Adam’s heart was racing.
His intuition had become acute enough over the years to know that something was terribly wrong.
Treading carefully over the smooth black stone surrounding the mountain lake, Adam trailed KoKo towards the rock face until they reached a narrow crag tucked just out of sight. No sooner had he stopped to take a breath than KoKo chirped and disappeared between jagged boulders, vanishing from view.
Sucking in a deep breath, Adam stood tall, making himself as thin as possible in order to push between the sharp rocks and into a tight tunnel beyond the opening.
The tunnel was so narrow that he had to crouch low, and the rough walls scraped against the smooth skin of his shoulders and elbows and the top of his head as he shimmied forward in the dark.
After years of living by the mountain and exploring much of its north face, he was surprised that both he and Emma had missed the passageway altogether. He didn’t know where KoKo was leading him, but just then he felt he had no choice but to follow.
“KoKo?” he whispered as he pushed forward blindly in the dark. “KoKo, where are you? Where are you taking me? Where does this tunnel go? KoKo, are you there?”
He stopped dead and strained to listen. If KoKo was too far gone he would have to turn back. If he became lost in the mountain’s dark passageways, he may never find his way out of them again.
“Where is that blasted creature?” Adam said and leaned against the cold stone wall.
He had never cared for KoKo the way Emma had over the years. The truth was he found the animal something of a pest most of the time and Emma’s devotion to her irked him something fierce. He couldn’t understand why she doted on the animal when doing so took time away from other fun things they could do together.
Taking care of things the way Emma did wasn’t a notion that came to him often, but it seemed like an indelible part of what made her who she was. Maybe if he had been better about that—thought to take care of her better—she wouldn’t be lost to him now. His drive was to protect, sure, but perhaps caring was something altogether different.
Adam decided to keep moving and quickened his pace through the tunnels. He realized how grateful he was now for the bond that KoKo and Emma had forged over the years. Without it, the animal wouldn’t be leading him now, and he was ready to put all his trust in the belief that she knew where Emma was.
A chirp echoed from somewhere up ahead and his gaze darted towards the sound. His eyes were adjusting somewhat to the darkness and he could actually make out a few feet of tunnel ahead now.
KoKo was still out of sight, but he kept moving through the darkness, guided by the animal’s distant chirps and whistles.
After some time, the rock above his head grew higher and he was able to stand upright again. He arched his back, relishing the relief it gave him, as he quickened his pace forward. The deeper he dove into the mountain, the more its subterranean sounds began to surround him until he found it difficult to distinguish the tones of dripping water and insects from KoKo’s noises. A few steps later he stopped, fearful he’d lost her again.
“KoKo!” he whispered harshly. “I can’t hear you. Come back you little—“
Something landed on his shoulder then and he jumped in the dark. Thinking is was KoKo, he turned his head towards whatever it was, but instead came face-to-face with a large three-legged insect with long, sharp mandibles and hundreds of microscopic glowing eyes.
The thing scuttled up his neck and burrowed into his thick hair faster than he could react and he jumped around spastically, writhing and pulling at it in desperate attempt to get the nasty thing of him. A pain ran down his spine as the thing bit him on the back of the neck and he yelled out.
His knees weakened and he noticed a thousand more yellow eyes coming out of the darkness.
As the creatures materialized in his line of sight he tried to bat them away with his spear, but found he was losing dexterity in his fingers. A clatter rang out as he let it go and his weapon fell to the stone floor.
“Koko!” he rasped, realizing he was also losing his voice, his throat constricting as venom pulsed through him. It was so quick, he could feel it sting as it travelled through his veins.
He fell against the wall, trying desperately to stay upright as a dozen ugly spider-things ran onto him and nipped at his tender body.
“KoKo…” Adam could barely push the sound from his lips.
He collapsed to the rock floor and the spider-things clamored over his entire body. He became numb, and his limbs convulsed erratically as he lay helpless. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was the mandible of a spider-thing carving a slice of flesh away from his side and stuffing it into its grotesque maw.
Emma struggled furiously against her bonds, but couldn’t lift her head off the cane sled to see where the ogres were dragging her. Fear and adrenaline surged through her and she cursed herself for being so careless as to be found alone and captured so easily.
She could hear the two large ogres making strange noises ahead as they trudged along the narrow mountain passageway. It sounded like they were speaking to one another in a series of guttural sounds and whoops, but if the language had meaning it was lost on her, and her head was so tightly secured to the cane sled that she couldn’t see anything around her except the rocky ceiling above.
Though she was silent now, she had called out and screamed for some time for the ogres to let her go. But they never answered her.
They’d travelled so long through the mountain passageways that it wasn’t long before Emma gave up all hope of Adam ever finding her again. How could he when neither of them had even known about the tunnels under the mountain?
