Excerpt

Prologue

The scientists gathered around the dish which held the precious fertilized eggs. It was a glorious day, a day in which they were certain they'd finally gotten it right. After the many failures, the babies born with no arms, or two heads, sometimes with the parts of other creatures who'd been introduced into the mix, after those, this was it. As a unit, they knew that it was their last chance, so they'd taken their time, perfected the splicing of the superior genes with the usual human egg and sperm. If they failed, their entire production facility would be shut down.

The woman who lay on the table did so with utter awareness of what was happening. She was a scientist also, as was her husband. They were not only part of the team, they were key in finding the exact formula needed for success. Unable to have children naturally, they'd been quick to volunteer. They were also aware that whatever children might come of the experiment would be raised here, in the lab. Part of what would seem to be a traditional family unit, but watched, recorded, tested throughout their lives.

The lead scientist, a woman, young for her position, gently lifted the Petri dish and began the method for transferring the genetically altered, fertilized embryos into the woman. She watched with bated breath as they entered the woman's uterus, prayed to a higher being she didn't believe in that at least one would take. She hardly dared hope for a multiple birth, illegal everywhere on Earth but here in this lab. If this worked, she'd be able to not only continue her experiments, using other willing subjects as carriers for the babies. She'd have the notoriety she craved that would justify her early promotion to this position.

The woman who lay on the table squeezed her husband’s hand. The scientist glanced up as a look passed between the couple, a look of some hesitation.

"You haven't changed your minds, have you?" she demanded.

"Of course not," the man said, refusing to meet her gaze. "We want this to succeed as much as you do."

"Good," the scientist answered. "Because there is much riding on this. I would follow you to the ends of the universe to make sure nothing goes wrong."

"That won't be necessary," the husband says, finally meeting her eyes. "We're in this as agreed."

The scientist watched him for long moments. Satisfied, she removed her gloves. With a sharp turn, nearly military in its precision, she left the room. Now, it was just a matter of waiting, to see if the process was a success. May the gods help her if she'd failed.

1: Pulling the Thread

Emiah

The thorn had a barbed end. Barb-thorns were nasty little buggers that sprang from the packed ground like weeds. “Don’t pull it, Juliet! Jeez, it’s like you can’t wait to hurt me.” I used her real name to stress my seriousness. I sat on my cot with my leg outstretched. Jules sat on the dirt floor, inspecting my foot.

“I bet it’s throbbing now. It’s only going to hurt worse if you wait,” Jules said, eyeing me from above my toes. She knew things, such as the pain barb-thorns caused. I remember her experiments with them, how she’d jabbed a thorn in her arm to study the reaction and intensity of pain to determine the maximum, tolerable time she could take before needing to pull it out. If I knew nothing else, I knew her tolerance for pain was magnitudes higher than mine.

“Can we wait for Dad?” I asked, and then my hiss answered my own question. Tears beaded on my lower eyelid, hanging there as if unable to decide to fall down my cheeks.

“Okay, Emiah,” she said, using my full name like our parents did, as if to emphasize I was being a child. “I think it’s a mistake. If it was your arm then I would think otherwise, but you have to walk on this foot.” She turned her attention back to my foot. “Oh! There it goes.”

“What?” I asked in a near whimper. Jules seemed to enjoy my pain.

“Try to wiggle your toes now,” she said.

“I can’t.”

“Yup. The poison is moving quickly. We got to get it out.” I nodded. She gently gripped the extruding thorn and I squealed. “Jeez, we’re seventeen, Em. Get a grip, will you?” In a fluid motion, she swung off the floor and around to sit on my leg. She gripped the thorn again and yanked.


From the pain, she could have degloved my foot. I screeched and clenched my teeth.

She turned and showed me the thorn with the barb still attached. “I got it all. Do you think Dad could have gotten it out without breaking it? I don’t think so,” Jules gloated, in complete disregard for my pain. She squinted at me. “You need to be a man, Em. You squeal like a girl.”

I held my tongue. I wanted to tell her to shut up and stop teasing me, but that would only fuel the enjoyment she seemed to get from tormenting me. The pain decreased. I lay back and took deep breaths. Drops of blood tapped against the ground. “Can you find me something to put over the wound to stop the bleeding?”

Jules laughed. “Wound?” she managed to ask between her laughing. She went to the chest, lifted the lid, and sorted through the clothing until she came up with an old shirt. “Nobody will miss this rag.” She ripped a strip off the shirt’s bottom and tossed it to me.

I pressed the rag against the bottom of my foot. “Mom and Dad should have been home by now. It’s dark.”

Jules stepped to the window and studied the other huts in the Gluston community. “They’ve been gone this long before.”

Gluston consisted of sixty huts erected in ten rows of six tightly packed together in a scratched away patch of forest. We harvested mostly the hugnut that grew in the mammoth hugtrees. The thick and fibrous outer shell of the hugnut was used to make material such as clothing. Unfortunately, getting the hugnut from the tree was hard, involving surgery-like work to extract it from beneath the gray-blue bark. It wasn’t good to kill the trees, as they were thousands of years old and new trees didn’t produce the hugnuts for hundreds of years. Nobody in Gluston owned any clothing made from our labor. From what I heard they were incredibly desirable and valuable.

