A Fear Unknown: a young adult fantasy novel

Chapter 1: THE MONSTER IN THE CLOSET

Kirsta ascended the front porch avoiding the most warped boards as she stepped. Flaking white paint fell on her hand as she opened the screen door halfway, stopping before the hinges began to squeal, pulled her backpack off and squeezed through the gap. After guiding the door closed she took a few steps down the hall before she felt the bag catch. Kirsta turned in time to see a vase slip off the ornate table.

She reached.

It brushed past her fingers.

It smashed on the floor in a cloud of dust and shards. She cringed as though it hit her instead. An echo of shattering glass and spilt booze resonated from the next room.

“What the—” her father’s voice bellowed.

Kirsta started down the hall dragging the table before she stopped to unhook her bag.

“Stupid kid!”

She dropped the table on the floor and ran up the stairs.

Thundering steps followed her.

She reached the landing.

A kicked table hit the wall.

She reached the hall, ran to the end and turned into her bedroom dropping the bag as she skidded on a throw rug.

The footsteps reached the stairs.

She scrambled back to close the door.

The footsteps reached the landing.

Nervous fingers fumbled with a hook-and-eye lock that didn’t line up. She installed it herself when she was nine and it worked better when it was at eye level. Now it was hip-high.

The footsteps reached the hall.

The hook slid in.

The door jolted with a bang.

She jumped backwards. The banging continued while Kirsta tried to slow her breathing. It always seemed like he might break through the door. More often than not lately, she hadn’t managed the lock in time and thinking of the consequences made her hands tremble.

The door vibrated as he hammered and in spite of herself she jumped a little each time.

“Worthless. Lazy. Good for nothing. I’m your father.” He kicked yelling, “Open this door.”

Kirsta cowered on the floor next to her bed rubbing a still-aching bruise.

“Stupid kid.”

Like your grades were that good.

“Next time you come home that lock’ll be gone.”

Great. Fix the front door while you’re at it and the dishwasher and the television, she thought but didn’t say a word as she suppressed twinges of guilt remembering that she had already stolen a replacement lock. She knew her mother wouldn’t approve. But Kirsta didn’t get an allowance, not since mom left.

Looking at the necklace around her neck, Kirsta remembered the day her mother put it on her.

Oh, Theta, you deserve better than a rushed goodbye in a crowded courthouse lobby.”

“Goodbye?”

“It’s only temporary, sweetheart. I’m not giving up and neither should you. Now give me a hug and you’ll have to go with your father now. Be strong, sweetheart.”

That was the last Kirsta heard of her. Not one phone call. Kirsta had even searched the house for letters. Nothing.

She turned the thin wire mesh locket in her hand, opened it and examined the inside. There was no place to put a photo but somehow it always felt full even when it was empty.

Where was her mother? Was she okay? Would she ever come back?

Just holding the necklace seemed to comfort her, as if it spoke directly to her soul: You’re stronger than you think. Or something like that.

Kirsta didn’t feel strong. She thought of Barbara sneering at the necklace only hours ago. “Why do you wear that thing every day?”

“Because she doesn’t know any better,” Lynn said from the table behind them. “Just like she doesn’t know how to talk.”

“I know how to talk,” Kirsta said under her breath. “Leave it alone. It’s mine,” she managed a little louder.

“Tucking it in your shirt’s not gonna help. I don’t mind reaching in there.”

Half the boys in class looked over eagerly but Kirsta only scooted her stool out of reach as the teacher continued the lecture not noticing or not caring.

“Barb, you have the lamest Chem partner ever.”

One last loud kick at the door made Kirsta jump before her father stomped away but the banging echoed in her head long after.

Kirsta pulled out her history book and tried to read but the things her father did when he gained entry replayed as though they were happening to her now.

She turned a page but her mind meandered like a lost dog and as dusk came and went and she found herself doodling lashes on the eye-shaped scar near her elbow from a dog bite when she was four.

Kirsta pulled out a report card: F in history, D in math. The highlights were the Bs in art and P.E. Cs in everything else.

He is right about one thing. I am stupid.

