Part I: Falling
He crouched and waited. Poised and alert. Ready to strike. There was a sound in the distance and then movement. “To the left!” he screamed to his partner. He was running. Sprinting as fast as his legs could carry him. Chasing down his target. Weaving and dodging through the trees.
They moved as one as they closed in on the boy. One to the left. The other on the right. They converged on him simultaneously; their movements in sync from countless missions working together. One hit high. The other struck low. The boy’s ankle was pinned under one of the collectors’ bodies, stuck in place as his torso was smashed into. There was a loud crack as the boy’s leg snapped from the force exerted on his upper body. A scream of pain and then silence filled the forest. The collectors’ work was complete.
Brushing himself off, Lepus stood up and examined the boy they had just caught. His partner, Kazi, nodded toward Lepus, signifying a job well done, then focused his attention on the boy. The boy, dark skinned, thin but muscular, was sobbing apologetically, one hand holding out the watch he had stolen, the other grabbing at his broken leg. His head was turned away in shame. Kazi was shaking his head, unmoved by the boy’s tears, but Lepus felt a moment of guilt pass through him. He shook it off and silently raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. The boy’s body fell silently to the sodden earth as the watch slid out of his grasp. Kazi scooped up the stolen watch and examined it while Lepus called their commander and the transport ship that was parked a few miles back.
“It’s never worth it,” he said to Kazi, a hint of remorse in his voice.
“Nope,” came Kazi’s response. Distant, he had already moved on from the boy. Kazi didn’t care about the boy or who he was, but Lepus looked down at the boy and was struck by how young he looked.
“I thought maybe he’d get away,” Kazi said after a moment of silence.
“Yeah,” Lepus responded, still locked on the boy’s face.
“He showed some potential. Haven’t had a good young recruit in a while.”
“Yeah,” Lepus replied. Paused. Then spoke again. “But just like the rest, can’t hide from us.” The transport ship arrived and landed a few yards away. Lepus grabbed the watch from Kazi to examine it for himself. “It’s fake anyway.” Lepus threw the watch back to Kazi, slipped on his computerized glasses and headed toward the ship to meet their commander.
Commander Rex Rort hopped off the ship and strode toward Lepus with large, powerful steps. Lepus saluted his commander, who replied with a quick salute of his own and then got down to business. “What have we got here?” Commander Rort asked as he handed Lepus a console.
“Young boy, maybe twelve, stole a watch,” Lepus began as he walked back over to the body. The boy’s young appearance kept weighing on his mind. “He’s stunned for now, shouldn’t wake up for a while. I’ll know more about him in a minute.”
Lepus raised the console over the body and turned it on. A soft white light emanated from the device, and Lepus raised it so that it was shining right into the boy’s eyes. He typed in his collector’s code, and the glasses he was wearing synced to the device. The boy’s vital information began to dance across the glasses. “Name is Juarez Polski,” Lepus began. “Ten years old.”
“Ten? Wow. They grow ’em big down here, eh?” Commander Rort said with a chuckle. “How tall is he?”
“Five feet two inches.” Rort whistled. Lepus was shocked by the boy’s age. He had thought that he looked young, but ten years old was surprising. Another moment of guilt came over him as he thought about what would happen when Juarez was brought back to the city.
“What tribe?” Commander Rort said, interrupting Lepus’s thoughts.
“Right,” Lepus moved his focus back to his analysis. “It says here he is a member of the Klondike Tribe, sir.” Another pause from Lepus. I was a member of the Klondike Tribe before I was discovered, Lepus thought, or at least that was what he had been told. He had no recollection of his pre-Saber days. Commander Rort and Kazi were looking at him strangely. He couldn’t blame them, he typically whipped right through his collector’s reports, but there was something about this boy that kept distracting him.
“Um, let’s see here. No outstanding warrants. This is his first reported crime.” Lepus continued reading from the computerized glasses, but the thought of his pre-Saber days stayed with him.
“Lepus, continue,” demanded Commander Rort. His patience was growing thin.
“Right. He is the second youngest member of his family, three sisters and a brother.”