As the pain in my foot became more tolerable, I pressed the rag harder. “They’ve never gone this long without telling us.”

She nodded and kept quiet, which worried me. Jules keeping quiet was a cause for concern and meant that she worried too. The door creaking open drew both of our attention. My first reaction was relief that our parents had returned, but Cilla, my other sister, entered with a boy that nearly poured himself over her.

Though we were triplets, we differed in many ways, and it seemed Cil matured the quickest. She looked and behaved more like a twenty-year-old than seventeen. Mom and Dad said triplets were rare and, on Earth, illegal. We would’ve been stripped away from our parents. The reason we believed our parents moved here to Senca One was to keep us together as a family. I think they were the only people in Gluston from Earth.

Cil took one look at us, lost her smile, turned to the boy and said, “Go home, Yazzen.”

“But I want you to come with me,” he whined. I don’t know what Cil saw in Yazzen. He was scrawny with patchy brown hair and eyebrows that joined together. I suppose for Gluston he was a catch, but standing next to Cil with her pretty oval face, full lips, and I guess what most people thought promised to become a beautiful woman, he simply looked pathetic. Even the scar on Cil’s leg seemed to add to her beauty.

“Not tonight,” Cil said, pushing him back outside and closing the door. She looked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Mom and Dad are not back. I think something happened,” I said.

“Don’t be a baby, Em. Mom and Dad probably just got held up by a storm or something. I meant what’s wrong with you?”

“He stepped on a barb-thorn,” Jules said. She turned her attention back out the window.

Cil came over, took the cloth from my hand, and gently wiped my foot. “It looks really good.” She glanced up. “Did Jules pull it?”

“Yeah, and it hurt like you wouldn’t believe.”

Cil inspected my foot again. “I’ve seen enough of them in people to know they hurt. I don’t see the barb and the swelling is already going down.” She stood and went to the window beside Jules. “I think your calling is in medicine, Jules. Not even Doc Grant can get the barb-thorns out cleanly.”

I knew her calling wasn’t medicine since she was sometimes the reason people needed medicine. Jules was athletic and wickedly quick. She had sent many people to Doc Grant with busted lips, broken noses, and cracked heads. She always kept her sandy blond hair cut short. Her keen eyes never seemed to stop assessing people. She was fearless, much to the dismay of Mom and Dad.

“Enough about the stinking barb-thorn. I think something happened to Mom and Dad,” I said. “Why am I the only one that sees the obvious?”

“It’s still too early to begin worrying, Em,” Jules said.

“Like I said,” Cil rolled her eyes, “it’s probably something that just held them up. No biggie. They probably ran into some old friends.”

“That’s a lot of ‘probably’s’ and Mom and Dad don’t have friends . . .” I stated.

“That we know of,” Jules snapped.

“Maybe they found us . . . and they have Mom and Dad . . . and they’re torturing them right now.” My heart raced at all the fatalistic scenarios going through my mind. The more I thought the worse things my imagination invented.

“Easy, Em. It’s too early to be thinking that kind of stuff. Plus, Mom and Dad said they would never look for us in such a crappy place as this,” Cil said, trying to calm my fears.

“We’ll ready the packs just in case Em is right,” Jules said.

“Okay, but it’s just an exercise,” Cil said.

“Yeah, but you know what Dad always says, ‘preparation is the key to thwarting surprises.’”

I’m sure Jules thought something was wrong also, but unlike me making my assertions based upon feeling, she trusted things she saw. “What is it, Jules?” I asked.

Cil tossed three backpacks on the cot and then went to the cabinets and gathered the meager supply of canned foods.

Jules pulled her attention away from the window and knelt by my foot. She ripped another piece of the rag shirt and wrapped it tightly around my foot.

“Ouch,” I protested.

“Go ahead and stand.”

I did as she asked. The pain wasn’t bad as I limped around the hut. I thought I did quite well, but judging from Jules’s scowl, it wasn’t good enough. “We’re not going to get far if we have to run. Crappy timing stepping on the barb-thorn, Em.”

“What is it, Jules?” I asked again.

Jules helped Cil load the backpacks with more supplies. “Spill it, Jules. What has you worried?” Cil pressed.

“Hendricks didn’t start his round yet.”

The blood drained from Cil’s face. Jules’s lips pressed thin and her eyes went to slits. She eyed me and I looked away. “Now you spill it, Cil.”

“It’s nothing,” Cil said.

Jules fastened her gaze back on me. “What happened?”

“Hendricks cornered her yesterday,” I said. Hendricks had an appetite for teasing the girls and sometimes, when no one was around, his hands would wander. Hendricks was a Collaborative man or a Troll as most people referred to them. Trolls wore long khaki coats sporting epaulets with braids that covered their shoulders like ropy hair. We called them Trolls because their epaulets gave the appearance of two tiny heads of hair sprouting from each shoulder. Hendricks’ duty was to ensure nothing disrupted the harvesting of the hugnuts. His rounds through Gluston could be timed to the second. He was the authority that settled disputes and when he needed to resolve a quarrel between two people, both parties got bloodied. Needless to say, very rarely did people involve Hendricks in any disagreements.

