I scoffed. “What can you offer that we need? We’ve been doing fine on our own.” Austin mumbled into his tape and I glanced at him. He glared daggers, his expression clearly saying accept their help you idiot! “Ok,” I said, looking down. “We’ll help you.” They untied us and Austin and Kenna ripped the tape on their mouths off simultaneously. I stood and stretched. “But where are we, exactly?”
“Our base.” Zach said and I shot him a quizzical look.
“Sanje Warehouse,” Emma put in. “We found it when we first got here.”
“How have you survived?” Kenna asked, looking around the desolate place with wonder.
“We know a few things and we’ve learned a lot.” Emma replied and I saw her staring at Kenna with an intense gaze. When she noticed that I was watching, she blushed and glanced away. I tilted my head, then shrugged. Austin walked to Zach, hesitantly admiring his bow.
“Like what?” Kenna trailed a finger along the warehouse wall. She sneezed and a cloud of dust flew off the wall. She coughed and backed away. I hid a smile.
“Like what plants and animals are poisonous and edible, what dangers lie in the forest, what to do if we get lost on a hunting or foraging trip.”
“That’s so cool!” I sighed, shaking my head.
“How are we going to get out of here?” I inquired loudly, drawing everyone’s gaze.
“Straight to the point, are we?” Zach said.
“Obviously,” I said irritably.
“Milo, can I talk to you for a sec?” Austin whispered, suddenly at my side. He pulled me aside, far enough that the rest couldn’t hear us. “You need to start being nicer. These two kids have survived two years in the Trials. They know a lot more about this than you, Kenna, and me combined. We’ll never get out of here if we don’t gain their trust and we can’t do that with you snapping at them every second.”
“I didn’t snap at them,” I grumbled.
“Good. Now, can you treat them with kindness or not? Because if not you should-”
“I can.” I interrupted before he could finish. He studied me for a while, making me shuffle my feet uncomfortably.
“Alright. I’ll take your word for it,” he finally said, leaving me as he returned to the group.
“Great.” I kicked the ground before joining Austin. I glanced at Zach.
“Sorry I snapped at you,” I said quietly. He tilted his head, gaze curious and expression smooth.
“Apology accepted.” Emma and Kenna were deep in a conversation about herbs so they didn’t hear. “What town are you from, Milo?”
“Q,” I replied, barely noticing Austin move away as I studied Zach. Not quite tall but close, blond hair, amber eyes. He smirked as we both realized I was staring. I blushed and quickly inquired, “Do you teach archery?”
“You wanna learn?” I bit my lip and nodded. “Crossbow or compound bow?” He led me to a dark corner and got two bows from the shadows.
“Which is which?” He lifted one that looked sorta like a gun.
“Crossbow. Easier, more accurate, less work. Crossbows are like cheating though. This” —he set the crossbow down and held up what I assumed to be the compound bow— “Is a compound bow. Harder, takes lots of practice, more work. Compound bows are better, in my opinion, but it’s up to you.”
“Well, if you like the compound bow more, can I try the crossbow?” He gave a small smile before carefully placing the compound bow down. He handed me the crossbow and moved to my left.
“Put the arrow in…” He produced an arrow—out of nowhere, it seemed—and placed it in my hand. He guided my hand along as he taught me how to knock the arrow, pull the bow into firing position, and aim. He didn’t let me fire though, at least not in the warehouse. He took me outside and to a small clearing a two-minute walk away toward the sunset. Shadows lengthened as he halted. He moved to my right side and pointed to a tree about 10 yards ahead. “Aim…” He took my hand and put it in the right spot on the crossbow, saying I wouldn’t hurt myself that way. “Fire,” He whispered in my ear. I looked down the bow and had my finger on the trigger. I inhaled deeply, calming my fast heartbeat. I held that breath and stared at the tree before pulling the trigger. The arrow flew through the air so fast, I couldn’t see it until with a thump it landed right where I had wanted it. “Nice!” He praised, leaving me to get the arrow. I released my pent up breath. “You did great, Milo.”