She expertly forged her father’s signature and re-packed the books dreading seeing Norm at the bus stop in the morning. He always asked her if she had gotten straight As. She would have thought such a smart kid would notice that the answer was always the same but then he could never keep track of what day it was. She buried the report card as deep as she could.

Rubbing another bruise, she crossed the warping wood floor to the bureau and picked up her mother’s picture examining the stand on the back of the frame, which had developed an unusual habit of falling forward but she could never figure out what was wrong with it. It hadn’t happened in months so she was hopeful that it had somehow fixed itself. She held it up to her own reflection examining the same round faces, small noses and chins. The rest of Kirsta’s face seemed to be hiding behind her bangs and glasses. She looked more like her mother and she liked that.

Kirsta put the picture down, drew the shades, put on some pajamas and then took a small jewelry box from the nightstand and the hairpin next to it and started working on the lock, a trick she taught herself when her father had taken to locking her in the basement. There was little else to do in there.

She kissed the necklace and put it in the box locking it up for the night.

Hours later, though, she was still staring at the ceiling. Her father’s words echoed in her mind even louder than if he was standing at her door. Kirsta opened the jewelry box. She kissed the necklace and put it back on before resting her head back on the pillow.

#

The book beside her flopped open of its own accord and handwritten words appeared. They’re coming. Run.

Chucking another handful of paperwork into the fireplace, a jolt at the door startled her. Probably a battering ram, but the furniture piled against it held. Who were these people? They didn’t announce themselves as commissioners.

She checked the page, now blank but for one name at the top: Wontobin. She grabbed a clear rock beside the book and placed it on the pages holding them open before she spoke.

“Too late, Master. They’re here. I’m burning as fast as I can but there’s too much.”

“What can I do?”

As the bombardment continued, she reached two hands up to the stories of bookshelves above her and two more handfuls of paperwork levitated down. She threw one in the fire and a scream pulled her attention to the window where stories below her young students scrambled across the lawn from soldiers in ornate black and silver armor only to be caught in a rain of arrows.

“Nothing. It’s too late for us. Protect yourself. I’ll destroy as much as I can but there isn’t time for all and there’s nothing I can do about the swords. Assume that they have them. Assume they have your location and the Kyés. Protect them.”

With a flick of her hand she levitated another handful of papers into the fireplace. Then she levitated herself to the middle of the shelves and with one painful effort, pulled every book and file off of the shelves onto the spiraling balconies below them. She pulled a large kerosene lantern off its hook above her and spread the oil over them letting the last drops end in the fireplace below. She breathed deeply as smoke rose and the fire crept out of its cage, across the pile of paper, up the legs of the desk and onto the open book charring the pages until they shriveled around the rock.

The rock’s same silhouette yellowed, browned and then turned to charcoal in the center of white pages in another book, miles away.

“I’ve never seen that before,” Duncan said out of breath and staring at the embers as he ascended a trap door into the pyramid-shaped office.

“I have,” Master Wontobin said.

Master Hanrahan’s voice, shriller than usual, pierced Duncan’s hearing. “You can’t. You just can’t do this. Not until we understand how serious this threat really is.”

The tiny elderly woman cornered the Master in his own office, she was the only person on the Continent who could do such a thing, as Wontobin held up two hands defensively.

“First of all, I think that page makes the danger quite clear. Secondly, ‘All things through He who strengthens us…'”

“Doesn’t mean all things we should do. For Theta’s sake, you yourself have called that one of the most abused scriptures. If the Amathuna are close to finding the temple, the Kyés shouldn’t be brought here. Most of them are children. Shill, that’s bringing them closer to danger.”

Duncan waited for the trap door to close beneath him. “Please watch your language, Master Hanrahan, and don’t speak to him like that. It’s his symbol on the front gate, not yours.”

She spun around shooting Duncan the same evil eye he’d seen her use to silence riotous mobs. She brandished a threatening finger at him but Wontobin gently put his hand on hers cutting her off. She glared at him but said nothing. He turned to Duncan.

