Starspire

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Chapter 10: Tarzan’s Treats

Chocolate. Lots of it.

Matt’s eyes shot open, anxious to confirm what his senses were telling him. His forehead crinkled a second later at the complete disconnect between sight and smell.

His eyes told him that he was in the center of a jungle straight out of the Discovery Channel, though his nose told him he was in the middle of the world’s largest candy shop.

His stomach rumbled and he scanned the trees for anything edible. A few trees held bright orange fruits, and red berries grew on clusters on a nearby bush.

“Do I risk it?” he muttered. For some reason, his brother had a twisted imagination...probably too much TV or something. He could imagine taking a bite of those berries, only to discover they tasted like week-old broccoli.

The sun rose, and there was no sign of the pixie-dust portal or whatever it was called. His dad snored not far away, but, for once, he didn’t mind so much. Right now he was just happy to be alive, and his dad’s snoring meant that he was too.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on him, he thought. Most of the time, he didn’t think twice about being a jerk after all the stuff his dad put him through. He should probably start thinking two or even three times about it.

Then again, he couldn’t forget what he had seen in the mirror. Maybe it was nothing more than a nightmare, but then again, what if it were a glimpse into the future? He pushed the thought away.

An orange fruit fell from the nearest tree and burst open in front of him. It split into sections, displaying row after row of brown seeds. His stomach growled again. Matt approached the fruit and examined it. Though he had never seen the fruit before, the seeds looked strangely familiar. He leaned closer to confirm her suspicions—they were shaped like chocolate kisses, and smelled like them too.

On impulse, he popped one into her mouth and grinned at the incredibly rich taste. Unable to contain himself, he tore into the fruit with both hands, stuffing handfuls of the stuff—orange sherbet and chocolate melding in his mouth.

Maybe this dream wasn’t so bad after all.

Beside him, his dad stirred and then sat up. Matt put down the fruit and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “About time you woke up,” Matt said. “You must have been having a pretty good dream.”

His dad blinked hard and nodded. “Yeah, it was. I dreamt that I saw…your mom. But she was 13 again just like the rest of us. All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t meet her until later. She was already beautiful, and I…well, let’s just say I was a work in progress.”

Suddenly, Matt didn’t feel so hungry. He considered the piece of sherbet fruit in his hand and then offered it to his dad. “Here, have one of these. I wanted to keep it for myself, but I’m starting to get a stomachache. Might help you feel better.”

Warily, Neil took the fruit and stared at its brightly colored skin. He studied his prize from every angle as if looking for a latch or a zipper to pry it open.

“Bash it against your knee or something. It’s not very hard.”

Neil whacked it against his knee, a bit harder than necessary. The fruit shattered open, spraying brightly-colored chocolate seeds in all directions. Matt lunged for the fallen seeds, looking as if Neil had struck a small child in the face. “Dad! You….you…”

Thinking better of it, Matt forced a smile. “Good morning, dad. I should have known better than to let you attempt manual tasks within the first half hour you’re up. My mistake.”

“Good morning to you too. Or whatever time it is. How long were we out?”

“6 hours and 23 minutes,” came a voice from behind him.

They both swung around, and Matt half expected to see some sort of talking jungle cat after all the strangeness they had seen at the carnival. Instead, Bahati stood behind him, dusting off her wrinkled robes.

“Is that really one of your magical powers?” asked Neil. “Clock?”

Bahati lifted one shoulder. “Not magic. I was simply born with an innate sense of time. It is more helpful than you might think.”

“I need at least eight hours,” muttered Neil. “I can tell I’m not going to like this day already.”

“Hm,” Bahati said, “Better make the most of it. I wager that we have a long, difficult walk ahead of us.”

“Really?” said Neil. “How do you figure? I mean, it’s probably morning, and we won’t be able to tell where we need to go until the sun starts setting again. I figure I could eat a chocofruit and then go back to sleep.”

