“At least it’s warmer,” I muttered, breaking the dumbfounded silence. The jungle trees were huge, their branches low and weathered-smooth. Green was the dominant color, that much was clear. Some of the jungle trees had giant, dark green leaves and some had smaller, lighter green leaves. “We should be careful. I’ve read about jungles; they’re really dangerous.” I said louder, Austin and Kenna shooting me confused glances.
“You read?” They asked at the same time, surprising each other.
“You don’t?” I answered, trying to stand. I stumbled and fell forward, caught by Kenna when my nose was inches from the ground. She pulled me upright.
“Are you okay to walk?”
“I wouldn’t be trying if I couldn’t, now would I?” I snapped. Hurt flashed across her expression. “Sorry,” I apologized quickly. “This jungle has me on edge. I’ve read about horrible things happening here.” Brushing her hand off my shoulder, I staggered to the edge of the jungle. “Once we go in here, there’s no turning back.” I warned them, leaning on a jungle tree.
“Where would we turn back to?” Kenna answered, striding past the tree line. A smile tugged at my lips but then I focused.
“We better find somewhere to camp,” Austin said, pointing up. My eyes followed his gaze; the sun was high in the sky.
“We could explore a little, it’s only a little after midday.” Austin nodded and we headed into the humid jungle. Wet leaves soaked my pants after a couple minutes, making me shake my head in disgust. I was slower than the other two, because of my injury, but they kept my pace. Soon, we saw fog ahead, covering the view beyond. “Great,” I sighed but we pushed on. Once enveloped in the mist, I struggled to see. My hands found Kenna’s shoulders and Austin’s found mine. We walked in a straight line, the only visible thing being the back of the person in front of us. Kenna swerved to avoid jungle trees at the last second, causing me to be swept with her and a shoot of pain to run across my chest. Finally, the fog gradually grew lighter and we could easily see feet ahead until we got through the mist entirely. I looked up, searching for the sky, but instead I saw hundreds of vibrant blue, black-spotted frogs above us. Before I could stifle it, I gasped. The other two followed my gaze and they too, were astonished. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the wonderful sight, all those luminescent amphibians creating a canopy of blue and black. And then it hit me. “It’s dark,” I whispered, glancing furtively around. “Guys,” I shook them to get their attention. “We need to make a fire. Like, right now.” We gathered sticks and began making a small stack of them. Austin pulled out a match box and lit one, using it to light the fire. It started just as growls erupted around us. I froze, my entire body rigid in fear. “Oh no,” I whispered. I heard a whoosh of wind and I ducked as a Striped Cheeguar flew over my head. It slammed into a tree whose leaves the frogs had been sitting on. Frogs dropped onto the ground with splats, one landing in Kenna’s open mouth. She spluttered and spat, the frog leaping away.
“Oh my God!” She hissed, clearly disgusted. She wiped her tongue as the big cat clan attacked again. Rising stiffly, I drew a dagger from my belt. Austin was already on his feet, throwing knives expertly at the circling cats.
“Aim for their eyes!” I said, holding my dagger in front of me as we pressed our backs together to form a defensive triangle. Kenna had a metal staff in her hands as I waved my dagger back and forth to ward them off. Austin launched knife after knife, some hitting their targets and some being deflected or avoided. The cats began slowly retreating as more and more of Austin’s sharp blades hit their mark. Yowls of pain echoed around the jungle before the clan raced off into the trees. I sighed in relief. “We did it,” I breathed, a big smile crossing my face. “You did it. Nicely done, Austin.” I grasped his hand and hugged him, clapping his back. When we turned to Kenna, we found her on the ground, her skin pale as death and thin lines of foam on her mouth. I knelt beside her quickly, groaning as my stitches stretched. “She’s been poisoned!” I murmured, thinking hard and reliving memories of the book I read on jungles. Austin was shaking her trying to get her to wake but she wouldn’t move. “The frogs,” I realized. “The frogs, Austin! They were poisonous! We need to find one and make a potion that would cure her.” I rummaged through the leafy jungle floor and, while Austin kept silent watch over Kenna, my hands found something slick and unmoving. I wrapped my sleeve around my hand and picked it up. I brought it into the campfire’s light. I felt for a pulse on the tiny frog for many moments before I was satisfied it was dead. I found a flat piece of bark so I placed the dead frog on the dark material.
“Austin, do you still have any knives?”
“Do you need one?”
“Would I be asking if I didn’t?”
“No need for the attitude, man.” I heard him draw a knife and a second later, the blade whipped through the air to land on the frog’s head.
“Show-off,” I muttered, pulling the blade out. As I began the gross job of shaving the skin off the frog, the details probably best left unsaid, Austin shuffled — probably closer to Kenna — creating a lot of noise. I stifled a snappy remark.
“She’s not looking good,” he observed.
“Obviously not,” I replied through clenched teeth.