“Okay, what else?” Commander Rort asked. “His mother died when he was young of complications from pneumonia,” Lepus continued. “It says his father’s current employment is unknown.” Lepus paused. “That seems kind of strange.” Lepus searched the glasses. “You know what? The last update on the family is from two years ago. It’s as if they disappeared…”
“Look here,” Kazi interrupted him and was staring at the boy’s arm. “There’s something here, a tattoo, some symbol or something.” He flipped over the arm revealing the rest of the symbolic tattoo. It was a perfect circle measuring the width of the boy’s forearm. It was about three inches in diameter. At the center of the circle was a capital P extending from the top of the arc all the way to the bottom. To the left of the P was a volcano that Lepus guessed was supposed to represent Mount Saber, and the volcano was erupting. Lava was spilling out from the top of the mountain, flowing down the side of the volcano across the P at the center of the tattoo, and then crashing and spilling over a wall that Lepus recognized as the wall of Saber.
“What is this?” Lepus asked, his voice incapable of hiding the anxiety building inside him. Kazi just shook his head. He had never seen anything like it before either.
They looked at Commander Rort, who had fallen silent. His face couldn’t hide his recognition of the symbol. His skin was pale, and his mouth was hanging open. His eyebrows, raised and afraid, confirmed the look of shock. “I don’t believe it,” was all he said.
Both Lepus and Kazi remained silent, transfixed by their commander. Neither one of them could recall a time when they had seen their commander look so helpless, so shocked, so afraid. They stared at him, unable to speak, waiting for him to break the emotional silence with some sort of explanation. The wind in the forest had begun to pick up and fallen leaves were dancing around their frozen bodies. The sun was beginning its descent. The environment around them had changed. It had become eerie, matching the mood of the two collectors and their commander.
Chills crawled up Lepus’s arms and down his back, and he was scared, more scared than he had been in his entire life. Finally, the commander broke the silence. “He’s a member of the Plebeians.”
Kazi panicked, “But…but they’re all dead!” he nearly yelled, as if angry that the commander would suggest such a thing.
Rort looked at Kazi sympathetically. “I guess they aren’t.” And then suddenly, as if flipping a switch, Rex went from being a scared civilian to the commander again. “We need to leave,” he said. Neither collector moved, still frozen from shock and fear. “Now! That’s an order, goddammit!” he yelled. The commander snapped a photo of the boy’s face and then another of the symbol on his arm and started running back toward the transport ship.
“Wait,” Lepus called to him from behind. “What should I do with the boy?”
“Kill him, now. There will be more soon,” Rort yelled and disappeared up the ladder and into the ship. Lepus set his pistol from stun to kill and raised it so that it was aimed right at the boy’s forehead. For the first time in his life, Lepus hesitated to follow his commander’s order. Lepus could feel the cold air biting at his skin through his suit. His conscience overcame him, and he lowered his pistol. It might have been the boy’s age or his tribe or perhaps fear of the Plebeians, but whatever it was, Lepus was unable to pull the trigger and kill the boy. He followed after Kazi, who had already started for the ship, the boy slowly fading to the back of his memory.
He caught up to Kazi as he was climbing the ladder onto the ship. Kazi didn’t even think to ask Lepus if he had followed Commander Rort’s orders. He knew that Lepus always followed orders. Plus, Kazi was too distracted by the thought of a Plebeian. “A Plebeian! Here! Can you believe it?” Kazi asked him. His nervousness and fear were gone, replaced by excitement.
“Nope,” Lepus responded, still afraid.
“What do you think it means?” Kazi asked, not taking notice of Lepus’s fear.
Lepus thought for a moment. “It means we aren’t as safe as we thought we were,” Lepus said as he climbed past Kazi on the ten-foot ladder into the ship’s cargo bay.
As he pulled himself through the door and into the ship, Lepus could hear the commander barking orders at the crew. The panic in his voice was palpable, and the crew was responding with growing anxiety and fear. The flesh started to prickle on his skin as Lepus realized he had never seen the commander act so distraught. He is really shaken by this Plebeian. Lepus felt his own fear continuing to build. His body was shivering even though the hull of the ship was heated to a comfortable temperature. Lepus recalled the stories he had heard of the Plebeians in the past and remembered that Commander Rort was around when those first Plebeians were wreaking havoc throughout Saber many years ago.
The worst story Lepus could recall was of when a group of Plebeians had sneaked into the city under cover of darkness and kidnapped fifty small children. The Plebeians had sawed the heads off the infants and mounted them on spikes across the city walls. The thought of it disgusted and scared him. But that was just a story Lepus had heard. He had never seen a Plebeian before; they had disappeared almost twenty years ago when Lepus was just five years old. As he was growing up, the stories of what the Plebeians had done continued to be told and each story told of tales more devastating than the last. The stories were meant to scare and warn the children and to remind the people who the Plebeians were and what they had stood for. Lepus couldn’t blame his commander for appearing rattled; he even felt sympathetic. In a moment the commander’s life had been turned upside down, and his greatest fear had reappeared, a nightmare that he had thought was over.
