the words “WE MOVE WITH YOU” written in a similar style underneath that, with the only difference being that it was in a somewhat smaller font.

“Looks like someone’s moving into town.” Avery observed as the vehicles went past. 

Ryder nodded in response, remaining silent as they did so, eyes trained on the car and trucks, only speaking up once the three were out of sight. “Yeah…” they started, “Yeah, it does.”

Noticing how uncharacteristically hollow their friend still sounded, Avery placed a hand on Ryder’s shoulder, causing them to turn around. “Is that what had you so worried?” Avery inquired, hoping this was all. They hated seeing their friend so upset. It practically broke their heart watching Ryder whenever they were anxious about something.

Ryder nodded slowly, not really looking Avery in the eyes. “Yeah. That’s what was bothering me. Thank you for checking in.”

Avery wasn’t convinced, though. Ryder’s voice sounded hollow and unsure, as though something was still bugging them, even though Avery couldn’t tell exactly what. They were definitely hiding something, but as Avery watched Ryder turn to move down the hill and go back home, they decided not to press the issue any further. If Ryder didn’t want to talk about it anymore, which they very clearly didn’t, then Avery would respect their friend’s wishes. 

“Come on, Avery. It’s time to go home.” Ryder called over their shoulder, pausing for a second so Avery could catch up.

Startled from their thoughts, Avery turned around and began to hurry after Ryder. “Right! Sorry,” they called out as they jogged a bit to catch up with their friend, “You wanna come eat dinner at my place?”

Ryder rolled their eyes and scoffed, though a playful twinkle was in their eyes. “Avery, I’m pretty sure all you know how to make is toast.”

“Your point?” Avery responded, half-joking and half-serious.

Realizing they had been bested, Ryder sighed and took Avery’s hand as the two walked. “Fine. Toast at your place.”

With that, the two strolled off into the woods again as they chatted and joked, illuminated by the golden light of the setting sun. The same light that washed over the redwoods, making the whole forest look like it was ablaze with flames wherever the light touched the bark, and as they went, Avery pushed the worries they still had from their mind. It was, once again, a perfect, quiet, lazy evening. The perfect temperature: warm with a cool, refreshing breeze every few minutes or so. The kind of evening meant for lying in a hammock and taking a nap, reading a book on the back patio as the birds and squirrels carried on with their lives around you, and, of course, spending time with your friends.