“You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” I complained, wiping sweat from my forehead as I stare ahead.
“What? It’s just a swamp'” Kenna said.
“That ‘just a swamp’ is more dangerous than the jungle,” Zach replied seriously.
“Why’s that?” Milo asked.
“Quicksand, humidity.” The last word came out a mutter from Zach.
“And the Nwu watersnakes, too. Smaller than Sut, the Giant Black Mamba Snake from Khann City, but no less deadly.” My voice was a little hoarse.
“Wonderful!” Austin said sarcastically. “Sand that can kill you and another snake!”
“Kids, kids. Forgot how unintelligent they could be. Defang a snake and it’s harmless. Heartless, cold-blooded killers, serpents are. Stay clear from them.” I whirled, startled by the cheerful voice. An otter sat on a log, looking quite human like with its legs crossed and a wheat strand in its mouth, staring at me curiously.
“Who are you?” I hissed, crouching defensively.
“Who am I? Who do I appear to be? Who do you think I am? Never mind, I’ll tell you, young wig girl. I’m neither animal nor beast. I am called the name Kilah and I’m your guide in the swamp. ‘S been many a year since I seen your kind, wig girl. I don’t remember all the words I used to know in man tongue. Ha! Let’s get going, eh?” He got off the log and walked—on two legs!—past us. I could only watch, bewildered at the comical sight. “Well stop ogling! I’m not that interesting. You comin’ or not?” He called, spitting out the wheat strand.
I glanced at Zach but he shrugged, as confused as me. We didn’t have any other options so we followed the strange otter. “Single file now! Follow my steps or you’ll get caught in quicksand. Or worse,” his voice dropped to a whisper. “The water.”
“What’s wrong with the water?” I questioned worriedly. A chattering sound burst from Kilah and it took me several seconds to realize he was laughing.
“What’s wrong with the water? Oh wig girl! It’s cursed. Take a look – but don’t fall in – and see the spirits of those children like you who drowned and can’t find peace because they died in The Trials.” I scoffed, disbelieving.
“Sure, otter.” But when I looked over the narrow land strip Kilah led us on, sure enough, I saw faces of children – ages ranging from about 7 to about 17 – staring back. I yelped, pulling away in fright.
“This is so bizarre,” I muttered under my breath.
“What does bizarre mean?” Kilah said loudly.
“How did you hear-” I began, startled.
“It means something along the lines of crazy. Technically crazy is a synonym of bizarre,” Zach responded, amusement in his voice. I glared at him but the lack of focus on walking made me stumble, so I looked forward again.
“Ah! Now I remember! Thanks archery boy.”
“My name is Zach,” my friend replied patiently.
“Yeah, and mine is Emma, not ‘wig girl’.” I was irritable from the heat so it came out more like a snap. Before I could apologize:
“I’m Milo,” Milo added behind Zach.
“Are we saying names? If we are, my name is Austin.” Austin put in.
“Mine’s Kenna!” Kenna called; she was probably at the end of our single-file line. I wiped my face with my shirt and took off my wig, stuffing it in my back pack.
“Hold on. Stop, Emma.” I halted, a little surprised he used my name. The line did as well as Kilah dropped onto all fours—for the first time since we met him—and sniffed the ground. He suddenly had a rock in his paw—it just materialised!—and he tossed it a couple yards forward. It was instantly sucked down. “Quicksand!” He chirped, scampering around it. “Follow my steps carefully!” Nose to the ground—like a dog now—he moved slowly on an even thinner strip of land going around the circle of quicksand. It was so hard to balance that I nearly fell sideways into the ‘cursed water’ twice. The first time, I managed to lean away but the second, Zach had to pull me back. I muttered a thanks and he gave a small, tired smile. Eventually, when Kilah was sure we were clear of the quicksand, he brought us back to the original, slightly wider path. Kenna announced she wanted to be in front so we all stopped and she went past us to follow Kilah. They talked nonstop, quizzing each other and having random conversations. She even talked about being in a martial arts class, which intrigued me but they talked so much, I got bored and tuned out.
“Do they ever stop?” I grumbled under my breath.
“It would seem the answer to that is no,” Zach said behind me.
“Ugh! It’s so annoying though!”
“I think it’s pretty funny.”
“Of course you do. Never mind, Zach.”
We walked and walked and walked and walked more while they never stopped talking. When dusk fell to night, Kilah said something to Kenna and then raced off.
“Wait, Kilah!” I shouted wearily.
“He’ll be back,” Kenna said confidently. And, true to her word, Kilah came running back. He led us to an island—there was a sandbar connecting it to land—where we camped. I collapsed on the grass and took off my back, leaning against while I watched the boys gather scrap wood for a fire. Kenna settled beside me.
“So, for the sake of argument, Milo, Austin, or Zach?” Kenna whispered. Kilah helped the boys build a small fire as I contemplated.
“Well first off, Zach is my step brother so that takes him off the list,” I whispered back.
“Stepbrother? What’s it like to have a sibling? I’ve been told they can be really annoying, especially the younger ones.”
“Yeah, he is. A little. I mean we get along pretty well but he can get on my nerves sometimes; just like I can get on his. Anyway, I…I don’t like guys..that much.”
“Oh,” she said thoughtfully. “That’s cool.” I glanced at her, surprised, just before the guys came over with proud expressions, a mini-bonfire fire blazing in front of us. I stood, brushed dirt and dust off myself, then took out cooking materials from my pack. I made a dinner of gathered herbs and some random, unknown animal that Kilah killed. Or found. I don’t know.
After eating—the strange animal Kilah brought actually tasted fairly good—, we were all sitting around the fire in a semicircle. Surprisingly, Zach was the one to spark conversation; he was never one for small talk.