Lepus strapped himself into a seat across the aisle from Kazi as Commander Rort picked up the communicator to contact the Center. The crew aboard the ship strained to hear the conversation between their traumatized commander and his superiors.
“I must speak to the Council now!” Commander Rort barked into the communicator. “We are in danger!” He was pacing back and forth throughout the cabin, his pace quickening with every word. They couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation but judging by their commander’s facial expression the person on the other end was not taking him very seriously. “No, I can’t wait until tomorrow, dammit!” The receptionist on the other end clearly was oblivious to the seriousness in Rort’s voice.
As Commander Rort started to lose his patience with the receptionist, there was a loud crash, and he was knocked off his feet by an explosion of smoke and flames. The explosion had opened a hole about three feet wide and five feet high on the right side of the ship. The ship starting banking hard to the right in response and was spinning uncontrollably. A siren came on in the cabin accompanied by red flashing warning lights that sent circles of red light spinning across the cabin walls and floor. Overhead sprinklers deployed as the ship’s starboard side went up in flames. Chaos and devastation filled the ship and the crew aboard.
“Goddammit!” Rort yelled into the communicator. He grabbed a railing and steadied himself. The left side of his face was a fusion of oozing blood and burning skin. He seemed to pay no notice to it, continuing to yell at the receptionist on the other end of the communicator. Another explosion followed, and the side paneling on the starboard side was completely blown away, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the ship. The ship, spinning out of control, was falling fast.
Rort was losing his grip on the railing he had used to steady himself. “You tell President Nunez,” he yelled into the communicator, “we are dead by the hand of the Plebeians. You hear me?” Lepus had no way of knowing if the receptionist had heard him or not, but he hoped for their sake and the sake of Saber she had. “They’re back. I repeat they are back,” Commander Rort said, then turned off the communicator and hurled it out the growing hole in the ship, throwing all his anger with it. He turned and looked at Lepus, calm as could be as if they weren’t under attack and spinning to certain death.
“There’s no way you could have known, Commander.” The collector sat there silently, staring at Rort.
Rort looked at Kazi. “You guys were the best damn collectors I’ve had. It was an honor working beside you. Sucks it has to end like this.” Commander Rort smiled a wide smile at them and in that moment he looked happy. Then he lost his grip on the railing and shot across the hull of the ship and out the wall-sized hole in the side.
The sight of his commander falling to his death snapped Lepus out of the paralyzing trance he was in. Lepus changed his focus from the place his commander had been standing to where Kazi was sitting across from him. They looked at each other and knew they had to do something in order to survive. There was another loud crash and the plane shook violently. Lepus saw a large chunk of the wall break off and start flying across the cabin of the ship to where Kazi was fiddling with his seatbelt, but he couldn’t get it to budge. “Kazi!” Lepus screamed and tried to unhook his own seatbelt, but it was too late. The piece of flying wall had struck Kazi in the side of his face, taking half of his skull to the back of the ship with it. Lepus wailed as he looked at the remaining piece of Kazi’s head that was barely attached to his body. He didn’t want to accept the fact Kazi was dead, but he had to. Lepus took a deep breath and saluted his longtime friend and partner. “It was an honor serving with you.”
Lepus looked around the cabin of the ship and became eerily aware that everyone else was either dead or dying, except him. I’m not going to sit here and die, Lepus thought. He looked around the cabin to get his bearings. He knew that he needed to act quickly. The ship was still banking fast to his right. He could see more bodies that had been struck by debris like Kazi’s. Behind him sat the bodies of Boris Lynch and Eddle Risp, two other collectors he had known well. When the flying pipe pierced Boris’s chest the pistol in his hand had gone off. It was set to kill and sent two bullets through Eddle’s face.
Lepus grabbed tightly at his chair, looking away from his dead friends, and finished undoing his seatbelt. For a moment, he was suspended in the air, weightless, while the ship continued to spin. Grabbing the chair for dear life, Lepus quickly but carefully moved himself around the chair so that he was positioned to let go without flying out of the hole in the ship. He hoped that when he let go he would fall to the back of the ship and land near the parachutes.
