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Adventures of a team of aliens seeking to protect a princess from an evil queen. (Based on the RPG Dwarf Star.)

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10: The Broken Leash

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Is it finally over?

After sleeping for what felt like days, Jendra was shocked awake by the most brutal nightmare.

It was not unusual for her to dream of life away from this city; in fact, she had thought of little else but escaping this ghastly place that always seemed so far from home. But most of her dreams had been filled with incredible adventures, magnificent discoveries, and the most spectacular places she’d ever imagined. This, she supposed, had been quite like those dreams, excluding the dangers.

She had been mauled by a Je’rax, had felt the painful stabs of its claws in the darkness of the deep cavern, but that had done nothing to interrupt her dream. She hadn’t seen the Je’rax, but Jendra knew it was there, heard its guttural growling as the beast had tried to kill her. Reflecting back, that very encounter had been the most obvious mark of a dream. After all, Je’rax only existed in the mind of a child — and in her imagination, she supposed. But it all felt so incredibly real; it was as though she could still feel the wounds, could hear the growling in her mind.

Talking to that animal at the river had also been very dreamlike. And to further add to the madness, she and her traveling companions had nearly been killed by rampaging machines. She wasn’t sure where the machines had come from; she had never thought of such things before. Still, she had slept on in spite of all of that.

Jendra remembered vividly how that dream had ended; her closest friend Leon and Toby, Leon's cousin — probably a made-up cousin, a byproduct of her subconscious – had been arrested by the police. That was how the dream ended. She had never heard the charges stacked against them, but she knew: they had left the city. All her life, she had heard those words: "Never leave the city!" They were indelibly etched into her mind though she had made a habit of ignoring them. Fortunately, it had simply been the workings of an overactive sleeping mind. She had been so tired. Why had she been this tired? How long had she slept?

Three days? Had it really been three days? Surely Grisham never would have allowed her to sleep that long. Had she been sick or something? She certainly felt that way now, for at this precise moment, she set eyes on the human; the same human from her dream. She had almost forgotten about her. But if she was here, then she was real, and that meant it was all real; Leon and Toby really were in trouble.

She shuddered, found herself screaming inside her own head. She shut her eyes, hoped this was just another part of the dream. Well, there was no sense in any of it. The human still stood there, eyes meeting hers apprehensively. This time she screamed out loud until she felt a little strange for doing so and stopped.

“I’m sorry to have startled you. I only wanted to thank you,” said the woman. “Thanks for saving my life.”

Her voice had been so kind, her eyes had been so beautiful, that Jendra was temporarily pacified. She didn’t actually feel like screaming just then. The young woman had been dying. Jendra and her friends had saved her life. She supposed that was worth a little trouble.

“Who are you?” Jendra asked, curiously.

“I,” the woman paused reflectively, “I don’t know. I guess I lost my memory and none of it has returned yet. I don’t know if it ever will. It’s as though this is all I’ve ever known, like my life just started over when I woke up.”

To be frank, it had been no pleasantry to awaken in this world. Many treated her like a monster. Naturally, she towered over the few Gwalf she had met. She had seen the looks of terror so frequently, she had actually known this Gwalfling was going to scream and had braced herself for impact. But she wished they wouldn’t scream. They were rather pleasant when they let her get to know them.

She wanted very much to befriend the Gwalf. She needed to. She wasn’t sure how long she would be in this world, not even why she had awoken here, and what was to become of her life now. But more than a need, she truly wanted to make these people her friends. They were ridiculously cute. Most probably took it for granted, but their tall ears, their button noses, warm eyes, soft fur, and bushy tails made them profoundly adorable. She noticed some had dark fur, some tan, and Doctor Hedgewik’s hair had patches of gray, perhaps a sign of aging. This particular Gwalfling had tan fur, perhaps closer to golden yellow around her cheeks. Yes, these were very cute little people. She just could stand a bit less from their vocal chords.

She had told the young Gwalfling she had met two days earlier — a boy named Toby — that he was cute. Initially he had contorted his face and made a Blah sound, but the smile that followed warmed her heart. It seemed familiar, in a way. She imagined a little human boy might react the same way. Then again, she had yet to meet another human, so it was difficult to know for sure.

Why was she here? This was some bizarre fluke. And the few Gwalf who had bothered to talk to her wanted to know too. She had nothing to tell them. Had she been a fugitive from the law for going on a homicidal rampage? She couldn’t imagine it, but that didn’t make it untrue.

“You could be a very different person than you were before,” Doctor Hedgewik had said. “Having no memories, you could reinvent yourself. And you wouldn’t even know it.”

That sort of thinking plagued her mind. She wished she had some inkling of who she had been, why she was here, something to tell the locals, anything to assure them that she wasn’t here to destroy Tranoudor. Could one human even do such a thing? She doubted it. But that didn’t make it impossible, at least not in a paranoid mind. She sighed.

“Well, like it or not, you’re here now, and that means you get to be my new friend,” Jendra said, after a few moments’ reflection. She couldn’t really worry about someone she had gone to such great lengths to rescue. In spite of the anger in so many eyes, she truly wanted to believe the best in everyone, and this human may have been a giant in comparison to her, but it was her eyes that Jendra noticed first. And she couldn’t look at her any differently than the Gwalf next door. In truth the Gwalf next door was a cranky old man who always played his accordion far too loud at dawn, and his squig once bit her on the hind end, something for which neither the squig nor the old man had ever shown any remorse. That said, she rather preferred the human.

“I should warn you, people around here don’t much like me,” the human said.

“Perfect!” Jendra grinned deviously, rubbing her fingers together. “Now that you know that, you’ll make a very good friend indeed.”

The human looked at her new friend curiously. She wasn't so sure this Gwalfling was right in the head. Then again, few she had met so far were. She needed only to take a bite of Toby's gemfish and waffle sandwich to realize he wasn't right in the head either. She had been incredibly hungry but still not quite hungry enough to eat the rest of that sandwich. But for as goofy as these Gwalf tended to be, they were the few who had offered her any kind of friendship. She wondered if perhaps she had fallen into the wrong circle of new friends, but these kids had saved her life, and there weren't many more offers, so she found herself readily accepting the few she had.

“Well, if you’ll excuse me,” Jendra said, suddenly realizing she had been wearing her nightgown. She wasn’t sure how this had happened, but she wasn’t about to keep it that way. She snuffed out the candle that lit her small room, and put on her usual street clothes in the dark.

“So tell me, new friend,” she made conversation in the darkness, realizing the human hadn’t left. “What do I call you anyway?”

“We haven’t decided yet.”

“Well, you can’t very well go without a name,” replied Jendra. “It’s a whole lot harder to make friends without one.”

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way,” the human said.

“I think,” Jendra added, after a few seconds of reflection, “I shall call you Amnesia.”

“That’s pretty. What does it mean?” The human asked.

“I don’t remember,” Jendra replied, with a grin cleverly hidden in the darkness. Well, that was what it meant. “But it seems to fit you.”

“Well, it will have to do,” said the human, “until I remember who I am, at least.”

Yet again, the thought occurred to Amnesia that she may never remember who she had been. But she couldn’t allow herself to think that way. She was hopeful. The doctor had said that if she could speak, then not all of her memory was gone; she just had to unearth it. She hadn’t found anything familiar about this world to trigger a memory.

Amnesia heard a peculiar growling that she couldn't place, but it had seemed to come from the Gwalf. "What was that?"

“My stomach,” Jendra replied. “It’s ordering meat pie. You want some?”

“I don’t know,” Amnesia said. What is this meat pie? I hope it isn’t more of that bizarre Gwalf food. It did sound markedly appealing, however.

“Well, there’s only one way to find out.”

She heard a rattling as Jendra felt around for the doorknob and opened the door to the artificial daylight shining through the hallway. "Come along."

Passing down the stairwell to the kitchen, Jendra made a mad dash for the refrigerator. The left-over meat pie from last week was starting to turn blue. “Spark!” She tossed it into the trash and then began digging through the freezer. “Aha! Chozo rigea pie with 13 kinds of cheese! Perfect!” She almost caught herself drooling. How embarrassing!

She tore open the wrapping and tossed it into the oven. Even from the few moments its aroma was airborne, it smelled perfectly rancid. Now Amnesia could hear her stomach rumbling, much as Jendra’s had, but it wasn’t a good sort of rumbling. Her heart sank a little bit. “I think I’ll—”

Before she could finish, Jendra noticed that loathsome expression on her face. “Yes, I know it smells. Some say it’s the chozo, but I think the squig milk cheese is the real stink bomb. However, if you can get past the smell, believe me, it’s a little slice of paradise.”

Amnesia was not eager to take Jendra’s expression at face value, having already sampled what she had confused for a Gwalf delicacy. That little devious Gwalfling had told her it was one. The fact was, however, no Gwalf in his right mind would have eaten a gemfish sandwiched between a pair of waffles. Toby was a strange kid; after all he had put his taste buds through, they had probably given up on him. Or perhaps he ate disgusting things just to gross everyone else out. Either way, Toby’s pallet was far from ordinary.

The oven timer rang, signaling the moment of truth. Really, the other 12 cheeses, and the rigea, whatever rigea was, had hidden the vile odors of chozo and squig milk cheese by then. Though previously reluctant, after taking her first bite and feeling as through a rainbow was dancing in her mouth, Amnesia settled into enjoying her first real meal since her recovery.

“See,” Jendra said, “I told ye.”

Amnesia, having eaten the better half of the pie, suddenly felt a bizarre feeling in her stomach. After a guttural roaring passed from her lips, she exclaimed, "Oh dear! Pardon me."

“Hey, good food is its own excuse,” Jendra replied, with an elated smile.

Jendra had been enjoying the human’s company so well, she had almost forgotten about Toby and Leon when Doc entered. “Well, you’ll be happy to note, I bought us some time with your court date.”

“Court date?” Jendra asked nervously. She remembered. They had left the city; no doubt they would be exiled.

“Don’t worry so much,” Doc replied, dusting his glasses with a handkerchief. It had been a bit of a nervous habit of his, as Jendra knew well; so much for not being worried. “They will probably go easy on you, it being your first infraction. But there’s a good chance they won’t let you kids see each other for quite a while.”

“They can’t do that,” Jendra protested. She couldn’t go without seeing Leon. It may have seemed childish, but he was her truest friend, perhaps her only real friend. She felt her world closing in on her, and she didn’t like being pinned in a corner.

“Well, it’s better than the alternative,” Doc tried to appease her.

“You mean exile.”

“I mean they could have Leon locked up for a nice long while and send Toby off to reform school for taking a swing at that officer.”

“And what about you?” Jendra asked in an accusatory tone.

“Me?”

“You sent us out there,” Jendra replied. “You’re just as responsible as Leon or myself.”

“Now you hold on. If you and Leon weren’t where you didn’t belong to begin with, you never would have had a reason to leave the city.”

“And the human would have died!” She shouted. “Come on! We saved a life out there, and we’re being reprimanded like criminals while you just sit on your behind and act like it’s supposed to be this way!”

“Calm down, young lady, I—”

"No!" Jendra roared. She felt like a little girl throwing a tantrum, childish indeed, but this was an injustice, and she couldn't simply let it happen. If she didn't stand up for herself, who would?

She stormed out of the house, forgetting her guest at the table. She heard the screen door slam behind her. And she ran, not knowing where, just ran as far as her legs would allow. She hated this city! Why did she have to be stuck here in this miserable place? Everywhere she looked, the city towered over her. If she looked to the sky, all she could see was dirt. She felt like a chained squig longing to be set free. Who would want to live in a cave? Who would want to live this life? The only thing that seemed to make this life worth living was having a good friend who cared about her. And this city wanted to take him away. She knew Tranoudor City would crush her one day. It seemed that day had come. She had no choice but to escape before it was too late. She knew now why her father had left. This city would have destroyed him, just as it was trying to destroy her. He knew its secret. The city couldn't let that secret out. So he had been exiled.

“But why?” She thought to herself. She and Leon and Toby had left the city. They had gone outside its walls, seen the life outside. So why weren’t they being exiled too? The thought suddenly stopped her in her tracks. It didn’t seem to make sense. Why weren’t they facing exile for their actions, just as she always knew they would?

She stopped to catch her breath. Without thinking, Jendra had run out past the bridge to the condemned part of the city where she and Leon had first seen the human. She thought about it; there were many places to run to, many of them far more vivid in her memory than this. There were places on the edge of the city that were really very beautiful, provided she could look beyond the skyscrapers. Places where flowers ran beside small cascades from the surface that ran to the river. Places where, if she didn't look at the sky, she could almost imagine it was the surface. This was just an abandoned dead-end alley. Why had she come here? If she had never come to this place, perhaps this whole mess never would have happened. She would never have had the impetus to leave the city, nothing but a nagging desire for something more than this life. Now she had seen more. She had been who she always wanted to be: an explorer, a rescuer even! So why did she feel so miserable?

“Get over it!” said the Gwalfling looking back at her, with outwardly sad eyes that seemed very hypocritical. She jumped, quite taken aback.

Oh! She smiled, the tension having broken. Silly me! It was just a mirror. But it was ever so much more than that. A large mirror embedded in the stone wall at the back of the alley. It was sort of hazy; she should have figured it was a mirror, but it looked so real somehow. She found herself examining it, curiously. She felt along the edge. What was that? A relatively large keyhole embedded in the side. A door? Was there something behind the mirror?

The lizard men at the surface had said something about a human coming through a world portal. Could this be it? Curious, but just maybe.

Was this how Amnesia got here? She wondered. But they had said that another lizard man had come through the portal too. So where had he gone? She thought perhaps she was over-thinking this. After all, just because the large mirror had a keyhole did not make it any sort of portal. But she wished she knew what it was. If only there had been a key.

It was sort of peculiar. She had been so focused on this new discovery, she had forgotten about her problems. There were so many questions filling her mind with wonder, the sensation she lived for, that all her troubles seemed to fade away. Leon had to see this! But that thought brought back her sadness. How could she show this to him if they couldn't see each other anymore? Well, she would find a way. This city had never stopped her and Leon from being together before. Why should it now? This city had no power over her, not so long as she didn't surrender to it. And if there was another world beyond this mirror, why stay here and regret this life? Another life, new and inviting, might just be on the horizon.

“Leon is grounded in his room,” explained Mrs. Flynn. But it was more than explaining. Her expression was absolutely disdainful. She had a look of fire in her eyes. “And that's exactly where you would be if your father were doing a better job.”

Her father? She didn’t even have a father! Who was this lady to lecture her about her father? Jendra felt quite like popping Mrs. Flynn a good one right square in the nose. But, she thought, what would that prove? After all, it had been the similar actions of Toby that got them so deep into trouble. Well, perhaps if she hadn’t agreed to bring him along… No, Toby had taken a swing at the officer all by himself. But she was more mature than that. She would handle this situation like an adult. But ooh, she felt like spitting on the woman’s shoes. No, she wouldn’t do that either. And she wasn’t going to see Leon this way. So she turned and dejectedly walked down the steps of the Flynn residence. Mrs. Flynn slammed the door.

"I'll be back to toilet-paper your flower garden," Jendra mumbled under her breath though that didn't really seem like the best use of her energy. It would have only made more problems.

"Spark, I was wondering when you'd finally leave," Leon jested, standing just outside of the gate, where a tall collection of tree roots blocked his mother's field of vision.

“Leon!” Jendra said excitedly, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s good to see you too. You’ll have to be more careful, though. My parents have deemed you a bad influence on my life. They were absolutely seething at the jail. Nope, I think I’m a bad influence on you.” He smirked. “So, what’s up?”

“That portal, the one the Lizan asked us about, I think I found it.”

“Where?” He asked.

“You won’t believe this.”

Jendra decided it would be easier to bring Leon back to that alley, so he could see for himself. He too scrutinized it very closely. Leon ran his fingers over the keyhole, wiping away years of dust. It also had a few cobwebs that had been brushed aside not long ago. He thought someone else might have been here recently.

“Wow!” Jendra exclaimed. “I didn’t see that before. Do you think that’s where the Lizan went?”

“Lizan? Oh, you mean the one they were looking for? It’s as good a guess as anything I have. That’s to say this really is the portal. But let’s just say it is. How would we find out?”

“I suppose if we had a pick, we could try to open this lock.”

“I doubt that would work,” Leon replied cynically. “I think this requires a special key to activate. But the human—”

“Her name is Amnesia,” Jendra corrected.

“Let me guess,” Leon said. “You thought of that.”

Jendra nodded, with a subtle hint of a crafty smile on her lips.

"Anyway, Doc had me there when he did the follow-up. She has an unusual golden key around her neck, almost like a locket. You don't suppose—" But before he could finish, Jendra was tugging his arm, racing back toward Doc's office.

Leon wished he had learned to keep his mouth shut. He was beginning to get a very bad feeling about all this.

