Chapter Twenty Three
Emma’s eyes burst open and she sat up.
Her mid-morning sleep had been interrupted, though she didn’t know by what. She pushed away her golden coverings made of tightly woven sweet grass and scanned the large hut for any unwanted guests that may have wormed onto their homestead looking for an easy meal. But it was empty and the alarms outside weren’t ringing.
KoKo emerged from her sleeping basket in the corner and stood at attention. Her ears perked up and she twitched her head like she did when she hunted for bugs at dusk. Whatever the disturbance was, she sensed it too.
Emma pulled her hair back and tied it into a ponytail before rising and looking back at the animal. She was still amazed at how large her spirit companion had become. Despite her initial rejection of KoKo all those years ago, they’d grown up together and become inseparable. And while she was far too big to sit comfortably on Emma’s shoulders anymore, KoKo still traveled curled around her neck, her body stretched across both.
A thought occurred to Emma suddenly and she said, “Where’s Adam, KoKo?”
KoKo cocked her head inquisitively then jumped up at a human cry that rang out from somewhere in the jungle.
Instinctively, Emma got to her feet and ran for the entrance, grabbing her spear and bursting outside in a single blur of motion.
KoKo took chase, struggling to keep up as Emma ran through the homestead, past the flapper pens and water troughs, and through rows of planted red crisp and sweet root until, finally, she could climb a tree at the edge of the jungle and sail down onto the girl’s shoulders.
Together they raced into the dense jungle in search of Adam, Emma whipping past trees and bounding over roots and rocks as KoKo scanned the horizon with her large yellow eyes.
Coming to the edge of a sharp bank, Emma held her spear above her head and yelled, “hold on!“, as she sat and slid down, not caring if the dirt and sharp brush tore at her slender bare legs.
KoKo dug her nails into Emma’s skin and flattened on her shoulders as they descended, but the girl hardly noticed. If she’d learned one thing in ten years of living in the heart of the moon, it was to endure the inflictions nature set upon the body and push forward when on the hunt (or the escape).
She reached the bottom of the hill and skipped effortlessly to her feet as another cry echoed through the trees to the east. Without slowing, Emma shifted direction towards the sound. Adam wasn’t far off now, she could tell.
Based on the direction and level of his cries, he was close to the base of the great mountain where the waterfall drove hard and deep into the rocky lake at its base.
Emma saw two massive slider tentacles through the trees as she rounded a large red trunk. She cursed and grit her teeth, but didn’t slow. The monstrous limbs were raised in the air and waving wildly in a display of aggression. Before she saw the rest of the monster, a hollow tone filled the air as the beast bellowed.
Emma knew that sound. The slider was aiming to kill.
She pushed through the tree line and leaped onto the smooth stones that surrounded the base of the great mountain. The slider was there, up on its bulbous lower limbs, barbed tentacles flailing and lips peeled back to reveal rows of bony teeth. Its translucent skin showed a tempest of rivers underneath, yellow blood pumping through veins as the slider’s black and yellow heart beat furiously.
Emma thanked the red planet it was a yellow slider and not a red one. Yellows were the smallest of the species, standing roughly three times her height. They were easily angered and very dangerous, but small enough to best. They also tasted wonderful if you could actually get close enough to kill one.
Sliding to a halt, she stood back to avoid the attack she knew was imminent. Her gaze wandered instinctively upwards to where the mountain’s peak touched the clouds. It was a colossal natural wonder that dwarfed everything else on the moon, so it was hard to train the eye away when you approached it.
Its size was what drew them to their final settlement and—even though she’d walked in its shadow hundreds of times—its scale never failed to stop her cold. In fact the entire jungle seemed to grow out from under it.
Another cry rang out then and Emma turned, crouching low. It was Adam, perched, legs apart and spear out, standing on a tall, narrow boulder that sprang from the mountain lake like an ancient pillar.
Mist from the great waterfall swirled around him as he challenged and taunted the slider to attack.
“Go on, you yellow slime sucker!” he yelled from the rock, waving his spear back and forth. “What are you waiting for? Eat me!”
Staying low, Emma held her spear tightly. KoKo clacked, urging her forward, but they were too late. There was nothing she could do but watch the slider send two tentacles shooting towards Adam, bellowing another cry and bringing its teeth together in an ear-splitting crack.
Adam ducked as the first tentacle swung towards him. It missed and sailed over his head, but the monster had time to adjust the second one that followed close behind. It came at Adam low, and was about to sweep him off the rock when the boy spun around once, sliding his feet backwards to avoid the tentacle. Then he lifted his spear and drove the end of it into the slow moving appendage as its sharp barbs scraped across the stone.
The slider sent a deep, agonizing wave of sound across the rocks that blew Emma’s ponytail up into the air. The force of it was so strong it actually pushed her back and it was all she could do to stay standing.
Adam pulled his spear out of the tentacle and drove it in again quickly. Dark yellow puss spilled out from the wound and covered the rock.