Lepus drew in another big breath. He let go. He hit the floor hard and went spiraling to the back of the ship and crashed into the back wall, sending a shooting pain up his spine. Unfortunately, he found himself far off from where he had hoped to land near the parachutes. Lepus was surrounded by debris, dead bodies, and body parts that, like himself, had found their way to the back of the ship instead of out the ragged hole on the starboard side. For what felt like the first time that day Lepus caught a lucky break. There was a dead crewmember next to him, the face too mangled for Lepus to identify. A dismantled air conditioner unit had smashed the head against the wall. But before dying, the crewmember had been able to grab a parachute. He tried to wrestle the chute out of the dead man’s hands. Lepus cringed as he uncurled the man’s fingers one by one to pull the chute free.
The sirens in the ship’s cabin were blaring and flashing white and red lights and flames illuminated the cabin. The lighting created an ominous scene as Lepus looked out across the cabin. There were no other survivors from what he could tell, and a feeling of loneliness and emptiness overtook him. He drew in another deep breath and continued on his quest to save himself from the devastation.
“Warning! Warning!” a distress signal called out, the voice a mix of robot and woman. “Collision imminent. Impact in one minute.” As the ship continued to bank hard to the starboard side, Lepus realized that it hadn’t seemed to be losing much altitude. He glanced out of the hole in the wall where flames jumped, and he could barely see the ground below. It was a blur of trees and seemed far off, thousands of feet, he figured. He wondered what the ship was on track to collide with and a scary thought entered his mind, but he quickly shook it off as impossible.
Lepus didn’t dwell on the thought long, knowing that no matter what he was about to collide with he needed to get off the ship immediately. Quickly, he snapped back into action, the parachute now in hand. He found the emergency exit just a few yards down and quickly pulled himself against the back wall toward the exit using the railing to guide his hands. Gravity was not helping, and although he was in a hurry, he knew one false movement or one missed handhold and he could go toppling out the side of the ship and down to his inevitable death. So he proceeded slowly, moving hand over hand.
Finally, after a few seconds which to Lepus felt like an eternity, he reached the emergency exit. The exit sign was flashing, and a headache-inducing wail was coming from the speakers on the side of the sign. Lepus eased his arms into the parachute pack’s arm straps and hooked the straps across his waist and chest, one hand and arm at a time, never taking both hands off the railing at the same time. Once he felt secured, he grabbed the handle of the exit door and let go of the railing. He pulled the locking handle up and out and pushed.
It wouldn’t budge. Not even an inch.
His muscles tensed as he used all his strength to try to push open the door that led to freedom. But the door still wouldn’t open.
“Warning! Warning! Collision imminent. Fifteen seconds.” The voice came on the speaker right above Lepus’s head, causing him to instinctively release his grip on the handle momentarily to cover his ears. As he let go, his body crashed forward and down hard into the door, and he felt it nudge just a little. Panic was building inside him, but the small nudge of the door allowed for a glimmer of hope.
“Ten seconds,” the robot-infused female voice called out. Lepus placed one hand on either side of the door, gripping the railing tightly. He swung his legs backward as far as they could go and with a grunt he threw himself forward and kicked at the door. He could feel it give a little from the force of his kick, but it still didn’t swing open. Ignoring the shooting pain radiating up his legs from the shock of the impact with the metal door, Lepus reset himself, ready for another kick.
“Five, four, three…” the voice called out. Lepus couldn’t help thinking the voice wasn’t just counting down to collision, but it was counting down the remaining seconds of his life.
He was ready for one more try; it was all he had time for. He swung himself back and with a roar of frustration, anger, pain, and a tiny bit of hope, Lepus shot his legs forward and kicked out for his freedom. “Two, one…” The voice was gone.
And then he was floating.
The world had gone silent, and he was enveloped in white. There was nothing in front of him, nothing behind him. The world was white. This is death, Lepus thought. He felt calm now, peaceful, content. And then he was no longer floating. He was falling and falling fast. The explosion from the crash was hurtling him hundreds of feet from the impact. The world went from white to swirling blues that led to greens down below. His body was twisting and spinning. He could hear an explosion behind and turned his falling body to see the body of the ship crashing into the side of one of the peaks that made up the grandest monument on the entire planet. Mount Saber. His earlier premonition was right. He thought it was impossible that the out-of-control ship had flown so far off course as to hit the mountain. But there it was, exploding from the impact with the dormant volcano that was the highest point on the planet. It had always been a dream of Lepus’s to climb it one day. Only three people were ever known to make it to the summit and survive. For now, though, he was falling away from it, far away, falling to his freedom or maybe his death. Lepus looked up and saw the white wonderland he had briefly enjoyed. It was a cloud. A beautiful, white, peaceful cloud. It had been so tranquil if only for a moment. But that moment was gone, never to return again.
