4: FRIENDS OR ENEMIES?
Nick was gasping as he ran up the dark street, his feet pounding against the pavement and echoing in the night. The two amulets banged against his neck causing the growing bruise beneath them to intensify every second.
He could not wait until tomorrow to rescue Zanell. Anything could be happening to her! It had not taken Nick long to hop onto a night flight and now his journey was coming to an end. The bus had dropped him a few streets away and Nick had then ran as fast as he could, ignoring the painful thumping of his heart and his exhausted lungs.
He finally slowed as he jumped up the steps to a smart looking house. He bit his lip and glanced up at the dark windows in dismay and then back down at his watch. It was late, but he could not wait…
“Brian!” he yelled, banging furiously upon the door. “Brian!”
He stopped for a moment to glance up at the dark windows anxiously, but no flicker of friendly light appeared in them.
“Brian!” he called again.
Brian had to hear him! Things had been tense between them before but surely he could still depend upon Brian when he needed help the most? For a moment he remembered the cold gleam of light in his friend’s eyes when he had walked out upon him…
He shook his head. He had to have been imagining it. Brian would never be so cold and he had only not said goodbye because… well, just because.
Finally a light appeared in the frosted glass above the door. Nick waited nervously, his feet shuffling in anticipation. Brian would help him rescue Zanell.
“What the hell is going on?” Brian snapped angrily as he opened the door, his light hair messy and his eyes ringed with shadows. “Nick, what are you doing here?”
“Brian!” Nick gasped. “Brian, I need your help!”
“It’s fucking one in the morning!” Brian said, his eyes glaring at him.
Nick almost took a step back at the venom within Brian’s voice. Brian had never spoken to him like that before and he hardly ever used such words… Suddenly Nick felt very small and foolish. Here he was on his friend’s doorstep in the morning
“Zanell has been kidnapped!”
“Nick, I told you that I don’t want to be involved anymore! Don’t you get it? It’s over! Backstreet Boys is over and so is your little super hero dreams! I don’t care what you do and I don’t care about Zanell! How many times have we put our lives on the line for her and I am not doing it any longer!”
Something deep inside of Nick’s chest throbbed painfully at the words, but he did not have time to break down. “Brian, please!” Nick begged. “Something has happened to her and I need to get her back, but I can’t do it on my own!”
“Well don’t expect any help from me!” Brian said simply. He made to close the door but Nick stuck his hand out to keep it open. Why was Brian being like this?
“You don’t mean that!” Nick said desperately. Brian was the only one who hadn’t laughed when he’d told the guys how he truly felt about Zanell. The others thought it had been nothing but a crush, but Nick knew that it was more than that and Brian had agreed with him. “Brian, I love her!”
“Brian baby, who is it?” a soft voice suddenly called. “Is it Nick? Let him in and I’ll make us a coffee.”
“No Leigh, it’s okay!” Brian called back. “It’s nobody.”
“Nobody? I’m your best friend!” Nick said. “Come on! I’m only asking for one last fight! I need you!”
“Well it’s about time you learnt to stop needing me!” Brian snapped.
“Brian! You’re my best friend! You’re my brother!” Nick cried, his eyes beginning to grow wet, but he quickly dispelled them out of pride.
Brian rolled his eyes and then made to close the door. Nick stuck his foot out to prevent him from locking him out.
“Brian - ”
“Nick, get lost! I don’t want you around!”
The blow came so suddenly that Nick did not even see it coming. He cried out as Brian’s fist hit his face and he stumbled back, his eyes wide with shock. He stumbled back down the steps and felt himself hit the ground, still staring at Brian in shock. He slowly placed a hand to his face and brought it away as he felt a cold substance dribbling down his cheeks.
“Brian?” he whispered.
Brian stared down at him, no sympathy in his eyes. It was as if he was looking at nothing more than a piece of dirt upon the floor and Nick felt tears beginning to slide down his cheeks. He rarely cried. He was not one to cry but what else can you do when your best friend turns upon you?
Brian shook his head and Nick saw a slight smirk upon his face as he turned away from him, shutting the door behind him.
For a second Nick waited in the dark, praying that Leighanne would open it and call him back in for that coffee… or wouldn’t Brian let her?
Nick felt the cool wind blowing against his face and he felt as if Brian had just physical torn a part of him away. Was this really it?
“Brian,” Nick said again. “Frick…”
A lone tear slowly slid down his face.
“Nick, what’s up?” Howie asked frowning at Nick’s pale face and red bleary eyes.
Nick sniffed slightly. At least Howie was a little friendlier, but he would have given anything in the world to have Brian be the one to comfort him. He wondered if he would ever trust a friend again.
“Howie…” Nick’s eyes began to overflow with tears to his shame. Twenty two years old and yet he was bawling his eyes out after a dispute with his best friend… But Brian wasn’t just his best friend. Brian and the others were as close to him and as dear as his own family.
“Nicky?” Howie suddenly wrapped his arms about him. “Don’t cry. Come on.”
