Steven paused near a stream to drink. The water tasted like sulfur, not that he was surprised. The air was ripe with tar fumes from the pits, but more importantly Father's scent was strong here. He had been looking for Father for over a week. He was so tired that he just wanted to collapse and drift off to dream. But sleep didn't come easily because every time he laid down, he was reminded he was a little boy alone but Father might only be a day ahead of him now, maybe less. He was finally feeling hope.
Steven's skin itched horribly. He was covered with dirt and sweat. His food supply was nearly out, even with how carefully he rationed it. He hadn't wanted to take too much time to hunt and risk losing Father's scent. The horrible windstorm had already cost him a lot of time. By the time he could travel, Father's scent was totally gone. Panicked, Steven ran in the direction he had been heading before the storm started, praying that Father had to hole up, just as he had. Finally, he came back across the trail and the game continued.
Steven hated this game. It was too hard, and he was too small. His feet hurt so much that he cried as he walked. Every night the stars found him popping blisters from all the walking. By morning, he'd be half-healed but his feet were still sore and always re-blistered. His back was numb from carrying the pack so far but it was getting easier now that he was nearly out of food.
Steven took a deep breath in, grimacing against the acrid bite of the sulfur. Father was close. He wondered if Father was hurting as much as he was. No, of course not. Father was big. He could handle this. Steven picked up the scent and started on his way. Maybe he'd find Father today.
The sun was high when suddenly a shadow fell over him. Steven crouched instinctively, which was the only thing that saved him from the claws that reached for him. He dove out of the way. It was a Daydeif, a flying demon that could pick up Rock Hoppers and carry them off. Steven, as little as he was, would be a tasty morsel for it.
He ran for the tree-line. The Daydeif would have trouble following him there, where it couldn't maneuver easily. This demon was younger, smaller and obviously hungry. It didn't get easily discouraged. It came after Steven, darting in and out of the trees. Steven ran blindly. He didn't have a good way of attacking an aerial demon. The ground sloped down suddenly and a blast of hot, sulfurous air slammed into Steven. Before he knew what was happening, his feet were in a tar pit and he was sinking fast.
Panicking, the boy flailed around and caught the one thing at hand, the clawed foot of the Daydeif. The startled demon whooped and climbed high, yanking Steven out of the tar, leaving his boots behind. Steven had no idea what to do now. He was so high above the ground. The Daydeif seemed equally confused as it flew on, not sure if it had its prey or vice versa.
The tar pits disappeared behind them as the Daydeif soared over some cliffs. Beyond them was a huge body of water that Steven had never seen before. There was no end to it that he could spot. There was a small stone hut, a curl of smoke coming from its chimney. That was the last thing he needed, should he even get down, another demon making its home here. Some were as intelligent as he and Father and built whole villages that father and son tried desperately to avoid.
The Daydeif dove and Steven realized it was trying to dash him to death on the rocks. He let go with one hand and stabbed upwards with his dagger. The demon screamed, ichor flowing everywhere, blowing into Steven's eyes. They both started crashing to ground. Steven let go and did what he had been practicing so recently under Father's not-so-watchful eye. He twisted and tumbled mid-air and landed on his feet, which were bare now. The sand near the water's edge cut him. He stumbled forward, sand abrading the skin of his face and outstretched arms.
Screaming, the Daydeif thrashed in the water, one wing obviously broken. Steven scrambled up and stabbed it to death, putting it out of its misery. Panting hard, the water salty and burning his raw skin, Steven caught something in the wind. Father's scent, good and strong. He ran towards it, even though it was taking him towards the hut. Father's was the only scent around.
"Father!" he screamed. "Father!"
Holtz was already out of the hut, armed and heading his way. The sounds of the demon's death had to have lured him out of the stone hut. Holtz lowered his bow and sprinted towards Steven. "You did it, son. You found me."
Steven couldn't speak. He launched himself at Holtz, wrapping his arms and legs around the startled man's torso. He buried his face against Father's chest, weeping uncontrollably. Holtz dropped the crossbow and embraced Steven tightly.
"Shh, son, it's all right." He patted Steven's back.
"No, you left me," Steven wailed.
"And you found me. You did wonderfully." Holtz kissed Steven's forehead.
Steven tightened his grip. "Never leave me again."
"Shh, Steven, enough's enough," Holtz chided, trying unsuccessfully to pry his son off of him. "You're fine and you did a great job."
"No," Steven sobbed then dissolved into piteous tears, unable to catch his breath for all the crying.