She noticed the rock above her head was beginning to slant upwards, slowly rising until it became a high, domed cavern covered in stalactites. Large flying creatures with translucent wings hung between the long rocks, or flew around squawking. A few of them shot down towards the ogres as they broke into the open, swooping overhead to see if they might be something to eat. But those that got too close were met with the hard blow of an ogre fist and flew back up towards the ceiling with a deafening screech.
A new sound arose as they continued through the cavern, and Emma was suddenly truck with an icy fear that made the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stand at attention. The grunts and chatter of more ogres - many more - grew unmistakable until it became a deafening roar all around her.
Finally, the ogres brought the sled to a stop, dropping the thick vine ropes before moving into her sightline. Their breath blew hot as they both leaned down towards her and, for the first time, she was close enough to the moon’s sentient inhabitants to get a good look at them.
Their skin was as thick as leather with deep weathered lines crisscrossing their cheeks and forehead. Black, sooty paint was streaked underneath their jaws and around their eyes and Emma wondered if these two were warriors or hunters—an explanation perhaps of how they found her in the first place (though she imagined the truth of how they lived and moved around the moon would never truly be known to her).
Their hair was long and rope-thick and shimmered oddly, resembling the multicolored mosses that grew on the sides of the moon’s trees. They tied it in knots to keep it out of their faces.
They seemed to be so a part of the moon’s environment that Emma wouldn’t have been surprised to see more of them sprout from the earth and grab her right there.
Reaching their thick, calloused hands under the sled they heaved it upright. Finally, Emma could see where she was. And as they dragged the sled forward, her mouth hung agape, as she took in the sights before her.
The two ogres had taken her to the heart of the mountain where hundreds more were assembled in a massive cavern. The rock ceiling hung more than fifty feet overhead and the area was so large, Emma couldn’t see where its walls were. She felt like she was floating in a sea as waves of activity and sounds swirled around her.
Lengths of colorful animal hides hung from the ceiling creating opulent draping that surrounded a tall throne made of bones in the center of everything. And sitting on the throne was the largest ogre Emma had seen yet; a male with fierce red eyes who wore a suit of bones and held animal bone spear in his lower hand with a slider bard tied to the end of it.
The hunter closest to Emma bellowed a call towards the throne and a hush spread over the crowd like the hissing of millions of insects. A moment later it was so quiet that Emma could hear every beat of her heart as it pounded in her chest.
Slowly, methodically, the ogre in bones stood tall and stepped away from his throne. Marching towards her, his suit rattled with every step, sending a chill down Emma’s spine.
Unable to speak for the fear she felt, her eyes looked around the cavern wildly, looking for an exit, a weapon, a friendly face— anything!
But while no help presented itself, she noticed a strange object on top of a high tower of logs that sat next to the throne. It was black and smooth, lined with chrome, and round, the size of a large boulder. It was clearly manmade, long metal spikes sticking out from all around it. It looked otherworldly to Emma, surrounded by the rock and natural chaos of the mountain cavern as it was.
The moment she saw it she knew it was the probe that Pin had told them about, the one that had come from Earth but had never sent its message back home. She wanted to run to it, find a way to turn it on and get out of this horrible place once and for all.
Surrounded as she was now by hordes of ogres, she hated the moon more than anything. Any moments of gentle kindness it had shown her in the past were wiped from her mind when she turned away from the probe to see the ogre in bones looming over her.
Emma found her voice then and screamed. She screamed so loud that the whole crowd of ogres ducked as if escaping a creature that had suddenly dove upon them from above. And indeed, screeches rang out along the ceiling as flying creatures returned what they deemed to be a scream of an animal somewhere below them in the cave.
Taken aback by the force of Emma’s scream, the ogre in bones took a single step back . He stood tall as though reassessing her. Then he leaned in cautiously, pressing his huge face close to Emma’s.
His breath, putrid and hot, washed over her as he examined her. She winced and closed her eyes tight, but he forced her lids back open with his thick fingers and peered into her light blue eyes for a long time, as though searching for something supernatural within them. Following that, he forced Emma’s mouth open and examined her teeth, which, compared to his, were blunt and small.
When he was finished, the ogre in bones stood tall again and turned to the silent crowd assembled behind him.
“Ti-ta!” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the cavern.
The crowd of ogres muttered in low, muted voices. Some nodded, some cowered, but all watched their king intently as he lifted his great spear and pointed it towards the probe next to his throne.
“Ti-ta! Chara!” the words spat from his mouth like he was jettisoning a piece of rotten food. He shook his suit and the death rattle of bones ricocheted around the cavern. He continued to bellow in the strange language Emma couldn’t understand and point to the probe, yelling, “Ti-ta! Charra! Ti-ta! Ti-tu!”