“Thanks,” I said as he came back and handed me the arrow.
“Did it go where you saw?”
“Yeah. It went so fast, though! I can’t believe it!”
“Do you want to try again?”
“Yeah, if that’s ok with you.”
“Absolutely. I’ll get my quiver and bow and the quiver for the crossbow. Be right back.” He took off in the direction of the warehouse and I stared after him, a little dumbfounded.
But soon he returned, a quiver strapped on his back and carrying the compound bow in one hand, the crossbow quiver in the other.
I watched him shoot a few times, admiring his form. Then I knocked my own arrow, aiming where I aimed last time. After I fired though, it whistled past the tree, not even grazing the trunk. I huffed in annoyance, and Zach giggled. I glared at him.
“Hey, we don’t get it perfect on the first day. Keep practicing, you’ll get better, I promise. I can see your natural talent and it would be a waste not to enhance it.”
“You say that like I’m a weapon.”
He paused, considering. “Well I mean…You are. In a way. But I’d rather call it something like a protector, you know? Because if we were in danger, you’d protect me with the skills I taught you.”
I titled my head in confusion. “I don’t think I follow.”
He shrugged. “Don’t think too hard on it. I’m not that good at explaining things.”
We dropped into a somewhat comfortable silence and kept shooting. I missed more than half the time at first but after a while, my shots got more accurate. I saw Zach smiling out of the corner of my eye and it must’ve been contagious because I smiled too.
“How come your arrows are longer than mine?” I asked absently as I loaded the crossbow once more. He glanced at me, in the middle of knocking and arrow to the compound bow, with a mock duh expression.
“‘Cause my bow is bigger than yours, dummy,” he replied good-naturedly with a playful smack on my shoulder. I took on a mock indignant expression and smacked him back. He laughed, setting his bow down and unstrapping his quiver. I set the crossbow and its quiver next to his and then he launched toward me and we both fell to the ground, rolling around as we wrestled.
“Ha!” Zach said, pinning me under him. I swatted at his face but he ducked away. He grinned triumphantly.
A human howl of pain suddenly pierced the air. I knew instantly the voice. “Austin!?” I pushed Zach away and stood but tripped over the bows before standing again. Crashing through the undergrowth, I came across a whimpering Austin, scooting backward and clutching his ankle. I rushed to him; his glassy gaze met mine, uncomprehending. His eyes rolled back and he fainted. My arms slipped behind his back before his head could crash on the ground. Zach came hurtling through the forest loudly and my eyes snapped to his. “What happened to him?” Zach moved closer, inspecting Austin’s ankle.
“It seems he’s been bitten by a Xapern Ant. We need to get out of here before they come back.” He scooped Austin up and faltered before regaining balance.
“Xapern Ant?” I echoed worriedly. “Is that bad?” He didn’t respond as we headed East, toward the warehouse. Suddenly, the sun went beneath the horizon and we were quickly surrounded by pitch black.
“Follow the sound of my footsteps,” Zach whispered. I did, following close behind him in fear of getting lost.
When we returned to the Sanje Warehouse, Kenna broke off mid-sentence and gasped. Emma looked over her shoulder and ran to us, Kenna close behind.
“Xapern Ant?” Emma asked after glancing at Austin’s ankle.
“Can someone tell me what the heck a Xapern Ant is?” I growled angrily.
“They’re giant black-and-red ants, about a fourth the size of this warehouse, and their offensive sting is deadly.” My eyes widened. That’s big. “We need Marseyellow Woodmint, Kenna. You remember their shape?” Kenna nodded seriously. “They have yellow flowers and they live about a mile West from here. If we don’t get two plants by sunrise tomorrow, Austin dies.” Silence followed those ominous words. Then time resumed and everyone lurched into action. Kenna received a flashlight from Emma and Zach laid Austin carefully on the floor.