“As you say, it is my symbol, and I do not need you to defend me.”

This time Duncan put his hands up. “All I meant was, we’ll need cool heads to deal with this.”

“Well, said,” Wontobin added turning back to Master Hanrahan. “For the record, it wasn’t my intention to use scripture to shut down any counter point, only to illustrate my own. And Sensei Duncan does have an excellent point. Tempers will out?”

“I am not—” she shouted and then took a deep breath. “I am not losing my temper. I just think we should err on the side of caution until we know more. I mean, how reliable is this information?”

Wontobin reached his hand up as if to catch something and the leather-bound book floated off the desk. Catching it he waved it at her as though it were evidence enough. “I would trust Soleil and the others with my life. That’s why I put them in the positions I did. Were they not right about this attack?”

“Right but late,” Hanrahan said.

“They tell me the commissioners are about to be sent across worlds. This is confirmed.”

“Why wouldn’t he just go after Twelvefork first? He who controls the water, controls all.”

“It was the Kyés who stopped his father, with our guidance. He intends to accomplish what his father did but to hold on to power this time by stopping the only forces strong enough to oppose him first. He means to kill the Kyés before they can be trained to use their abilities. In this matter we may not be too late but only if we move quickly. What I am suggesting is not preemptive. The enemy has struck. If any action is dangerous here, it is inaction.”

Hanrahan harrumphed at him crossing her arms and Wontobin scratched his white, neatly trimmed beard, the gold band around his cuff shimmered brighter than his bald head in the sunlight coming in through the four clock-face windows that overwhelmed each wall.

“Our opportunity isn’t going to last long,” Wontobin said. “The portals are closing as we speak. If they are attacked with the portals closed there will be nothing we can do but watch them die. The safest thing to do is bring them here, while we still can, where we can do slightly better than watch.”

She collapsed down in his desk chair and began fingering her emerald necklace as she stared at the mezzanine library above. After a moment’s silence he approached, placed the book on the aging mahogany desk and sat against the edge.

“Thinking you’ve been here too long already, Hanrahan? You know you can’t leave until your replacement arrives. Pushing the Kyés farther away won’t help that happen any faster.”

She didn’t look down. He stood and moved his head until it hovered in her line of sight.

“When your desires are in opposition, it’s time to reexamine your needs.”

She continued fondling the necklace absentmindedly until Duncan broke the long silence.

“It’s true then? The Amathuna army has resurfaced? Mount Forge has been raided.”

Wontobin nodded.

“Swords taken?”

Another nod.

“Locations compromised.”

Wontobin seemed to contemplate his feet.

“The locations of Temples like ours were to be burned first,” his voice sounded weak. “The Kyés, were second, and our sister temple was caught off guard. We must assume at least some of them have been discovered, particularly given his move sending commissioners through portals.”

Hanrahan looked up at Wontobin. “They hardly have jurisdiction.”

“They hardly care. They’ll just be quiet about it. Mercifully that means their loved ones will be safe, just watched.”

Duncan looked through the tinted glass of the nearest clock-face window at the redbrick complex below, the city beyond, its seven steeples pointing up to wooded mountains, silhouetted by the Lunar rings, now faint like wispy clouds in the morning sky. The people would be waking up now, dressing and making breakfast, as unaware as he was moments ago. His eyes followed Scarlet River as it flowed back down the mountain, through the lush forest like satin ribbon lain across green velvet until it reached Pi City where it split into two branches flowing around the temple, cradling it like giant hands holding precious treasure. How easily that river could again live up to its name.

They were dead, Duncan surmised. Friends, allies, comrades, all of them gone. Wontobin’s voice broke into his brown study.

“Whether or not the remaining files contain enough clues to lead him to the Kyés and which ones we cannot know but little stands between him and them save for pendulums, portals and timing… unless we do something.”

Hanrahan looked at him and looked away still fiddling with her emerald necklace with short delicate fingers.

“Does that Dénock your father made give you any solace?” Wontobin asked her.

“It reminds me the Kyés are not infallible. Not him and not you either,” she looked away and took a deep breath. “It also tells me no matter how strong their souls may be they can be vulnerable, especially without training.”