“He didn’t do anything,” Cil said, planting her hands on her hips and glaring at me.

“The man’s pig snot, Cil. Don’t let him touch you.” Though Senca One didn’t have pigs, we saw enough pictures and streams on Dad’s tablet and read about them in stories to know what they were. Jules cupped her hands across her nose and mouth, took several deep breaths, and then smoothed her short hair. “Okay, I’ve got a bad feeling. Hendricks never misses the round. Something isn’t right. Let’s go just to be safe.”

I slipped on my boots and jacket. We each put on a backpack filled with clothes and supplies and quietly moved into the forest. Here, we dealt with sweltering heat during the day and near freezing at night, whereas on Earth the climate was much less extreme. Whatever name the founders of Senca One called the vast, stretching woodland, Gluston people called it The Forest.

Our hut bordered the forest, which made it easier to slip away unseen by others. The darkness didn’t hurt either. We got to the designated hugtree and scaled up it as deftly as ants. Even though night had come, we knew the tress better than we knew the lines on our palms. Gluston kids did most of the climbing to rig the pulleys for the harvesting platforms. We moved swiftly to the tree’s top and sat on a branch with a clear view into Gluston.

Torches lit some of the areas outside the huts. Lantern glow came from most of the huts. “It’s too quiet,” I said.

“You’re not going to hear people from this far,” Cil said.

“No. Listen. There’s no noise. I’ve never heard the forest so quiet at night.”

Jules put a finger to her lips. “Shush.”

I scanned Gluston. Jules’s gaze wandered the forest floor, Gluston, and the sky. The longer we sat, the harder my heart pounded. Jules pointed to the sky. I could make out three dark objects blotting the sky. They were as silent as the night as they hung above the trees. One of the crafts moved to a position only fifty yards from us. I counted twenty people in black clothing glide silently from the craft to the forest floor. At first they fell fast, but then seemed to hover just before reaching the ground.

I prayed they wouldn’t go for our hut, but my prayers went unanswered. A dozen of the black clad people converged on the hut and busted into it without as much as a breath of warning. When they were certain we were not in the hut, the people fanned toward the other huts like a cancer spreading rapidly through a body. People were dragged from their huts. The few Gluston people that voiced an objection were swiftly subdued with a shock stick, a stick that shot an electrical bolt.

“They’re looking for us,” Cil whispered. A tear ran down her cheek.

I forced myself to keep from crying. I wouldn’t voice my fear for Mom and Dad. “What are we going to do?”

Jules eyed us. “Mom and Dad said we’re supposed to hide in the forest. They taught us to live off what the forest produced.” She glanced back to Gluston. “But that was when we were younger.” She breathed deeply. “We’re going to find Mom and Dad.”

2: Patterns in the Cloak

Cilla

I watched Em struggle with his fears and saw the determination in Juliet’s jaw. “And just how do you think we’re going to find Mom and Dad?” I asked Jules quietly, shoving the tear angrily from my cheek. “I mean, seriously, we’re kinda trapped in the tree here.”

My chest tingled strangely. I chalked the feeling up to hormones, or fear, or whatever, but now the tingling sensation spreading across my skin like bugs crawling in all directions had me really scared—and kind of freaked out. The feeling first happened a few days ago when Hendricks tried to put his hands on me, but this time it’s worse.

“Why do I have to think of everything, Cil?” Jules hissed. “Being born first doesn’t make me the leader.”

“Yeah? Then why do you always act like you’re in charge?” Em whispered, though we all knew he rarely argued with Jules’s decisions. I think he sensed my fear and tried to calm me.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Jules said. “If either of you would rather stay here than go look for them, feel free. I’m going after them.”

Em and I gave our consent simply with our silence. Though Em and I wouldn’t admit it, we all, including Mom and Dad, knew leadership was Jules’s thing.

“Okay,” Jules said, as if we’d vocalized our approval. “We’ve gotta get out of here. It won’t take them long to realize we’re hiding in the trees. Em, you’re the stealthiest of us. You go down first while we keep watch. If we give the signal, go.” Em looked as if he wanted to argue. “Got it?” Jules’s tone brooked no argument. He nodded his assent.

Em moved to climb down and I reached out, laying a hand on his arm. He looked up at me, his unusual green eyes the same as mine, the same as our parents. Only Jules’s were different. Her right eye was the same unique green as the rest of the family’s, but the left was a Caribbean blue. I swallowed over the lump of fear lodged in my throat. “Be careful.”

He placed his hand over mine, and Jules added hers. A silent understanding of love and solidarity passed between us, something others had never been able to understand. Of course, we were the only multiple birth in over a hundred years, so there wasn’t anyone who could understand.

“Uh, what’s the signal again?” Em tried to smile at his joke, but his fear caused the joke to fall flat.

Jules and I scanned the horizon, watching for the soldiers as Em slipped his way soundlessly down the tree. Once he gave the signal—a whistle that sounded like the thrum birds that populated the hugtrees—Jules motioned for me to make the descent. Usually the whistle triggered replies from distant thrums, but tonight the trees were deathly silent. I didn’t bother arguing, knowing she’d outwait me all night if necessary. She was older than me by two minutes and Em by five, but you would’ve thought she was five years older.