Bahati took on a slightly annoyed expression. “Because, Neil, we need to find the high ground. If you hadn’t noticed, our flying carpets did not come through with us. Thus, we’ll have to find some other way of reaching the portal. If we are not at some place high enough when the sun sets, we will have little chance of reaching it in time. Who knows how many floors this tower has? The sooner we can reach the next one, the sooner we’ll find your son.”

Neil let out a blast of air through his nose. “Couldn’t have made it easy, could they?” he mumbled.

“But I’m still confused,” said Matt. “How do we even know where to look for high ground? The trees are so thick here, we can’t see beyond this clearing.”

Bahati nodded and pointed to a nearby tree. “Not a problem. I will go up and take a look.”

She bounded towards the nearby tree that looked impossible to climb because of its smooth bark. However, as she spoke, bits of water from the humid air froze into spikes, which she placed in the tree to create handholds. Within seconds, she was making her way up the tree as if she did this every day.

Though Matt and Neil craned their necks, Bahati vanished from the sight in a matter of minutes. Matt waited at the base of the tree, hoping to hear a good report and not the sound of her tumbling back through the branches.

“So,” said Neil, moving to stand next to Matt. “What do you think of her? Kind of cute, huh?”

Matt clamped his eyes shut and rubbed them with the back of his palms. “Dad, that is wrong on so many levels. Though we all look like we should be in junior high, we have no idea how old she actually is. There’s no way you should be asking me about girls.”

“Okay, okay,” said Neil, backing away. “Sorry I asked. Won’t happen again.”

Silence fell, and after a long minute, his dad spoke again. “Uh, Matt?”

“Yes?” Matt said without looking at his dad.

Neil shuffled his feet in the undergrowth. “Now that we’re not going to be roasted by a dragon, I have a question.”

Matt glanced down momentarily and then back up at the heights. “What?”

He took a deep breath and then continued. “What did you see in the ‘Ultimate Test’ mirror? That was the only one we didn’t see together, and I was curious if you saw the same thing I saw.”

Matt turned away, trying to keep calm. “I can’t. I don’t think I should tell you.”

“Why not? I’m your dad. Don’t you trust me?”
Matt kicked a rock and sent it sailing out into the jungle. “Most of the time. But I know you’ve got secrets.”

“Like what? Name one thing.”

It took Matt only seconds. “What about when you told us that you had to stay 30 minutes later at work every Wednesday?”

Neil sighed. “Wednesdays are half-off tanning at Sun Max. What was so wrong with trying to improve myself a little? I mean, look at where I started. I’m practically a ghost.”

“The problem was,” Matt said, “you lied about it. Why couldn’t you just tell us?”

Staring into the air as if a jungle bird might deliver an answer, Neil chewed on his lip. Finally, he decided to play it straight. “I was . . . embarrassed. I thought you might laugh at me.”

Matt’s eyes softened slightly. “Dad, since when do you care about that? Why didn’t you—”

Before Matt could finish his sentence a cry came from far above. “Neil, Matt! I made it. It is a wonderful view.”

Both of them craned their heads as far back as they would go. Matt cupped his hands around his mouth. “What do you see?”

“Much,” replied Bahati. “Trees mostly. A winding river.”

“How about the high ground?” shouted Neil. “Anything promising?”

“Two promising options. I am not sure what the better choice is. To the west lies a very high mountain, covered by clouds. To the north lies a huge man-made structure of some kind. I think you could call it a pyramid.”

“A pyramid?” asked Neil. “This doesn’t look like Egypt.”

“I don’t think he means that kind of pyramid,” said Matt. “More like an Incan pyramid—a bunch of boxes stacked on top of each other. Right, Bahati?”

“Yes,” she said. “Like that. I think it is a holy place of some sort. Hard to say.”

They all remained silent for a moment.

“So, which one do we head for?” asked Matt.

“Which one’s closer?” called Neil.

Bahati paused for a second before replying. “I cannot be certain, but I think the temple is quite a bit closer. The mountain, however, might be easier to get to. You do not have to cross the river to get to it.”