As he saw his white wonderland disappear into the sky, it finally hit him that this was real. He was falling. The green below was approaching quickly, as if the forest were growing to meet him. Lepus was able to gather himself in time to pull his parachute, and he was jerked up suddenly and violently, his fall temporarily slowing. The growing forest had retreated somewhat and was now approaching a little more slowly, this time like a wave crashing close, then retreating, only to be followed by another larger wave.
Lepus did his best to try and steer his parachute to find a safe landing place below, but all he could see was forest. Lush, green forest, with overhanging trees that were unavoidable. There was no clearing at all. He braced himself for impact, throwing his arms over his face for protection, and crashed dangerously into the branches of a powerful green aetherwood tree. He crashed and fell down the tree, the branches scratching and clawing at him like an angry cat. Eventually, his parachute became entangled in the parade of branches above, and he was left there, hanging twenty feet above the ground.
The sun had started to creep away and night was coming out to play. Night scared Lepus even more than the Plebeians did. The forest was no place to be at night. Night was when the dangers awoke and scavenged the land to wreak their havoc. He knew this land like the back of his hand during the day, but at night, the forest was a haunted mystery.
His breathing escalated and he feared he would lose consciousness. Lepus did not want to be caught dangling helplessly from a tree. He would be a gift-wrapped present for some predator if he dangled there much longer. The ground was too far away to safely release from the parachute, plus Lepus knew that the ground was the most dangerous of all. Lurking down there would be the shadow panthers, the brain walkers, and worst of all, the man-eating plants. Not to mention spiders the size of dogs, snakes whose bites were so venomous that skin melted away from just a drop, and many other dangers Lepus didn’t even want to think about. No, Lepus would not drop to the ground during the night. So instead the only place to go was up.
Carefully, Lepus undid his parachute but held tightly to the belt. Using what upper body strength he had left, he placed hand over hand and pulled himself up to the branch the chute had caught on. It was exhausting work, and by the time he reached it, his muscles screamed at him, his lips beckoned with thirst, and his scratches from the fall ran red with blood. By the time he reached the branch it was completely dark. Lepus was too physically and mentally exhausted to think about the dangers of the night. His exhaustion overcame him and he passed out on the branch.
By the time Lepus awoke, dawn was stretching its fingers across the sky. It took a minute for everything that had happened to hit him, from discovering a Plebeian, to the attack on the ship, to jumping for his life before it crashed into the mountain. It didn’t seem real. It seemed like an awful nightmare.
Unfortunately, Lepus had to accept the fact that it was real, and it was far from over. He took a moment to assess his surroundings, but he couldn’t see anything but branches. His wounds were throbbing and his head ached. All he had on him were his pistol and a small hunting knife that had been strapped to his thigh; luckily it had stayed in its scabbard through the fall.
Lepus knew he needed to find water, determine his location, and find a way home, and he knew he had to do it quickly. Night came quickly on the planet of Bandure, and he would not want to be caught on the ground when night arrived. Although it was barely dawn, night was already creeping up the back of Lepus’s mind and sending shivers down his spine. Enough, he thought. Sitting here frightened of the night like a mere child isn’t going to get me anywhere.
The first thing he needed to do was figure out where he was and how far he had drifted from the mountain. He looked around again but still couldn’t make out anything but branches. He wanted to find the ship. Every collecting ship included an impenetrable weapons cache made out of oliatium, the planet’s strongest material, the same material found in the fire trees. With the potential dangers found on the planet at night, it was essential that every ship included in its weapons cache a transmitting beacon, protective gear that kept the body protected from the bugs that would crawl inside the skin, and a teleportation pad.
Unfortunately, the teleportation pad had not been approved for human use yet. The teleportation process involved pulling an object apart until it was just floating, dismembered molecules, copying those molecules, destroying them, and then recreating them as the original object in a new location. Scientists had tested the device on animals and found that many of the transported animals showed signs of memory loss, including basic skills such as communicating and even eating and eliminating waste. Their newly created brain would have to relearn these basic functions. The Center decided it was too dangerous to risk using on humans; however, it became very useful when transporting supplies to ships outside of the city.