“What is your problem?” He demanded. My hands curled into fists. The truth was I felt so full of negative energy that it needed a release. Not on Austin, I thought, repeating the words over and over. He’s your friend. “And what on earth are you doing?” His shadow loomed over me, blocking most of my light. The self-control within me broke.
“Austin, you better hold your tongue and move or I’ll move you myself,” I warned, the blade in my hand trembling from my pent up frustration.
“Excuse me? I’m not the one who needs to hold my tongue.” I was on my feet in an instant, facing him with unchecked anger.
“I thought I told you to move,” I growled. His arms crossed over his chest.
“I don’t take orders from you!” He snapped, irritated fire in his eyes. I shoved him backward, making him stumble.
“Well, too bad. I’m trying to save Kenna’s life and fix up a potion to cure her and what are you doing? Nothing!”—I poked his chest twice, pushing him back farther, toward the fire—“This life or death, Austin! Of our ally, our friend!” I threw my hands in the air and whipped around, crouching and about to continue shaving the frog. His hands pulled me up and turned me back to him just before he punched me. In the face. I staggered back, only to slide on the dead frog and go flying backward. The air whooshed out of my lungs as my back hit the ground. Austin straddled me and punched my face again. And again. And again. He didn’t stop. I coughed between punches. Red liquid streamed from my nose as he continued punching me. I was defenseless because I had come to my senses and didn’t want to fight back. Finally, when his knuckles were dripping with my blood, he halted. His eyes widened at my bloodied face and he scrambled back.
“Oh my gosh,” he whispered. “I-I’m so sorry, Milo!”
I wiped my face with my sleeve and sat up. I leaned forward so my bleeding nose would bleed onto the ground and not my lap.
“It’s ok,” I responded quietly. “We all need to punch something sometimes.” I offered a small smile but it was sad. “You still have the first aid kit?”
“Yeah,” he untucked his shirt and pulled out the little box, handing it to me. “How are you ok with what I just did?” I opened it and rummaged through the contents.
“I feel heroic.” My attempt at humor failed.
Finding what I was looking for — a syringe — I took a bit of the frog’s poison from it’s slippery, shaved skin.
“What’s that for?” Austin asked.
“I need jungle tree sap.” I ignored his question, setting the syringe carefully on top of the first aid box and rising. I walked stiffly toward the nearest tree and dove the knife Austin gave me earlier into the smooth trunk. As a drip of sap came rolling down from the hole, I spoke to Austin: “Hurry, bring the syringe!” He picked it up and it nearly slipped from his hands. “Carefully,” I added as he strode to me and gave it to me. I poked the needle into the tree’s hole and extracted it’s sweet-smelling sap. I strode back to Kenna, shaking the syringe slowly to mix the nearly-done potion. I withdrew some of the frog blood as well and swirled the three substances together. Reaching Kenna, I placed a hand on her ghostly pale forearm. Beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat. I shook the syringe vigorously and plunged it into her arm.
“Whoa, wait, won’t that kill her?” Austin asked, surprise and anxiety in his voice. I shook my head, pushing the potion into her bloodstream. Within several tense moments, her skin gradually gained color and her eyes flew open.
“Milo? What happened?” She asked hoarsely, sitting up. Austin let out a relieved breath and I gave a long sigh, reassured that she’d be alright.
“You were poisoned by a frog,” I spoke first.
“No, I mean to your face. I remember passing out and all but you’re all bloody.” Austin glanced at me and I gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“We…got in a fight.” She opened her mouth but I was quicker.
“I’m ok. I’ll be ok. We were worried about you.” She smiled a little at that.
“Well, I think I am fine now, thanks to you.” By some unspoken consent, we all group-hugged. Just then, a few thin streams of light broke through the canopy and surrounded us. I gasped and we all looked around in wonder. “Wow,” Kenna breathed.
We rose and turned in a circle, awed. Then my focus came back and I said, “We should get going.” After stomping out the embers and scattering the remains, we were on the move.
We walked for hours, still heading west, but paused when we saw a change in the scenery. The jungle trees were now replaced by oak and maple trees.
“Did we…?” Kenna asked, seemingly frightened to say it aloud.
“We finished the third Trial!!” I yelled excitedly jumping in the air, grunting in pain when my side protested as I landed. We made camp after a little more walking and were about to settle down for the night when…
They came when dark had fallen. Stealthy as shadows; they were upon us before we knew it. It was two against three, and we could’ve easily won if the girl wasn’t a magnificent fighter. And if the archer hadn’t cut us down. We were all shot in a leg or arm, knocked unconscious and wakened in an abandoned building. The girl we had seen had pulled off her wig and mask, revealing a pale face and pure white hair. The archer was probably the blond boy, carrying a compound bow, quiver, finger-protectants and all.
“I’m Emma,” the girl said, her voice like melting honey. “We are here to offer a deal.” She paused and glanced at the boy.
“I’m Zach. We have been stuck in the Trials for two years, waiting for someone to pass the third and come to the fourth. We’re from Town L.” He ripped the duck tape from my mouth and told me, “If you help us get out, we’ll help you go home.”