Neil and Matt looked at each other and spoke at the same time.

“The temple.”

“The mountain.”

“The Temple?” Matt asked. “Why? Do you really want to cross a river? We don’t even know what’s in there. Don’t the Aztecs believe in human sacrifice? I don’t want to get my heart ripped out.”

“You’ve seen too many movies,” said Neil, rolling his eyes. “All those civilizations have been gone for centuries. It’s probably just a ruin. We might even find some treasure they left behind.”

“Two words,” Matt said. “Booby traps.”

Neil rolled his eyes again. “I’m sure Bahati could stop any giant boulders that fall from the ceiling. Besides, a mountain doesn’t have steps. How do we even know if there will be a way to climb it? It’d be easy if the rugs hadn’t disappeared.”

A dark shape shot down from above them and landed between them. Matt cried out and tumbled backwards, not liking the idea of being a jaguar’s lunch.

It was only Bahati, who had taken the quick way down. She landed perfectly on her feet, and grinned as if she had just nailed an elaborate gymnastics routine.

“You two might want to keep your voices down. If I can surprise you, just think what a hungry leopard could do.”
The pair brushed themselves off and rose, still scowling at each other. They started to speak at the same time, but Bahati raised a silencing hand. “Thanks to your loud voices, I have heard everything. And I agree with Matt. The mountain is by far the best choice. It is possible that the temple is vacant, but I do not think so. It looked too well-kept to be abandoned.”

Neil wore a sour expression. “Go to the mountain then. You and your staff can climb it. My son and I are going to the temple.”

“I do not think that is wise,” said Bahati. “I am sure this place holds many perils. You will need my protection if you wish to come away unharmed.”

Neil shook his head emphatically. “I don’t think so. Where were you when the Blitz Dragon was attacking us? I believe I was the one that got us out of that particular scrape.”

“Stop it,” said Matt. “You’re being stubborn. If Bahati votes for the mountain, I think we should listen to her.”

“When did this become a democracy? Tyson is my son, and we’ll do things my way if we’re going to save him. Come on.”

Neil whirled about, trying a dramatic exit. His first step, however, found him almost knee-deep in a puddle of mud. He was only able to extract himself with much tugging and wriggling and then continued with an extremely muddy leg, trailing grime. After a few dozen soggy steps, he turned and called back.

“Come on, Matt. You won’t let me go alone, right?”

Matt glanced from Bahati to his dad, fighting the temptation to let him do just that. However, something told him that he should, like it or not, to make sure his dad got in the least amount of trouble possible.

“Bahati,” said Matt, “why don’t you head to the mountain? I’ll try to change his mind, but even if I don’t, we’ll see the portal tonight. If it’s over the mountain, we’ll join you there. If by some miracle it is actually over the temple, you can meet us there. Okay?”

Bahati nodded, though Matt could tell from his face that she’d rather sit on a cactus. “Very well, Matt. Go make sure that bullheaded father of yours does not rush directly to his death.” She bowed deeply and adjusted her hat. “I trust that we shall meet again, but if not, it has been a pleasure getting to know you.”

Matt cleared his throat and grinned. “Uh, you too, Bahati. If I don’t see you, I hope that you find a way to complete your mission.”

Bahati nodded, turned and disappeared into the foliage in the direction of the mountains.

“Wait,” called Matt. “I have one more question. What did you mean when you said it didn’t matter what happened to that boy, Tyler?”

Bahati turned. “I suppose I should explain that. You see, everyone else you saw at the carnival was an actual person, some of them children, some of them adults made to look like 13-year olds. That Tyler, however, was a part of the dream, not a person.”

“What?” said Matt, “How do you know that?”

“Because,” said Bahati. “A real person would not have everything in common with your brother. The odds of that defy comprehension. It seems that the dream has created ‘duplicates’ of Tyson as part of the tower. That’s probably why he looked so similar. Remember that if you should run into anyone else who looks like your brother, he is subconsciously trying to help us.”

