After Darcy and her gang left the common room, chaos reigned. Kids swooped down on Devin, a kid sometimes known as Squirrel, who’d been ordered by Darcy to do something.
Rolf simply walked over to the couch Gethin usually ruled, the best one, and stretched out on it. He was only five or six years old, so he only took up a fraction of it. But he dreamed of the time when he’d be big enough to shove Gethin to the ground, rest his head on one arm of the couch, dangle his feet off the other, and no one would get him off it until he was good and ready.
“I’m going to find some people, out there,” Rolf heard Devin say loudly, addressing the whole room, “If I don’t find anyone, I’ll come back. Now leave me alone.” With that, Devin rose to his full, towering height and walk out of the room.
Silently, Rolf followed him.
Devin padded down to the kitchens, where he pulled some half-cooked chicken out of a pan and ate it moodily. Rolf watched in disgust. Why cook your meat when it was perfectly good raw? Devin glared at Rolf. “What do you want, kid?”
“I want to come with you. On your search.” Rolf could envision it; he and Devin, running across the ragged terrain, finding humans. They’d run back to the Loup, lead a revolt, and show the school back to the world, where they’d be pampered, loved and admired for surviving so long under the harsh rule of the Master.
Devin laughed and threw his frying pan back into a random drawer. “Nice try, kid. But you’re way too young. You’d run out of steam before I started panting.”
“Oh yeah?” Rolf puffed out his chest and kicked Devin in the shin. “I’m stronger than you think.”
Devin cuffed Rolf on the head, but lightly. Devin had never been big on violence, Rolf knew. So he wouldn’t hurt him enough to sop Rolf from coming. Rolf stomped out as Devin headed for his bedroom.
Devin was the only one in the school besides Darcy’s gang with his own room, since he was his own batch. Darcy’s group got their own rooms because “they were here first” and other crap the Master told them. At first Devin had slept nearer to Darcy’s gang, then when the next batch came along he was shuffled in with them in a real dormitory. When he was around ten, Devin had thrown a fit and was given his own room.
Rolf admired someone like that, who got things for no good reason. He ate some food himself, then walked up to Devin’s room, which was just an old room next to the classrooms with a bed in it. Rolf stationed himself outside, sitting on the cold floor, and fell asleep. He was determined to go on the journey of a lifetime.
When Rolf was stirred awake by the tip-toe sound Devin’s feet made against the floor, he shot up and wiped the thin line of drool from his chin. “I’m coming!” he announced to Devin’s retreating back.
Rolf ate a bowl chocolate pudding while he watched Devin scramble some eggs. Devin wasn’t asking him to help, but he wasn’t pushing him out, either.
“I’m coming.” Rolf said again.
Devin stayed silent, and tipped the frying pan over his head so that the egg tumbled down into his mouth. Half of it slid to the floor.
“You can’t stop me.” Rolf tried again.
“You’re right,” Devin snapped, spinning around to glare at Rolf. “I can’t. So you can just follow me, and when you die of hunger and exhaustion I won’t do a thing to help you.”
Rolf gulped. “I’m coming.”
“Whatever.” Devin shrugged, and snarfed some pudding of his own. He was wearing only jeans, and his dark, tightly-curled hair was matted with grime. Baths were a rarity in the Loup.
Devin padded softly out of the kitchen and out onto the grounds. He could hear Rolf trying to silently follow him.
Without a word, Devin morphed and stood at the beginning of the lane that led down to the toddlers’ huts. He surveyed the cold, desolate land before him with a groan.
Rolf morphed too, and looked out at the horizon. The two silhouettes stood in the early morning light. Devin’s was taller, more muscled, and the color of charcoal. In contrast, Rolf looked soft and scared. His pelt was tawny and his fur sleeker.
Devin licked his lips and trotted off down the lane, Rolf at his tail.
“When can we stop to eat?” asked Rolf, when they’d been going at a light run for an hour. He was thankful for Darcy forcing him to do laps around the castle, as he was in excellent shape. But he was beginning to tire a little, and his stomach rumbled. The lane that led to the castle had faded into nothing a long way back.
“We’ve barely started,” sighed Devin, and Rolf noticed that he hadn’t even broken a sweat. “Just keep running. You’re going to be hungry for most of the trip.”
“What—!” Rolf began, but Devin interrupted.
“Look, I told you it was going to be hard. Now shut up.” Devin increased his speed a little, and with a doubtful mind Rolf followed.
They were running across a large landscape that was marred by lots of jagged hills and sudden drops. It had scraggly grass and a few sullen, bent trees; above them, the sky stretched long and grey. The air was damp on Rolf’s tongue and pelt, which only reminded him that he was getting thirsty too.
“Look,” Devin said half an hour later, nodding towards the horizon. A grey smudge had appeared, dodging in between the rough hills.
“What is it?” asked Rolf.
