Chapter 124

Nick clicked on his flashlight and grumbled to himself. The girl had been less than a minute ahead of him, yet he’d already lost sight of Alice. It wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the quickly diminishing rays of sun and Nick’s lack of wilderness knowledge. He’d had extensive training in so many areas, but not surprisingly, they’d skimped a bit on what to do in the woods. For a syndicate in Vegas, it was assumed if you were getting dumped in the forest you were no longer in a position to navigate your way home, or anywhere else for that matter.

The trees were doing a marvelous job obscuring what little light was left, their long shadows and thick foliage darkening the path at every step. Nick was aware the farther he went, the harder it would be to find his way back, to the point where another search party might be formed to find him. Still, the fear of being hopelessly turned around in the woods was not at the forefront of worry on Nick Campbell’s mind.

Something was wrong in his head. He couldn’t put a finger on it, but he knew something was amiss. He’d watched his alcohol intake carefully, and over this amount of time he knew how he should be feeling: a slight mellow with no impairment of judgment. Instead he was feeling increasingly relaxed, despite the danger of his situation. There was something else ticking though his synapses, too. It was difficult to describe; however, if he had to take a guess, Nick would have called it giddiness. It was an unwelcome guest in his cranial space, yet the longer it remained, the harder it was to remember why he disliked it.

Something was amiss in his brain, and that fact terrified Nick Campbell far more than the dark forest he was presently getting lost in.

*          *          *

Thomas carefully lowered the would-be combatants to the ground and released his energy grip. To their credit, neither dashed forward and began assaulting the other, though anyone looking at their eyes could see it was only a hair’s breadth from happening. In this case the hair holding it back was the smiling blonde stepping between them.

“So, why don’t you explain why you two were headed for blows?” Angela said calmly.

“I’m sick of his shit!” Stella yelled. “He was running his mouth again about how women have no place in the battlefield and I decided to shut it for good.”

“To be fair, my exact words were ‘the only useful power for a woman is one that conjures up food or babies,’” Roy corrected. “And I was joking around. Someone must be leaking steel blood today.”

“I’ll show you blood,” Stella said, taking a step forward.

Angela whipped her head around and met Stella’s eyes. They stayed like that for only a moment before Stella pulled her foot back to its previous position.

“To make sure I understand, Roy made a misogynist comment about women being weak, and Stella opted to give him an objective lesson in the incorrectness of his assumptions. Right?” Angela asked.

“They also bickered for a while before it came to blows,” a random voice in the crowd volunteered.

“I’d assumed about as much,” Angela said. “Okay then, have at it.” She moved backward.

“Wait, what?” Thomas squawked.

“They’re having a legitimate disagreement, and neither of them is going to get seriously injured from duking it out. All I ask is that you take it in the woods so you don’t mess up the bus or anyone’s tents,” Angela said. “And by ask, I hope you can infer what I mean.”

They inferred quite well.

“Truce until we’re a few minutes out in the woods,” Roy proposed.

“Fine by me,” Stella agreed. “I can wait a bit to mess up those pretty boy looks.”

Roy snickered but began heading south into the forest. Stella followed suit a few steps behind. Silence fell upon the remaining students as the two fighters crossed the tree line and faded from view. Fortunately it was quickly broken by a cheery tone.

“Okey doke, folks, I think it’s time for roasting hot dogs,” Angela declared.

*          *          *

Vince walked away from the crowd once he was certain the Roy and Stella situation was handled. He had to admit, Angela’s solution made sense. They were both hard-headed and weren’t likely to give up on the idea of fighting once it had been planted in their brains. That might have been fine if they weren’t too strong to stop once they got going. No, the best course of action was to just have them work out their aggression at a safe distance from the campsite.

A part of Vince felt like he should have followed along, just to keep an eye on them. Another part felt that he should go after Nick and Alice to make sure they got back safely. The part that won, though, was the piece of Vince’s brain that advocated jumping back in the river before either course of action. Putting up the tents had left him sweaty and stained with dirt. He decided he would take a quick dip to cool off, then see which of the situations was the most pressing.

Vince walked carefully out toward the river, enjoying the slight serenity of being at least close to alone on the forest path. There was still plenty of noise coming from the campsite, enough that Vince didn’t notice the footsteps following his own. Instead he tried to block it all out and draw in deep breaths of clean air. He’d almost forgotten how much he enjoyed being outdoors on his own. Sleeping under the stars, cooking over an open fire, even rinsing off in a river were all little joys he’d once savored. Joys he was looking forward to indulging in again this weekend.

Vince reached the water’s edge and splashed forward. He dove under a few times, letting the cool liquid soak his silver hair and run down his back. He waded back up to waist-deep level and turned to watch the sun dip down below the horizon. He took a deep breath and felt several knots of tension flow gently down the river. There was a light splash behind him, and this time Vince heard it. He would have turned around to investigate it too.

The only thing that stopped him was the pair of arms that snaked around his body, locking him in place and squeezing hard on his torso.