Adam’s shoulders slumped and his grip loosened around his spear. His mouth hung open in complete disbelief.
Standing next to Pin and Emma, looking out across the valley, he was shocked to see it was completely barren. Save for the scorched remains of the bonfire, everything he’d seen the night before seemed to have vanished.
The colorful tents made of scaly animal hides, the black probe on the tower, and the hundreds of three-armed ogres were all gone like night-time shadows erased by the light of a new dawn.
“Damn,” Pin said with a huff, scanning the horizon for a sign of the ogres. “We’re too late.”
“But—“ Adam stammered. “They were all right here. The valley was stuffed with them, I swear! Shelters and fires... They were eating and drinking and dancing. I don’t understand.”
“Maybe you dreamed it all,” said Emma flatly.
“I didn’t dream it!” Adam shot back. “I know what I saw with my own eyes.”
Pin cast his eyes towards the red planet hanging above them. It had become much larger and more oppressive in the weeks leading up to this moment. Most likely due to the rotation of the moon in its orbit, he thought, then turned his gaze back down to the valley below.
“I think they came here for one purpose,” he said finally. “A pilgrimage to a sacred place. They came to speak to their god. That done, they’ve moved on.” He scratched at his beard for a moment then threw his spear across his back, continuing, “With so many, they should be easy enough to track.”
He moved along the edge of the cliff towards where the ladders were carved into the rock face. “The question is: do we follow them for the probe? Or do we cut our loses, be thankful we went unnoticed?”
Adam watched Emma slip her spear across her shoulder and look out across the endless expanse of wilderness. He could see a longing in her gaze and thought back to her outburst the day before. He knew she wanted to leave. Her desire to escape the moon must be taunting her now. She didn’t need to speak to make her feelings known. She wanted to follow the tribe.
But with everything he’d seen, he knew it was too dangerous. Torn between Emma’s wishes and his own fear, he felt conflicted and confused.
“Let’s get a closer look,” came Pin’s voice, interrupting his thoughts. “I’d like to learn as much about these creatures as I can before making a decision. What a culture discards can tell you a lot about who they are, their habits, and what they value. Who knows, we may even find something useful— tools, maybe. Or food.”
Emma let her thoughts of home linger a moment longer before turning towards him and following. She didn’t look back, but heard Adam take his place at the end of the line behind her. For all his bragging, she thought, he can be a real scaredy sometimes.
She watched Pin ease himself over the cliff’s edge and grab hold of the jagged rungs of the ladder. For the first time in a long while, she was glad he was there with them, to be brave and keep them safe. She shuddered suddenly at the thought of a life without Pin. A life with only Adam to turn to if she was in trouble.
“Go on,” Adam’s voice urged from behind. “Hurry up, Emma. If we’re going to go down, let’s hurry and be done with it.”
Emma didn’t respond. She just sighed and crouched, and eased herself over the side of the cliff.
The valley air stung Pin’s nostrils, and each breath burned his lungs as he took his first steps around the deserted camp. Dense blue smoke hung like a sheet of toxic mist and lines of black ash snaked up the cliff face.
He reached down and tore a length of fabric from along the bottom of his shirt and ripped it into three swatches. Pressing one over his nose and mouth, he passed the others to Emma and Adam as they jumped down from the cliff and onto the valley floor.
“Protect your lungs, children,” he said as they each took a piece and hid the bottom half of their faces with it.
The three of them moved out into the open. It was difficult to see through the smoke, which still drifted up off burnt black logs, so Adam and Emma began searching the area close to them, methodically overturning rocks and rooting around great logs that had been cut down by the tribe and used as seating around the fires.
They weren’t sure what they were looking for exactly, but Pin had told them, You’ll know it’s odd when you see it.
Pin stayed close to the cliff at first, sifting through the mountain of grey ash under the bonfire with a stick. Adam watched as he examined the remains of the fire, suddenly worried he’d uncover the tiny body of the child. But after a few moments Pin moved away and began studying the ground where the ogres’ great tents had been staked in the ground.
Adam turned back towards Emma to see she had moved away from the open area and was walking into the tree-line. He didn’t follow her, but sat down on a log. He didn’t know what they were looking for and didn’t care. His mind told him to leave as soon as possible and that no good could ever come from being in such a cursed place.
“Pin!” Emma’s voice called from trees.
Pin rose quickly and called back towards her. “What is it, girl?”
“I think I’ve found something!”
“Well, what is it?” Adam asked getting to his feet.
“I don’t know,” Emma answered after a moment. “But it smells awful!”
Pin began walking across the camp just as the girl emerged with her hands cupped together. She was looking down in concentration, as though trying to balance something in her palms. A strong, sour odor hit his senses as he met her at the edge of the camp. It was strange, yet familiar for some reason. Emma held her hands out and he saw she held a pool of dark brown liquid.
“What is it?” Emma asked.