When they finally found Amnesia, she was sitting with Toby on a bench overlooking the river. Though most of the Gwalf tried to avoid her, the birds all flocked around her. There was something about her these tiny creatures liked. And she enjoyed watching them, hopping around with bits of waffle between their beaks.

“She’s a total magnet!” Toby exclaimed. “I’ve never seen so many little birds in my life. Maybe it’s just my sandwich.”

Amnesia doubted that, though these birds were really quite taken with the waffle bits of the sandwich. They wouldn't go near the gemfish, however.

“So, Amnesia, Leon says you have a key on your necklace.” Jendra wasted very little time with subtlety. “Do you know what it’s for?”

“I don’t remember. But I don’t think it’s very significant. The necklace is just a piece of ribbon.”

She held out the key, and Jendra took it in her hands, examining it. It was a skeleton key, with three notches. It looked rather ordinary. But an inscription was etched into the head: Ress. That was all it said. A name?

“Is that your real name, Amnesia?” Jendra asked.

“I don’t think so; it doesn’t sound very familiar. Then again, not much seems familiar to me. It could be Ress, just as well as anything.”

"Well, I think this might be a key to our world portal," Jendra said. "Have you ever—"

“World portal? Really? Did you find it? Huh? Huh? Huh?” Toby asked excitedly. “Does that mean the Lizan men were right?”

Leon shushed his cousin.

“Have you ever seen a world portal before?” Jendra finished.

Amnesia simply shrugged. “I wish I could answer you.”

“Well, I think we found it,” Jendra said, “and this might be your ticket back to the life you forgot. You might get your memory back.”

“I want to come too,” Toby said. But a look of dejection filled his face.

“What’s wrong, Toby?” Jendra asked.

“Well,” Toby explained, “after I took a swing at the officer, Pa says I’ve had enough adventuring for one year.”

Jendra knew the feeling far too well. And maybe it was safer if Toby didn't join them this time. But somehow she regretted the thought. Toby had come too far not to see this adventure through to the end. And, after all, she and Leon were already in trouble if they got caught. So what harm would it do? They'd done fairly well together so far. Surely they could keep each other safe a little longer.

“Well, your father is right,” Jendra replied, resolutely. “No more adventuring for any of us. However, a little exploring couldn’t hurt.”

“Um, I, uh, hmm—” Toby was speechless. He knew that wasn’t really a loophole, but he wished it was. He had enjoyed spending time with his cousin and Jendra. He knew it was either that or scraping barnacles. And he knew the latter was what he really should have been doing. But the kid in him just really didn’t want to care.

Jendra led the way, as Toby, Leon, and Amnesia followed.

“This is where we found you, lying here in this alleyway,” Jendra said. “We thought you were dead.”

“Cool!” Toby said. “You were dead?”

Not quite the words anyone else would have used, but no one even seemed to notice.

“No, we just thought she was,” Leon replied. “I couldn’t locate her pulse where I thought it would be.”

“But I didn’t notice this mirror until this afternoon. And if you look here, beside it, there’s a keyhole. Leon suggested your key might fit.”

Amnesia saw her reflection for the first time; she felt very strange, standing beside these Gwalflings. The keyhole barely reached her knee. And the mirror was only as high as her forehead. But she looked at herself, a young woman—she felt young—with golden hair just beyond her shoulders and soft blue eyes. She had been wearing a white sun dress. She supposed she may have been beautiful for a human. In truth, she was exquisitely beautiful, but she would never have imagined that. She had the feeling she'd never been the sort to admire herself too long in a mirror.

“So, try it out,” Toby said impatiently.

Jendra imagined Toby may try to barrel through the portal if this actually worked. He’d grown quite a reputation for that.

Jendra turned the key. A golden light flooded the room for but a moment. It was daylight. The mirror transformed, seeming like the surface of a lake, and they saw a world beginning to appear on the other side: a beautiful blue sky, with patches of clouds, overlooking a vast green meadow. There were rolling hills in the distance. This was it. The world portal. But just what sort of world was on the other side? It looked rather beautiful, but appearances could be deceiving.

Jendra suddenly felt tempted to turn the key and shut out that world. She’d never been afraid to explore before. She wasn’t now. But this was a new world. Was she really ready to take on that responsibility? She knew she had but two options; she would either turn back to this city, this life she knew, familiar but full of regrets, forever feeling as though she were a leashed squig, but keep her friends safe with their parents who loved them—they had real futures here—or she would finally embrace her own future, and step past the threshold into this beautiful world and take her friends on the adventure of a lifetime. It would be a fresh start: no one to ground her, prevent her from being with her dearest friends. They were all together now. But could she do this? Could she really take them with her? Could she ask them to abandon this world and the future that awaited them here and join her in the world of her dreams?

No more adventuring for any of us, the words echoed in her mind. They were her own words. Was she really willing to give all of this up and return to the normal life of a Gwalf? She knew that for Leon’s sake, for Toby’s sake, she really ought to. But for once in her life, couldn’t she do what she wanted to do? No. For her friends’ safety, she would close this door.

Even so, it was time for their friend to return home.

“Welcome home, Amnesia,” Jendra said.

Unsure of herself, Amnesia gulped, and crouched to step through the portal. The adventure was done, Jendra realized. This was her life now. She would live out the life every other Gwalf lived, and she would feel dead inside forever. But in so doing, she would protect her friends. That was the really important thing.

Suddenly, they heard Amnesia screaming from the other side of the portal. And regardless of anyone's wishes, they couldn't simply allow her to walk into a dangerous trap alone. That was not why they had gone to such great lengths to save her. The adventure was just beginning. And through that portal they went, leaving behind the only world they'd ever known.
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Wed Mar 20, 2019 6:00 am
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9: Life Is Short

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Death was hunting them. The Gwalflings had escaped its grasp too easily before, but they could not escape the grip of this monster forever. The beauty of this world at the surface of theirs was surpassed only by its cruelty. She had been told all of her short life that it was dangerous to leave the city. And foolishly, Jendra had sought every possible opportunity to do exactly that.

Perhaps it hadn’t been so horrible being bound to the underground city. Perhaps the angry people whose glares felt like stabs of fire were actually wonderful and sweet and kind. Not likely. Well, at least they had never tried to kill her, not yet, at least not outright. And now they would never get the chance.

Jendra wasn’t ready to die. She felt the tight metal grip of that robot lifting her and Leon; it could have crushed them both so easily. Really, it seemed to be holding back. That gave her hope. Perhaps the massive machine wasn’t going to kill her after all.

Toby felt a sudden relief, as the massive machine clutching his shoulders released its grip and he fell to the ground. The fall was awfully uncomfortable, but at least he was alive to protest. He was growing to hate falling from high places. He exhaled deeply, glad that at least for now, he was safe from harm.

The large transparent blue glass canopy rose from the cockpit. Inside stood a lavender-scaled alien man, with hyacinth spikes running from the crest of his head down his neck, and the deepest blue eyes, appearing almost as if to glow with curiosity. Beside him sat another man, almost identical, but with a blue scar beneath his left eye; he seemed far more aggressive.

“I am Commander Beltros,” declared the man who stood before them inside the craft. “My partner Jarvik and I have come to Tranoudor in search of your world portal.”

Leon, Jendra, and Toby all stared blankly into his eyes. If this world had a ‘world portal’, it was surely news to them.

“Do you know where it is?” He asked, hopefully.

"We don't know a blasted thing, commander!" Toby declared. His tone displayed no delicacy. But he wasn't the sort to mince words or act pretentious. Jendra may have thought it wiser to bluff the man until they could escape, but any chance of that was lost the moment Toby decided to be the spokesman.

“Very well,” Beltros replied. He had no doubt of their sincerity. “Tell me, perhaps you have seen another Lizan and a human come through your village.”

“What’s a Lizan?” Toby asked. He placed his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels, seeming hardly to care.

“We are Lizan,” Jarvik growled defensively.

“In that case, nope, we haven’t seen him. What’s a human?” Toby just continued to rock casually. The Lizan didn’t seem to intimidate him in the least.

Leon and Jendra hadn’t told Toby about the human. Suddenly, they were very thankful Toby had chosen to speak for them.

Leon had a feeling these men had some intention of ill will toward the human. Then again, he realized, it had been Gwalf nature to be suspicious of outsiders. It was a trait he didn’t admire but one which, regrettably, was as ingrained as his fur color. For what it was worth, Beltros didn’t seem as hostile as his partner.

“A human is… is…” Jarvik found it difficult to formulate an appropriate description. He settled for slamming his fist on the dashboard, though it didn’t seem to help. “Well, if you don’t know what a human is, apparently you haven’t seen one of those either.” Leon imagined the man had little to say that could not be expressed with some sort of weapon.

“We are eternally sorry for the interruption,” Beltros added, a sentiment his partner didn’t seem to share.

The gigantic vehicle finally released its grip around Leon and Jendra, as they settled in its palm. Both Gwalflings sighed with relief.

“What are you doing out here?” Jarvik demanded gruffly.

“What my partner means to say is, why are you children out here all alone?” Beltros asked. “Where is your village?”

Jarvik glared at his partner, evidently displeased at the thought of being interpreted like some infant who couldn’t speak for himself.

"Sir, we'd let you know where our village was if we knew ourselves," Leon explained. "We're med students. We came searching for a herb, and we've since become rather lost."

Jarvik studied Leon cautiously; he seemed unsure whether to believe the boy or not. Strangely, he had never doubted Toby. But, his glare softened. Perhaps he finally resolved that Leon was telling the truth as well.

“Tell me more about this herb,” Beltros invited.

“It’s called a bell flower. It’s used to cure some sort of poison,” Leon replied. “It’s a part of our homework assignment. That’s about as much as I know about it.” He felt a twinge of guilt; his words had all been true, except for the part he was keeping to himself.

“It has large blue petals,” added Jendra, “that droop down and look sort of like…”

“Like a bell,” Beltros finished.

“Naturally!” Jarvik scolded. “Why else would they call it a bell flower?” Crossing his arms, he turned his head away from the children and back to his partner. He had lost interest in the tedium of this particular conversation.

Ug no like him flower talk, Leon imagined the man saying, in a very primitive voice. The thought was rather amusing. Locking eyes with the angry Jarvik, however, he immediately wiped the grin from his face.
“Like those,” Beltros gestured further down the river, where a cluster of flowers grew. Peering toward where Beltros had gestured, Jendra recognized them immediately. The patch had been absolutely full of bell flowers. In spite of their being so close by, the Gwalflings had been so enwrapped in the robot encounter, they had failed to notice the bell flowers at all. They might have passed the flowers by without a second thought.

"Hey thanks," Jendra said. "Thanks to both of you."

“Don’t mention it little girl,” Jarvik said dismally; from his expression, it seemed kind words were difficult for him to say. Or perhaps the presence of those flowers was so coincidental Jarvik had begun to doubt the Gwalflings’ sincerity all over again. Regardless, the robotic arm lowered Jendra and Leon gently back to the ground.

“Hey,” Toby said. “Can I get a ride in that thing?”

“No,” Jarvik grumbled hastily.

The hydraulic canopy hissed shut, as quickly as the Lizan could make it. The Gwalflings watched as the mechanical giant vanished into the distance yet again.

“See?” Toby seemed very satisfied. “That wasn’t so bad after all. Albeit it would have been better if they gave us a ride in that sweet piece of machine, but oh well, better luck next time.”

Not just a few, but hundreds of bell flowers grew in various patches along the river. Leon was awestruck, for a moment, to realize he had come this far. They had found what they'd set out to acquire. It was well within the realm of possibility that they could still save the human if they hurried. There was no time to stop and smell the flowers, as it were.

“I’m sorry we’ll have to rush home,” Leon said, imagining Jendra would be disheartened.

“After all we’ve been through, Leon, we’d best get back and save that human.”

“Wait,” Toby said. “There’s a human?”

Racing toward the bellowing creature had left the Gwalflings disoriented, so they followed the giant vehicle’s tracks back to the cavern; even then, they were still lost, as they prepared to make the arduous journey through the dark winding labyrinth of corridors. Worried as they were that another Je’rax might be around the next bend, they paced stealthily through the tunnels.

Grisham Hedgewik took a deep breath. He couldn’t skirt the issue any longer, not with the concerned parents of two missing children standing in his office. And really, he supposed, had Jendra gone missing, he would have been anxious himself. He suddenly realized that she had gone missing. He had become so accustomed to her disappearances it simply didn’t bother him anymore. He had grown to trust her. She could be an undisciplined child, unruly he supposed, but he also knew she had too much concern for Leon to put the boy in any real danger. Doc didn’t know Toby Fairweather, but he imagined that if Jendra had taken the boy into her care, she would do everything in her power to keep him safe as well. That was provided she could keep herself safe, wherever she was now. But he doubted that simply telling these parents to trust their children would be sufficient.

The truth was, while Aniela and Mortan viewed their Gwalflings simply as children, it had been a very long time since he had seen Jendra that way. He knew she had never wanted to be a child; an explorer, a hero, a Je’rax tamer on her more peculiar days, but never a child. Life was short, and she was growing up far too quickly. It had been a long time since he could discipline her like a child, plop her down in a chair and tell her to sit there and think about what she’d done. Actually, he never had been able to do that exactly.

Jendra was a very free-spirited Gwalfling, and though he often worried where her attitude might lead her, he knew that much of what she would become was beyond his control. Though she had never really known her father, she had been following his footsteps far too closely for coincidence. She was destined to wind up just like him—or at least her whimsical view of him—if her choices didn't get her killed first.
When Jendra was small, Doc had told her that her father had been exiled; it seemed the appropriate thing to say at the time. It was quite like telling her that her pet squig had gone off to a beautiful farm on the far side of the cave, a story which he came to realize was a BIG mistake. Jendra never had found that farm.

At that point of her life, Doc preferred for her to hate this intangible city for its supposed misdeeds rather than to hate her own father. Though Jinder Blake had made the choice to leave, it still wouldn't have been right. She'd never been ready for the truth. It would have killed her—crushed her spirit. She was so much like him already. Doc knew that the day was coming when she too would make her father's choice and leave this city behind forever.

Jendra and Doc hadn’t seen eye to eye for many years, but he always respected her for what she had become, someone who would put the life of others ahead of her own. That was admirable; he would like to think her mother would have been proud. He thought it might have been just what Captain Fairweather and Mrs. Flynn needed to hear.

"The truth is," Doc began, "your children and my daughter are trying to save a life. They found a young woman poisoned on the edge of the city, and the only cure, well, I've never seen it inside the city."

“Our children are out there?” Aniela had been inclined to assume the worst from the moment she arrived. “In the caverns? With the Je’rax?”

“Not necessarily,” Doc replied. “Jendra says she’s seen the herb before somewhere, and at least as far as I know, she’s never left the city before. But it is curious that they haven’t returned.”

“Saving lives? My son?” Captain Fairweather seemed impressed. "Well, I must say, it's a mite better than that pirate scheme of his. Hopefully Leon rubs off on him." The captain checked his pocket watch. "But boy is it past his bedtime."

"I hope for your sake Doctor that those children are alright," Aniela glared at Doc momentarily, but her expression seemed to soften. She was simply worried. "They shouldn't be out there at this hour."

“No, no they shouldn’t,” Doc acknowledged. “But they chose to be out there. They chose to put the life of another ahead of their own. And it was Leon’s choice, just as much as Toby’s or Jendra’s. If that’s any indication of what they’re becoming, we really should be proud of them.”

“Oh, I am,” Aniela reflected. “I always have been proud of Leon.”

“So, who is this poisoned woman?” The captain asked.

“Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you,” replied Doctor Hedgewik. But the reality was he didn’t know anything about this young human. And it was quite possible, if the poison had taken its toll, not even she would ever know who she really was.

Each path divided into a dozen. It suddenly occurred to Leon, as he passed back through those corridors, that if he and Toby had lost sight of the Je’rax for even a moment in the dark, winding passages, Jendra could have been lost forever. They had all come so close to death since leaving the city, they were forced to acknowledge that this untamed world outside of Tranoudor City was as dangerous as the warnings suggested. But it had been beautiful. An unforgettable adventure!

Unfortunately, passing through these caverns had been such a blur. Even with their eyes well-adjusted to this darkness, they had no clue which path was right. They could easily have survived the death-defying tumbles, the ferocious creatures, and the lethal robot with its energy weapons, simply to die a slow death lost in these tunnels. And really, how senseless that would have been! To finally be carrying the cure, only to have lost the patient!

The first glimpse of light brought hope; it was not a bright light, but the city was indeed out in front of them; most of the city lights had been adjusted for the night. Standing on that elevator platform, the Gwalflings caught a glimpse of the distant city. Jendra was confident that she could fly home from here, but she was not as assured of Toby’s competence. Really, with his aptitude for mechanics, he should have been a natural-born flyer. Then again, the first trip had been his first time ever. Perhaps there was still hope for him.