Matt narrowed his gaze. He did not like the sound of this. “You talk as though you’ve done this before.”

Bahati nodded curtly. “Yes. Once.” She then turned and was swallowed by the jungle. Matt turned and caught up with his dad.

“Good riddance,” mumbled Neil. “Come on, son. That pyramid isn’t getting any closer on its own.”

Matt let out an exasperated breath and sealed his lips. He would go with his dad, but that didn’t mean he would make it a pleasant trip.

A distant voice echoed back through the jungle. “Be careful,” called Bahati. “And if you are hungry, you can always nibble on the leaves.”

Neil and Matt trudged through the forest in silence. Dazzling assortments of flowers, towering trees and exotic animals passed by them on every side, but Matt hardly noticed them. His mind had only room enough for one thing: hunger, not just afternoon munchies hunger, but Thanksgiving Day hunger. He’d give his smartphone for a bag of chips or something. But he wasn’t about to stoop to munching on leaves.

The jungle deepened, and so did his hunger, so much so that the low-lying leaves started to take on a mouth-watering appearance. He shook his head to get rid of the thought.

No, I’m not a caterpillar.

As the sun started to sink, he couldn’t take it anymore. With a cry like a wild animal, he snatched the nearest leaf and bit off a large section. He winced and waited for the bitter taste like licking the underside of a lawnmower.

His mouth exploded with a burst of creamy mint, better than he had ever tasted. Actually, it reminded him a little of his mom’s mint brownies she used to make for his and Tyson’s birthdays. Delighted, he stuffed the entire leaf into his mouth and chewed vigorously.

His dad, whirled on him. “Matt,” he cried. “Have you turned into a cow? Spit that out!”

Matt shook his head and offered him a leaf. “Try it! It’s mint cream.”

His dad pushed the offered snack away. “Your brains have turned into mint cream. Put that down and keep going. The sun’s already setting. We should make sure we get there by dark.”

Matt thrust the leaf back in front of his dad’s face. “Not on an empty stomach, we won’t. Come on, take a bite. I’m not crazy.”

His dad sniffed the leaf and nodded. He bit off the smallest corner with the tips of his teeth and his eyes grew wide.

“Give me that!”

He snatched the leaf from Matt’s hand and stuffed the entire thing in his mouth even faster than Matt had.

He licked his fingers and they searched around for more. In seconds, Matt spotted a tree with low-hanging strands of wispy leaves. “Is that?”

His dad rushed forward and grabbed a handful of the wispy stuff, colored a pastel blue. Without thinking, he stuffed a wad of it into his mouth. His eyes lit up and his heads bobbed vigorously up and down. “It is!”

Matt joined his dad, stuffing wad after wad into his mouth. “What is it with Tyson and cotton candy?”

“I don’t know, but right now, I’m not complaining.”

For the next hour, they wandered around the clearing, sampling jungle delicacies. They discovered fruit-flavored flower petals, peanut brittle tree bark, and a stream than ran with lemon-lime soda. By the time they were done, they both had a raging stomachache, but huge smiles on their faces.

“We should probably get going,” moaned Matt. “It’s getting pretty dark and we should be able to see the portal soon.”

Neil’s cocked his head for a second before bringing it upright again. “Sure, right after I take just one bite of that.” He pointed to a huge white bunch of flowers. “From the heavenly smell wafting this way, I’d say those are pure white chocolate.”

He crawled through the thick soil, which they had discovered was mostly crushed chocolate cookies, and reached the chocolate plant in seconds. He reached out with a trembling hand for the nearest thin petal.

A piercing shriek rang out from the bush. Neil snatched the petal and flew back. Instead of a fierce predator, a compact, bright orange monkey pounced on Matt and pinned him to the ground.

The first thing Matt noticed was that the monkey’s breath smelled like licorice. The second was that the monkey’s face closely resembled his little brother’s. “Uh, hi?” said Matt. “Was that your plant?”

The monkey bounded over to Neil, pointing and shaking his head. “Don’t eat,” it said. “Not candy.”