Pin scratched his beard for a moment, studying the substance. He took the cloth away from his nose and bent over to sniff it. The smell of it bit his nostrils and sent a sharp spike through his sinuses. His heart began to race suddenly.
“Could it be?” he whispered before dipping his index finger into the strange liquid.
Adam pushed in to get a closer look, then jumped back when he caught a whiff of the stuff.
“Yuck!” he said, covering his mouth and nose with the fabric again. “Don’t touch it!” he yelled as Pin went to taste the thick liquid. “It’s poison!”
Pin licked the substance off the tip of his finger. A wonderful, familiar heat moved across his tongue and ignited his taste buds. He closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying a singular sensation he never thought he’d know again. When he opened them again, he saw that Emma had let the liquid drop to the ground where it was already seeping into the dusty earth.
“Where did you find it, girl?” he asked her, urgently. “Where is it? Is there more?”
“There’s great big bags of it next to a tree back there,” Emma replied, pointing to where she’d been searching in the underbrush. “I pulled off the tops to see what was inside and this funny stuff poured out.”
Pin held his hand to his forehead and moved towards the spot quickly. “Did you put the tops back on?” he called back, worry in his voice.
“Of course I did,” Emma said, following after him. “What’s wrong? What is it, Pin, did I do something wrong?”
Pin pushed into the tree line and through the underbrush, casting his eyes around wildly. Finally, he saw them: three large bladders made of multicolored animal hides, each the size of a small child, piled against the trunk of a tree.
He got to his knees and picked one of them up. It was heavy and difficult to hold steady as its contents sloshed around inside. He checked the top and saw a crude wooden stopper plugging the pour spout. He sighed deeply and fell to his knees, letting the bladder heap cross his lap.
“Are you okay, Pin?” Emma asked as she and Adam approached from behind. “Did it make you sick?”
“I told you not to put it in your mouth,” said Adam gravely. “I tried to say that, but you didn’t listen.”
Pin looked back at them and a smile came to his face. “I’m not sick, children, and I’m not angry. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m overwhelmed. I feel as though I’ve been granted two wishes in one morning. Not only have the ogres left us once again to peace and paradise, but they’ve left me the most wonderful gift.”
Pin packed the bladders on top of one another and heaved them over his shoulder as he got to his feet. Adam and Emma exchanged a look of confusion.
“But, what is it, Pin?” Emma asked again.
“It’s booze, girl!” Pin exclaimed. “Liquor! Alcohol!” He chuckled as he moved past them and out into the open again. “I suppose you could call it moonshine!”
The children exchanged another flustered look before following. Pin seemed to have forgotten what they had come for and was making his way back towards their camp.
“Can’t climb up holding these, so we’ll have to take the long way back,” he said loudly. “At least I’ll have a stiff drink at the end of the journey.”
“Aren’t we going to follow after the ogres?” Emma asked, picking up speed to catch him. Adam followed behind her, his eyes darting all around. He still couldn’t believe they were truly safe from danger.
“Why look for trouble, I say,” Pin answered. “Perhaps it’s a sign to leave well enough alone and get back to enjoying life. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw another ogre at all.”
“But what about the probe?” argued Emma. “You said it could get us home. You said it could get us off the moon once and for all.”
Pin patted the swollen bladders on his shoulders, thick with brown liquor and looked down at the girl. “Maybe life here isn’t so bad after all. And more people would just bring more trouble and more problems for us all anyhow. They always do. No, my girl, I think the three of us are just fine as we are. We’ll set our camp up on the beach tonight and sleep under the stars once again. Won’t that be nice?”
Emma looked away from Pin, disappointed and irritated at losing the opportunity to learn more about the moon and get back to where they’d come from.
She looked up at the sun to track its position. It was almost done its journey west, so they didn’t have much sunlight left. She knew it wouldn’t be safe to follow the tribe on her own, but maybe she could determine the direction they’d traveled in tomorrow.
Emma relaxed at the thought of taking matters into her own hands. Maybe she didn’t need Pin’s help or approval. And it would be nice to finally escape their cramped, hidden camp and move out onto the spacious beach. If it stayed warm, she could even swim while Pin cooked dinner. It had been so long since she’d sat on the rocks and looked out at the sun setting over the ocean.
“That does sound nice for a change,” she admitted finally, to which Pin smiled and nodded.
“Come along, Adam! Don’t dally!” he called over his shoulder as he picked up his pace. “It’s a long way around and back to the beach. And I don’t want to waste a moment of daylight.”
Adam waved smoke away from his face and took one last look across the barren, scorched camp under the cave. He wondered if so much vile darkness could ever truly be gone from their lives now that it had infected it. He wasn’t so sure.
He looked down to see his right hand was trembling. He let his grip go from his spear and swung it over his shoulder. Then he examined his palm. It was red and puffy from holding onto the wood so tightly. He hadn’t realized how nervous he’d been the whole time they were down in the valley.
When he looked back up, Emma and Pin had already disappeared into the trees. The sudden call of a not-parrot urged him forward and he ran to catch up with them.