“You lead the way,” Jendra said to Leon. “I’ll follow Toby across, just to be sure he doesn’t take a dive again.”

“Hey!” Toby rebuked. “It only happened once.”

“True, but we’re a lot higher up now, and a fall from here really could kill you,” Leon replied. “That said, I know how much you love your backpack, but I think you should discard the extra weight.”

After a groan, Toby conceded. Not without taking his string cheese, of course. But that disappeared pretty quickly too.

Having told Toby a poor flight could kill him, Leon was motivated to take extra caution himself. After a patient moment to prepare, Leon sprung out, pulled the ripcord, flew over the city walls, swooped around the towers, and coasted down into the city. His flight had been nearly flawless.

Toby wasn’t so eager to go next; they were very high up.

“You’ll be fine,” Jendra assured him. “Just let the air carry you.”

He closed his eyes. Just let the air carry you, he repeated to himself. Then he leapt forward. Perhaps it was not the wisest course to fly with his eyes shut, but it seemed to be working for him. He opened his eyes after a few moments, just to be sure he wasn’t falling to his death, but he seemed to be doing quite well. It was a remarkable experience, when he did it right. He angled over and flew in by the brush-covered sign where they had started. He attempted to land on his feet, but he had built too much momentum, and wound up toppling flat onto his chest. He groaned.

At least he’d survived.

Jendra took a deep breath and followed in along a similar path. She landed much more gracefully and helped Toby to his feet.

Jendra closed the wings of her pack, and Toby did likewise, so as not to draw too much attention on the journey through the city. Naturally, though, this early in the morning, there weren't many passing through the city anyway.

It was a very strange feeling: here in the city, it had been extremely early in the morning; on the surface, it was much later in the afternoon. She wasn’t sure which day she was even on. Thursday, probably. Whatever the case, she was beginning to feel very tired all over again and very thankful to be nearing the end of this adventure. She would have much liked to curl up into a ball and hibernate. Gwalf didn’t hibernate, but that wouldn’t have stopped her.

Passing back into the city, their triumphant return was suddenly spoiled. Jendra noticed Leon being restrained by an officer in the street. Just to make matters worse, Toby charged over and took a swing at the officer. Fortunately, he missed.

Oh no! Jendra thought. They know where we’ve been. They’re going to exile us all! Leon and Toby had such wonderful lives ahead of them. Mercy, not now! It was happening too quickly. Jendra felt very overwhelmed. Suddenly, she fainted in the street.

A fire lit the camp beside the carrier, as Jarvik sat beside it, staring deeply into the flames. His eyes seemed to glow. He was so lost in thought. “Beltros, why do you think Gavyn went off and mutinied like that? I mean, would it have killed the blasted fool to listen to orders?”

“I’ve been thinking about that myself since I got this assignment,” said Beltros. “He must have had his reasons.”

“He always had really good instincts,” replied Jarvik, “even before the transformation.”

“I always liked Gavyn, but you two are practically brothers. It’s got to be brutal to have to hunt him down like this.”

“I have half a mind to—” Jarvik paused. He wondered whether he could tell Beltros what he had been thinking. Perhaps it was best not to; it was treason.

“As do I, my friend,” Beltros replied as though Jarvik had finished. “As do I.”

They eyed each other warily for a moment. Beltros broke out in laughter. Jarvik simply grinned. It was something he hadn’t done for ages it seemed. It felt good to smile.

“Shall we then?” Beltros invited. The humor had fled his voice. "I don't expect an answer right away," he added. "You've got to do what's right for you, old friend. But just know this. I'm ready when you are."
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Sun Mar 17, 2019 6:05 am
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8: Footsteps

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Cautiously, the Gwalflings stalked the massive machine. Jendra wasn't sure it was such a good idea. The machine snapped the trees like mere twigs. She hated the idea of being crushed beneath it. But as Leon suggested, it was better to know where that machine was than to lose sight of it and really get into trouble. So Jendra complied. However, she soon became so entranced with the beauty of this bright new world, she nearly forgot about the machine altogether.

The midday sun felt so warm and inviting. A myriad of beautiful songs filled the air. Jendra had never really heard a bird’s unbroken song before, not over the drones of city life. Other creatures chirped, trilled, and croaked. It was a world of sound, and the sounds were so much prettier than in that raucous city.

Trees towered everywhere she looked. All they’d ever known of trees were roots buried beneath the ground with trunks ascending through the crevices in the roof. Smaller bushes grew beneath the artificial city lights, but they weren’t so green as the treetops and underbrush of this world. Even the flowers beneath the ground turned out to be sort of brown. The flowers here were so vibrant in color. The bell flowers were still nowhere to be found, but Jendra was so eager to see this world, she doubted she would overlook them.

This was hardly the same world she had left in the caves. The ground felt soft, moist and warm between Jendra’s toes, so different from the hard, rocky ground she’d grown accustomed to. She breathed deeply, taking in the fresh, crisp air. Breathing seemed easier somehow. The grass moved in waves. Inside the cave, the air had always been so still. The slightest breeze felt so peculiar and refreshing. She felt the wind in her face, creating ripples in her fur. It was absolutely extraordinary!

She watched as a pair of colorful, striped wings passed from flower to flower. She wished she could fly so gracefully. She would have liked to see more of these pretty creatures, and less of that gigantic machine, quickly disappearing into the distance.

Jendra was lost in happiness for the first time in ages. This world was all she had ever dreamed of and more. It was almost hard to believe that this was just another part of the same world she’d always known. She continued wondering how Gwalf society could have simply forgotten a world so full of life, right within their grasp. It was— Perhaps it might have been too soon to call it paradise, but she saw definite potential here.

Toby had been too enthralled by that machine to notice the world around him. He was so different. He probably hadn’t even taken a second to think since that machine had crossed his path.

“C’mon guys! It’s getting away!” Toby urged them onward.

“Forget that hulk, Toby,” Jendra urged. “We came for a flower, so that’s what we should be looking for.”

“But Leon said—”

"Well, it's something you'll have to get used to," Leon said. "Women, as we know them, are stubborn and demanding."

“Hey!” Jendra slugged him playfully.

"And nine times out of ten," Leon finished, seeming to ignore Jendra altogether, "they're probably right. I mean, not Jendra of course, but most women."

“What do you mean, not me of course?” Jendra demanded. She tackled him to the ground. “Leon Wilhelm Flynn, you take that back immediately!” She shouted, kneeling on his chest.

“Never!” He retorted with his defiant tone invalidated in laughter.

“Ahem!” Toby interrupted. “Could we?”

“Oh, poor Toby,” Jendra sighed. “Feeling left out?”

She hooked Toby’s ankle playfully and pulled him to the grassy ground. He was not very pleased with this new development.

“Stop that!” He groaned. “We don’t have time for this. The machine is getting away.”

“Hey, it’s bigger than the trees,” Jendra said. “Chances are we’ll see it again. And maybe a whole lot sooner than we hope. It’s probably safer to keep our distance anyway.”

“But Leon said,” Toby began to object again.

“Toby, I think she’s right on this one,” Leon replied, stifling his cousin’s protests.

“Thank you,” said Jendra.

“He’s just agreeing with you because you’ve infected him with cooties!” Toby challenged, crossing his arms.

Leon reddened.

“Of course he is,” Jendra conceded.

“Hey!” Leon tried to suppress her.

“Well, why else would you follow me around?” Jendra asked. She had a point.

Leon felt a little guilty. The truth was, he really had been infected with cooties, at least as an eleven-year-old might see it. But even at eleven, he had never seen the harm in following Jendra around. She’d always had a knack for finding the most interesting places. He probably wouldn’t have known the world half as well if not for her company. And for that matter, what little he knew of the world probably would have been a whole lot grimmer. Jendra was his friend, his best friend. And time hadn’t changed that in the slightest. He hoped it never would.

Jendra had to admit she would have been lost without him too if she wasn't dead by now. She'd always had a curiosity about the world, and her curiosity tended to get her into a lot of trouble. She was pleased to have stopped Toby from rushing into trouble the way she always had. But she did feel bad about squashing his curiosity. She realized that to Toby, seeing that machine up close was like her first glimpse of a bell flower, all those many years ago. And she was being just the sort of person Doc had been to her. She sighed at the thought. She'd never imagined herself in Doc's place before.

“What was that about?” Leon asked. Jendra looked at him curiously. “You sighed.”

“It’s nothing,” she replied. “Let’s get back to searching for that flower.”

She noticed as a pair of tiny colorful wings settled down on her ruddy nose. At least the creature seemed to like her just the way she was. She puckered her lips, puffing the creature away. As it fluttered off, she positively glowed.

The colossal white carrier paused to deploy a pair of jet gray spheres, which rolled a short distance across the grass. Coming to a stop, they transformed swiftly into tall humanoid robots with glowing blue visors and joints, and a pair of small all-terrain wheels at the base of their feet. In its left hand, each held a shield bearing a glowing power symbol. These were NME Assassins designed for speed and agility: skilled warriors. But they were certainly quite out of place here, serving as scouts in this forest.

“Assassins, load scout settings,” ordered a gravelly voice from aboard the carrier. “You won’t need your combat skills; we don’t want you attacking anything.”

The robots’ glowing joints turned a bright green, as they stowed away their shields behind their backs, demonstrating their compliance.
“Good. Now search this area for the world portal. It can’t be too far from here.”

“Acknowledged,” Replied both identical voices, nearly in unison.

“Activating command: scan coordinates,” said the first. “Scans: negative.”

“Broadening search,” replied the second. Both robots sped off in opposite directions across the fen.

A cry arose from somewhere in the distance. It was so faint, Jendra almost missed it. She searched the air. “Did either of you hear that?”

“Hear what?” asked Toby.

"Listen." The same distant creature cried again a long, forlorn bellow.

“Some kind of animal,” Leon said.

It sounded as if it were in danger. Jendra took off running toward it.

Here we go again,thought Leon. He had become inured to this sort of frivolous behavior.

But to Jendra, it wasn’t frivolous, like some sort of game. Something about that creature’s call pulled at her. She suddenly remembered having heard that same cry, as she stood in the entrance of the cavern all those years ago. She’d been too small to help, and really, back then she thought it may have been a predator.

Though she really hadn’t heard enough to convince herself otherwise now, she couldn’t miss the chance to catch a glimpse of that creature. Admittedly, it was no different than watching Toby race toward the massive machine. But at that moment, Jendra really wasn’t thinking about the example she was setting for him. Rather, she was running on years of ingrained behavior.

Soon she found herself standing on the sandy bank of the Tranoudor River. And there, in the midst of that river, was a large blue sea creature, peering at her from the four eyes on the side of its head. The creature bellowed again a sort of guttural growl that seemed almost aggressive. Jendra didn't think the creature was growling at her. But what was it growling at?

Then she saw the bigger picture. Standing on the other side of that river was a machine, jet gray with a myriad of glowing fluorescent blue joints. It looked almost sentient. She vaguely remembered seeing something similar—her father might have had one—but naturally, that was many years ago. There were no robots in Tranoudor City anymore, though she wasn’t entirely certain why not. It spun a disc of glowing blue energy out of the air, which it tossed out past the creature. As the disc looped around, it caught the creature’s flank, and she cried out in pain. “Warning. Warning,” repeated the robot, loud enough for Jendra to hear on this side of the river. “Back off!”

Jendra felt very disconcerted. Why had the robot attacked the poor creature? She imagined from what the robot had said perhaps the creature had attacked first. As she tried to make sense of the situation, she noticed a pair of smaller amorphous silhouettes swimming not too far from the creature. Jendra considered. Perhaps she was a mother, trying to protect her children from what she deemed an invasion of her territory.

Jendra wished the creature would have the sense to swim away with her children. To the contrary, suddenly the creature swam quite like a torpedo and lunged out of the sea toward the robot. She was much larger than Jendra had thought, slamming her large clawed fins against the robot’s chassis.

“Whoa!” Toby exclaimed with wide eyes, as he finally caught up with Jendra. Peering over his shoulder, he shouted, “Leon, you gotta see this!”

Jendra was worried that Toby might attract undesirable attention, but the robot was far too focused on the creature. As she drew back her fin to strike the robot again, it caught her claws with a large shield and made an effort to thrust her away. She ripped away the shield with her teeth and flung it out, skipping across the water.

The robot activated a powerful magnetic grip and drew the shield back toward itself, clubbing the creature in the back of the head as it passed by. She growled in pain. With a second blow, the robot drove the shield across her jaw. Jendra cringed at the sight.

The creature looked back at Jendra sadly, realizing she was outmatched by the robot. Jendra suddenly heard a voice so clear there was no mistaking it. Help me! The creature called.

How? Jendra asked.

Suddenly, she felt very peculiar about the whole situation. What was she doing? Talking silently to a voice in her head? The voice of an animal that couldn’t even talk? Was she out of her mind?

Just help me distract it, replied that same voice. I can take it from there. Jendra shook her head violently, trying to lose that voice. She’d never talked to an animal before, not really, and she’d certainly never heard an animal talking to her. She wasn’t about to start now.

Please, that voice pleaded. It seemed so genuine. And Jendra couldn’t shake it. As she peered out, that creature’s eyes hadn’t left the sight of her. Perhaps it really was speaking to her by means of some instinctual telepathy.

The robot rolled back its wheels and—activating a pair of rockets—took to flight. Circling around, it charged toward the creature. Fortunately she was able to shift her upper body quickly to the side, and it flew out past her over the water. Jendra picked up a small stone and pitched it as hard as she could; she struck the robot's chassis.

Leon and Toby were both surprised and a little unnerved, as the robot paused, hovered overhead and glared at her. The robot slung its shield toward her, as all the Gwalflings dove to escape its path. The shield had been pitched with such speed that it left a crater where it struck the ground. For that one moment, though, the robot wasn’t focused on the creature. She swam out, leapt up, and dragged it down into the river.
As Jendra watched on, she saw the creature and the robot wrestling, splashing about in the river. Suddenly, with the creature’s desperate bite, the robot sparked, and its glowing joints fizzled out. As she released the motionless robot, it drifted down the river.

The creature swam toward the Gwalflings on the riverbank. To Leon and Toby, she was no more than a beast, and they stood back. But Jendra approached her gently. "You're alright now," she assured the creature in a soothing voice.

She bobbed her head. Thank you, Jendra thought she heard. Then the creature turned and swam away down the river, with her children in pursuit. There was still a part of Jendra that doubted she had heard anything. It was impossible. To think someone else's thoughts in her head would have been far-fetched enough, but this was a creature that had no way of grasping the concept of language. At least that was what Jendra had always believed.

“You are absolutely crazy,” Leon said, in sheer amazement.

The robot could have killed them all. But it had failed. The shield it had thrown was still protruding into the air, with its edge buried in the dirt.

“I’m just glad she’s okay,” Jendra said, quietly contemplating what she had just done.

“I’m just glad we’re okay!” Toby replied.

Suddenly, the ground began to shake beneath their feet. He could hear the deep pulsation of mechanical footsteps. Toby turned, just as the large machine passed overhead. It reached out and lifted Toby up by the shoulders. He noticed that Jendra and Leon were in its other hand. There would be no escape from this, the end of a very short life.

Although Toby was sure he was about to die, he didn’t see his life flashing before his eyes. He’d already seen it once today. Instead, he saw his future, as a pirate sailing the Tranoudor river. It was a future which he was now quite certain he would never see. It was too bad. He would have looked positively dashing in a tri-cornered hat. He could have been an excellent pirate too if he could have just lived long enough. He really felt about to faint, but he was determined to keep alert to watch the rest of his short life dwindle away.
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Tue Mar 12, 2019 6:00 pm
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7: Long Night

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Doc was watching the patient in the safety of his intensive care facility, monitoring her feeble heartbeat. He was exceedingly curious about who she was and why she had been poisoned and left for dead. Why in Tranoudor of all places?

He searched the young woman's possessions, trying to piece together some kind of story. Around her neck rested a necklace, with a portal key to the Karesh world Ress Janoa serving as a pendant. She had a ring on her marriage hand, with a gemfish gem inset, curious enough. He wondered what that ring might do in the right hands, or in the wrong ones for that matter. The girl probably didn't even know she had one. Who would treat a power ring like a wedding band? Or an engagement band for that matter?

But the most curious thing he had found was a note tucked in the pocket of her dress:


If you find this young woman before she wakes, please take care of her for me. — Shadow Man


Shadow Man? What was this guy, a vigilante? Some kind of superhero? A wannabe more like it! Superheroes were kid stuff. A grown man, posing as a superhero! Blast, that chafed his furry hide! And leaving the woman behind for someone else to take care of? With just a note? And slowly slipping away? How irresponsible! Doc would really have liked to give this "Shadow Man" a piece of his mind.