Holtz just carried him back to the hut and lay him on the bedding, soft straw or some such. Steven didn't care. He had found his father and had no intention of letting him go. "Steven, where are your boots?"
"I fell in a tar pit." Steven wiped his nose on his sleeve. "The Daydeif pulled me out."
"Yes, I can imagine why." Holtz examined Steven's feet, making clucking noises. "You are quite a mess."
"It was so hard, Father." Steven started telling him about all the hardships and demons he encountered as he tracked Holtz down.
His father put a finger to his lips, shushing him. Holtz sent him out to the water's edge, naked, to wash up. The waves knocked Steven down several times before he learned not to turn his back to them. Shivering, Steven went back in to find his clothing wet and hanging by the fire to dry. Father dressed his feet and other injuries with warm poultices that Steven really didn't need since he healed so fast but they felt and smelled good. Father wrapped him up in several furs and made him lie down to rest.
As Holtz went to leave, Steven screamed, holding out a hand. "Don't leave me!"
Holtz's lips thinned. "I'm going to fish, Steven. I'll just be outside."
"No! You'll leave me!"
"You're being trying, Steven," Holtz scolded, his eyes narrowing. "You need sleep. I'm not going anywhere."
Steven started to cry again.
"Steven, enough of this nonsense." Holtz snapped, stabbing a finger at him. "I'm very proud of how well you played the game. You proved you're far too old to behave this childishly."
Steven buried his face in the bedding, shaking all over. He extended a trembling hand towards his pack. "Give me Dover, please."
Holtz eyed him sourly but got the doll out of Steven's pack. "You brought this silly thing with you?"
"He kept me company." Steven's jaw set, meeting his father's eyes levelly.
"You're too old for such things." Holtz looked ready to toss the doll out the door.
Steven got up and took his doll from his father. He flung himself back on the bed. "He didn't leave me alone."
"He's a scrap of leather, Steven. He doesn't do anything," Holtz grumbled.
Steven ignored his father, wrapping himself up with Dover, not looking at Holtz. Why was Father being so harsh? Didn't he understand how afraid he had been? Holtz didn't say anything more, going outside. Steven let him go, curling up on his new bed, letting his exhaustion rule.
That night he ate peckishly and listened to Father tell him again how well he played the game. Steven insisted on two stories before bed and Father obliged, seeming as happy to be able to tell them as Steven was to hear them. He had a nightmare of dying in tar that made him wake up screaming. Father didn't protest as Steven curled up in his bed. He clung to Father for dear life as he tumbled back to sleep.
Steven woke to the smells of a stew of meat and berries. It smelled so good and he ate so heartily that Father was well pleased because he was always fretting Steven didn't eat enough. Father even gave him a big dollop of honey as a treat.
"I have something for you, Steven, as a reward for how well you played the game." Father smiled at him.
Steven's eyes brightened as he licked the last of the honey from his fingers. "Yes, Father?"
Holtz took out a small bow from a pile of leathers he had been working into new boots for Steven. "For you. I think you're big enough now."
Steven leapt up and grabbed the bow. He gave the string an experimental pull. "It's wonderful!"
"I knew you'd like it. Now, it'll take a lot of practice but I think we'll be safe enough here for some time. Certainly enough for you to get better with it," Holtz said, in his 'lessons to learn' voice.
"Thank you, Father." Steven embraced his new weapon.
"After all your troubles with this game, I'm sure you'll find the bow very helpful for the next time we play," Holtz said.
Steven's jaw dropped. "Play again? But Father..."
"We're playing the game again, Steven." Holtz wagged a finger at him. "You need to get better at it. It took you a long time to find me."
Steven's lower lip trembled. "But it was so hard."
"That is why we must play again."
Steven looked at his bow, tears brimming in his eyes. Suddenly his new weapon didn't seem so exciting.
"Don't worry, Steven. You'll get very good at it, very fast. You always do." Holtz gave him a quick embrace. "Shall we start your first archery lesson?"
Steven nodded his head without enthusiasm. He didn't want to play the game again. He didn't want to be alone ever again. He knew there was no choice. Father was right. He'd have to get good and fast. It was the only way not to be alone in this place Father called hell. Steven steeled himself. He would be good. He could play this game. After all, games only lasted as long as childhood and he was growing up fast. Soon, childhood would be gone and he needed to prepare to be the man he'd become. Father said there were important things he had to do then, back on Earth once he was a man. Steven would be ready, even if he was afraid. He would just have to use his fear to make himself strong.
Bow in hand, he followed his father out into the red light of day, content to be a boy for just a little longer.