I shimmied down the tree, not quite as noiselessly as Em, but close enough. I listened for another whistle then furtively made my way toward the sound. Once I joined Em, and we felt it was safe, he gave the signal to Jules. We waited. She didn’t come. He signaled again. Nothing.

“Something’s happened,” he said, his voice quivering.

“No. No, she’s just being cautious,” I refuted, even though my heart pounded with fear. I struggled to hear anything from her position high in the tree.

Footsteps sounded nearby. I slipped my hand into Em’s. He held tight.

“We have to go,” he mouthed.

I shook my head, not wanting to leave Jules, even though I knew we had no choice. We headed through the trees across the spongy, reddish-orange dirt that covered the ground. Our parents often told us stories of Earth, of rich brown dirt and bodies of clear blue water that stretched further than the eye could see. There, the trees grew abundantly and brought forth fruits that didn’t require near-surgery to get to the edible parts. It sounded fantastical, and I admit I thought they mostly expounded on the truth. Mom and Dad also spoke about the beauty here on Senca One, in the richness and abundance of the forest. I personally didn’t see any beauty, only a trapped life of near servitude from the Collaborative.

We wove through the trees, careful to stay on the spongy dirt and avoid the copper colored dirt that would retain our footprints. It was some time before we felt safe to speak again, when it had been over thirty minutes since we’d last heard the footsteps.

“Guess you were right,” I said. “They’re scared to get too close to the Waste.”

“I had a feeling,” was all Em said.

I noticed his limp. “Let’s stop.” I scratched at the creepy-crawly feeling that had intensified across my chest and down my arms.

“Not yet.”

“Em.” I placed a hand on his arm. He stopped and looked back at me. “Please. I’m exhausted.”

He saw right through my ruse, of course, but allowed it. He sighed. “Okay. We need to go up.”

As we moved to the closest tree, someone stepped from behind it. The man was dressed in the same black as the Collaborative soldiers. As he brought up one of the rods that shoot electricity, I lost control of the crawling feeling across my body. Things happened so fast I had no time to think. When I leapt, I felt my body change into something else. I was no longer me and yet I was still me, sort of. A different kind of thinking invaded my mind. My fear became aggression as if it were a weapon. My sight sharpened and I saw details of the forest I’d never noticed. My hearing magnified and I heard the man’s pulse instantly quicken. I smelled his fear as I stretched out toward him. The man jerked back behind the tree, barely avoiding me. He dropped his weapon and I turned to him in a crouch. I bared my teeth and the desire to sink them into his throat nearly blinded me to any rational thinking. The need to protect myself and Em took over completely. The man stumbled back and then scrambled away from me. I moved toward him slowly, putting on my most menacing sneer. Finally, the man managed to make it to his feet. He turned and bolted away. My sharpened sight watched him run away. I breathed heavily. As I calmed down, the crawling feeling receded as if the ants were converging back into their nest.

I spun and looked back at Em’s wide eyes. I scanned the forest rapidly, thinking another Collaborative soldier was near. I spun around, but the extraordinary sight and hearing from earlier had disappeared. “What’s wrong, Em?”

“What . . . what did you do? Cil, what just happened?”

I spun around again, thinking that maybe I did rip the man’s throat out like I so desperately wanted. I saw nothing. “We should get out of here.”

“What just happened?” Em repeated. He picked up a pair of ripped pants and held them out to me. His arm shook viciously.

I looked down. They were my pants. My eyes met his. I realized I was wearing nothing and darted behind the tree. Stunned, Em picked up my pack and tossed it my way.

“What happened?” I heard the hollowness of begging in my tone. “Em, please tell me what happened.”

He shook his head tightly and said nothing as I scrambled into a new set of clothing. I understood the need to hurry so restrained my curiosity as we scaled a tree some distance away. We stayed on the edge of the forest. It wouldn’t be long until we hit the open Wasteland. There were pros and cons to that. Not many dared to enter the Waste. We would be completely exposed. We’d never been there. Our parents warned us of the danger since we were young, but we had no choice. This might be our last night to sleep for a while, since after the Waste came the jungle with a whole new set of dangers.

Once aloft, we looked around and determined we were alone. “What did you see, Em?”

“I saw you turn into a felit.”

I stared at him, shocked as I rubbed the scar on my leg. When I was a child a small felit that a man had found raked me across the leg. I nearly died of fever. Felit’s were the most feared predators in the forest. They lurked on the edge of the Waste as if patrolling the forests edge from all the outside dangers. Mom once told us there were cats like the felit’s on Earth, called panthers, but few were as big and bold. Felits were as dark, silent, and deadly as night itself. “What do you mean?” I rubbed the center of my chest where the tingling sensation had come from.

“When you jumped at that man, you changed. It happened that quickly. I’ve . . . we’ve only seen a felit once and that’s what you became when you went after him.”

I cocked my head in disbelief, trying to read if he was messing with me. His gaze was steady. I swallowed nervously. “I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t even know I changed.” I kept my eyes fixed on his. “What’s wrong with me?” Jules’s face flashed into my mind. She always gave me crap for being too careless in my actions. “Don’t tell Jules, okay?”

