Pink-laced boots crunched against the hard-packed earth of the well-traveled trail as Nikki followed behind his classmates. Tight fists held the purple straps of his galaxy backpack as he trudged along, keeping his eyes fixed on the path. Already, a few roots had tried to trip his best friend, Felix, and Nikki was determined not to let the roots do the same to him.
In front of him, Felix’s short reddish-brown tail swayed to help the man keep balance as he hopped over another log. Though the path they followed certainly looked well-used, the sheer number of downed trees and debris had Nikki questioning if this path was actually the right one.
But the professor insisted he knew where he was going. A few of the other students behind Nikki grumbled about sore feet and bug bites. One even questioned their chosen career path.
“Oi, pass up the line that we need a break,” Nikki said, casting his voice for Felix to hear him. Instead of hopping over the fallen tree, Nikki took his time stepping over, careful not to snag his pants or his flannel. He honestly didn’t need a wardrobe malfunction out here in the forest.
Though Felix did not respond to him, the swivel and twitch of his black-tipped ears gave away his attention. The redhead shouted at the front of the line, “Oi, Prof! We need a break!”
Nikki rolled his blue-green eyes. Thankfully, the professor called a halt and the group of hikers started to find places to sit for a bit. With a shake of his silver head, Nikki hunkered down on a nearby fallen tree. Felix stretched and yawned, then lounged against the tree, his tall frame stretching out on the ground.
“You’re going to get your pants dirty,” Nikki pointed out with a sniff of disgust as he dug into his pack for a water bottle. The lanky caracal shrugged and grinned, before letting out another yawn, showing off his sharp fangs.
“Ya know that bein’ a botanist means getting down and dirty, right?” Felix asked, tilting back his head till his short red hair touched the tree behind him.
“Doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to get dirty,” Nikki countered. His ears pressed down to his hair as he came up empty, his lips compressed in a frustrated frown.
“My water bottle… it’s missing. I must have left it back at today’s site…” Nikki said with a sigh. He zipped up his backpack and slung it back over his shoulder. “I’m going back for it. I’ll catch up and meet you guys at camp.”
Felix jolted forward, his ears perked. “It’s just a water bottle-”
“My mom gave that to me,” Nikki cut off, shaking his head. “It’s not just a water bottle.”
Red ears drooped at the mention of Nikki’s mom and Felix glanced away. After a jerky nod, Felix got to his feet and dusted off his jeans, his ears perking once more. “Right then. Let’s go get that water bottle.”
Nikki’s eyes widened at that and his ears dipped. “What? No. No. It’ll be easy for one to cover for the other, but if the professor notices we’re both missing, we’ll be in trouble.”
“But the sun is gonna set soon-”
“I’ve got my flashlight, and I’ve got better night vision than you,” Nikki countered, narrowing his eyes at the other. “You’re a clusterfuck of gangly limbs and way more likely to break something important. Stay with the group. I’ll be back.”
Felix rubbed at his head, frowning. “You honestly think I’m gonna letcha go alone?”
“I’m not asking for you to let me, I’m telling you to, Felix,” Nikki hissed, his ears now pressed fully flat to his head. “Look - I just - I need some time away from everyone anyway, okay? Just stay with the class. I’ll be back.”
Nikki didn’t wait for a reply, turning on his heel and dashing back down the path. He didn’t slow until his breaths came in gasps and he stumbled to a stop, leaning forward with one hand braced against a tree. His long tail curled forward, wrapping around one leg, as he gasped and caught his breath. Shaking slightly, he straightened and rubbed at his chin. With a glance around him, Nikki started walking once more, his steps stumbling at first, his legs aching from the unfamiliar exertion.
A sigh passed his lips as he ran a hand through his hair, tilting his head to one side. I’ll apologize later.
The chirping of birds, the scritch of insects, and the shuffling of leaves in the wind followed Nikki all down the path. He tread lightly, not wanting to disturb the beasts and the natural forest around him with the unnatural sounds of his boots. Just as the sun was setting and the dim light overtook the forest, Nikki reached their survey site. The large open space had a few tables and tarp tents set up to provide shade during the heat of the day, but for the most part, nature ruled here.
And there, laying on its side in the grass, the neon pink water bottle with the multi-colored pegasus graphic wrapped around one side stood out like a flashing neon sign.
With a hoot of triumph, Nikki snatched up the water bottle and wiped off the dirt from the cap and graphic. Grinning, his ears standing up and his tail swaying in pleasure, Nikki popped open the protective cap with a snick, pulled up the nib, and gratefully latched his dry mouth onto the soft plastic spout. Tipping his head back, he took a long pull-
Of air. Popping his mouth off the nib, he stared down at the bottle, blinking in confusion.
“What the…? I could have sworn this was at least half full…” Nikki grumbled, shoving the nib back down before twisting off the lid. Sure enough, nothing but air remained in the bottle. A few droplets of water clung to the sides of the bottle, but nowhere near enough to slake his thirst.
Groaning in annoyance, Nikki yanked his backpack off and jerked the zipper open. He dropped the bottle into his bag before sealing the pack and sliding it back on.
“Damnit. Guess I have to wait to get back to camp,” Nikki muttered, his ears once more pressed to his head.
Rustling leaves to his right made the feline jerk, his head snapping to attention, his ears standing straight.
Somehow, he hadn’t noticed - but the normal sounds of the forest had stopped.
He didn’t know when or for how long.
“Felix?” Nikki called, hoping his friend hadn’t listened to him and followed after anyway. Better than something dangerous-
Silence - then - a little chuckle-
“I don’t go by that name,” came a rolling purr as a half-naked, dark-skinned man stepped from the trees and through the underbrush. As he stepped into the light of the dying day, the dim light glinted off glowing, bright green eyes and three, small spikes on his forehead. Short black hair swept through the spikes and off to one side, showing off the shaved sides and complimenting undercut. Wicked, crooked horns spiraled from the sides of his shaved head just above his pointed ears. The man wore no shirt, no shoes, only a pair of baggy, ripped jeans. “You can call me Dulvelan, little kitten…”
As the man swaggered forward, Nikki took a step back. Behind the man and swaying with minds of their own, three thin, black tails twitched and curled - but they didn’t look furry like Nikki’s tail. A few last rays of sunlight caught on a strange slickness that covered the black snakes twisting and curling behind the horned man.
“Are - are you lost?” Nikki managed to get out as he took another step back.
“Nah, I ain’t lost, kitten… I live ‘round here,” the man said with a grin, showing off several sharp fangs on his top jaw mirrored on his lower. Black, sharp nails tapped at his chin as he tilt his head, looking Nikki over. The look made Nikki’s skin crawl as if he were a piece of meat being eyed and stalked by a drooling predator. “But you… ya look a little lost… I can help… I know these woods like the back of my hand…”
Nikki shook his head, taking another step away from the man. “I’m not lost. I know the way. A-and I need to be getting back.”
The man - Dulvelan - shrugged, shoving his hands into his jeans. As Nikki scooted towards the path, back the way he’d come, the feline kept his eyes on Dulvelan. His boots caught on a patch of roots, pitching him back on his rear, landing with a loud oomph. Nikki instinctively closed his eyes shut as his ass impacted the dirt and he would have gone further back had his hand and elbow not caught him on instinct.
“Ouch, ya okay there, kitten?”