Why would anyone leave a poisoned, comatose woman near the Tranoudor portal of all places, especially if he actually wanted to help her survive the night? No one had used the portal for so long. In fact, he remembered vividly the day when they sealed that door to the outside galaxy. The malfunctioning robot that had almost destroyed the city had been banished through the portal to the Velek junkyard and that part of the city had been closed for Gwalf safety.

Had it not been for Jendra, as wild as her father, adventuring into that danger, this human would likely have died out there. He supposed he was thankful, somehow, for that auspiciously foolish girl.

He personally wondered how long it would be before the Gwalf noticed that this human was among them. The reason for that portal’s closure was as much to protect the paranoid citizens from the supposed dangers of the galaxy, as it was to prevent their departure into it. If Doc had focused his medicine to treat paranoia, he really thought he might never rest again.

Even if this human did manage to come out of her coma alive, she wouldn't be in any position to tell them anything about herself to alleviate their anxiety. This poison would have at the least suppressed her memories if not erased her recollections entirely. She could not assure them she wasn't dangerous because she wouldn't know whether she was or not. They would treat her like a ticking time bomb. In fact, they might have preferred the bomb. At least they would have known what it was. If she managed to awaken, it would be a very different world for everyone. And the vast majority would not embrace such a change.

He checked his pocket watch; no doubt, Leon's mother would be worried sick. She was just the sort to hang him in the public squares for having sent her dear child off to some unknown someplace. It was long past Leon’s and Jendra’s curfew already. And if they hadn't returned by now, the bell flower was much further away than deemed acceptable for a Gwalfling to travel. Jendra had never been very good at staying within those boundaries anyway. And that meant a heap of trouble for him, only to be accentuated by the alien's presence in his intensive care unit. He was pacing at the prospect but thought it best to focus on his patient, especially since, at that precise moment, she was awake, sitting up, and frightened if somewhat dazed.

“How did you—? Silly me!” Doc exclaimed. “Darned if you remember anything.”

“Who—what—where—?” A million questions and she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of them.

Naturally, she was feeling very lost. Doc couldn't even begin to imagine what she must be going through. The first thing a mind went through when it awoke with a lack of memories was an attempt to fill in the blanks with whatever made sense at the time. How would she explain him? She fainted suddenly, having been overwhelmed. But it was not the end of her; her heart remained at its same steady, albeit weak pace. Doc was surprised and pleased to see that she was somehow fighting the poison on her own. She clearly remembered something, or she wouldn't have known enough to speak. And if she was winning this battle without any help, that meant he had truly sent his Gwalflings off on a wild goose chase. And he would never hear the end of it. But how could he have known? He felt very overwhelmed himself, almost as though he might have fainted right beside her. He didn't. Just felt very much like doing so. "Spark!" He exclaimed. What was he going to do now?

Traipsing endlessly through the caverns, the Gwalflings were profoundly lost. Jendra had been out cold, due to the Je’rax’s poisoned claws. She truly had no idea where they were now, or where they had been. The others seemed as lost as she was. In this darkness, she could barely see anything. The hard, rocky ground had left no indications of their former passage. There weren't any resonances to guide them to the river.

For that matter, she was beginning to wonder whether a nearby water source would have been all that importance to the Je'rax. As Leon described it, the Je’rax had not been crawling very quickly through these tunnels. It may even have been clever enough to realize it was leading them toward its nest. And they had been running desperately to keep up. The Je’rax could have kept its nest very far from the river by their standards and not have worried about water in the least.

Jendra groaned, wishing there was some other way. "We're lost," she murmured. "We're lost, we're tired, and even if we knew where we were, there's no way we'd be back in time to cure the poison." That thought left her feeling very dejected.

“We can’t just give up!” Leon replied. “And besides, where are you going to rest in the middle of an uncomfortable corridor? A corridor that could still be hunting grounds for another Je’rax, I might add. There are probably others lurking about.”

Just the very thought sent shivers down Jendra’s spine. Leon obviously didn’t like the thought much either, but there was no candy-coating it. “By morning, the hard rocky floor could be the least of our problems. We need to keep moving.”

“Quiet!” Toby said. Had the thought of another Je’rax just occurred to him? In that case, silence definitely seemed appropriate. But it wasn’t fear in his voice. Toby was truly excited about something. “Listen.”
Though it had been a very low, almost indistinguishable sound, closer listening revealed a low, constant rumble.

“We might be getting close to the waterfall,” Jendra suggested.

“And that means we’re not far from home!” Leon added.

Somehow reinvigorated at the sound, Toby charged ahead yet again. Jendra thought of all that had happened since the last time he had dashed off foolhardily ahead of them: a lot of horrible things. Leon’s near death experience, their collision, narrowly avoiding an attack by bizarre Cyclopean water creatures, the unwelcome discovery that the childhood nightmares she’d made excuses for not believing were actually real. How could she ever feel safe in this cavern, knowing what she knew now? She had come far too close to facing her own mortality. But then, she had brought on those things, just as much as Toby had. She was the reason he was out here, and she regretted having brought him along. Toby wasn’t ready for this; he was too young. She wasn’t sure she had been ready for this. Then again, Toby had saved her life, and she'd done admittedly very little to keep him alive, so perhaps he was better equipped than she was. She simply thought that the low grumble could just as easily have been another unknown predator's growl as a waterfall. She didn't want to find any more ill-intentioned creatures on this trip. From the stories he'd told, Toby had pulled a hat trick, and she sincerely doubted he had too many more tricks up his sleeve. He had been very haphazard so far, and she wondered what might happen if he reached the end of his rope.

Unsure just how, she ran after him. She surely hadn't caught her second wind; she was still prone to drop at any moment. She would be no help to anyone if she dropped dead. She realized it was not like her to dwell on such things. But she'd come so close already. She ran out of steam and stopped to catch her breath. All she could do now was hope that Toby wouldn't run into anything he couldn't handle.

“Stop, Toby!” Leon shouted again. He wasn’t sure how wise it was to shout in the midst of this cavern, but it was just as dangerous to let Toby run ahead and abandon them.

Toby had been so young and sprightly, to bounce right back into action after all he’d been through himself since the journey began. He had taken injuries in that crash too. They didn’t seem to bother him at all. Suddenly Leon was feeling far older than he should have felt. No, just very, very weary. To his surprise, though, Leon saw a light up ahead, at the edge of the next bend. Perhaps Toby truly was running home. He couldn’t blame the kid. He wanted desperately to be home too. Oh, how wonderful it would have been just to curl up in his blankets, with his head on his pillow, and fall asleep for a week!

Jendra also took note of the curious light just ahead of them. And the thought occurred to her that late at night they generally powered down the artificial lights in the cavern. She thought perhaps they had been traveling all night. The old grump must have been worried sick about her by now if he even cared at all. Either way, she wasn't about to tell Doc what had happened on this adventure. He'd ground her for life. And he was the one who had sent her out here in the first place. She imagined it as though it had already happened. It was inevitable, she supposed.

If the city had mercy on her, she would be exiled. She knew there was beauty out here. Her father hadn’t left her to be eaten by a Je’rax. She suddenly realized it may have been the final outcome for him; she would probably never know. But something beautiful was out here; she just knew it. She would love to have the time to find out, even if she never returned to the city again. But she would return, if just to pack her bags, and get a pillow that was softer than these rocks, and one gigantic bottle of bug spray.

Well, if she left the city, she wasn’t very well going to stay in this cavern either. She knew that pretty place where the true light shone on the towering trees and the bell flowers bloomed before her eyes. That place was still out there somewhere. And that, she thought, would be a very beautiful place to make a home: a home away from the angry, paranoid people who glared at her every time she passed them in the street.

She worried that perhaps even in the beautiful spot she remembered, she might not find happiness. Perhaps she was a drifter, never meant for happiness at all. She rather hoped that wasn’t the case.
At the bend, Toby turned to look at them. His voice was as cheerful as his countenance. “Hurry up, guys, you’ve gotta see this!”
Jendra was very relieved that he had stopped. She was also relieved that whatever he had seen wasn’t about to eat him. At least, she thought it wasn’t. He surely wouldn’t have been so happy about that. She hastened as well as she could to meet him.

Peering out past the threshold revealed the same tall trees, underlying the same blue skies Jendra had seen as a child though the bell flowers no longer grew there, to her disappointment. She guessed it may have been foolish to expect the setting to be unchanged after so many years. After all, change was the nature of life. Perhaps they had simply wilted with time, or they had become food for a herbivore of some sort. Still, she recognized this place. It was where the bell flowers once grew. Perhaps they might find another patch not far from where the old ones had been.

“Wow,” Leon whispered in astonishment. Jendra imagined how she had felt when she first saw this view. “What is this place?”

“It’s the surface,” Jendra replied, “where the cave stops and true life begins.”

“You’ve been here before?” Leon asked.

"I—" She thought that since this was as far as she had ever come, it might not be prudent to act like she knew anything about the outside world. After all, the reality was, she didn't. "I've read about it."

Leon glared at her. Well, she supposed she hadn’t been known for reading a lot of books. And Leon knew her well enough to exercise a bit of discernment. “So, you read a lot, do you?”

“Sure,” she replied, with a trace of nervous laughter in her voice, “all the time.”

"Great, then you should be able to tell us all about this place," Leon challenged. He smiled deviously. It was just the sort of comment Jendra had hoped to avoid. She felt a strong desire to dig her foot into his shin. He might have discerned that as well, for he said, "Perhaps we should just move on."

“Right,” Jendra agreed. She breathed a little easier.

Jendra wanted to embrace this unknown world, to see what she had missed as a child. The others were perhaps just as excited as she was to explore the surface. Yet, as they stood on the verge of the outside world, her anxiety rushed back. A colossal machine of some sort set down a gigantic foot in front of the doorway. She suddenly felt an incredible urge to hide.

“Wow! What in the world?” Toby exclaimed, but Jendra stifled him from speaking further by putting her hand over his mouth.

“I don’t know,” she whispered to him, “but until we find out, it’s best if it doesn’t know we’re here.”

“Okay,” he whispered back, freeing his mouth from her grasp. “But you don’t need to muzzle me like a squig.” As if to emphasize the point, he added, “Squigs bite, ye know?”

They let the machine pass, leaving the wreckage of what had been beautiful trees in its wake. For as large as it had been, the machine had moved so quietly, they couldn't decide how far away it had gotten, but they waited several moments before peering after it. The ground outside was littered with quadrilateral tracks.

The surface was a very different place than Jendra imagined. In the moments that followed, she heard the running river, and it calmed her. She saw the damage the machine had done to the trees and grassy plains and became very embittered. It was destroying her paradise.[Deleted:,]
“Well, I think it’s safe enough to venture out,” Leon suggested.
Toby wasn’t moving. Jendra had half expected him to charge out first in his same careless manner. He simply looked over at her, waiting for her to make a move.

Thanks! She thought. Now was her big chance to embrace the unknown. She felt quite like she was about to embrace a Je’rax. But out she went, into the unknown world on the surface of Tranoudor.

Doc heard the chimes of his door opening. He knew who it was, visiting him this late at night. With a gulp, he left the human's side and closed the door tightly behind him, as he attended to Leon's anxious mother.

“Doctor Hedgewik,” she said. “Leon didn’t come home tonight. Have you seen him?”

“Not since about noon,” he replied but didn’t say much more.

“Can I talk to Jendra? Maybe she knows something.”

“Jendra is gone,” he said hesitantly.

“Figures she would be! I bet she dragged him into all sorts of trouble!”

“Now madam, I would ask you not to talk about my daughter that way!”

“The things Leon does for that ghastly child!” Her voice rose.

“You don’t know the first thing about her, madam. She is a sweet girl, and she cares very much about your son. She would never do anything to harm him. Of that you can be absolutely certain.”

“The only thing I can be certain of, Sir, is that it is very late, neither of our children are where they ought to be, and my Leon doesn’t drag your daughter off to abandoned ruins where she doesn’t belong. So whose fault do you think it is?”

He’d never admit it to her, but Grisham knew it was his own fault.
Captain Fairweather entered at that precise moment in search of another missing child, something Doc knew nothing of, but for which he would no doubt be expected to answer. It was just the beginning of what was about to be a very long night.
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Sat Mar 9, 2019 6:00 am
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6: To the Rescue

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After surviving almost certain death when the bridge crumbled beneath his feet, Leon had made a silent vow to live each moment thereafter as if it could be his last. He had never dreamed, before his life was hanging in the balance, that in an instant, it could be ripped away.

Leon valued life more, knowing it was so fragile. Yet he would rather throw away his life and all that it meant to him than let Toby plummet to his death as Leon merely watched. Leon’s heart pounded as he took a deep breath and dove after his cousin. He reached out for Toby, unaware that he was headed for a crash himself.

Leon was so set on rescuing Toby he failed to notice that Jendra was flying toward him. The two collided and fell into the frigid pond beside Toby. Quite to his surprise, not to mention discomfort, the water was rather shallow. He was uncomfortable, not to mention bruised in all the wrong places, but he certainly wouldn’t drown in this pond.

Toby, actually being the least injured of them, pulled the others up onto a small sandy ridge. Who would have thought, in all of this, Toby would be the one rescuing the others? Though the crash hadn’t been pleasant for him either, he seemed to bounce back easier.

“And you doubted me!” he said, as though triumphant.

Of course, he was still quite a distance from the elevator platform. Then again, he wasn’t made for flight. And, after all, it had been his first time. Apparently, flying was not as thrilling as it sounded.

“Ooh!” Jendra said, massaging the crease of fur between her head and her left ear. “ That wasn’t one of my better landings.” She hoped it had just been a momentary blackout and not a serious concussion. But then, if she was sane enough to ponder such matters, prospects were hopeful.

“Tell me about it,” Toby replied. “You mean people actually used to pay to do that?”

Jendra wasn’t sure how to respond. Perhaps it was better that this part of the cave stayed closed. It was a whole lot more dangerous than she had remembered. “At least you’re okay,” she said.

“Actually, I’m more concerned about Leon,” Toby replied. “He hasn’t woken up yet.”

Jendra shrieked. “His reticular formation!”

“His what?” Toby asked.

“Get up Leon! You can’t sleep now!” Jendra shook him wildly. “Please. Wake up!”

“You don’t have to shout,” Leon replied with a groan. “I bruised my shoulder. My head is fine. I’m just resting a minute.”

Jendra was relieved at the sound of his voice. She didn’t know what she would do if he had slipped into a coma. There wasn’t anything she could have done out here. And she would have been lost without him. Leon was one of very few people in this world she considered a friend, maybe even … Whatever the case, she couldn’t lose him. She could hardly bear the thought.

Toby sat on the small sandy islet, munching on crackers. “Um, guys,” Toby paused munching to point out across the pond. “What’s that?”

Jendra turned to look. What she had mistaken for a large sandstone deposit was now glaring at them from a single ferocious eye. Suddenly, it swam like a torpedo through the water and began climbing toward them on the sand. It was some sort of large crustacean—perhaps large enough to be a mutant breed of tortoise—with sharp jagged fangs—and it was hungry. The three helped each other to their feet, attempting to keep back as far from the creature as possible.

“Quick, Toby, hand me your backpack!” Jendra ordered, yanking it from his shoulders. Reaching inside, she grabbed the bizarre waffle sandwich and tossed the fish carcass to the voracious animal.

“Hey!” Toby objected. “I was going to eat that.”

"Not anymore," Jendra said.

“Guys, I think we have bigger problems than Toby’s lunch,” Leon warned. “Look!”

Having taken notice of the fish Jendra had thrown, a horde of the hungry beasts surfaced. Even had Jendra tried to distribute the remnants of the backpack to them, she could not have satisfied them all. And naturally, she wasn’t about to let herself or her friends be eaten alive by whatever those creatures were; she’d have to find out if they managed to survive this. The hang-gliders still appeared to be functional. Of course, this was hardly the time to examine them. She sprinkled the remnants of Toby’s package of mixed nuts out across the water, hoping the creatures would take the bait.

“Follow my lead,” Jendra said.

The creatures surfaced. Relying on her glider to aid her quick movement, she leaped from shell to shell as if they had been ordinary stepping stones. In a final leap, she tossed herself belly first onto the platform.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Toby exclaimed.

"Not so fast now, hey kid!" Leon taunted. He ruffled Toby's hair. "Well, here's to speed your departure." He lifted his cousin and—activating his glider—tossed the boy quite like a paper airplane over to Jendra.

"Whoa!" Toby shrieked as he slid across the platform. Naturally, he wasn't pleased with being tossed, but he was relieved to have stuck the landing this time.

Following close behind, Leon imitated Jendra perfectly, coming to a rest on the elevator platform. He gasped a sigh of relief, thankful to be through with this disaster. Really, he had half a mind to turn around now and fly back home. But he would have never made it back. And part of him was still curious to learn about the human creature they had discovered. At least, he didn’t want her to die. He sure hoped Jendra remembered where she was going. He’d never been out this way. He and Toby would never find that flower without her help. But though Jendra knew where they were going, and had some idea how to get there, this adventure was becoming more than she could handle by herself. So they needed each other.