Em nodded and I offered him a weak smile. There was no way I would sleep tonight thinking about what happened to me . . . or what I’d done.

“Let me look at your foot,” I said, needing to break the tension. He removed his boot and lifted his leg, propping his foot in front of me. I shined the glow bar on his foot after removing the makeshift bandage. The area around the barb mark was red and swollen, but not oozing, a good sign. It looked sore. “I think it’s gonna be okay,” I said and then added, “Phew. But it may be awhile before you can wash the stink off your foot.”

Em didn’t laugh. “Where do you think they took them?” he asked as I rewrapped his foot, using a clean spot on the ripped shirt over the cut. I didn’t have to ask who he meant.

“I don’t know. But the city is the first place to look, obviously. They might not be there, but at least we can try to find out where they are.”

“We don’t know anything about Brighton. There’s nothing to indicate that we’ll know anymore than we know now.”

“Got a better idea?” I asked.

“Let’s get some sleep,” he said, rather than answer.

We each settled into a crevice created by the wide hugtree branches and the trunk of the tree. The air was chilled, but not unbearable. Our backpacks made nice pillows. Because we’d left so late, there was no need to eat any of our precious food yet. Sucking on the leaves of the tree provided needed moisture. I couldn’t shake the emotions I had when I attacked the Collaborative soldier. They were raw and primal. Logic and reason didn’t seem to factor in as much as survival. I hated the way I’d felt—and kind of liked it, too. That scared me more than anything.

A vibration in the tree drew my attention sometime later. It was subtle, probably non-existent to most, but crisp as lightning to me. I opened my eyes, holding my position as I assessed. I glanced at Em and saw that he also heard it. Without speaking, we slowly stood. We could jump to the ground if needed. It would hurt, but we had been taught how to land, buckling our knees and rolling on impact to lessen the force of the landing. The tingling in my chest started up, and I kept it from spreading by focusing on the feeling. I struggled with the sensation and managed to contain it.

Suddenly the sound of the thrum bird’s whistle sounded and a grin broke out on my face, matched by Em. The crawling feeling I had barely contained instantly retreated. Seconds later Jules appeared. She came up on my branch and I pulled her into my arms. Em reached across the distance and grabbed her hand. As always, we didn’t need words to express our gratitude at her safety.

She pulled herself up to a branch slightly above and to the side of mine. “Where’ve you been?” I demanded, angry now at the worry she’d caused, swiping at the tears that wet my cheeks.

“They came too fast,” she said, settling against the trunk. “Long story. Let me catch my breath before you start nagging me.”

I rolled my eyes at her take-charge attitude. As if we hadn’t been doing just fine without her. And yet, I couldn’t ignore the bloom of warmth that came with her words. As long as Jules was here, we would be okay.

3: Fading in the Sun

Juliet

I scrambled up the tree and perched beside Em and Cil. Memories of the Troll soldiers spreading through our town like Black Death ate at my brain. “I watched as Cil went, after Em’s whistle,” I told them, recounting my story. “I was waiting for my signal when I heard a noise below me. One of the Trolls, Hendricks of all people, heard Cil as she took off. He was so close to me at this point, I could see the creepy smile that lit up his face. I immediately regretted not bringing Daddy’s big hunting knife. I tell you, I think I could’ve killed him.

“‘So, one little ducky is alone,’ he said, making me sick.” I cringed at the memory. “He laughed to himself, and then turning to the others, he yelled out, ‘They’re not over here. Looks like they gave us the slip. Let’s call it a night, boys.’ The rest of the Trolls whined about not catching us and trekked back into Gluston.

“Then Hendricks whispered something like ‘Okay, little girly, come on out and play,’ as he started after Cil.” Cil shivered and rubbed the goose bumps on her upper arms.

“‘Not on my watch,’ I told myself. I jumped from the tree, landing squarely on his back, knocking him flat onto the ground. The air swooshed from my lungs and I wondered, ‘Did I kill him?’ I didn’t have a clue, and I didn’t care. I spent the next fifteen minutes stripping branches from trees on the west side of the forest to cover his body. While you two ran north, I laid a false trail for them. If they find his body in the morning, they’ll head west. I ran the leaves from the stink tree, as Em calls them, over our trail to eliminate our scent, hoping the Trolls that are after us aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. It took me an hour and a half to cover our tracks and find you guys again, sleeping in this tree.”

Cil gave me grief, as usual, about not being where she thought I should be when she thought I should be there. I didn’t have the energy to explain it all to her—I made the decision that I thought gave us our best chance for escape, I acted on that decision, end of story.

I tossed around in my makeshift bed. My thirst and hunger did little to aid my restlessness. I pulled a spare shirt out of my backpack and slipped it on against the cold night. I always found it amazing how the chilly nights were completely opposite from the hot and humid days. Finally sleep won out.

Morning came with a gathering of thrums whistling up a racket as the sun began to light the sky. I was freezing and thankful I’d slept at all, but given the previous day’s excitement and my exhaustion, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Cil and Em shivered from the cold also. “Let’s get moving. It’ll warm up quick enough.”

“Where’re we going?” Em asked.