Wontobin turned to Duncan. “Please send Gee-tof after the Kyés, Terran first. That pendulum will drop within hours and travel between our dimensions will be rendered impossible. The rest will have to wait until their pendulums rise to open the portals. That is unless you object, Master Hanrahan.”

“If he takes the Inn,” she said still not looking at him, “they’ll be here by this time tomorrow. You’ll find him in the hospital wing of Athena. I sent him to help Shanti with the medical inventory.”

Duncan kicked the floor and the trap door reopened. White, wooden stairs creaked and moaned as Duncan ran down them ignoring the dancing numbers on the moving drawing on the wall. The cuffs of his black uniform tickled his bare feed as he zoomed down the belfry steps two at a time in the crisp Ereth morning.

#

Gaitman leaned against a tree with a book in front of his face. His eyes, however, watched the window above him and across the street. Focused and vigilant, he had been there for hours.

It was flattering to be assigned to this team at such a young age. Field work gave him purpose. He was military now and this, his first assignment, was critical. Protecting the organization became all that mattered and Kirsta was a part of the organization—she belonged to the organization—whether she knew it or not.

Down the street a neighbor opened his door to let the cat in, her eyes lingering on Gaitman a second too long. It had grown too dark for the book to be convincing. Soon people would be asking if he wasn’t a little young to be out this late. They would think he might be getting into trouble, planning some sort of mischief or outright property damage. Gaitman was far more dangerous than this.

He had thought it would be boring just watching her all the time but he found it fascinating… exciting. He lived for the brief glimpses of her in the window. He had to admit to himself he would have found it intensely dull had it been any other house.

Gaitman, he scolded himself, do not long for things you cannot have.

#

Blood dripped down his thumb. The color had a calming effect on him. He sucked the blood from the small wound examining the man-made rosebud whose thorns he had just used to draw it. The flower may have been metal but it looked perfect, the petals of the closed bloom the ideal shade of red: blood.

He returned it to its crystal vase and ran his fingertips along the top of his mahogany desk; he looked up to one of the enormous portrait in its gold frame.

“Are you proud of me now?” he whispered.

“Sir?” The young man still kneeling before him looked up, his armored uniform clamoring as he shifted. “Will there… be anything else, Sir?”

“Don’t mind me, Loch, just reveling a bit in my victory.”

“But…you… hardly seemed excited.”

“I am not a school girl, Loch. I am the most powerful man on the Continent.” Glancing back at the portrait he straightened his red silk tie in his gilded reflection. Or at least I’m going to be.

“Yes sir.”

“Let the Amathuna know I’m very pleased, Loch. The campaign was beautifully executed. Tell Nuxing she’s due for another promotion and have her send a messenger ahead with one of those swords.”

The master didn’t look up this time. Instead he felt the portrait’s gaze burrowing against the back of his neck. Those swords were the keys to conquering the Continent. And the Kyés would be the key to keeping it.

The kneeling soldier shifted his weight; his armor clanked. “Will… that be all, Sir?”

“No, Loch. That’s not all. Stop by Agrippa’s office. His people should have packages for you, one for the Amathuna and a second to take to the commissioners along with these orders,” he added handing over an envelope with a large C logo. “Whatever either house needs see that they get. Oh, and check on Senator Blackington before you leave town. He forced me to give up leading this campaign myself with his constant rescheduling and now he’s making me wait. Then back to your post with the Amathuna.”

The soldier’s eyes widened and his brows drooped as his master spoke.

“All things through He who strengthens me…” the master started and then paused expectantly.

“I can do,” Loch finished though it did little to improve his expression.

“Oh, and for Theta’s sake change out of that uniform. People here can’t see you in that. Not yet.”

Loch unbuckled black canvas straps from his thighs removing S-shaped pieces of armor and placing the metal plates on the floor in front of him. He moved on to his shins and arms with militant efficiency clicking each graduated piece into the last ending with swirled discs off his elbows, knees and shoulders. He laid the stack on its side cradled in his breastplate and topped with his helmet. What remained was a black and gray camouflaged Loch kneeling before what might have passed for an elaborate serving tray but for the black straps hanging like tentacles which he then buckled together wrapping the metal in a cocoon with only the thinnest slivers of silver shining through before strapping the thing to his back.