The elevator was badly in need of repairs — it wouldn't simply ascend on its own. It went without saying, naturally, the elevator having sat idle for so long, but it hadn't crossed Jendra’s mind. And she didn't know the first thing about the operation of an elevator. Fortunately, Toby was along to assist with such things. He knew nothing of flight and probably enjoyed the gemfish waffle sandwich a bit too much, but he knew water wheels better than anyone in Tranoudor City. And Jendra was, for the first time this trip, very happy to have someone of his knowledge for a traveling companion.

“It’s an easy fix. They probably just locked ‘er down. Even if they didn’t, I know enough to fix the pumps and shafts in a tick. So, give me a moment and we’ll have ‘er up and running.”

He lowered himself below the platform, hanging by his hands for a few moments. Then he simply disappeared for what seemed like ages. It probably seemed longer than it was. Jendra couldn’t shake the nervous feeling that those voracious crustaceans were still out there and still hungry. Jendra was sure of it. A few nuts would hardly curve their appetite. And that thought left her feeling more than a little anxious.

“Don’t worry,” Leon told Jendra, as she paced back and forth on the platform. "He'll be fine."

Leon assured her that Toby was well out of harm’s way and was a very capable mechanic. And Leon didn’t seem at all worried. He had implicit, unwavering trust in his cousin. Jendra wondered if there was anyone in her life that she could trust as much.

“I knew it!” A shout arose from below the platform.

Suddenly, they heard a swishing sound, and a few moments later, the computer system to engage the elevator came online.

“See,” Leon said as if to prove that his trust had not been misplaced.

“Get back varmints, before I crush you in the turbine!” Toby threatened.
First Toby’s hands appeared, his fingers curling to grasp the platform; then he hooked his chin over. He pulled himself onto the platform and collapsed on his chest smiling contently. He exhaled heavily. “Ready when you are!”

Leon walked over toward the computer. The word UP appeared on the touch screen in big red letters with a thick red border. That seemed simple enough. As he pressed the screen, the platform began to ascend. It climbed for perhaps a few minutes at a steady pace. On reaching the top, the platform came to a rest.

“Hey!” Toby exclaimed. “I can see my house from here! At least, I think that’s my house.” On this platform, the Gwalflings loomed high over the city.

The artificial lights shone brightly over Tranoudor, feigning daylight. Just as artificial as the city itself, Jendra thought.

“C’mon,” Leon goaded. “You have to admit, there is some beauty to seeing the city from afar.”

“The real beauty is the distance between us,” she replied, turning her back hastily to the city.

Ahead their pathway faded in the vast darkness. Had their eyes not adjusted naturally to the dark, they wouldn't have been able to see into the caverns ahead at all. She looked forward to what she might find in the darkness of the cavern. The thought occurred to her that she didn't remember much about this darkness. But she had found the true daylight once. She had seen the bell flower. No doubt she could do it again. She wasn't intimidated by the idea. There was nothing to be afraid of, not here in this serenity. Darkness had never really bothered her. And, after all, Je'rax didn't exist.

There wasn’t much time to look back on the events that had happened since they entered the darker part of the cavern. Leon and Toby ran quickly in pursuit of the beast that had captured Jendra. It was the most horrendous nightmare. Jendra had been captured by a Je’rax. No matter how quickly they ran, the giant creature seemed to be drawing away. It had happened so fast that Leon could hardly remember how they had found themselves in this perilous situation. The thought occurred to him, however, that if the beast had simply turned around, it could have easily captured them all. It didn’t matter. The pursuit went on. Leon couldn’t let her go. Life without Jendra was – well, it was no life at all.

Just as Doctor Hedgewik was relying on Jendra to return with the bell flower, he relied on Leon to keep her safe. She didn't have anyone else out here. She needed him. And Leon would go to the most distant corners of Tranoudor for her. She meant so much to him.

“Listen Leon,” Jendra had said. “It’s the river.”

“Could simply mean we’re rounding back on where we came from,” He had suggested.

“No,” Jendra had replied. “It’s the surface. I just know it. Listen carefully. Can’t you hear it?”

As if on cue, the creature had growled, alerting them to its presence.
The Je’rax had been so quiet that they hadn’t even heard it moving. That was why they had been told all their lives about the dangers of the dark cave. Leon had barely seen it happen in this darkness, but the creature had driven its poisonous claws into Jendra’s shoulders. She was paralyzed in its grip. Very soon, she would die.

Leon wouldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t. He had to save her. He didn’t know how. They had gone so far already. He was quickly wearing out, but he didn’t care how tired he got; he would continue running until he had rescued her. He would continue running until his legs fell off. As gruesome as that sounded, Leon knew it wasn’t likely. It was more likely he would exhaust his heart and lungs and he would pass out. Whatever the case, he would run until he could no longer run. He would save Jendra. He could not let her die like this. It was he who had been so curious about the alien creature. He had been so determined to save that human, whatever she was. She was interesting to him. Had he given the life of someone he cared about more than life to satisfy some silly curiosity? He couldn’t let it end this way.

They wound through many passages, not paying much attention to where they had come from, and with no idea where they were going. All Leon knew was that somehow Jendra needed to be rescued from this creature. And Toby and he were the only ones who could do it.

The creature finally stopped, in the middle of a large den. Here it dropped Jendra. It didn’t seem to realize they had followed it all this way. Leon and Toby were both relieved to finally catch their breath. But this was no time for repose, for they were still in close proximity to the very dangerous animal.

“We need a plan,” Toby whispered.

Leon heard the creature groaning and was unnerved that Toby’s words might have drawn attention. But the creature as yet seemed unaware of their presence.

“I’ll create a distraction,” Leon whispered in reply. “You work on getting Jendra out of here.”

“No,” Toby replied. “Reverse that. Jendra will need you to carry her, and you’re the only one who can cure her paralysis. And, if it doesn’t go well, and I get captured, I’m going to need you to rescue me.”

Leon didn't like to admit it, but Toby was right. He hated that Toby had to risk his life for him. He didn't want to chance that his cousin might get hurt—certainly not after promising his uncle the boy would be safe—but it seemed like the only way. They had taken a very large risk coming out this way. Leon truly regretted inviting Toby to come with them. He regretted coming out this way himself, unaware of the dangers. If Jendra had known that a creature that she swore "didn't exist" could be so fierce, perhaps she too would have had second thoughts. She'd always argued that dying out here would be better than living in the city; Leon wondered if she would have still felt so resolved had she been awake. It would be a long way back to Doc's if they made it out of this. He had no medicine for her. Perhaps not even Grisham could provide a cure. Would they even be able to make it home before the paralysis killed her? To hope so was sketchy at best. And that was given they could survive the monster themselves.

“Go for it,” Toby whispered to himself.

Having shifted away from his cousin a little, Toby proceeded to shout.

“Hey freakazord! Catch!” He lifted a large oblong boulder. It didn’t seem to weigh nearly as much as he expected. In fact, it seemed sort of hollow. Regardless, he tossed it at the Je’rax’s head; it cracked and oozed everywhere. Toby gulped.

The defiant act hadn’t done much to hurt the Je’rax, but it angered the creature for a number of reasons. For one thing, it had shown an incredible degree of insolence on the part of the prey. Not to mention, that boulder had really been an egg, and now the embryo was dead. The creature quickly charged closer to Toby with an incredible howling, trilling screech.

“Think that was somethin’?” Toby feigned boldness; inside he was struck with terror. “Try this for flavor.”

Hoping for a miracle, he pitched a tiny gem from his pocket into the creature’s mouth. It roared. That certainly hadn’t satisfied its hunger. The gem struck its throat, got crushed by its larynx. The creature was about to stab him with its claws, when suddenly, its head blew up. Bits of brain went oozing everywhere. It was grotesque. It was awesome!

“Blah!” Toby squirmed, bits of plasma and other oozes having covered him. He’d even gotten some in his mouth. “Yuck! Pit-pit-pitoowy!” He spat. He didn’t much like the taste of Je’rax brains. However, after a moment’s reflection, he had to admit, that was perhaps the most awesome thing he’d ever done in his life. “Cool!”

Though it hadn’t been his first reaction, as the adrenaline slowed, relief definitely set in. The remains of the creature fell to the ground, devastated. Toby rested his back against the wall. Finally, he gave in from the anxiety he was feeling and cringed at how close he had come to death.

“We need to do this more often,” Toby said, after several moments of reflection. “It’s quite a rush. I’m starting to like it. Toby Fairweather: Je’rax Hunter!” Toby posed with his hands on his hips, like a superhero.

Toby made his way to Jendra’s side. “Is she going to be okay?”
“She’s poisoned. It may be too late.”

"Well, we have the body. Can't we counteract it somehow? Create an antidote or something?" Toby asked.

“There’s not enough time,” Leon said. “Unless her body can fight the venom on its own.”

“How can she fight it? She doesn’t have any antibodies,” Toby said. “Her body might not recognize what that poison is.”

Leon was very impressed. Toby hadn’t even started medical school yet.
“Well,” Leon pondered, “I suppose we could try.”

Leon pulled out his medical kit. From there he extracted a scalpel and removed the tip of the dead Je’rax’s pincer.

“Test it on me,” Toby said. “I’ll be fine. I’d be a great paralytic. Pa says I’m the best he’s ever seen at doing nothing.”

“That’s encouraging,” Leon replied. He almost laughed. This was no time for laughter, though. Not with Jendra being paralyzed and her life depending on this cure.

Before he could use Toby as his test subject, however, he noticed Jendra twitching. His eyes had scarcely left her for more than a moment. “Look, it’s starting to wear off on its own. Sorry to disappoint you, Toby, but I don’t think I’ll paralyze you today.”

“In that case,” Toby said. “Let me keep that pincer. It might be useful.”

Leon didn’t like the idea very much. Toby had a very devious mind. Suddenly he was distracted, however, when Jendra gasped. And Toby seized and pocketed the pincer for safe keeping.

“What happened?” Jendra asked.

Not that anyone could tell in this darkness, but a tear ran down Leon’s cheek. He was so thankful to hear her voice.

“Ye know those Je'rax that don't exist?" Toby asked. "Well, part of one of them is over there on the ground. The other part is scattered between my shirt, my fur, and a large portion of the wall."

“Huh,” Jendra reflected. So much for the assertion that Je’rax didn’t exist!

“Say Toby,” Leon considered. “That creature didn’t explode of its own volition, did it?”

"You could say that." Toby grinned. "Gemfish are good for more than waffle sandwiches ye know?

“Pa gave me three of their gems before we left, the ones they produce inside their stomachs. Anyway, these gems have weird properties. Lots of cool stuff! Not that anyone can really be sure until they’re used up, but I was sure hoping it would explode.”

“Your father is way too trusting,” Leon said, ruffling Toby’s hair again. Perhaps it wasn’t the best time for that. He shook the ooze off of his fingers.

“He probably thought it was a locator gem, in case I got lost out here,” Toby said.

“Well, that would have been useful about now,” Leon replied, “since I have no idea where we are.”

“What is this place?” Jendra asked.

“You were carried here by the Je’rax,” replied Leon. “It…”

“It’s a nest, I think,” Toby interrupted. “The Je’rax’s eggs are here.”

"Well, in that case…" Jendra attempted to lift herself up, but she didn't have the strength yet. She settled for sitting. "We can't be too far from the river. It may be a feisty demon, but it's still just an animal, and no animal can go without water."

“Well,” Toby mused, “it can now!”

Jendra glared at Toby.

“Thank goodness it’s dark,” Toby said. “If I had caught the whole of that expression, I think your look probably could have killed me.”

“Anyway,” Jendra tried to get back on topic, “if we can find the river, we’ll find the surface.”

“Of course,” Leon acknowledged. “That’s brilliant. I’m glad you’re back.”

“Just so I can give you directions, hey?” Jendra teased.

“No… I mean…”

“Good grief! Cootie alert!” Toby shouted, making a sound like a siren.

"And thanks, Toby," Jendra said, "for saving my life." She kissed Toby on the cheek.

“Ick! Gross!” Toby spurned.

In truth, though, it had been just the reaction Jendra was expecting.

“Boys! And yet, he’s covered in Je’rax guts and he says nothing.”

“Je’rax guts are cool!” Toby replied. He pulled the front of his shirt loose, admiring the semi-phosphorescent stains that decorated it. Unfortunately, the glow was already starting to fade.

Jendra rolled her eyes. Boys indeed!

While Toby waited for Jendra to gain her strength back, he circled the cavern crushing any eggs he could find. He figured it was the only humane thing to do, now that their mother was gone. That and they made a cool squishy noise when he crushed them.

“Well, that’s the last of them!” he declared. “Are you doing any better over there?”

He still couldn’t look at her, upset that she had given him cooties. He’d have to bathe in the river or something. Just not with his shirt on. He wanted to keep this shirt just the way it was forever. Jendra managed to get to her feet with Leon’s help.

“I think I’ll need to take things slow for a while,” she said. “But I’ll be fine.”

Taking things slow sounded quite good to Toby. He really didn’t feel like running anymore. It had gotten much later than he expected. He’d missed his dinner for sure. Really, he felt like resting for a while — but not here. It didn't feel safe in this cave. It was hard to feel safe in a Je'rax's nest.

Jendra lived for adventure, but having almost died for one, she was hoping for a bit less adventure now. As hard as it was to believe, Jendra found herself missing Doctor Hedgewik.

She realized that if she couldn't return to Doc's soon, this whole journey, all she and the boys had suffered, all they had worked for, how hard Leon and Toby had fought, would have all been for nothing. The human would be gone. She pressed on determinedly.
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Thu Mar 7, 2019 6:00 am
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5: Gravity

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Standing beside the raging waterfall, Jendra and her friends took stock of the decrepit rope bridge barely standing before them. It was ironic really. Toby, the one who had been so impatient to reach this point, was now hesitant to cross. But Jendra didn’t want him to. She really wasn’t so sure she wanted to cross this particular bridge herself. The boldness she had always wanted to believe ran through her veins was sorely lacking today. She had always hated the cozy city dwellers around her for showing no backbone; now her own had turned to jelly. And oh how she hated it!

All talk; no action! She taunted herself. She felt ridiculous, having come so far simply to stand there. She was wasting valuable time; a life was at stake. Again the thought occurred to her that the lives at risk were now her friends’ lives, not to mention her own. Somehow, that thought scared her now. But she refused to live in fear. She’d rather die.

She took her first step onto the wobbling foot bridge and gasped. It held her so far. That didn’t mean much. There were plenty of steps left. She noticed how the wood that had comprised her footholds was steadily rotting. The twine on which she rested her hands was horribly unkempt, being overrun with moss. But then, surely no one had come this way for a decade: perhaps longer. She didn’t remember her own adventures very well – it had been ages ago, when she was merely a child – but she assumed that surely she had crossed this way the first time. Then again, she had been as foolhardy as Toby then, and probably hadn’t the sense to notice how dangerous this bridge really was. Perhaps it had been safer then. Toby had been far wiser in his youth, slow to take the first step; perhaps, she thought, he had more to live for. She felt that nagging sadness starting to return. Not now!

Whatever the case, she had to keep going. And that second step was even more difficult than the first. She realized now that there was no turning back. All that stood between her and the lengthy drop to the rocky basin of the waterfall was the decaying bridge. With each step, she cringed, hoping it would sustain her. The thunderous cascade did nothing to calm her nerves.

Somehow, defying explanation, she found herself standing at the other side of the bridge. The sheer anxiety had eaten away at her by then. She didn’t acknowledge her success, simply continued standing there, distracted by her fears, until she felt an impish prodding in her lower back. "Ahem! … If you'd move," said Toby, "the rest of us could get off this bridge."

His tone was unreservedly deficient of sensitivity. It might have been more considerate to push her out of the way. But what did the boy know of sympathy?

“Excuse the interruption. If it’d make you more comfortable, I could just wait for the bridge to cave in and swim back home.”

“No,” she said. She finally managed to pull herself together and step safely onto the hard ground. She sighed with relief. “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Seriously? How could you not know?” He contended. “You got scared out of your britches. That’s what.”

“Lay off, Toby,” Leon cautioned from the opposite side. “If you had a bit more sense, you would have been scared out of your wits too.”

Considering his own words, Leon prepared to cross the bridge himself. He gulped nervously and just about swallowed his tongue. He probably wouldn't have realized just how unnerving it was if he hadn't needed to spell it out for his cousin. He guessed that was chastisement from his conscience for inviting his cousin along on this particular adventure in the first place.

It had been agonizing for Jendra, admittedly far easier for Toby, but Leon was bigger than either of them. He wondered if these ropes—these wooden steps—could endure his weight. He felt the ropes stretching beneath his fingers. The wood creaked. He groaned with it. With one false step, the rotting plank broke beneath his foot.

“What’s it like?” Toby asked.