Lepus knew that if he could find the weapons cache he would be able to communicate with the Center, give them his location, and have them send him some supplies while he waited for them to pick him up. Most important though, finding the weapons cache would provide him some protection from the dangers that lurked at night. Lepus figured that if he found the ship, he would find safety.
Lepus’s view was blocked by the endless rows of trees and the only thing he could think to do was to go up. He figured that if he could get to the top of the trees, he would be able to locate the mountain and then determine in which direction to move. He knew he had to move quickly. By the time he climbed to the top of the trees, found the mountain, and then climbed all the way to the forest floor, a lot of time would have passed. Again, he was thinking about the worst-case scenario of being stuck on the ground at night. Another shiver of fear crept up his spine, but he shook it off and started climbing, heading up toward where the sky poked through the tree line. His body felt heavy as he dragged himself up branch after branch. His wounds were festering and pus was spilling out of them. The pain was nauseating. Still he managed to press on, branch after agonizing branch until finally he poked his head through the tops of the trees and felt a rush of wind through his hair.
The sun was shining in all its glory as the morning ruled the sky. For now, Lepus inhaled deeply, feeling refreshed and reenergized, at the top of the trees, away from the dangers of the forest floor. He threw up his sore arms in celebration and let out a giant bellow of pride. Peaceful day birds scattered as his yell echoed above and between the trees. Some called back singing a song of their own in response to his roar. He felt the wind at his back almost beckoning him to fly across the canvas he was now surveying. He wanted to jump and float back into the peaceful cloud he had been in momentarily the day before. The green of the trees stretched out as far as the eye could see, interspersed here and there with the reds and yellows of fire trees, remnants still standing after millions of years on the planet. The birds continued to call to each other; he could hear their sweet voices singing a melody and he bobbed his head back and forth in rhythm.
Lepus had never felt more alive, more free. He was on top of the world, or so it felt. The only way he could have been higher was if he were on top of the very mountain he was looking for. This thought made him turn his attention back to his directive. Find Mount Saber. He figured it should be easy to spot. The mountain was the largest natural formation in the world, standing over twenty thousand feet above sea level and who knew how far it stretched below. Many years before Lepus was born the mountain was still an active volcano, erupting on cue every fifty years. But now it just stood tall, overlooking the city that it had helped to create during its final eruption nearly two hundred years before. The lava had cleared a large open space and the city had been built. The fire trees, made of oliatium, were the only things that could survive the heat from the lava, although many of the remaining trees had been knocked down, their oliatium harvested and used to create a protective wall around the city of Saber. But as Lepus strained his eyes he could not see the mountain. He looked to the left and then his right but no mountain. Slowly he turned himself around, eyes closed, praying that the mountain would be right behind him. If he couldn’t find the mountain, Lepus knew that he was all but dead. It has to be here, there is no way I could have drifted so far. When he opened his eyes, he saw it, the most beautiful of God’s creations staring back at him.
The beauty of the mountain was incredible. The top was draped in white, and little gray patches of rock were visible as he moved his gaze down its slopes. Lepus looked for the God’s Eye, a hollowed-out hole in the mountain where a collection of oliatium was located at its center. The lava used to spew down the mountain, spilling over the God’s Eye but never burning the oliatium. A perfect circle surrounded the oliatium at the center and the people of Saber had named it the God’s Eye. They said it was an eye that overlooked their city, a watchful eye that protected the city and always looked out for its people. When you looked at the eye it appeared to be staring back at you and some said you could feel it reaching into your soul, judging you.
The tree line was just visible at the bottom of what Lepus could see, and the bottom of the mountain was flecked with greens, yellows, and reds. Lepus couldn’t help feeling that it seemed to be much farther away than he expected. At least five miles, he thought. He found it shocking that his parachute could have pulled him five miles away from the protruding peak, especially considering they must have made impact at only about fifteen thousand feet. Lepus knew that the hike east would be uphill, and the twists and turns of the forest would stretch out the distance. He’d have to hike nearly twenty miles total. The alternative, though, would be longer and more treacherous. He could try walking north toward the city. If he walked long enough he eventually had to run into it, but the city had to be almost fifty miles away and could take weeks to find. The only choice was to walk toward the mountain. And with that decided Lepus started his descent through the branches of the aetherwood tree and into the darkness of the forest below.