I eyed them both the same way Dad did to me when he wanted my complete attention. “Through the Waste. That’s the quickest way to the city, so that’s the way we go.” Actually, it was the only way to the city without being spotted by Trolls.

Em and Cil glanced at each other. “Without using the road?” Cil asked.

“Mom and Dad said to never go into the Waste without using the road,” Em added. The Wasteland was a twenty mile wide swath of nothing but red dirt which few people had crossed. Many had tried and died. Large packs of red jackals, as Mom called them, roamed the Waste. A worse danger was the hard-shell cackles that could completely strip the flesh from a person in minutes.

“I know,” I answered. “But the Trolls protect the road. We either cross the Waste unprotected or just hide in the forest like frightened thrums.” I didn’t mean to come across so snippy. I just didn’t see any other options.

“But . . . but . . . we’ll be killed,” Em said.

I spun and started toward the Waste. I walked twenty yards before Em and Cil ran to catch up with me. I glanced at them sideways. “Do you have a better idea?” Each of them shook their heads. We stopped at the Waste’s sharp edge. There wasn’t a gradual change from foliage to dirt. It was like someone drew a line in the ground where neither side could cross.


I lay on my belly. “What are you doing?” Cil asked.

“Looking for anything out of place.” After studying the Waste at surface level, I noticed slight, nearly indistinguishable humps to the right front. “There,” I said and pointed.

Em and Cil squinted in the direction of my point. “What?” they both asked at the same time.

“See how the ground looks a little bumpy?”

“No,” said Em.

“Wait here,” I said and moved to where the ground bumps were. When I came within ten feet, the bumps rose from the ground, standing on short, spindly legs. They made a crackling sound as they moved in unison toward me. I spun and darted back to the safety of the forest. I was too fast for them to follow. The pod of cackles settled back down.

“Now what?” Cil asked.

“Now we know how to avoid the cackles. We can spot them and we know not to come within ten feet of a pod.”

Em started, “If it were that easy—”

“Em, I’m as scared as you, but we have no choice. We have to press on,” I said and started across the Waste. The first hour we moved slowly, spotting and avoiding the pods of cackles. We became more confident and moved at a quicker pace. Our pale skin wasn’t used to the scorching sun and we each were burned red. At noon we spotted a huge pod that stretched left and right as far as we could see. We turned to the left and paralleled the pod for miles before finding a gap that offered a way to cross.

“That’s a pretty tight fit, Jules,” Cil said. She pointed to the other pod forty feet away. “I think they are part of the same pod, but just split.”

I looked at Em and said, “What do you think?”

Em rooted through his backpack and pulled out a shock stick. “Remember when we said a felit scared away the Troll man? Well, he dropped this. I think it can help.”

“Great,” Cil muttered. “Another reason for the Trolls to hunt us down.”

I hefted the shock stick. “This is great, Em. I know people aren’t allowed to have these, but you didn’t have to hide it.”

“I just thought if we got caught, I didn’t want you to get in trouble,” Em said.

“Don’t worry, Em. If we get caught, I think carrying a shock stick will be the least of our problems,” I said while studying the weapon. “You lead. I’ll stay in the middle and Cil will bring up the rear.” I clipped the shock stick to my belt and fell in behind Em.

We crept between the cackles only to discover we needed to weave through the pods as if in a maze. We kept quiet. My nerves stayed on edge as we scooted too close to some of the pods to maneuver around them. Once out of the thick of them, we rested and breathed more easily.

We spotted the dark line on the horizon that marked the other side of the Waste in late afternoon. That lifted our spirits. “That’s five miles away,” I said, coming to a stop. I pointed to the humps in the ground that were much larger than the cackles. “What are those?”

“Maybe rocks,” Cil said.

“No, they’re moving,” Em said. “And I think they’re coming toward us.”

I unclipped the shock stick from my belt. “Jackals,” I whispered. “Stay behind me. The shock stick will scare them off.” I didn’t believe that and I doubted Em or Cil did either. I did a double take at Cil’s frightened features. I got the impression she was scared of something other than the jackals, but now wasn’t the time to try to pry answers from her. 

Six red jackals moved toward us, slow and menacing. I stepped toward them with the shock stick outstretched. This was the first time I had actually seen Jackals. They were scruffy, dog-like creatures with coarse blackish-red fur and bulging eyes. Their wide chests heaved, rippling the thick muscles beneath. They had long muzzles and their lips pulled up, revealing impressive, sharp teeth. I inched to within twelve feet of the nearest jackal and pressed the shock stick’s trigger. A bolt leapt from the stick and struck the jackal in the head, downing it instantly. I pressed the button again, but nothing happened. Panic. The high pitched whir of the shock stick charging was painfully long. When it beeped, signaling the charge completed, I zapped the next jackal that had crept to within eight feet. The shock stick whirred. The next jackal crouched at six feet away. The charged finished and I shot the jackal just as it sprang at me. “It’s not going to charge in time!” I shouted and dropped the shock stick. I pulled the knife from my belt and crouched, waiting for the next one to jump. I didn’t wait long.