“What is what like?” Leon asked, breaking his concentration.

“Being scared out of your wits—”

When I get my hands on you, you’ll find out! Leon thought. Had he been faster across that dangerous bridge, he may have acted on his petulance. Had he been faster, that bridge would have fallen by now. He wished his cousin had the sense to keep his mouth shut. He was sure, somehow, Toby meant well. He just wasn’t sure how.

“Ouch!” Leon heard. “How rude!” He glanced up from the ropes, and saw Toby holding his arm where he had been punched moments earlier; from the boy’s devious expression, Leon knew Toby wasn’t in as much pain as he let on. Leon grinned, having found an all new appreciation for Jendra. She winked at him. He just knew he could do it.

And with the next fatal step, the bridge supports behind him gave way. Leon attempted to run as far as he could in the moments that followed. Finally, he gripped tightly to the ropes as the bridge slammed against the cliff. He heard the breaking boards, saw them falling into the basin – and was relieved that he hadn’t fallen with them. He knew it was only a matter of time before this side of the bridge gave in beneath his weight. Like most Gwalf, Leon had never learned to swim. He wondered whether he could if he had to. Either way, he would just as soon not find out.

Something warm and soft reached out for him. It was Jendra’s tail, wrapping around his arm. She was perched against the cliff. “I’ve got you,” she said, as she used her prehensile tail to swing him up.

Both Jendra and Leon crawled to safety, as the remnants of the bridge gave way and plunged into the basin. Leon enwrapped Jendra in his arms, thankful to be alive. “Thank you!”

Jendra was rather surprised at the behavior. “No big deal. Just doing what I had to,” she remarked. Still, she soaked in every moment of that hug.

She reflected on her expression for a moment; she had to save him. It wasn’t an act of generosity; it was an act of desperation. She needed Leon in her life. She looked down into the basin. They had all cheated death today. Indeed, they had been very lucky. The thought also occurred to Jendra that the falling bridge meant they couldn’t simply turn around. It was too late for that.

“I’m not entirely certain,” said Leon, “how we’re going to get back home to save the human.”

“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” Jendra suggested.

She cringed. On second thought, she’d crossed enough bridges for one day. All she wanted, the rest of this day, was to keep her feet firmly on the ground.

She looked over at Toby. He was distracted, holding a half-eaten corndog. Jendra rolled her eyes. Leon had nearly fallen to his death; she had lost any hope of appetite with her nerves while crossing that bridge. And Toby couldn’t have seemed to care less.

“Really? How can you think of food at a time like this?”

“Hey,” he replied, “I’m eleven. I can think of food at any time.”
Curiously, her own stomach rumbled.

“Apparently, so can you.” Toby smiled and offered her the contents of his backpack.

The pack was filled with crackers, string cheese, another corndog, a beruta core, half a package of nuts, and a sandwich made from a gemfish between two waffles—the head was still on it and it might have been looking right at her. After seeing that, she wasn't hungry after all. She zipped up his backpack and handed it back to him.

“Suit yourself,” he said.

They took a moment to catch their breath.

“We’ve got to keep going,” Jendra said.

Leon simply nodded.

Toby hadn’t quite finished his corndog, but he wouldn’t let a bit of walking prevent him from enjoying his lunch.

Lifting the branches of an evergreen out of their way, the three Gwalflings entered a field. It was naturally overgrown with grass from years of emptiness though in some parts grass never emerged from the dirt. They were not far from the edge of a cliff. On the edge of the small field, Jendra noticed a tiny shack, locked up, with a sign that read "Sorry! It's Thursday!" hanging on the door. It wasn't Thursday, but, of course, no one had come this way for years.

Leon hadn’t taken notice; he was instead searching across the wide pool in front of him to where a large iron structure stood in the distance, against a much taller plateau. “What is that?”

“What is what?” Toby asked. He hadn’t taken much interest in anything besides his corndog. He might have kept walking over the cliff if no one had said anything.

“Don’t you remember?” Jendra asked. “I suppose we were so young at the time. Perhaps you wouldn’t. This isn’t anything the citizens of Tranoudor bother talking about these days.

“See this shed? They used to rent hang-gliders here. We could rent them, fly out to that elevator,” as she spoke, she pointed to the metal structure Leon had been so curious about. “And from the top of that elevator, we could fly over the city. It was really breathtaking. Of course, the less adventurous types said it was too dangerous and fought to have it closed down.”

“Wow!” Leon thought, picturing it in his mind.

“I wish we could try it,” Toby said. “That sounds like fun.”

“Oh, we will,” Jendra replied, the idea suddenly dawning on her. “That’s our way back home.”

For the first time in what seemed like forever, Jendra felt a surge of excitement coursing through her.

Leon saw Jendra’s devious grin. It was that particular expression that scared Leon silly. But really, it was also what made him spend so much time with her to begin with. He got lost in her eyes.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Jendra asked. “What is it?”

“Never mind,” Leon replied, and turned to his cousin instead.
Toby was standing by the door to the shack; somehow he had already picked the old lock. Neither one had seen him do it, but the door was wide open. Toby dropped the padlock to the ground.

“How did you—” Leon fell silent.

“What? I gotta know these things,” he said, “I’m prob’ly gonna wind up being a pirate someday.”

Leon recalled dreaming he might be a pirate someday. He felt perhaps it might have been every kid’s daydream at some phase of life. But for someone to follow through with it and develop a proficiency in breaking and entering seemed to cross a number of lines. On the other hand, he thought, no one would care if they broke into this old shack. And how else were they going to retrieve the gliders? With a concerned sigh, he decided to simply let it go. “Just don’t do that with too many doors, okay?” he said.

Toby began to laugh. “Don’t worry, if I ever wind up in prison, I’ll just pick the lock.”

That comment struck a chord with Leon; it was precisely the sort of trouble he hoped his cousin would never get into. And Toby was already formulating a backup plan. Leon’s stern glare, something Toby obviously hadn’t seen enough in his short life, finally sank in.

“Fine,” Toby said. “Spark! Just having a little fun. I promise not to break into any more doors.” He gestured as if swallowing his pick, but returned it to his pocket just in case.

Brushing the cobwebs from beside the doorknob, Toby opened the door into the darkness of the shack. Leon could only see what little the open doorway revealed. He heard Toby shuffling around inside. Up came the industrial door at the rental window, shining light into the room. It was immaculate, untouched by time, as though it had been simply waiting to reopen the day after Thursday. Various backpacks lined the walls.

“Where are the gliders?” Toby asked.

Jendra had entered the old shop by then and had taken one of the backpacks off the wall.

“Well, if I remember right—” She pulled a ripcord along its side. “Yep, here it is.”

The wings came out from the flanks of the backpack.

"These were designed to be carried. In the days when this cave was deemed safer for spelunking the shopkeepers would give these out so that the renters could keep their gliders with them."

“What a clever idea,” Leon said, strapping one over his shoulders.
After a bit of examination, to be sure there were no obvious tears or holes, the three donned their gliders and stood at the edge of the cliff. Here they peered into the darkness of the cave beyond. Below was a pond, no doubt teaming with a variety of fish.

“Having any second thoughts?” Toby asked Jendra.

“No, but then I’ve done this before.”

“Good, then we’ll follow your lead,” Leon replied.

Jendra glared at him, but perhaps he really hadn’t done this before. She wasn’t sure she even remembered how. But there was just one way to find out. Drawing back, she charged over the cliff. She felt a slight drop, but the wind caught her wings. She could feel the breeze flowing through her hair. It was quite invigorating actually; in fact it was easy. No wonder the Gwalf used to let their kids do this. Gently she guided the glider in a circular flight pattern until she landed on the elevator platform across from Toby and Leon.

“Do you get it?” She hollered over to them.

“I think so!” Leon shouted back. “Okay Toby, follow my lead…”

“I don’t think so gramps!” Toby sprinted over the edge, pulling his ripcord.

Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps it was his own backpack throwing off the balance of his glider. Whatever the case, he was tumbling toward the sea. Jendra panicked and leaped from the elevator platform in an effort to catch him. But Toby was falling too fast.
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Sun Mar 3, 2019 6:00 am
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4: Double Bind

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Standing beneath the streetlights, the prince noted as a large robot with a round chassis, looking sort of like a snowman, approached on triangular tracks.

"Excuse me, robot." The prince said as he approached the CommanderBot.
It stopped in its tracks and swiveled its head to glare at him. “There is no time. Move along,” it commanded, as it continued rolling down the street.

The prince cut in front of it. “How dare you” talk to me that way? He was about to say, but he never got the words out.

The robot took aim at his chest with its mounted blaster. “Back down!”
The prince knew better than to challenge a loaded weapon and so stepped out of the way, as the robot sped off through a puddle, splashing mud onto his cloak.

How rude! Prince Jasper thought. He was absolutely infuriated. Indeed, he would have liked to repurpose that robot into an extra-large paperweight. Had he been carrying his sword—well, he was perhaps glad not to be carrying his sword. It would have been far too easy to let the situation get the better of him.

A ServiceBot soon rolled by on the same street. It came to a stop behind the prince, balancing on its singular wheel, quite like a unicycle. “Excuse me,” it said in its usual emotionless voice.

“You are excused,” the prince stepped out of the way, as the ServiceBot drove forward. “But please, would you tell me before you go, what is this uproar about?”

“The princess,” the ServiceBot replied. “She’s been kidnapped.”

“That’s terrible,” said the prince. He thought about the man who had hidden himself in the dark. Now Jasper really regretted that he had done nothing to stop him.

“Exactly. We have been dispatched to recover her and execute her immediately.”

“Execute her?” Jasper asked. “What do you mean? You can’t kill the princess!”

“Excuse me, my lord,” the robot apologized. “I said too much again.”

“Surely you don’t really mean to kill her,” Jasper responded.

“No, the queen’s orders are to hunt her down and bring her back deceased.”

“I can’t let you do that,” the prince replied. Reaching behind the ServiceBot’s neck, he powered it down. It fell forward into the street.

The prince panicked, realizing he had let the other robot go. What if the CommanderBot caught up with the princess because he had failed to stop it? He ran off toward where he thought the man from the shadows had gone. What a fool he had been, thinking the man in the shadows had kidnapped someone, had killed someone, when all the while he had simply been trying to save the princess' life! If he manages to escape, I’ll have to remember to thank him one day.

Three Gwalflings stood at the edge of the city, glancing at a large sign. “Tranoudor City Limits”, read the sign, “For your safety, do not pass this point.” The sign was almost overgrown by trees; no one had bothered to prune their branches. Everyone knew they weren’t supposed to journey beyond the city wall.

Gwalf nature was to conform to the rules of their city. No one had ever wondered what was out there. And when Jendra had asked, even about the areas she had seen closed in her lifetime, no one seemed to remember. But she did. Not too long ago, the sign was further into the cave. It was as though, little by little, the cave was closing in around its people, like a python constricting around them, sapping them of life.

Areas deemed unsafe quickly became off limits, and they were never repaired. In most areas, no signs were posted. Most understood where they didn’t belong. But at the same time, as sections were cordoned off, the city became smaller and smaller. The Gwalf were running out of city.

Jendra saw it; she imagined what might become of it. She wondered how much more of this cave would be closed to the Gwalf before a civil war broke out just for the sake of elbow room. And if the civil war ever did break out, might it render the rest of the cave off limits too? She couldn't help but grin. It was no joke, however. It was a looming reality. If no one did anything, this city would eventually crush them.

Jendra felt very claustrophobic for a moment but soon discovered it was because of Leon’s and Toby’s watchful eyes. They were waiting for her to make the next move. She realized it would have been far easier to cross the line if they weren’t with her. She didn’t really care how the people of Tranoudor City felt about her. She had been destined to follow her father into exile since before she could remember. But she did care about Leon and Toby. Toby was her friend now, and she had seen Leon as her closest friend for just about forever. Lives were at stake. And it wasn’t just the human anymore, but her friends too. The simple fact was she didn’t know what was out there. It might have been more dangerous than she realized. She didn’t want to endanger anyone.

Jendra wanted to know what lay beyond that sign. She didn’t care if it killed her. But she did care if Toby or Leon got hurt in the process. Leon had already gotten injured once for following her today. She couldn’t ask him to do it again.

She was just as sure that Leon and Toby would follow her as she was that she didn’t want them to. Leon had a bright future as a doctor in this city. He would save lives. The Gwalf needed him. And Toby’s life was just getting started. He had the foundation for a great life; his family was all here in the city, and they all loved him. How could she allow Leon and Toby to follow her into a course with such serious repercussions? Suddenly the Je’rax wasn’t such a joke, and exile seemed far more severe.

So she stood there, their eyes fixed on her, and glanced up at that sign, perplexed what course to take. She had never once questioned whether this was the right path, until now. Now she was seeded with doubt. How had this happened? How had everything changed so quickly?

Back aboard the ferry, Leon hadn’t been able to find a quiet moment in his cousin’s presence. He normally would have been happier to see his family. But his injured tail was really starting to bother him.

Toby had been eagerly blathering about some past fishing trip. "You should have seen the gigantic gemfish I caught while Mr. Maxwell was chartering our ferry for a private fishing excursion. We had to stop because the boat got scraped on the bottom by the river rocks. And you should have seen the water rushing in! But that crazy tycoon's tip alone paid for the repairs. So it was awesome! Anyway, that fish was huge! Oh, you should have been there. Though, I suppose he was picky about wanting the place to himself while he was here. He didn't catch a thing that whole time: must have been using the wrong bait." At least that was what Leon thought he said. "Leon, are you listening?"

Toby never mentioned when the story had taken place; Leon assumed it had been quite a while ago, considering the ship didn't seem like a wealthy tycoon had just left before they boarded. But he had difficulty honing in on any of the details. All Leon could think about was his throbbing scar. It was quickly becoming a bloody mess. And if he left it much longer, it might get infected—if it hadn't already. He groaned.

“Is there something wrong?” Toby asked.

“Uh, Toby, if you wouldn’t mind, I had an incident on the way over, and I need to do some doctoring.”

“Cool!” Toby said. “Can I watch?”

Leon tried to dissuade him. He didn’t feel much like putting on a show at the moment. And in this sort of pain, he wondered if he would even be able to concentrate well enough to treat his own wounds. So it was fortuitous that at that moment, the captain’s voice rose to the helm room.

"Toby," he said, "you need to finish swabbing these decks."

“Ah Pa, can’t it wait? Leon’s here!” Toby kvetched. “He’s about to show me his scar and everything.”

Leon was about to lose his mind, and against his better judgment—his judgment was sorely lacking now anyways—he decided to attempt to bribe his cousin. “Say, do you think your father would let you come ashore with us if you finish your chores?”

Had he really thought about the situation at hand, he wouldn't have suggested it. He didn't know where they were going, but where Jendra was involved, danger generally wasn't too far off. Nevertheless, Toby became very excited at the notion and left promptly to complete his chores. Leon attempted to force his guilt to the side and get to work.

He drew out his med kit, and began to suture the wound. Unfortunately, the pain distracted him; his hands were shakier than they should have been. He wound up stabbing himself a few times, and had to stifle his painful shouting. At this rate, Toby would soon be back to find out what all the ruckus was about. For that matter, Toby likely could have done better. Anyone could have. Leon wished he had packed a topical anesthetic in his med kit, but the doc wouldn’t sanction any medications stronger than a multivitamin.

"Are you alright in here?" Jendra asked, entering the cabin. "Can I help?"

Her eyes were so concerned. Leon almost forgot how poorly she had done in first aid.

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine,” He said. He didn’t seem too assured of that, however.

“Come now, your hands are so shaky you’ll likely cause yourself further injury. At least let me try,” she pleaded.

He gave in, handing her the needle. He cringed, closing his eyes, as she directed her needle.

“Knock it off,” she scolded. “You’re making me nervous.”

To his surprise, once she got started, she actually did rather well. Her technique wasn’t exactly painless, but it was abundantly better than he had been doing to himself. When he opened his eyes, he was impressed to see such flawless stitching. He couldn’t believe it had come from her. He regretted that he had closed his eyes. Perhaps he might have learned something.

"You never did so well in the classroom," he said.

“Well,” Jendra replied, “I didn’t care about those dummies.”

He wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about her comment. He settled on, “Thanks,” but thought it would be best to change the subject. “Are you feeling better?”

She looked puzzled for a moment. She may have forgotten that the last time they’d parted she’d left the room in tears. Either that or maybe she was hoping he had forgotten. Perhaps it hadn’t been the best subject to change to.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No,” she diverged, “it was nothing you did. I was a mess earlier. I should be apologizing to you. Ye know, Leon, you’re something wonderful. I see the way you care about your family, and how you care about me. I want you to know, it means a lot.”

“I offered to take Toby with us,” Leon interrupted. He knew immediately it had been a bad idea.