Gently he led Nick inside and closed the door behind him. Nick wiped his face messily on his sleeve and shuddered slightly despite the warmth inside. Howie pushed him down onto the couch and Nick sniffed once more in an attempt to stop the watery teardrops.
“Now, what’s wrong?” Howie asked, watching as Nick dried his eyes with his sleeve.
Nick cleared his throat and ran his hand through his hair. “Howie, Zanell’s been kidnapped… I need help,” he whispered.
Howie sighed slightly. “You’re still working with her?” he asked. “Nick, it’s too dangerous for you alone.”
“What else can I do?” Nick said. “I’ve got to stop Zator! He’d destroy everything if he had the chance!”
“All right what happened?” Howie asked sitting down beside him on the couch. “How do you know Zanell has been kidnapped?”
Nick stayed silent for a second as he recalled the awful fight with the druids and their purple energy balls. “I was jumped by some druids in the street and I got beat pretty badly. I managed to escape and limp home though,” he said watching as his friend’s gentle eyes filled with horror. “Zanell turned up and helped me and then told me that she couldn’t allow me to do this alone. She asked for the amulet back, but I wouldn’t give it to her.” His hand reached to his neck and closed about the two amulets.
“Why not?” Howie asked. “She was trying to protect you.”
“But if she took the amulet then I would never see her again!” Nick wailed. “I can’t just let her go!”
“There’s other girls,” Howie said gently. “Other girls who are at least of the same species as you.”
“But I love Zanell!” Nick confessed. “I love her so much! She’s the only girl who hasn’t ever laughed in my face or called me weird and told me to grow up! She understands me!”
“But - ”
“Howie, it wasn’t even her! She got angry with me and turned into a monster with stretchy arms and green slime! It was an Ersnai!”
“An Ersnai – an alien or something disguised as Zanell - and it made me kill it. It wanted the amulets from me. Howie, what do I do? Someone has her and I don’t know how to help her alone!”
Howie clasped his hands and stared into his eyes for a moment. “You don’t have to rescue her alone, I’ll help you.”
“T - thank you,” Nick whispered, smiling genuinely for the first time all day. At least he had one true friend. His face clouded as he though of Brian’s twinkling blue eyes and smile. “I – I went to see Brian, but he – he… he hit me!”
“He did what?” Howie asked, his eyes widening in horror. Slowly he took in the bruise upon Nick’s face and the flakes of dried blood that had stuck to his skin.
“Why did he do it?” Nick whispered, his hand tracing the tender skin upon his face. Brian had hit him…
‘Why? Why Brian, why?’
Howie patted him on the shoulder. “Just wait here and I’ll get you some hot chocolate. That always cheers you up. Back in a moment.”
Nick nodded vacantly, his fingers still gliding across his cheek. Brian had held him before, comforted him, made him laugh, made him smile, stopped the tears… and now he had hit him.
“Here you are,” Howie said, entering from the kitchen. “This will help.” He held his arm out to hand him the steaming mug of hot chocolate.
Nick smiled and pushed all thoughts of Brian out of his head. Brian was gone now… but at least he still had Howie as a friend. “Thanks. I don’t know what I’d have done without you, D.” He smiled weakly, but in his mind he could still hear Brian’s cold voice.
He reached out to take the mug, but his hand passed straight through it. It was nothing more than an illusion…
Nick stared up at the smiling Howie in front of him in shock and then something hard smacked him on the back of the head. Nick gave a startled cry as he hit the floor, his head throbbing painfully. He rolled onto his back to stare up at Howie with his mug of chocolate and saw that the image was beginning to fade.
“Over here ‘ickle Nicky,” a cruel voice hissed.
Nick turned to his right and saw Howie fully clad in his super hero Illusioneer’s costume with flowing yellow and blue cape. There was a smirk upon his lips and a dangerous twinkle within his dark eyes as he stared down at Nick in amusement.
“Howie? What’s going on?” Nick asked, rubbing his aching head. A gaping hole of numbness had opened within his stomach and was beginning to flood him with empty coldness. A slight flicker of suspicion closed about his mind as he stared up at Howie’s cruel eyes.
Howie sniggered slightly. “Who’d want to be your friend?”
Nick slowly clambered to his feet, but was stopped as Howie’s boot connected hard with his stomach. He screamed and rolled himself into a ball. What was going on?
“Howie?” he gasped in agony.
Howie leant down and plucked the amulets from his neck, before idly twirling them about his fingers. “Zator will be pleased to have these.”
Nick’s eyes widened slightly. “You’re an Ersnai!” he yelled. He should have known…
Howie rolled his eyes. “I was wondering if you would ever figure it out.”
“Where’s Zanell and Howie?” he asked.
Howie merely smirked at him and chuckled slightly. “They’re being well looked after – for now.”
Nick tightened his fists in anger. These beasts had taken everything from him. He suddenly leapt to his feet and smacked Howie hard about the face before the latino could react.
The Ersnai cried out briefly and Nick took the opportunity to snatch the amulets back from his fingers. Howie immediately tried to seize them again, but Nick jumped over the couch while his fingers touched the red gem in the centre of his own amulet to transform into the ninja.