Neil tried to return to a sitting position, but the monkey clung so tightly to his shirt that it came with him. “You mean this?” said Neil, holding up the flower, “No, this is white chocolate, see?” He popped the flower into his mouth. His delighted face, however, crumpled a second later. He spit the flower into the grass and the monkey howled with laughter.

“Smells good, tastes bad. Smells good, tastes bad.”

Matt joined in the laughter as Neil continued spiting into the dirt. “Come on, Matt. I learned my lesson. I’ll listen to the talking monkey next time.”

As Matt continued walking, the monkey scurried into his path. “I, Tycho. I show you to the temple.”

Matt stooped down and gazed at the monkey that bore such a weird resemblance to his brother. “The temple? What do you know about the temple? Is there a big, shiny thing at the top?”

Tycho nodded vigorously. “Lots and lots of shiny things. Treasure, lots of treasure. Come, I show you.”

The monkey grasped Matt’s hand and dashed off into the jungle. Neil ran up beside them. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You say you have trust issues with me, but you’ll follow a strange orange monkey through the jungle. Doesn’t that seem strange?”

Matt tugged on the monkey’s hand and he stopped, though it fidgeted constantly. “What else do we have to try? After all our little candy quest, I’m not sure we’re even headed in the right direction.”

Neil glanced first in one direction and then another. His mouth worked up and down, but at last his face crumpled. “Okay, we’ll follow the monkey. But just because he looks like Tyson doesn’t mean we should be so quick to trust him.”

Matt waited a long moment before she answered. “You know, I wonder. Tycho is probably like Tyler—something that Tyson’s mind created. Do you think it was a coincidence that Tyler was the only one who could help us? What if Tyson’s mind is trying to help us?”
Neil took a few steps closer to the monkey and it offered him its other hand. “Hm, maybe you’re onto something.” Silently, the three of them continued through the jungle, a strange counterfeit of their actual family.

Bahati stood at the peak and finally allowed herself a moment to rest. Using her ice magic, she had created a slicker track to aid her aching feet. She almost wished she could go back to walking on water. She gazed out at the jungle that stretched on in all directions, interrupted only by the pyramid. She didn’t want to gloat, even to herself, but the skies over the pyramid remained blank and starless. The sky just a short distance above her glowed with the intense starlight of a portal.

She figured that the other two wouldn’t make an attempt to return until morning. That was fine with her. After their constant bickering, a serene night of solitude would be just what her soul needed. Not that they were terrible traveling companions, especially Matt. If the situation weren’t so tense, she thought they might even be friends.

Locating a patch of brush, she lay down, studying the constantly changing patterns of portal, and let her eyelids droop.

The smile returned to Matt’s face as they walked. Apparently it was impossible for him to be grumpy after eating so much candy and knowing that his stomach could handle it all.

The monkey had walked alongside them, and had introduced them to his favorite jungle delicacy: the edible vines, both red and black, made of best licorice they had ever tasted. They passed a few fierce-looking jungle creatures, leopards, hyenas, and even an enormous snake that looked like it might be made out of gummi candy, but they all seemed too preoccupied with stuffing their faces full of candy to be dangerous.

The sounds from the jungle hushed as they approached. Even the monkey had clammed up.

“Spooky,” said Matt. “They didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat.”

His dad chuckled nervously. “See? I told you. Fancy ruins. Nobody’s home.”

“Why don’t we ask the monkey?” said Matt. “At least he knows what he’s doing.”

“Really?” said Neil. “He’s been telling knock-knock jokes for the past 20 minutes. A real brain.”

Matt ignored the remark and stooped down to pat Tycho on the head. “Hey Tycho,” he said, pointing to the pyramid. “Does anyone live in there?”

The monkey glanced up at the pyramid and shook his head. “That no house. No people live there.”

“What’s in there, monkey?”

The monkey’s eyes grew wide and he pointed animatedly. “Shiny things! Shiny things!”