An ear-piercing screech cut the air, pulling not only my attention, but the jackals also. I looked up as the jackals pulled back slightly. Crimson eagles, two of them, circled overhead. I’d heard of them, but had never seen one before. I didn’t know anyone who had seen one. The creatures were magnificent, a sight to behold with their deep crimson plumage, black feet, and sharp beaks. Their wing span looked to be at least eight feet, eight impressive, daunting feet. As they circled closer, the jackal’s moved further away from me. The eagles were so close now I could actually see their incredibly blue eyes that threatened to mesmerize me with their depth. I watched in awe at their grace and agility as they circled nearer. I battled the urge to reach out and touch the one closest to me.

The jackals, however, were petrified and turned, running at incredible speed for their burrows. One of the eagles swooped down and caught a jackal in its long, sharp black talons, shaking it violently. The jackal howled for only a moment, then went limp in the eagles grasp. It landed and began devouring the dead animal, with the other eagle searching in vain for its meal. Only the rest of the jackals had escaped, disappearing somewhere into the red dirt.

The crimson beauty turned and, spying me, flew straight my way, so quick I had no time to react. Its claws hit me in the left shoulder, easily driving me to the ground with its far superior strength. The air blew from my lungs. It circled back and came at me again. I tried stabbing into its belly, hoping to find its heart. Its claws ripped at my shoulders and collar bone. I screamed. The eagle screamed. My world faded to black and I dreamt of a huge felit as black as a moonless midnight tearing into the attacking eagle. My life seeped away in blood streams that blended beautifully with the red earth.

*****
I lay on a makeshift platform high in a bog tree. The trees spindly branches webbed out to mesh with other branches, creating a kind of sturdy weave. Bognut seeds hung from the branches and their pods clattered together with each gust of wind. I vaguely remembered Em dressing my wounds. I had been fever-bound for several days now and for the first time I felt I could muster the strength to move. The pungent smell of the Kiwian root used to ward off infection and keep my fever under control lay thick in the air. Cil had filled me in on how a felit appeared and fought with the crimson eagle. They were able to carry me to safety with the felit and crimson eagle occupied with one another. Unfortunately, my pack had been lost in the battle, which meant we’d lost almost all our remaining water and food. We’d gone through the meager remainder over the last few days while I’d been recuperating. I didn’t stir until the sound of men laughing sliced though the dark fog in my head.

“Cil, Em, don’t move,” I whispered harshly, turning over and looking down at the dense overgrowth and empty bognut pods littering the ground beneath us.

“Really, Captain Obvious, because I was about to start singing All Hail to the Collaborative at the top of my lungs,” bit out Em. Sometimes his attitude drove me to the edge.

We all watched as a group of boys, five to be exact, passed under us. They were a rag tag bunch, with worn clothing and dirty faces that matched our own. I’d guess them to be between seventeen and nineteen, and not one of them was a looker. Except for the tall one. He had dark hair and eyes, and an infectious laugh. Judging by the way he barked out orders, my guess was that he ranked as leader of the pathetic band. By their clothing and age, I doubted they were Trolls.

“Steven, you were supposed to fill the canteens at the last stream.” The dark haired one shook an empty bottle at him. I looked with envy at the canteens. Since the stupid eagles took everything from us, we could really use those. “Sorry, Brax. Had to pee. I told Hayden to do it.”

“You did not,” spit back Hayden. I rolled my eyes. What a bunch of immature morons.

“You calling me a liar?” snapped Steven. Within seconds, the two were rolling head over heels in the dirt, fists flying. The rest of the boys backed up and gave them room. They rolled atop a patch of bulb-like mushrooms, causing a ‘pop’ as red dust exploded in a cloud around the boys.

“Man, that Brax is hot.” Cil practically drooled as she swooned. I don’t think there’s a girl more boy crazy than Cil.

“What about Yazzen?” I reminded her.

She let out a heavy sigh. “Yazzen, schmazzen. He was just a toy, Jules, you know that. But even someone as anti-boys as you has to admit Brax is some delicious eye candy.” She waggled her eyebrows and grinned. Em pretended to gag himself, accidently poking his finger too far down his throat. He dry heaved. Cil and I laughed silently until tears streamed down our cheeks. I didn’t even care that the laughing hurt my wounded shoulder.

The fight below us ended and our cheap entertainment continued on their way. I watched as Brax smacked Steven on the back of the head. Cil was right. The guy was hot. When they were far enough away, Em and I climbed down the tree. I was a bit wobbly and my wounds felt like they were on fire, but I needed to grit through it and get past being weak. Cil stayed on the platform, primped her hair, and changed her shirt to something clean and a little too low cut, if you asked me.

“Seriously, Cil? Who are you trying to look good for—the thrum birds or the jabbering nicle birds?” Em asked, still keeping his voice low. He set his backpack on the ground and pulled out a clean shirt.

“And who are you trying to impress?” I asked while looking around. This was the first good look I got of the jungle. The jungle wasn’t too unlike the forest on the other side of the Wasteland, except that it was denser. The jungle bog trees were thicker and higher than the forest hugnut trees. The air felt thicker as if the broad-leafed trees prevented the heat from rising and held in moisture. The ground cover was so thick I imagined it would slow our journey.