Howie swept his cloak over his shoulders. “So you want to fight?” he whispered harshly.
Nick’s hand clasped about the hilt of his sword and he wrenched it from his sheath and held it in front of him.
“I’m more powerful than you and you know it!” Nick hissed. All Howie had were his powers of illusion and Nick knew he could win this fight if he stayed alert and refused to be confounded. He just hoped that the Ersnai had no other special powers… he would already have to prepare himself for the stretching limbs.
“Yes, the most powerful of the group…” Howie said beginning to creep towards him.
Nick backed away to the right so that the two of them were circling each other, each preparing for the other’s attacks. “Where are my friends being held?” Nick demanded. “Are all of you Ersnai?” Now at least he knew the real reason for why they had ended Backstreet.
Howie shrugged. “No actually. Just a few of us.”
“You and Brian?” Nick guessed.
“Nope. Me and Kevin.”
“You’re lying,” Nick said shaking his head. That Brian who had hit him had not been his Brian. He had been a monster and now Nick knew why.
“Afraid not. We convinced AJ and Brian that the Backstreet Boys had to end. Everything Brian did was of his own free will. He hates you because you’re an annoying brat!”
“I don’t believe you!” Nick yelled. He didn’t want to believe…
‘Brian is my friend! He would never turn away from me!’
And Nick was never going to let the Ersnai steal his special friends away from him.
Howie laughed slightly. “Aaww, is poor Nicky upset because he’s lost all his friends? Brian doesn’t want you anymore! Kevin and I wanted to make sure that you had nobody!”
“It’s not true! You’re all Ersnai and you’re trying to ruin my life!” Nick yelled, his fingers tightening about his sword.
‘That bastard was not my best friend!’
“Wouldn’t you just love to believe that?” Howie taunted.
“NO!” Nick jumped forward and his sword sunk into the flesh of Howie’s shoulder.
Howie emitted an animal like squeal and the same thick liquid that had been in Zanell began to flow freely from the wound, gathering in a thick, murky green pool upon the carpet.
Howie seized Nick’s sword with his hands and wrenched it out of him, throwing Nick back a few steps in the process. His eyes seemed to burn with malevolent flames of rage as he passed a hand over his wound, which sealed it instantly.
“You’ll pay!” Howie threatened. “You can never win alone! You may be the most powerful of the Backstreet Boys, but we have you now. You can run but we will always find you!”
“I’m not going to run,” Nick replied. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what had happened to Zanell, Brian, Howie and the others!”
“I won’t tell you a thing. I’d rather die than help you,” Howie said. “You know that from my companion.”
“Then so be it! I’ll kill you all if I have to!” Nick said, preparing to strike again.
“Hi Nicky boy,” another familiar voice suddenly said.
Nick turned and saw a tall, dark haired man in tight red clothing standing in the doorway – Kevin. Nick rolled his eyes slightly and ignored him.
He turned back to Howie. “I’m not being fooled by your illusions,” he said. “You’re just trying to distract me.”
Howie smirked slightly.
“That’s what you think,” Kevin said.
Suddenly two huge hands had clamped themselves upon Nick’s shoulders. Nick cried out as Kevin pulled him effortlessly from his feet and raised him above the carpet by the back of his ninja’s cloak.
“I’ll give you an illusion!” Kevin laughed. “You’ll see stars after this!”
He suddenly threw Nick and the younger man did not have time to even cry out before he hit the window in a shattering of glass. The breath escaped his body as he hit the ground hard outside and he moaned as he attempted to roll onto his side.
He could feel the blood trickling down his face from the tiny cuts he had sustained from the window and the palms of his hands stung painfully. He winced as he weakly crawled to his knees, his entire body trembling.
“Ready for more?” Kevin asked.
Nick looked up and saw Kevin and Howie standing the other side of the window, their faces full of amusement as they saw him bleeding upon the ground.
Nick located his sword from the floor and then staggered to his feet, his knees buckling slightly as he turned to face them.
“You can’t fight us, you’re too weak!” Howie laughed. “Besides, we have friends and you don’t.”
Nick turned his head to glance behind him and his heart thudded in panic as he saw the four druids he had fought earlier beginning to approach him. He glanced back at Howie and Kevin and bit his lip slightly.
“What’ll it be?” Kevin asked. “Do you want to give us the amulets or do you want us to take them?”
Nick knew that there was no other choice for him. He began to run, praying that he could hide before they caught up with him. His hand instinctively closed about Zanell’s amulet as if he could draw extra power from it.
As he heard no footsteps of pursuit, he turned to glance back and saw that the druids were nowhere in sight. They had been nothing more than one of Howie’s illusions.
Howie’s eyes burrowed into his face and he laughed manically. “We’ll have you and the remaining amulets soon enough! You can’t run forever Carter! We’ll catch you! You cannot outsmart the Ersnai!”
Nick turned back and ran as fast as his trembling limbs would allow him. He seemed to be running away a lot at the moment, but one thing was for certain and that was that he would never abandon Zanell or his friends. He would find them even if he died trying.