Jendra was silent for a moment, as though unsure how to respond. Leon had a feeling this was one of those times when Toby really shouldn’t come along. He wasn’t even certain where they were going. She hadn’t told him where she was taking him. But how could he dash his cousin’s hopes, particularly after bribing him? They would simply have to hope for the best, whatever that might mean.

And that was how Leon and Toby had wound up standing beside Jendra at the edge of town. She regretted that she hadn't told the captain. But she also knew that the captain would have tried to stop her. It seemed like the longest time since she had been frozen there.

Then, as if to break the ice, Toby took off running out past the city limit sign at a dead sprint. Jendra and Leon both gaped at his craziness. But they couldn’t simply allow him to run into danger. So they followed. As they drew closer to him, Jendra heard the most peculiar sound: Toby was laughing.

“Stop!” Leon shouted. “Stop, Toby!”

Toby slid down in the grass, still laughing wildly. As they surrounded him, their eyes met his.

"There, that wasn't so difficult, was it?" Toby asked.

“Toby,” Jendra said, with notable concern in her voice, “do you realize what we’ve just done?”

“Yeah,” Toby said. “I got tired of waiting for you, so I ran.”

“You ran past the wall,” Leon said. “We don’t belong out this way. It could be dangerous.”

“Yeah,” Toby teased, “and I could be the most fearsome pirate to ever sail the Tranoudor river. And you could be good with stitching yourself.”

“Hey!”

“But how will we know unless we try?”

“They could exile us,” Jendra said.

“Yeah, I know they could exile you for going where you don’t belong. But you didn’t choose to go where you didn’t belong. You tried to stop me. And I’m just a kid, so it’s your duty to do whatever you can to keep me safe. And the worst they can do is ground me. At least,” he gulped, “I hope that’s the worst they can do.”

“Well,” Jendra said, “we’ll just have to be more cautious on the return trip.”

“Right,” Leon and Toby agreed.

They glanced back where the sign stood, warning of great danger. And as they did so, they began to wonder what could be so dangerous out here. Well, it was too late now. They had to press on.

They hadn’t come far past the city limit sign, but even now, the surroundings were wild and untamed. The feral cries of birds could be heard in the rustle of the trees. Naturally, rounding the bend back toward the river brought the low rumble of the distant waterfall within range. The river had always run with a rumbling resonance, but even at this distance, the waterfall seemed much louder.

At least to Toby, it would be an entirely new experience to be on this side of the sign, though Leon didn't seem to remember either.
Jendra vaguely remembered it herself. She knew that she had seen all of this before, though it was far more wild and untamed than she remembered. Everything took on a curious excitement of novelty.

“Well,” Toby said. “Let’s get a move on. I don’t want to be late for dinner.” His stomach was grumbling already.

There is a story the Gwalf tell their children. It is full of fears of the unknown. But something wonderful is out there. And when Jendra was finally determined to find the wonder, she forgot about the fear and embraced the unknown.
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Fri Mar 1, 2019 6:00 am
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3: Something Wonderful

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There is a story the Gwalf tell their children. It is about a colossal creature called a Je’rax that inhabits the caverns beyond the underground city. A monstrous scorpion-like predator with razor-sharp pincers and fangs, its poison can send its prey into a state of paralysis. The Je’rax is all too eager to eat the fresh meat it has acquired while it still breathes. The story does not end happily ever after, at least not for the prey. Suffice it to say, this is not a bedtime story. Yet even before a Gwalfling squeezes his rear into a school desk chair, where his mind is molded to fit the ideals of his civilization more fully, he already knows this lesson all too well: stay inside the city! Never set foot outside its protective walls. For in so doing, you would entrust your life to the Je’rax’s mercy. And the Je’rax were never merciful. Into this fate Doc thrust his two pupils. And yet, Jendra departed eagerly. Leon too, so it would seem.

Doc shuddered to think what might become of them. But there had been no time for strategy – this creature, this human, was dying, fading away so quickly. How could he justify risking the lives of two children he loved for the life of an alien he didn’t even know? But Jendra had seen the flower before. He could tell by the glimmer in her eyes. That meant it had to be somewhere in the city, somewhere relatively safe. Jendra was adventurous, beyond curious, but even she knew better than to leave the city. He hoped. He became determined to do all he could to keep this human alive. If she died before the Gwalflings returned, it would all have been for nothing.

Jendra found the Je'rax tales to be of utmost entertainment. Of course, they weren't real. They were merely nightmares to frighten foolish children, and she wasn't some irrational child. Surely, had they been real, anyone who had encountered such a beast would have died long before the story could be shared. Ergo, Je'rax were not real. Fear itself was irrational. Most had obviously never reached this conclusion. If they had, Jendra was sure the world would have been a far better place.

She imagined what it might be like to feel the warmth of the sun in her fur again, to go to sleep beneath the stars, as she had always wanted. She only knew about stars from a book. The pictures had been so beautiful, but she imagined a thousand books could not contain the beauty of a night sky. She wished she had remained on the surface the first time. But she had been younger then, had more fear of predators. Well, she wouldn’t let the fear get to her this time. What precious little fear she had left was draining like an hour-glass with each passing day. To Jendra there had always been more fear in staying in this despicable city, this façade of paradise, than in leaving. She had less fear of the unknown than of never knowing what might really be out there.

The first time she ran away from home, the edge of that cavern was all the further she had gone. But it was enough to see sunlight; even now, the heat of the midday sun warmed her soul. She reached out to that world. She imagined peering out at the shadows on the ground where trees stood, ascending into the heavens. Beautiful. And at their base was a cluster of flowers, blue like the sky: the true sky and not this dirt to which everyone had become so accustomed. They appeared to bow though they did not wilt, just had a sort of sadness that cut to the heart, and made them quite the most beautiful flowers she'd ever set her eyes on. Nothing quite like them could be found growing in the cavern. They needed the open air to survive. Jendra imagined she was quite like a bell flower herself.

How much she wanted to see outside the cave! She wished she hadn't turned around and given up, had kept going the way her father had. She wondered how far he had traveled since he left, if he was still alive out there somewhere. The city wanted her to think he was dead. But she wanted to find him someday, to ask him why he had abandoned her, to show him that she had turned out all right. No thanks to him. She had even followed in his footsteps. She wondered if he ever regretted leaving her behind. She was so angry, so infuriated with him, but he was no doubt the bravest man she'd ever known. She didn't blame him for abandoning the city; she just wished he had brought her along.

“You’ll be safe with your mother,” she remembered him saying, on the day he said goodbye.

That was not very comforting then, and even less so since her mum’s passing. Since then, she had been stuck with Doc; could two Gwalf possibly be more different?

She remembered returning to Doc’s on the regretful night after she had given up. “Foolish girl! Where have you been? Don’t you know it’s dangerous in the city alone?” He scolded her, the way he always did.

Of course she knew; that's why she didn't stay in the city alone! But she allowed him to think she had been in the city; surely he would not have wanted to hear the truth. Keeping that secret meant a bit less grounding, a bit less imprisonment. Doc didn't understand her. He just thought of what a great guardian he was, to not let his Gwalfling stray too far from home, to not let her dreams grow too big. No one really understood: not even Leon. To be in such a large city, to be all alone. True, Leon was her closest friend. But would he really follow her to where the map stopped? Would he step a foot beyond? Could she let him? He had a family here, people who actually loved him, people who would really miss him. It would be nice to have someone like that. But perhaps it was better not to be tied down, to have the freedom to live, just what her father had wanted. It must have been worth it; he had never come back.

“You do know where we’re going, don’t you?” Leon asked.

If she told him she was going outside the city, would he still be so quick to follow her around? She didn’t want to find out just yet. So she said, “You’ll just have to see.”

Jendra hastened through the city, Leon following behind her. She didn't want to spend more time in this city than she had to. It smelled like — a city, of course. But that was not the worst of it. There were so many angry people. With road rage, they raced their electric cars and trucks down the streets, honking their horns. A trucker shook his fist and scolded her. "Look where you're going!"

“How rude!” Jendra rebuked.

“Maybe,” Leon suggested, “they’d be more considerate if you weren’t determined to wander across the busy highway.”

“You’re such a baby! It’s not that bad,” said Jendra. It wasn’t Jendra’s fault that when she ran headlong into traffic, Leon felt some strange pull to follow her.

A large truck passed by, missing them by inches, or so Jendra thought.

Leon shrieked in pain. “My tail!”

Okay, maybe it was worse than Jendra thought. Finally arriving on the other side of the highway, she and Leon stopped to catch their breath. He held his bushy tail out in front of him. Parting the fur, painted black with the tread marks of the large truck, he noted a bit of torn flesh. It was bleeding out; it looked atrocious, but—she was willing to bet—not as awful as it felt.

Leon looked up at Jendra. He was positively seething.

Her eyes were so misty. She looked about ready to cry. He knew she hadn't meant to hurt him. His face softened slowly. He was used to her antics getting her into trouble, but he'd never thought that one day he might get caught in the aftermath.

“Well, when we get aboard, at least you’ll have enough time to sew it back up.”

“Aboard?” Leon asked.

He’d been so anxious about crossing the highway that he didn’t realize they were coming to the wharf. Since the bridge had fallen into disrepair about a year ago, sinking into the river, the only way to cross to the other side now was via ferry.

An impatient crowd awaited the next ferry. Jendra saw the aggression in their eyes. She knew they weren’t necessarily angry at her, but those eyes seemed to burn a hole in her heart. More angry people, just what she needed.

“Hey,” Leon called, reaching out to take her hand. She was relieved to see a smile on his face. “I have an idea. Follow me.”

Now Jendra was lost, but she was thankful to leave this angry crowd. Where was he taking her?

“My Uncle Mortan,” he explained, “has his own river ferry. It’s not as popular with the locals - partly because it’s old and slow, and partly because it smells of fish. But I find it less crowded, and more peaceful for that matter.”

“It sounds perfect,” Jendra replied. Well, it didn’t really sound perfect. But she was sure it would be far better than getting on the same ferry with that angry mob.

They hurried down the docks, passing many pleasant-looking ferries. Some were older than others. She knew it wasn’t any of the newer ships, though. She wondered which it could be.

After a journey of quite some time, Leon pointed still further down the dock, to an old steamship. The paint was worn, but it looked to be in good repair otherwise. “There it is,” Leon said, “the SS Barnacle.”
It was actually rather a cute ship; cute didn’t seem to be the right word, Jendra thought. She finally settled on charming. That was important; she was sure it wouldn’t have gone over well with the captain, referring to his cute ship. She wasn’t sure why it wasn’t more popular among the river travelers.

As she drew closer, however, she caught the malodorous miasma of decaying plankton. Ah, then she understood. However, it wasn’t really a sordid odor; in fact, it seemed to her to be rather realistic of a seaworthy vessel. The outright rejection of this ferry was simply further evidence of the high-mindedness she despised in the people of Tranoudor City. She rather liked the ship, in spite of the smell. Cozy? No, she decided to stick with charming.

“What do you mean charming?” Uncle Mortan asked. “Young lady, this ship has been called many things: hideous, despicable, stinky, putrid, etcetera, etcetera. But you would only be the second to consider it charming.”

“Oh?” Jendra wondered. “Who’s the first?”

“Me,” Uncle Mortan said, chuckling heartily. He laughed so hard he wound up coughing. “Welcome aboard.” He directed her up the wooden plank but kept his nephew behind to talk. Jendra couldn’t help but wonder if he was talking about her.

Uncle Mortan didn't look very old, not really, at least not compared to Doc. She didn't know too many adult Gwalf, at least not nearly as many as gossiped about her. She was really pleased that Mortan didn't seem to know her or at the least didn't take what anyone else had said to him at face value. It was nice to be able to make a good impression for a change. She really liked him; she assumed the captain might perhaps be her father's age. From most of his features, she guessed not much over forty though his gray whiskers indicated perhaps a bit older than she thought.

“You picked a nice girlfriend, nephew. I like her.”

“Uncle,” Leon countered hastily, “she’s not my girlfriend…”

“Yet,” Uncle Mortan added with a devious smile. “Someday, lad, you’ll see.”

Leon rolled his eyes. He didn’t see Jendra as more than a friend. He would never see Jendra as more than a friend: a very good friend, but never more.

As Jendra came aboard, she saw a Gwalfling, perhaps six years younger than her, mopping the wooden floors. He peered up at her and grinned from ear to ear. Dropping the mop to the floor, he left it dangling over the bucket.

“Greetings. Name’s Toby,” he introduced himself, offering her a warm hand. “This is my pa’s boat.”

“Ah, so you’re the captain’s son,” Jendra replied. “That must make you Leon’s cousin.”

“You know Cousin Leon?” He asked, gaining even more excitement in his voice.

“He brought me here,” Jendra replied. “We’re on an adventure together.”

“Cool!” He shrieked, racing down the plank, leaping up to hug his cousin.

“Whoa, hi Toby,” Leon said.

Jendra watched as Leon pried away his cousin’s outstretched arms. Had she been in Leon’s shoes, she may not have been so hasty to escape. She thought of how nice it might have been to have a family like Leon’s, then vanquished the thought, though it was more difficult than usual. She realized it would never be that way. No sense in pointless dreams.
After several moments, Leon and Toby ascended the plank together. Toby didn’t seem to want Leon to leave his side. The Captain followed, unmooring the hawsers, and racing up the plank.

“I hope you two don’t mind if I do a little trolling while we travel,” the captain said. “I have a few more fish to catch.”

Since business had been slow, Uncle Mortan also worked as a fisherman for various restaurants throughout the city; he even filleted the fish himself, which helped to explain why his ferry smelled so strongly of fish guts, and also why his business had been so slow.

“Actually,” Leon began, thinking of the poisoned alien they’d been sent to rescue.

“Don’t worry about it Leon, we’ll be fine.” Jendra seemed to value time with Leon’s family more than he did.

“Hey Toby,” Uncle Mortan summoned, “while I’m baiting the hooks, why don’t you set the course?”

“Sweet,” Toby said, grasping Jendra’s hand and running toward the steps,

“I can show you how to steer the helm.”

“Just be careful,” Mortan added. “Remember last time.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Jendra and Leon followed Toby up the steps and into the helm room.
“I know all about ferries,” Toby said, “I’m going to join the family business someday. And if that don’t work out—Pa’s going belly up as it is—I can use my vast knowledge of ships to be a pirate.”

“I’m going to join my family business someday too,” Jendra replied.

“Oh?” Toby asked. “What’s that?”

"Running away," Jendra answered. She had meant it as a sort of joke until the words came out. She fell quiet, seemed offended by her own thoughts.

Toby looked at her curiously. “Runnin’ away? What’s that s’post ta mean?” Toby looked at Leon. His eyes told Toby that now was not the time for such questions.

Jendra suddenly left the helm room. She felt embarrassed at having said what she did. She felt like a total mess. Why did everything have to always be about her? Why do I always think of you wherever I go? Why do you haunt me this way? Why did you leave me? She gave way to tears.

“You all right, Miss?” Mortan asked. Setting a rod back into its holder, he cast away a fish and turned to look at her. Darn it, I should have kept that fish. He thought for a moment. Rude of me; there’s bigger problems here than that.

Jendra felt so embarrassed with herself, so infuriated. Of course, she wasn’t all right; she wondered if it was possible to feel all right. She didn’t want to hurt, to feel like a stray squig. She didn’t want to hate her life, regretting every moment that she wasn’t where she should have been. She didn’t want to look at families being happy and realize she would never see happiness. Most days, she managed to hold herself together better than this. But not today; what made today any different? — It was ten years ago today, she realized: ten years ago when her mother died.

“Sorry,” she said, breathing in to pull back the tears.

“Sorry for what, dear child? You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I’m having an off day,” she replied, drying her eyes.

“Well, we all have those dear. But it’s just a day. Tomorrow ye get a do-over.”

“Do-over?” Please, not another day like this one!

"Yeah, you know, take a mop and wash this day away." Mortan lifted the mop that Toby had abandoned on the floor and gave her the handle.

"Tomorrow ye start fresh, that's all. One day at a time. Heck, the whole day isn't itself spoiled yet. You just need to find something really wonderful to make up for the part you regret. And believe me dear, I've seen enough in this life to know that something wonderful is out there if you really search for it."

Something wonderful was out there. The thought echoed in her mind. Perhaps she simply wasn’t looking in the right place.
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Wed Feb 27, 2019 6:00 am
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2: Life on a High Wire

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To most people, Tranoudor was paradise. The city of Tranoudor overlooked a river teaming with life at the edge of a beautiful waterfall. It was a wonder how well the foliage grew from the crevices so deep beneath the ground. Flowers of radiant colors grew along the vines that decorated the cavern walls and the sides of buildings. When the lights shone, no one would have guessed this city was deep beneath the surface of Tranoudor. It was tranquil, safe, just the sort of world everyone wanted – everyone, that was, but Jendra Blake. To her, it was tedious and boring.