“We don’t have much time; Austin’s getting worse. Milo, you should go with Kenna. I’ll give you my crossbow and if you see a Xapern Ant, shoot for the antennae first, then the eyes. Once it’s smell is gone, it relies on heat signatures from its eyes.” Zach handed me the crossbow —after loading it— and strapped the quiver around my shoulder. “Now go. We’ll look after Austin until you return.” I shifted the quiver and nodded to Kenna. “Hurry!” He called as we jogged to the doorway. I looked back for a second before giving my entire focus to the task ahead.
“Wait,” Kenna said, pausing mid-step. We were what seemed like a mile away from Sanje, in an area densely populated with ancient oak trees-. Leaves crunched underfoot. Kenna’s flashlight lit up the forest, passing a large yellow bush. The light swerved back. “There!” She exclaimed, leaping toward it. She threw me the flashlight and I juggled it for several moments before it finally fell. I sighed and picked it up, holding it at an angle where Kenna could see the plant. As she broke off a couple stems, I heard a loud crunch. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. Oh no.
“Kenna, whatever you do, don’t look back.” I said slowly, my flashlight-holding hand shaking in fear. She continued breaking stems as I quietly turned with the flashlight. A huge black ant with red stripes and two red eyes with a murderous look in them stood in front of me. I lifted the crossbow but the ant’s antennae swept it aside.
“You think your puny weapons can hurt me?” I gasped as the voice filled my head.
“You can talk?!” I stumbled back in shock. Its jaws tilted in a gruesome, toothless smile.
“Of course I can, human.” I paused as its jaws clacked. It swung its abdomen around anti-clockwise as I ducked and leaped to the left, sliding to the crossbow. I gripped it and aimed and fired. The ant screeched in pain and scrambled back as its right antennae flew—with the arrow in it—into a nearby oak tree. “You…pay!” It boomed. Kenna’s hand suddenly slid in mine and I looked to her. She held the flashlight in her open hand as we bolted back the way we came. The Xapern Ant’s six legs came crashing after us, the fear urging us faster. The flashlight swayed in Kenna’s hand as we pushed into a quicker sprint. I turned, breaking the hold, and knocked another arrow. I lett the arrow fly and the beastly ant cried out, flipping backward. Its furious roar shook the oaks trees. I was panting hard, my mouth parched, when we finally came into the pine forest. I glanced at Kenna before realizing she was ahead. I put on a burst of speed.
Suddenly, she swerved to the left. I rammed into the warehouse a second later. Ow, I thought as I flew back. Snap-snap! I launched forward, the Xapern Ant’s jaws closing around the space I was mere milliseconds ago. Scrabbling at the grass, I managed to get to my feet before a hand grasped my arm and pulled me into the warehouse.
“Clear!” Zach shouted and the warehouse door slid shut. The Xapern Ant was unlucky enough to have its leg in the doorway before it shut and the severed end of a pincer which crashed to the floor. The Xapern Ant howled.
“You didn’t say they could talk!!” I panted, leaning down and resting my hands on my knees as I regained breath.
“Sorry, I didn’t think to mention it.” I glared at Zach’s outline before collapsing on the floor.
“Yeah, well you should’ve.”
“I won’t forget next time,” he said, clapping my shoulder before joining Kenna and Emma at Austin’s side. After recovering —which took more than a minute— I also joined them, kneeling beside Austin. Kenna and Emma had somehow made a liquid out of the plants and now poured it in Austin’s pried-open mouth. Emma closed his jaw and Zach and Kenna held Austin’s arms and legs as he convulsed violently. Then, as suddenly as it happened, it stopped. His eyes fluttered open and Zach and Kenna released their hold. He gagged and everyone moved away as he leaned sideways and vomited a disgusting red substance. He wiped his mouth and sat up.