“It looks like part of the land…” said Devin, though Rolf heard a note of apprehension in his voice, “C’mon. Let’s go see.”
They sprinted towards the smudge, which looked like a long, dark stripe across the horizon. However, after running hard for several minutes, it hadn’t gotten any bigger. Devin slowed down, breathing heavily, as did Rolf.
“What is it?” Rolf gasped, slowing down further until he was jogging.
“I don’t know,” replied Devin, his brow furrowed. “Keep going,” He added.
The two ran on.
After another hour, the smudge had grown larger in size, and more solid. As the two boys grew nearer to it at last, it finally became clear enough to see that it was a long strip of black that wove over the rough terrain. It was like nothing Rolf had ever seen. It was just a meaningless scar on the stubby grass.
When they finally reached the stripe, Rolf and Devin found that it stretched endlessly in both directions, and was about six or seven meters across. Devin crouched down and sniffed it tentatively. He immediately recoiled, and spat on the ground.
“What?” asked Rolf.
“Gross,” grunted Devin, “Try it.”
Rolf knelt down and lowered his nose cautiously closer to the stripe. When his face was still a good arm’s length away from it his face twisted and he jumped back. “Ew.” It smelled like the time someone had tried cooking, just for fun, and burned a perfectly good steak into a lump of charcoal, combined with the rotting leather of Raul’s favorite boots.
Devin stuck out his paw and brushed the stripe with it. “It’s hard,” he said in surprise.
“Is it safe?” asked Rolf. What if it swallowed them up, into the depths of the ground? Or burned their feet?
“We have to cross,” said Devin decisively, “C’mon.” And without another glance, he stepped out onto the stripe. Rolf watched, mouth hanging open, as Devin strode across the stripe and had crossed it in a few seconds.
Rolf gulped and wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead. He took a deep breath, then dashed across the stripe as quickly as he could. Surprisingly, it was as solid as the stone floors of the Loup, and the temperature of the air. Nothing substantial happened at all; Rolf got across safely and completely intact.
“Well, let’s not waste any more time,” Devin said, and he took off in the same direction, roughly southwest, as they’d been going for the entire trip. With a last glance at the mysterious dark stripe, Rolf followed.
Rolf had lost track of the time they’d been running when his stomach growled again, louder and angrier than the first time. “Can we please stop to eat?” The sun was high in the sky, and it had to be long past noon. It was beating down on Rolf’s boiling back.
Devin sighed and slowed down. “I suppose. Keep an eye out for any movement.” They had seen the occasional wind-ruffled hare stream by as they ran, and Rolf knew that any meal they got wouldn’t be quite as satisfying as he’d hoped.
The sun rose higher in the sky, and Rolf, already warm, began to get uncomfortably hot as they jogged in search of food. “I don’t see anything!” He moaned.
“Keep looking,” ordered Devin, but he looked worn out too.
Finally Devin broke into a dead sprint and snatched something out from under scraggly bush. With a twitch of his paw Devin had broken the hare’s neck. “Let’s look for more. Eating this will only make us more hungry.”
Over the course of an hour Devin had collected two more hares, and Rolf had made a run for one and missed it. They decided to settle down to eat under the shade of a tiny tree. Devin skinned them and removed some of the major bones, then handed one to Rolf. Rolf downed it in two bites, as did Devin. They split the last one.
“I’m thirsty,” Rolf said, as they lingered a moment to digest.
“Me too,” said Devin, “But we’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Devin had become much harsher over the course of the day, Rolf realized. Normally Devin was soft spoken, and gentle when he did speak up. But apparently when assigned a task and a serious situation, he toughened up.
Soon after, another smudge appeared on the horizon, though this one was slightly different from the other. As the boys ran, they saw that this smudge looked straighter and solider than the last, even from a distance. After a lifetime, when they reached it, they found that it was a completely different stripe.
This stripe consisted of two long, metal rods, set less than a meter apart, that ran parallel to each other and disappeared on both sides into the distance. Connecting the rods were several wooden slats that were set into the ground.
“Odd,” said Devin, “But it shouldn’t be any different from the last.”
Rolf wasn’t quite as confident. What on earth could the odd stripes be for? They probably led somewhere, but they were certainly too weird to be paths. The first was too hard, and would wear down your feet; an earth trail, like the one that led from the Loup, would be much better. And this one was just plan odd. The slats made for uneven footing, and you could trip over the metal rods. What else was in store for them?
“C’mon,” Devin said, and he leapt over the stripe in one bound and ran forward, not even waiting for Rolf. With a sigh, Rolf followed.
They moved on from the second stripe and saw no more for awhile. Devin had gradually decreased the pace since they’d left the stripe, and now they were practically speed walking. Both were panting, and Rolf could hear Devin’s stomach rumble, louder than his own.
It was just as Rolf opened his mouth to suggest they rest that a light winked to life on the horizon.