The outside universe was no secret to anyone curious enough to search. Many books on the subject filled the local library. They revealed the galaxy in all of its wonder; no beauty, no danger, failed to be explained somewhere in the pages of that library’s collection of books. But Jendra didn’t want to read about life in a book. She wanted to live. She didn’t want the safety of everyone’s paradise. She wanted to escape this constant feeling of being buried alive. Paradise was out there; she imagined her father would not have abandoned her for anything less. She’d long wished to escape this life, this prison. In her heart, she knew that paradise was real, and she would keep searching until she found it.

Suffice it to say, Jendra was not normal. Some thought she may be a threat to civilization; others were more certain. But most simply kept their distance, hoping that whatever contagion had poisoned her brain into this sort of tomfoolery would not take its toll on them as well. Most tried to be content with this life; in Gwalf society, there was a fine line between adventure and treason. And Jendra walked that line like a high wire. She pressed herself to every limit to find — whatever it was she was searching for. No one knew exactly: not even Jendra. And her truest friend Leon followed her whimsically, never dreaming that one day they would find themselves too deep into trouble to find their way back. This was not that day; although it might have been seen as the kick start down that destructive path: this day, when the usually agile Gwalfling took a misstep and stubbed her toe in the darkness of an old abandoned alleyway.

Falling forward, she braced herself on her hands. Finally, she came to a rest on her knees. Her eyes were sensitive enough to see what lay in front of her, but darned if she believed it: a large, unfamiliar, alien creature and it was dead. Jendra winced momentarily. Having lived most of her life beneath the doctor’s roof, she had seen death before. She didn’t like it. Not that it scared her, not really, but it did put her ill at ease. What was this creature doing in this part of the city that no one had visited for ages? Who cared so little as to abandon a body to rot like this?

Curiously, it seemed, the being had not been here very long. It had not begun to decay. Weirder still: “It’s breathing!” said Leon. “It doesn’t have a pulse, curious enough, but it’s alive. Breathing slowly, sporadically even. Perhaps a coma. But why no pulse?”

He had been tightly grasping the being’s elbow, searching to no avail. Gwalf had a notable vein that ran down their furry arms, and the pulse was most perceptible in the elbow joint for a Gwalf, partly because the fur was finer. But that was not the case for whichever creature this happened to be. She hadn’t much by way of fur, and he was getting no results from squeezing her elbow.

Leon was Doctor Grisham Hedgewik's star pupil. He would likely be Tranoudor's next doctor, when Doc's old arthritic bones finally failed him. He would have a bright future if he learned to keep his distance from ‘that girl' his mother always warned him about. The funny thing was Leon needed Jendra as much as she needed him. In days when she injured herself— and it did happen given her propensity for trouble—she needed a good doctor. And Leon learned a lot from bracing Jendra's wounds. After all, Jendra seemed to like leaping from high places, and she was not the sort to fall and bruise her ego. When Jendra did hurt herself, it was usually significant enough to warrant practice. Perhaps all Leon had learned from being at Jendra's side was what made him so successful in the classroom. Yet, though he was Doc's star pupil, he had never seen a being quite like this. She really perplexed him.

“How can this thing be breathing without a heartbeat? I don’t get it!” He grumbled. If he couldn’t get a solid grasp of the creature’s vital signs, he couldn’t begin to assess her condition. He knew that in her predicament, with his lack of knowledge, he could really do more harm than good.

“Jendra, could you please…?”

“No,” She resisted. “I don’t want him to know.”

The worst thing that could happen, at least in Jendra’s mind, was to let the Doc know she had yet again ambled off into the abandoned unknown where she didn’t belong. He would probably ground her. And all grounding ever did was enforce boundaries that shouldn’t exist to begin with. It wasn’t fair.

“Get over yourself, please! This creature’s life could be hanging in the balance. Besides, when Doc sees whatever this is, he’ll probably be too shocked to think about you anyway.”

“Fine,” Jendra agreed, broodingly, “I’ll do it.” But she didn’t have to like it.

Jendra scurried back into town, racing from ledge to ledge of the abandoned buildings, as quickly as her little legs could carry her. She didn't want to be anywhere near the town of Tranoudor; but since life—some sort of life anyway—was at stake, and she'd already caved into handling this drudgery, there was no time to dawdle. That was fine for in her estimation there wasn't much to see here anyway. City life really wasn't her thing. Too many people, racing through life. Electric taxis caught up between one another in the streets, angry horns blaring ‘Get Out Of My Way!’ – Paradise? As she saw it, the others didn’t want to be here either. She realized she felt, for but a moment, much like the citizens of Tranoudor; she took no enjoyment in that feeling. But she’d get over it, as soon as she could put this inconvenience behind her. That gave her ever more reason to hurry. And hightail she did, right into Doc’s office.

The door chimed. The sound always made her cringe – sort of like Doc's claws on a chalkboard during the classes she couldn't find an excuse to skip. But it wasn't so much the sound that bothered her; more the realization that any moment Doc would appear from his inner office, replace his freshly dusted glasses, and gaze upon his new guest. And he never seemed very excited to see her. Just because he had taken her in didn't mean they had to feel any sort of bond. She never felt that way, at least. She was sort of surprised to see him readily collect his coat and cane from the rack, without so much as a glare.

“Hey,” she stammered. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here or yell or something?”

“We’ll have plenty of time for that when we get back,” he replied. His voice was gruff; it suited him.

“Back from where?” she demanded.

“I’m sure you’re going to show me,” he said calmly. She could have sworn she’d seen him yawn. He was way too tranquil.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you came to this office of your own power,” Doc explained, “and nothing seems out of place. This is more than I can usually say for you. And you’re not the sort to come here to chat. So something somewhere must have gone TERRIBLY WRONG.” His deduction felt to Jendra quite like an avalanche of stone, and if so, his last words felt quite like her body was being crushed to death.

“Now,” he made an attempt to soften his voice, “we could continue discussing the repercussions of your newest actions, but a doctor’s first priority is the life of his patient, so we’d best be off.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Doc said, “after I sharpen my throwing knives.” Doc only said that last part in Jendra’s imagination though she was quite sure it had been implied.

Jendra grimaced and grumbled, but she couldn't deny that Doctor Hedgewik was spot on. He seemed to know her almost too well. Where she stood, that was never a good sign. So she stormed out of his office in a huff, the doctor following briskly behind her.

He followed her over a bridge, crossing a small creek, and out toward the very edge of town. Out beyond the part of town deemed safe for a Gwalfling. Most adult Gwalf never traveled this way. And Grisham never once scolded her, but she knew it was coming. They passed a number of abandoned and condemned old buildings—the safer way, at Doc’s insistence—most seeming about to cave in, with holes worn into the walls by mold and time. The path grew steadily more dangerous the further they walked. She had never stopped to realize how dangerous being out here really was when she wasn’t being followed by the old man with his walking cane. But he kept up with her, in spite of a noticeable limp.

There knelt Leon, peering over his patient.

“Do you know what this is?” Doc asked.

“Well, it sure isn’t Gwalf,” Jendra replied.

Doc’s glare warned her to watch her mordant tone. Jendra had come to expect that look, as though it had been his most natural expression.
“They’re called humans,” Doc began to explain. “This is one of their females.”

“She has no pulse,” Leon repeated. He’d been searching helplessly for several minutes.

“Try placing your fingers on the lump in the middle of her wrist,” Doc recommended.

To Leon, it seemed the most curious suggestion. “What good would that—? Ah.”

She had a pulse. It was significantly slow compared to a Gwalf’s, but she was a human. He looked lost; he hadn’t thought about that before.
“Aren’t you glad, young man, that most doctors your age are only expected to treat practice dummies?”

Doc’s attempt at levity did seem to appease Leon. He watched carefully as Doc examined the patient himself.

“Well,” Doc placed his stethoscope on the young woman’s heart. “Yes, it is markedly slow for a human’s.”

After drawing his flashlight from his medicine bag, Doc placed the thumb and index finger of his hand on her eye-lids and gently forced her eyes open. Her eyes did not dilate. “It seems to be a coma, but I’ll have to do additional tests.”

Grisham lifted her head gently. She had notable red lumps on the back of her neck. “Not good at all!” He acknowledged.

“What is it?” Jendra asked.

“She’s been poisoned.”

Jendra’s expression turned to horror. “Can we still help her?”

"If you hurry," Grisham replied. "If this is what I think it is, she doesn't have much time. I'm not pleased to rely on you so heavily, Jendra. However, of anyone in this world, regrettably, you're the most likely to know."

Grisham began to describe a flower with a lengthy, narrow green stem, with almost iridescent blue petals that sagged down to appear sort of like a bell. As he described it, she nodded emphatically. "I've seen that flower before, but I can't say where."

“You don’t know?” the doc asked.

“Oh, I know,” Jendra replied, hazarding to smile. “I just can’t say.”

“Young lady,” Grisham loomed. “When you get home, we’ll talk at length about the repercussions that will be heaped upon you.”

“When I get home?” she asked.

“Well,” said Grisham, “someone has to get that flower.”

She could have hugged him at that moment if she had been the sort to give hugs, if he had been the sort to want a hug. It would have been very awkward for both of them. She settled for giving him a sort of maniacal smile that indicated her readiness to comply.

"Hurry," Grisham ordered. "I have no way of knowing how long she can endure this poison. But it can't possibly be very long."

Doctor Hedgewik needn’t tell Jendra twice. She was already gone.
A quiet knock came on the door of the small studio hotel room at Granny Smith’s inn. Wimbly had dosed off, stroking the plumed crest of his Tyroth companion’s head by reflex as he snored. He probably wouldn’t have stirred if the bird hadn't summoned him with a high whistle. He awoke from the chair where he had been sleeping awkwardly. Human chairs were not made for Noussa, so he had to sleep with his body contorted. His tongue dangled flaccidly from his mouth, slobbering down his black chin. He stood up, tugged on a shirt over the bony plates of his back, and buttoned the shirt down his smooth black chest, as the Tyroth alighted on his shoulder. He hastened toward the door as quickly as he could. Unfortunately, in so doing, he knocked over the lamp with his thick blue tail.

“How clumsy,” he mumbled.

He needed to step delicately, lest his gigantic bare feet should suction awkwardly to the wooden floor. He’d already tripped himself a few times, another of the many reminders that he was a Noussa in a human world.

“My prince!” Wimbly attempted to exclaim as he opened the door wide. He talked impulsively with his tongue hanging out, so what came out couldn’t really be described as words, but the prince had grown to understand him anyway. “Welcome back!”

Prince Jasper had grown up with Wimbly. The Noussa had become more than simply a manservant. Jasper took no offense to the Noussa’s bizarre behavior; in fact he hardly noticed.

“The strangest thing just happened, Wimbly!” Prince Jasper said as he entered the room. “I was heading out for my moonlight stroll when I bumped into – well, I’m really not certain who I bumped into, but he seemed to be carrying – someone else. I apologized, but he never responded, as though he didn’t want to be seen. It was most – curious.”
The prince became distracted as he suddenly noticed a series of flashing lights passing across the wall.

“I knew something was astir!” he said assuredly, as he approached the window, drawing back the thin curtains.

He took his cloak from the tall coat rack by the door and took scarcely a moment to drape it over his shoulders as he departed from the room again.

The tyroth trilled anxiously. Wimbly gently stroked his companion’s plumage with a thick blue finger. “Don’t worry, Essi,” Wimbly comforted the bird in a soothing voice. Albeit, with his wide tongue still hanging out, not much of what he said made any sense. Essi simply turned her neck, glancing at him curiously.
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Mon Feb 25, 2019 6:00 am
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1: Vanishing Point

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Gavyn charged through the corridors of the castle, his bare clawed feet slipping across the golden tiles. He managed to keep his balance, without losing his grip on the comatose young woman in his arms. He ran through the castle doors and out into the streets of Aerelon. The lantern light quickly faded into the darkness. The Scarabs chased after him untiringly. An NME General flew in behind them taking aim at Gavyn with its blaster arm.

Rounding the corner into the market, Gavyn kicked over a pyramid of wine barrels, hoping to slow down the robots. But as the Scarabs slowed down, the General found the opening he was looking for. Instinctively, Gavyn tossed the maiden high into the air, and barrel-rolled out of the line of fire. He dove back just in time to catch her in his arms. He glanced back at the General, knowing it had a clear line of fire. Luckily, by that time the clamor had drawn an audience.

“Quiet!” shouted a human from the nearby apartment, splashing a bucketful of icy water out the window. Though the water did little damage, it was just the distraction Gavyn needed.

Shifting quickly to his feet, the Lizan recollected the comatose maiden and sprinted away. Though the robots attempted to pursue, he blended into the shadowed alleyway and escaped their notice. He continued to run until at last he found himself in the shadows of Granny Smith’s Inn. He listened carefully, breathed deep, searching high and low to be sure he hadn’t been followed before he stepped out into the night. He’d been listening for engines, sniffing for oil, so it came as quite a surprise when he walked right into a young man exiting from the inn. Gavyn fell awkwardly, struggling to keep the young woman in his arms. Startled, the man searched for him in the darkness. Gavyn stood just beyond the shadows, a lot closer than the man realized.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” the man said. To Gavyn’s immense relief, he had a very kind voice, a refreshing change from the way this night was going.

Gavyn didn't respond. At that moment, he was trying desperately to disappear. Even from what little the human had seen, he must have seemed to be carrying a cadaver through the city. That was bound to cause some suspicion. "Are you okay?" the man asked.[Inserted: At][Deleted:In] So he was aware of Gavyn’s presence.

Accustomed to the dark, Gavyn could see the man’s clean-shaven face. His eyes were soft. He seemed genuinely concerned, but Gavyn had learned never to take anyone at face value.

“Well, sorry to have tripped you,” the man added as he turned back into the inn.

Gavyn shifted back to his feet and again pulled the woman into his arms. “It’s a wonder how well you’re holding up,” he said, “all the falling I’ve put you through tonight.”

“I thought so,” said the man, stepping back outside. His voice had hardened. “Who are you carrying? What’s going on?” he demanded. But by then, Gavyn had turned tail, dashing into the darkness.

At last free from the unwelcome audience, Gavyn slowed again. He had a keen predatory instinct. He was naturally stealthy. But even amid this darkness, he knew that helping the woman escape wouldn’t be easy. He had envisioned this night very differently. He had intended to take her to the human colony on Tundorsha where she could rest until she recovered from the poison passing through her veins. She could have taken on a new identity and started a new life there amid her own kind, never to learn that her treacherous step-mother wanted her dead. It would have been so much better than what he was about to do, but at the moment, he didn’t feel there was any other way.

Robots were beginning to fill the streets. He took advantage of what little time he had left to hasten toward the world portal. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a set of three keys and examined them. It was difficult to make out the lettering in the dark, as he tried to feel the engravings.

He took the Tundorsha portal key and unlocked the gateway just as a pair of Scarabs rounded the corner. He seized the key and stepped through, just before the portal closed behind him. He fell to the ground, shielding her in his arms, as a small blast of energy passed through the portal after him. The shot sounded in the distance, having reached its end in the nearby mountains. It appeared rather beautiful reflecting off the ice. But beauty was the last thing on Gavyn's mind. For Tundorsha was treacherously cold, even more-so for the cold-blooded Lizan.
The ice chilled his bare feet, and his knees shook as he scrambled to find the next key, the exposed muscles of his arms and hands aching. Frostbite was setting in quickly. The next key, provided he could feel the right one,—his fingers were numb and slowly dying from the chill—would open the door to a backwater planet called Tranoudor. He hoped it would be warmer there.

No one had taken an interest in Tranoudor for years. The young woman would be safe there, at least until she awoke. He opened the portal and carried her through. Kneeling, he laid her gently on the ground. He whispered something barely audible, something she likely wouldn’t have been able to understand in her comatose state anyway. Then he departed. He knew it would be far safer for her here, where no one would come looking for her. He was sure he had done her a great service in erasing her memory, so she wouldn’t put herself in grave danger by trying to find her way home.

Crossing his arms, he rubbed his shoulders vigorously to build warmth, preparing for his inevitable return to the icy world. The chill continued through his toes, and the grassy hills of Ress Janoa called to him.

Stepping back through to Tundorsha, as the chill set in once again, he struggled to draw out his Ress Janoa key and work the keyhole mechanism. Finally, he traveled safely to the much warmer, safer climate where he could disappear. He knew the robots would shortly arrive through the portal to Tundorsha and search for him. In fact, he counted on it. Their arrival in Tundorsha would erase the energy signature left behind when Ress Janoa’s portal closed. He hoped the elaborate puzzle he had established might be significant enough to keep them searching for him and the princess for a very long time. He didn’t mind if the robots found him, or even if they tried to kill him. He was ready to fight them now, with the young woman safely out of the way. But he didn’t stay around to fight; looking for fights really wasn’t his style. So he began making tracks across the rolling hills.
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Sat Feb 23, 2019 6:00 am
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