Loch shot up, bowed and backed out of the room. Just as he disappeared, his muffled: “Oh, excuse me,” could be heard through the door.

A beat later the maid came in with a duster and pail, which she dropped before she noticed her master glaring at her.

“I-I can come back later.”

“You’d better,” he said sitting down at his desk. “That’s Agrippa behind you and he looks like he has bad news.”

She bowed deeply to one man and then the other and scurried out the door. Agrippa brushed past her without acknowledgment.

“Never seen you smiling at bad news before,” Agrippa said handing over a thick envelope. He folded his arms across his chest as the master pulled out a stack of documents and examined them.

“You underestimate the good news I’ve just received,” he said rubbing his smooth, clean-shaven jaw. “Besides, your news is nothing permanent, only a setback.”

“Wish I shared your optimism but,” Agrippa glanced behind and watched as the maid shut door, “these images are only marginally clearer,” he indicated a series of photographs in the stack, “and impossible to interpret.” He put his hands on the desk, leaned in and lowered his voice. “A handful of them won’t do. We’ll need a warehouse full.”

“Then we’ll get a warehouse. The Amathuna have new leads. I’ve had Blackington dispatch the commissioners to collect.”

“That volume of disappearances will attract attention.”

“They’re commissioners. They’re good at what they do. Besides, most are off world and Blackington is a politician. If it doesn’t affect his polling numbers, it doesn’t exist.”

“You can’t control Blackington and you can’t control his commissioners.” Agrippa walked around the desk and stopped with his mouth inches of his master’s ear. “This is getting dangerous.”

“Losing your nerve? Now? I’m making a better world here. Isn’t that worth any risk?” The master slid the stack back in the envelope and pressed it up against Agrippa’s chest. “And don’t presume to tell me what I can and cannot control. That sort of brass would have gotten a less useful man killed.”

Movement in the door caught the master’s eye. He forced a warm welcoming smile as Agrippa moved away. A toga-wearing senator stood scowling.

“Sending the military after me now? You’re not the only person who wants my attention.”

“Senator Blackington. I’m so glad you could make it…”

#

Kirsta stood only a few inches high. Recognizing this frequent nightmare, she climbed down the sheets and hid behind a bedpost from a tyrannosaurus. The dinosaur stood only a few feet tall but it still towered over her. She ran across the floor only to find another hiding behind the desk. She ran for the cover of her bureau only to find herself cornered by the two of them. Stretching its long neck down to her, one opened its mouth wide baring sharp teeth and an eager tongue.

“Must find the Heart,” it said in a high-pitched voice.

Back in bed, normal sized, lizards gone.

Odd, they had never spoken before.

“Must find the Heart,” the tiny voice muttered in the dark.

Still dreaming? She wasn’t sure. As her eyes adjusted the room seemed still.

“Must find the Heart and the Eye and bring them to Unknown.”

Kirsta sat up in bed, groggy but awake. She put on her glasses and checked the clock: 4:44 a.m.

“Must bring them to save the Unknown.”

She looked back to the closet door where its glowing outline indicated she had left the light on. Wait. The light seemed strongest at the bottom.

Parts of the light flickered in shadow as a rumbling sound started as though shoes and other items on the floor were being pushed aside.

She turned the bedside lamp on and looked around the room for something useful: lamp, jewelry box, backpack… anything useful would have been in the closet. She checked under the bed: Shoebox. Perfect for catching a squirrel or rat. She pulled the box out and discarded the cover tossing the collection of winter hats and mittens on her bed.

She climbed quietly out as the rustling continued and walked carefully towards the closet. A board creaked.

She froze.

The rustling stopped.

She breathed as quietly as she could.

The noises resumed.

She waited a few moments and then continued carefully towards the door.