Neil’s eyebrows rose. “That sounds promising. I wouldn’t mind a shiny souvenir from this trip.”
“That’s one thing you and Tyson have in common. Your brains turn off when you see shiny things…like that sportscar.”

“Come on, it passed the monkey test.” said Neil. “Come on, you can’t tell me you don’t want some treasure.”

They reached and massive stone steps and found them covered with moss. A pair of massive stone statues stood to either side of the first step. Despite his enthusiasm, Neil slowed to a halt and squinted at the strange forms.

“Are those, stormtroopers?”

Matt stopped by his side, breathing hard. “Doomtroopers. Don’t let Tyson hear you mixing up Star Wars and Quasar Quest. He might disown you as a father. Though this does look a little like Darth Vader’s summer home.”

Neil chuckled. “Join the Empire. Cool uniforms and all the licorice vines you can eat.”

“Just stay away from the ‘white chocolate’ flowers.”

Matt grunted and looked up the stairs. He wanted nothing more than to sit down on the first step and take a long nap. The sun had just reached the horizon, however, and would be completely set soon. The flat top of the pyramid would be the perfect point to reach the star portal if it appeared here.

Tycho scrambled up the first few steps, repeating his mantra about shiny things. They followed the monkey, always several steps behind up the mossy, crumbling steps. Every few steps, they stopped for a couple of seconds to look around to make sure nothing was following them.

The sun continued to set, and they kept glancing at the space directly above the tower, hoping to catch a glimmer of the light from the star portal, but the sky remained empty.

About three-fourths of the way up the stairs, Matt grabbed Neil’s arm and pointed into the distance. “Dad, look!”

Neil swung his head around and groaned. Above the far away mountain glowed a brilliant circle of light that could only be one thing. Neil kicked the crumbling step in front of him and managed only to stub his toe.

“The batty girl was right. And now we’re stuck all the way over here. I bet she’s over there right now, laughing her head off and doing a victory dance.”

“Please don’t talk about bats,” Matt said. “We knew this was a gamble.”
Neil huffed and sat down on the step. “We can’t go back tonight. Why don’t we climb the rest of the way to the top and see if there’s somewhere we can spend the night?”

Matt shuddered. “Do you know what people built pyramids for? Keeping mummies and performing human sacrifices. I’d sleep in a tree first. I bet those cotton candy trees would be pretty comfy.”

Tycho nodded, hopping up and down. “Cotton candy….yummy, yummy!”
Neil set his face like a statue. “Look, we’re almost to the top already. If you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t exactly a normal pyramid, or a normal jungle. Normal pyramids have mummies, and normal jungles have mosquitoes. It could be an amusement park inside for all we know. Why don’t we just take a look?”

“And you’ve got to see your shiny stuff.”

“That too.”

Within minutes, they had made their way up to the top level, which contained a square building flanked by another pair of Doomtroopers. On either side of the building stood another set of stairs that led to the roof of the building. In the front of the building stood a pair of carved stone doors, depicting a scene of spaceships locked in blazing combat. Matt got closer and thought he recognized ships from a number of different science fiction traditions.

He nodded approvingly at the display. What true fan hadn’t ever wanted to put together a cross-universe matchup to see how things would really play out?

As Matt looked up, he realized that Neil was no long beside him. “Dad?” he called. “Don’t tell me a Doomtrooper got you.”

“I’m up here,” he called back. “On the roof. You should come see this.”

Matt scrambled up the roof and found his dad staring down the symbol etched into the stone.

“It’s a…a…”

“Star,” confirmed Matt. The stone shape glowed faintly with the same sort of light they had seen coming through the portal, though much more faintly. “Do you think it’s a portal, too?”

His dad shrugged, coming in a little closer to examine it. “I don’t know. I guess we could step into it and see what happens.”

Neil stepped forward, but Matt grabbed his arm. “Wait,” said Matt. “Let’s try together.” Matt motioned for Tycho, who latched onto Matt’s neck. “On three. One, two…”

They stepped into the light and felt the starlight wrap around them.

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