“This shirt is dirty. Besides, I slept in it all night. Smell,” he said, holding the shirt toward me. I leaned away in disgust. I wasn’t about to sniff his smelly shirt. “And look here.” He pointed to a small smudge near the bottom.

“Unless you have a washing machine and soap in that backpack, I suggest you let it get a little grimier before you change,” I pointed out.

“I hadn’t thought of that.” He tucked the clean, yellow shirt back into his backpack and zipped it shut. “We’d better find Mom and Dad fast or we’re all going to stink.” He began tugging on the neckline of my not so clean shirt.

“Hey!” I said and then clamped my hand over my mouth. I doubt the guys were far enough away not to hear.

“Easy, Jules. I want to make sure you’re healed up enough before we go.”

I turned away and pulled the neckline to the side enough for him to inspect my wounds. “You know, you did a really good job, Em. Thank you.”

“You’re better at this stuff, but me and Cil have our moments,” Em said with a smile.

“I’m dying of hunger.” I looked around for some fruit trees to help placate my parched throat and hunger.

Em reached up and tugged a broad leaf off the tree, handing it to me. I cringed. “Better than dying of thirst,” he said with a shrug.

I wasn’t so sure. I put the leaf in my mouth and sucked at the juice. Disgustingly bitter. At least it curbed the need for water. I reached up for another leave when Cil flew out of the tree.

“Auugh!” she screamed, landing on a pile of discarded bognut pods and her backpack.

“Cil, are you alright?” Em got to her first. Like our parents had taught us, he didn’t move her. He waited to see if there were injuries. Thankfully, she stood up.

“Yes. But I think I bruised my tailbone.” She shook her backpack from her shoulders and rubbed her butt.

“For someone who practically grew up climbing trees . . . You have to be more careful.” I brushed off the crumpled pod chunks from her back and shoulders. “We don’t want them to find us.”

“And whom might ‘them’ be?” My siblings and I froze at the question. We spun around to find Brax and his gang standing ten yards back, looking much more menacing, and taller, from our current stance than they did from the tree.

“And who might you be?” Em asked. I beamed proudly, not only at my little brother’s bravery, but also at the fact that he had the guts to correct Brax’s grammar. Em was a notorious bookworm and bravery had never been his strong suit. He planted his hands on his hips in defiance, clearly challenging the tall, and even hotter up close, Brax.

“Pretty tough for a little guy,” Brax chuckled.

Little? Em was almost as tall as Brax, although he wasn’t as wide. Brax had broad shoulders and muscular arms. So were his legs, at least the parts that stuck out between his ragged knee length shorts and his ankle-high work boots caked in dark mud.

He didn’t have the look of a guy who’d spent too much time in the fitness cube, honing his body. He looked more like he’d lived hard, and his body was simply a machine he employed to help him survive.

“Brax, I’ll tell you what.” Brax’s eyes narrowed at Em’s use of his name. Uneasiness seeped into my gut. I was in no condition to fight. “You guys turn around and go back where you came from and me and my sisters won’t hurt you.”

I shook my head ever so slightly. Us three against five huge guys? Oh yeah. We were as good as dead.

“Care to put some action behind your words, little man?” Steven stepped closer to Em.

In reveling over my brother’s short bout of bravery, I hadn’t noticed that the five guys circled us. We were completely surrounded. Cil and I stepped closer to Em.

“I think I’ll let my friend do the talking.” Em reached in his pocket and jerked out his pocket knife, all two and a half inches of it. I cringed. Cil cringed. Brax and the boys laughed. A good, hard, belly laugh. Steven dramatically fell on the ground holding his stomach in a detestable display. Our tough rough Em had left the building and we had our nerdy brother back.

“I don’t know, guys,” puffed out Steven as he pushed himself up from the ground. “Maybe we’d better leave these guys alone. Who knows what other weapons they have in their backpacks? Seriously, little man here just may have a spoon, too. I’d hate for him to scoop my eyes out with a rusty spoon.” Steven shivered dramatically. His insolent comment sent the gang of boys into another laughing fit. These morons needed a life.

“Little man, I admire your spunk. It takes a lot of guts for one puny guy and two girls to challenge us,” Brax said, eyeing me. The hardness of his eyes had vanished and a playful mock now held them.

That set me off. If I were to guess why, I’d say it was the way he rolled his eyes at the word girls, as if we were a non-entity. I intended to show him just how much of a non-entity we were. I charged straight for his gut, disregarding my wounds. This jerk is going down. I skidded to a stop when they pulled out knives, real knives, with six to seven inch blades from I don’t know where, along with an impressive machete, and pointed them at me.

“You might want to rethink your plan, Blondie,” Brax sneered. Even with a sneer laced across his face, the guy was still hot.

My chest suddenly itched fiercely. It was all I could do to keep myself from ripping my shirt off and clawing at my wounds. My face beaded with sweat from the effort to control myself. I fell to my knees and screamed. Something inside fought desperately to be set free and it felt like it would split my ribs apart. I screamed again. Em and Cil had my arms pinned to keep me from raking at my wounds. I thought if I could just open up my wounds, whatever it was could be set free.

“It’s the fever again!” I heard Em yell before my world turned in to another delirious dream of jackals, felits, and crimson eagles.

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