The crowd screamed out in horror and the ogre in bones turned towards Emma again, gripping the top of her head and forcing her gaze towards the probe.
“Ti-tu!” he yelled at her. “Ti-tu! Ti-tu!”
“I don’t know what you want,” Emma whimpered under the pressure of his grip.
“Charra! Ti-tu!” the ogre in bones bellowed back in response.
“I don’t know what you’re saying!” Emma screamed.
This made the ogre in bones even angrier and he wrapped his thick fingers around her throat. It was nothing more than a thin branch in his massive hand, and Emma thought, How easy it would be for him to snap it in an instant.
The ogre in bones spoke low and serious, waving his staff towards the assembly of ogres before them. Then he pointed it towards the probe.
Emma strained her thoughts, desperate to understand him. The fact that he hadn’t killed her yet made her think there must be something he was trying to communicate to her, some connection he was trying to make between her and the probe.
He waved his staff towards the assembly once more and Emma let her eyes wander over them. Suppressing her fear, she began to notice how retched many of them seemed—not menacing, but weary, bent and broken, their camp at the center of the mountain less a violent stronghold than a place of retreat. They seemed like animals hiding from a predator stalking somewhere outside. Emma didn’t know what could make such formidable creatures cower in fear, but it seemed like something had driven them underground.
Despite her realization, Emma was still rendered mute, unable to understand her captors and what they wanted from her.
What was it about this probe that made them both worship it and fear it at the same time? Emma understood enough to know the creatures associated the probe with her, but exactly why, she couldn’t decipher.
One thing the moon had taught her over the years, however, is that when creatures are scared they can become dangerous. Fear drives all animals to attack. In that regard, her life was in real jeopardy here.
Disturbing her thoughts, the ogre in bones suddenly thrust his spear into the air and barked some kind of order.
Emma watched perplexed as the crowd of ogres parted to make way for a bamboo palanquin draped in the dried slider flesh. It was carried on the backs of four ogres who trudged forward, backs bent in agony. Emma could make out the figure inside, completely wrapped in green and gold animal hides only were visible. Even in the firelight, the scales covering the hides sparkled brilliantly.
A hush fell over the crowd and some ogres bowed low as the figure drew closer. Emma’s flesh bristled with goose pimples and her mind raced to understand who it was and what was happening and what it had to do with her.
When the figure on the palanquin reached the ogre in bones, he lowered himself onto one knee and bowed his head. Upon doing so, the figure swung its legs over the side of the palanquin and stepped onto his shoulders, using his body to climb down like a step stool.
Once on the ground, the covered figure glided towards Emma, swaying gracefully, betraying a sense of the feminine hidden underneath its coverings. The figure came close. Its eyes studied her. They were bloodshot and piercing, almost panicked as they scanned Emma’s face and half-naked body.
The ogre in bones rose from the ground and stepped in tall behind the figure. Then, reaching around with his strong three arms, he pulled away the colorful hides to reveal the figure underneath.
She was female as Emma had suspected. Her thick, ropey hair was tied back tightly and lined with precious stones and the teeth and bones of different animals.
She must be a queen, Emma thought.
She was mostly naked, covered only by a sparse covering of hides so Emma could see her skin and how different it appeared to be from the other ogres assembled.
Her skin was marbled with large white blotches, and angry looking red lines—like sores—crisscrossed her arms and chest. It looked like something was eating away at her flash and suddenly Emma realized that, whatever was causing it, must be afflicting the tribe. The female grabbed Emma by the arm roughly and ran a finger along her skin.
“Mu-ah,” she said quietly, her voice ragged and sickly. “Mu-ah, ti-tu.”
Dropping Emma’s arm, she turned and pointed to the probe behind them. When she turned back she had fire in her eyes and sneered angrily.
“Mu-ah, TI-TU!” she yelled, pressing her face close to Emma’s.
Emma shuddered under her anger and began to cry.
“I don’t know what you want!” she said hopelessly. “You’re sick? I don’t know why! I can’t help you—“
“Charra!” the female screamed, her breath blowing hot across Emma’s face.
Everything happened all at once then. The crowd became active, ogres moving in every direction as though responding to an order.
Emma watched, panicked, as they tore down tents, packed sacks, and prepared long bamboo sleds with supplies. It seemed to Emma that they were setting to leave the cavern.
While the horde was occupied, Emma watched the ogre in bones wrap the queen back up in her animal coverings and lead her to her bamboo palanquin. At the same time, the two ogres that had dragged her through the mountain lowered the sled to the ground again and began pulling her away.
“Wait!” cried Emma. “Where are you going? Let me go!”
Her cries went unanswered as the sound of commotion swirled unseen around her and she was dragged off into the crowd.