“Thanks, guys,” He said and then, at that moment, the sun’s rays broke through the windows. We all laughed, half nervous and half relieved.
“You’re welcome,” Zach replied.
“Crazy Austin. Always getting in trouble with the giant ants.” I added, grasping his arm and pulling him to his feet. I stared into his hazel eyes for a second before pulling his arm and hugging him tightly. “Some ants, though, eh?” He chuckled before we broke apart.
“Yeah,” he said, hugging Kenna. Zach and Emma held back but were smiling. On some unspoken consent, we all gathered around Austin and group hugged. When we all were breathless, we pulled away.
“Now we need to get out of this forest,” Zach said. “Right?” He looked around and I clapped his shoulder.
“Yes. Let’s gather what we can and set off at midday.”
“Works for me,” Kenna replied.
“Same,” Emma put in.
“Can I carry the crossbow, Zach?”
“No need to ask,” he responded and I smiled.
“No problem.” He walked off to the corner with his compound bow. “I challenge you-” Zach shouted, pointing to me. “To an aim contest!” My smile widened and I laughed.
“Where?” I inquired. “We shouldn’t go outside yet.”
“I have a target drawn with…you’d be better off not knowing. Up there.” He gestured to a loft above us. A gap was between the sides, long and wide enough for us to go through.
“And how exactly do we get up there?” He grabbed something else—a gauntlet, I think—and ran to me. He wrapped one arm arm around me and pointed the gauntlet to the loft.
“Hold on tight,” he said and some sort of string shot from the gauntlet, twisting around a beam above the loft. It pulled up and I gasped as we flew through the air. Zach swung at the last minute and retracted the string. We landed semi-gracefully on the left side of the loft.
“That. Was. So. Cool!!” I exclaimed, rising to my feet and looking down from the gap to my friends, whose jaws hung open in shock—all except Emma. I waved before returning to Zach, who was doing something with his gauntlet.
“That it is. Alright, see the target on the other side?”
I glanced through the dimness.
“Yeah,” I said, apprehensive and excited. “Are we shooting for the center?”
“Yup. We get ten seconds per shot and we go back and forth until we’ve used 5 arrows. You can go first.” I took a calming breath and put an arrow in the crossbow. Aiming, I fired. It was in the second ring of the center.
“Not bad,” Zach commented, raising his bow and pulling the string back. I noticed how deeply concentrated he was and how he got the center of the center. I knocked another arrow and tried to concentrate how he did. After I fired—right to the left of his—his shot was right after. He must’ve knocked and aimed while I was aiming, I thought. I got three more in the second ring of the center, and his next four were so close together to the first I wouldn’t be able to tell how many arrows there were if I didn’t know beforehand. He smirked and I glared at him.
“I’m also not as good as you.”
“You’re a natural, I knew from your first shot in the woods. Don’t worry, soon you’ll be as good as me, or better.” He winked, dropped his bow carefully after crouching. Walking back to the wall behind us, it took me a moment for me to realize what he was doing.
“Wait, Zack!” But he was already sprinting forward. He leaped, crossing the gap and rolling on the opposite side. “Wow,” I breathed. He retrieved the arrows and jumped back easily.
“I can’t believe you made that jump!” I burst out.
“Why not?” he answered simply, picking up his bow and aiming at the beam with his gauntlet. He pulled our waists together and ran off the ledge. I screamed in terror as we dropped. But before my feet could hit the floor, we were tugged to a stop. I blushed in embarrassment as he released me and I dropped the remaining three inches to the ground. I looked at Zach sheepishly; he shrugged.
“I think it’s time,” Austin said, pointing above our heads. We all looked up as the sun appeared in the ceiling window. I instantly glanced away, rubbing my eyes.
After five minutes of checking and rechecking to see if we had everything, we cautiously opened the warehouse door. Birdsong and rustling leaves in the trees from the wind greeted our ears. And thus, the trek West to the fourth trial began.