“So you never said what town you guys were from,” Zach said leisurely, leaning his head on Milo’s shoulder. Milo shifted a little.
“Were from town Q,” Kenna replied, oblivious since she was looking down at Kilah as she stroked his back.
“Really? What’s town Q like?”
“Well, it’s fairly populated and the leading cause of death is fire because it is surrounded by a thick layer of forest then a desert. Herbs, fruit, and other plants are the main seller. People hunt game too though. There’s not much art there but there is a martial arts school which almost every kid enrolls in and also where Kenna works,” Milo said almost immediately.
“Huh.” I glanced at Kenna questioningly but she was still staring at Kilah.
“Well, I’m off to bed,” Austin announced, getting up. “You guys should, too. It looks like we have a long day of walking ahead of us.” I sighed.
“Who’s got first watch?”
“I can watch,” Kilah said and I huffed.
“Fine.” I stretched my legs forward then curled in a ball, leaning my head on my pack. “Good-night, guys,” I yawned and went out like a light.
“HELP!!” My eyes popped open to pre-dawn dimness.
“Help me!!” Was that Kenna?!
I lurched to my feet and woke the boys.
“Someone help me!!” Kilah was already racing after her voice when I put my pack straps around my shoulders and ran after Kilah, the boys close behind. When dawn lit the area, I gasped, Kenna was half-buried in the earth. Quicksand, I thought, horrified. I gathered myself, preparing to leap to her rescue. Before I could jump, some invisible force held me back. I struggled against the invisible binding holding my feet in place violently, confusion in the back of my mind. I ignored it.
“It’s too late,” the otter whispered behind me.
“No! We can’t let her die!!” I screamed desperately.
“Kenna…” Austin whispered behind me.
“Kenna!” I shouted, reaching forward in vain.
“Emma,” she called back sadly. I realized she knew it was over.
“No!!!” I yelled. She took off her pack and hurled it toward us. It landed at my feet. “Kenna!” I cried, falling to my knees. She was almost shoulder deep now. “Don’t do this!”
“No regrets, remember?” She said softly. I nodded, tears streaming down my face as I recalled the conversation we had before Austin got stung by the Xapern Ant.
“Tell my dad I love him, okay? Please? That I love him more than anything and I’ll never forget him or the things he did for me.”
“Ok,” I whimpered.
“Finish this. Win for me.” Then, with one, last, sad smile, she vanished beneath the sand. I stared at the place she was moments before, willing her to appear.
“Oh, Kenna…” I sobbed. “How did she get here?” I demanded of no one in particular.
“I wish I knew but I don’t,” Kilah murmured.
When I finally accepted she was gone, my bonds released me. I wiped my eyes and cheeks, picked up her pack, stood, slung it over my own, and turned to Kilah.
“Lead us out of here,” I told him.
He looked up, glassy-eyed, and chattered gently, “Are you ok?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just get us away from this awful place.” He nodded, dropping to all fours. He walked slowly, tiny head bent, and the rest of us followed. It all washed over me fresh. Kenna was dead. I would never see her again. Her father would never see her again. No one would.
I walked in a depressed manner, silently, careless of anything but getting her last wish to her father. That required living through this and whatever lay after first. I put my entire focus on that, and that alone. After three sleepless nights and four boring days, I saw a hint of land on the horizon. I didn’t feel any excitement, though. Only crushing sadness.
We didn’t stop that night, on an unspoken consent which no one complained to. When dawn arrived, my feet dragged, my mind moved slowly, and my stomach hurt from choosing not to eat.
“Emma, look out!! A voice – Zach’s – shouted. I barely heard him until his hand shot in front of my face, catching a Nwu Water snake midair. Everything slowed. I saw the snake open its mouth, fangs dripping with venom. I saw it head draw back as far as it could. A warning flew from my mouth but it was too late. Time sped up and the snake dug its fangs into Zach’s wrist. He cried out and flung the snake into the water. I caught him as he fell, his skin already grey. He closed his eyes.
“No no no no no. Not you. Not you…” I watched helplessly while his body jerked violently. Then he stilled.
“Zach?” I shook his shoulders. “Zach, come on. Open your eyes. Come back to me. Zach! ZACH!!” My thoughts stopped. My heart numbed. My feelings emptied. Taking his backpack off and placing it beside me, I kissed his forehead and pushed his dead body into the water. I held the pack in my right hand when I stood. I avoided looking in Milo’s grief-filled eyes and Austin’s shocked expression as we continued our trek.
Eventually, we reached the land…but the victory was hollow. Because Kenna was dead. Because Zach was dead. Who would be next?
“This is where we part,” Kilah said softly, patting my leg.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“Things born for and in The Trials cannot leave their trial. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok. It’s not your fault.” I murmured. “Thank you.” He gave a small smile and waved his paw over Zach’s pack then Kenna’s. They shrunk to the size of a tennis ball. I took Kenna’s as it fell from my shoulders. “What the…?”
“I have magic. It was the least I could do. I’m sorry about Kenna and Zach. I hope we meet again, when The Trials are no more. I will miss you three. Say Zach three times to make his bag regular size and Kenna three times over Kenna’s to do the same. Safe travels.” Then, with sad, downcast eyes, he turned and dove straight into the water. I watched him as long as I could before I looked away, turned…and gasped.
Tall corn stalks, taller than anything I’d ever seen—and I’d seen a lot since the Trials, like a giant arachnid and an enormous snake—stood looming ominously before us. The stalks were twice their height and I knew, if they were here, they would look like mice compared to this…Trial. I squinted and saw paths splitting off the main entrance.
“What is it?” Austin asked, fear making his voice tremble.
“I got a pretty good guess,” Milo said quietly.
“It’s a maze,” I whispered.