Kirsta grasped the shoebox in one hand ready to stamp it down on whatever animal she might find as he reached for the knob with the other, half afraid touching it would turn it into a rat.

With a quick jolt she opened the door and froze at what she saw: a toddler-sized creature with blue skin. The thing rolled on the floor wrestling with an old green tee shirt, its left leg in one arm. Its left arm held a flashlight through the neck. The rest of the shirt covered most of its head.

The blue creature tried to pull the shirt off but it only succeeded in ripping the neck exposing part of its face. Finally, the thing rolled around and froze focusing one blue eye on her. For a moment it lay there staring, apparently fighting off tears.

It inhaled sharply, as though startled—then it inhaled again—and again—and it sneezed.

At once it started jumping up and down gleefully or as best it could with one leg knotted up in the shirt.

“We has done it.” it yelled. “Gee-tof has found the Heart.” It managed to jump twice more before falling back on the floor but that didn’t stop the celebration.

Kirsta willed herself out of her frozen state. Real or not, the creature was loud and her father was sleeping in the next room. She tried shushing the thing but it seemed too excited.

“Thank, Theta, we has found all three,” it yelled as Kirsta got down on her knees growing more desperate to quiet it. “The Heart must now go with us,” the creature said trying, unsuccessfully to stand.

Kirsta carefully picked the creature up, which finally silenced it, and pulled the tee shirt off. Its head was almost as large as its body with tiny antennae and pointed ears. Only a foot tall, the blue, potbellied creature had skinny legs and long thin arms that stretched from its shoulders to its feet. Tiny translucent wings flapped so quickly she could hardly see them but they never took over the creature’s body weight. All it wore was a pair of thick white shorts that looked a little like a diaper.

Kirsta gave a slight jump when its legs began to grow stretching down to the floor. She nearly dropped him before they reached and took over its weight. The moment she let go they shrank again returning it to original height.

Not finding the skin or diaper very attractive, she adjusted the tee shirt and put it back on the creature; even ripped the neck barely fit over its large head. It looked down at the shirt curiously.

Kirsta took a deep breath and tried to speak quietly hoping it would follow her lead: “Consider it a gift.”

The creature smiled.

“First thing, it’s really very important to be quiet here.”

It nodded.

“Second thing, who—what—are you?”

He put his hand to his chest. “Gee-tof. We works for Wontobin. Come to fetch the Heart and the Eye to learn the ways of Kyés.” He sneezed again, loudly.

“The ways of key?”

Kee-Ay. The Eye is Kyés. Just like the Heart.”

At a loss for what to ask next, Wontobin? Heart? Eye? Kyés? Kirsta settled on: “How’d you get in here?”

“Through portal,” he said pointing to the floor behind him.

“Is that an oil slick? In my closet? It’s glowing.”

“Eye must now go with us through portal.”

“I’m not an eye. I’m a whole person. And I’m not going in there.”

His antennae drooped. “But if the Eye will not go with us, all is lost.”

“What? No. Please don’t cry.”

“We has come such a long way and without the Eye, Unknown is lost.” He looked around the closet and the room behind her not hiding his disgust. “Why the Eye want to stay in this miserable place?”

He had a point but that didn’t mean Kirsta was going to jump into this glowing goop.

“What’s down there? Can I get back? Is it even safe? How do you breathe in that?”

He looked at her as though annoyed with her silly questions. “Yes, the Eye can come back to this horrid place but we does not know why it would want to. Of course it is not safe. There is a great land and many people in danger there. That why we must go.”

“Oh, now I’m definitely not going….”

This time he shushed her stretching his legs, neck and arms up until he stood nearly her own height. He took her face in his three-fingered hands and looked deep into her eyes. He touched her glasses and then her necklace. “The Eye, like the Heart, must not fear Unknown.” Returning to normal size he grabbed her hand and started pulling her deeper into the closet—towards the portal.

“Wait a minute.”

“We explain on the way. Must go now.”

A tug-of-war ensued. Shoes jostled. Clothes fell off hangers. A thunderous bang jolted the door followed by her father’s booming voice.