The Slider bellowed and sent its third tentacle lumbering towards him. The fleshy mass fell fast and heavy like a stone through water and slammed into Adam with a sickening thud. His feet slipped on the slick stone and the blow sent him backwards off the rock, his limbs hanging like a rag doll.
Emma screamed as she lost sight of him behind the boulder then stood tall on the balls of her feet. Pouncing like a tree stalker she charged for the slider while its attention was elsewhere, spear at her side and driven by a savage instinct to avenge and protect.
The animal’s black round eyes rotated in their sockets and locked onto her as she ran underneath it and weaved between its three lower tendrils.
KoKo jumped from her shoulder and bounded from one flailing tentacle to the other until she rounded over the slider’s body, attempting to distract it away from Emma.
The slider raised itself up and slid backwards to find Emma, but not before the girl drove the sharp end of her long spear up and into its fleshy underside. It made a loud, sickened sound before its heavy, gelatinous body began to fall back down.
Emma dropped and rolled to the side, avoiding the monster as it flattened out on the wet rock bed, the spear shooting up and into its insides, piercing its giant heart.
Staying low and at the ready, she watched the slider writhe for another minute before its heart stopped pumping and turned a dark shade of black. Only when she was sure it was dead did she draw a relieved breath.
KoKo emerged from behind the fallen creature and bounded towards her, but Emma was already up and racing for the waterfall.
She veered around the tall stone that Adam had fallen from and scanned the water for any sign of him.
“Adam!” she called frantically and—half expecting to find his body broken along the rocks— was almost relieved to find he wasn’t there.
She picked carefully down to the water’s edge and peered into the crystal water to see if he was trapped along the bottom. The sound of the waterfall swirled around her in a deafening roar.
She thought she caught sight of him under the waves and leaned in, straining to make out the wavering shape of a figure under the ripples.
“Watch out!” cried a voice and two hands pushed her from behind.
Emma’s eyes flared open as she flew headfirst towards the water, plunging under the cold surface. She flailed underwater and turned herself around quickly to find the surface again. Looking up she saw a familiar figure standing on the shore, hands on his hips and laughing heartily.
Swimming up quickly, she broke the surface and scowled. “Adam, you bug brain!” she yelled up at him, treading water. “You scared me!”
Adam laughed harder and pointed down at her. “You should have seen your face, Emma,” he said, imitating her surprise at being pushed into the water.
“Stop that right now and help me out of here,” Emma said sternly as she swam toward the water’s edge.
Adam rolled his eyes and skipped down the rocks. He reached out and waited for Emma to put her hand in his. When she did, she held his tightly and kicked her legs hard, pulling him forward. Adam’s eyes widened as he fell, hitting the water on his belly, the bare skin sending a hearty flop ricocheting across the water.
He broke the surface, angered at having been caught off guard. “Hey, that’s not fair!” he said as Emma swam towards him, taunting him with little splashes to the face as she laughed. “Come on, Emma, I mean it, stop that right now.”
Emma frowned mockingly then swam past him towards the shore. She pulled herself onto the warm rocks and flipped over. Then, propping herself onto her elbows, she watched Adam climb out of the water behind her.
At nineteen, he had grown very tall, at least a foot taller than her. His hair was a messy mop of wet blond curls that stood in stark contrast to his tanned, muscular body. Still doe-eyed with fine young features, he cut a curious blend of innocence and savagery as he slicked his hair back and fished his spear from the water. Diluted yellow blood dripped down it, pooling on the dark stone.
“So, you killed it I suppose,” Adam said flatly, almost disappointed. “You didn’t have to. I was just having fun with it. We never have any fun anymore.”
“Fun?” Emma scoffed. “Are you sun sick or something? You could have been killed! I though you were dead when the slider got you.”
Adam waved dismissively and straightened, boasting, “Takes more than that to hurt me. Didn’t you see how I was playing with it? Poor thing didn’t stand a chance once I lured it down here. You know sliders are useless on wet stone, Emma.”
"Lured it?!” Emma yelled, stunned. “Adam, I thought I’d lost you and you say you wanted it to attack you? What might have happened if I hadn’t killed it for you?”
“You think I couldn’t win?” Adam replied indignantly. “Is that what you’re saying? Because I could kill any old slider and you know it! Next time just stay out of the way and you’ll see. Why did you even come down here? I don’t need your help with everything you know.”
“Fine!” Emma yelled, getting to her feet. “Come on KoKo, let’s go.”
KoKo climbed up her leg and settled on her shoulder before Emma turned and marched away.
“Good! Go! I’ll just harvest it on my own then,” Adam called after her. “Maybe I’ll eat it all myself, too!”
“Fine! You don’t want any help, remember?” Emma said hotly without looking back.
“That’s right, I don’t!” Adam yelled as Emma slipped out of sight and into the trees, leaving him alone at the base of the mountain.
Adam looked across the rocks at the slider’s souring mass of translucent flesh and suddenly wished he’d asked her to bring him a pull sled and black blade to help with the harvest. Sliders looked soft, but their skin was rubbery and tough to slice.
I’ll just have to come back, he thought with a mournful sigh as he slung his spear across his back and trudged along the rocks towards the trees.