The little thing stretched his legs and grabbed the edges of portal with his toes. The tide started to change. Her back and arms tightened up—then they started to quiver.

Just as Kirsta began to panic, her mother’s necklace grew warm. Again it brought her comfort but this time the message was different, specific:

Trust him.

A safe comforting feeling washed over Kirsta.

Not knowing quite why, she relaxed her muscles and let the creature pull her hands into the portal. Instead of the cold liquid she expected, it felt like a dry, warm breeze circling her hands, her forearms, her elbows. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let her head fall through.

The warm breeze flowed through her hair. It tickled her armpits. It fluttered her pajamas. It brushed past her knees… She felt her head lift up in a strong wind and her feet gently fall back until she felt herself lying down. The wind seemed to smoothly turn her over and over though she never felt dizzy, just floating and turning end over end.

Finally, the motion slowed and she seemed to settle, though she couldn’t tell which end was up until she felt something press gently against her back like a long and flat board. Then the board began to feel more like ground.

The warm breeze still blew but straight now instead of circling around her. Her hair tickled her nose as she opened her eyes only to be blinded by light. Three bright suns were floating in the sky above her. Little wonder she felt warm. Her necklace felt hot. The suns must have been shining directly onto it. Thin, wispy clouds spread so even they looked like a massive silver rainbow taking up half the sky. No. Not clouds. Rings.

She was on another planet and it had rings.

Kirsta sat up and looked around to see nothing but desert in every direction. There were no roads, no trees, nothing but sand and suns and Gee-tof standing above her head in his ripped green tee shirt staring down at her, his head cocked to one side.

“First time in portal?”

“Yeah.”

Kirsta stood up and dusted herself off looking around at the landscape. Not one landmark, building, car or even a sign and as flat as it was it seemed the eye could see nearly forever. There wasn’t a sound except the breeze and Gee-tof’s occasional sneezes. It was hot under all of those suns but not humid. Dust constantly annoyed her nose and threatened her eyes.

“We’re stranded here?”

Unbothered, Gee-tof looked to the horizon, put his fingers to his mouth and, between sneezes, let out a loud long whistle filled with intricate notes and arpeggios. Kirsta looked around the endless landscape for horses, a dog sled or whatever he might have been calling—nothing.

Finally a slight rumbling could be heard in the distance. She pictured a pack of wild dogs but as the noise grew louder in her mind they became wild horses and then charging bulls before she could discern the direction it was coming from. There she could see a dark brown spot just over the horizon.

“What is it?” she asked, her voice lost in the roar, which had grown even louder than she’d realized. Gee-tof didn’t answer.

The noise and the spot both grew rapidly until she could see it wasn’t an animal at all but something almost square—and brown—with vertical stripes.

The thing became more of a cube than a square and clearly much bigger than both of them and moving so fast Kirsta began to worry it would over run them but Gee-tof just stood staring at it.

The noise was growing so loud Kirsta had to cover her ears. It was a building, a whole building, and coming at them like a windshield at two bugs. Still Gee-tof just stood, unflinching, and watched it approach. It seemed a couple miles away now… a few hundred yards… fifty yards—Kirsta’s heart started racing but Gee-tof didn’t move—fifty feet—still it did not slow down.

It seemed to speed up as it reached just a few feet away. Kirsta felt herself fall backwards and cover her head with her hands but suddenly the noise stopped leaving a deafening silence behind it—until Gee-tof sneezed. Cautiously, Kirsta looked but saw nothing but a large square shadow on the ground.

Gee-tof looked up where she could see, hovering several stories off the ground a rustic building of weathered wood and four stories tall that had stopped just two feet in front of but far above them. There were few windows and no doors. A small black square could be seen at the bottom where a door might have been but it seemed much too small. Something came out of it and lowered down towards them: a rope ladder, unrolling itself, finally ending just in front of them.

Gee-tof stretched an arm up to reach it. Whipping his arms and legs across several rungs at a time, he climbed until he reached her height and turned and looked at Kirsta.

“Follow Gee-tof.”

“Clearly I’m still asleep.”

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