The three children sit on a log near a stream. One of them looks up at the sky and says, “We are nowhere closer to home, thanks to you guys.”
Fresca looks down at her feet, her open sandals ripped from walking miles across the forest floor. Her older brother Janis, sitting to her left, is no better off with his furry bare feet dangling just above the muddy bank. Ferral, their cousin, pounded on the log, continuing his blame game. His bright red spiky head seemed to grow more pointed with each emphatic accusation.
“If Fresca hadn’t run off with her net to chase after that red and orange spotted giant moth, we wouldn’t be here.”
Ferral jumped off the log. His clawed feet sank into the soft sand. He turned back toward his cousins, setting hands on hips. “Well… any bright ideas on what to do now?”
Janis folded his arms and sighed, “there’s no use getting uppity. That’s wasted energy. You know Fresca didn’t mean any harm.”
A tear ran down Fresca’s cheek just the same. Her vertical eyelids blinked across glassy green eyes, which she cast in the direction of the large groaning moth in her net. This wasn’t the first time her adventurous nature had taken her from the safety of the trails into the Grand Blue Forest, but this time she didn’t recognize her surroundings. She would check herself every so often on her earlier sojourns by turning back to see the castle walls of Nebala standing proud on the floating hills she and Janis called home. This time, not only had she gotten lost, she brought the boys along with her, putting them in danger. Ferral was only visiting while his father traveled to nearby planets to deliver fuel and supplies. He contracted a large fleet of cargo shuttles, a living, scraping by in a time when the coalition of planets was uncertain, and the prices of things even more so, something the government couldn’t control.
Ferral didn’t mind the absence of his gruff father, who paid scant attention to him anyway. Janis and Fresca were the closest thing to family. With them, he could speak his mind. Truth be told, they tolerated his obnoxious ways; after all, he was their cousin. Janis took out a soft cloth to wipe Fresca’s damp cheeks, his own vertical lids blinking quickly over the tops of green orbs which held the reflection of his sad sister, lest he tear up, too.
Going on nearly three years, the rough equivalent of being 12 on earth, his father, a busy magistrate in the Scogerra Empire, counted on him to look after Fresca, who would have been eight on their mother planet. Ferral was only a few years from being a grown Sperran, generations from their humanoid brethren. They had long ago developed features to survive a more merciless ecosystem and climate. Dealing with large creatures on Sperra and increased gravity, required quick twitch muscles and padded feet, as well as a keen eyesight to detect encroaching danger from faraway – several miles at least. Fresca was only in those beginning stages, thus her tender feet required the protection of sandals.
She turned from Janis’ gentle wiping, put on a brave face by sticking out her chin, and brushed back her silvery hair, coming undone from long braids. “It is my fault, Janis, and I’ll figure a way out of this for all of us,” Fresca proclaimed, her reedy voice searching for strength. “Ferral’s right to push us in deciding a plan.”
Two moons began to appear above the horizon, one seeming to chase the other across the sky. It would be a matter of time before the purple atmosphere began to darken the sky, but only for a short period before a more distant sun casts its dim gaze. The Sperrans know this as a time for the feeding. Janis jumped off the log next to the older boy. Though almost as tall, he was gangly, less featured, and the rows of languid spikes covering his head appeared a lighter red.
“Whatever we do, we need to move in the direction from whence we came,” he said, adjusting the buttons along his arms and legs. All were wearing mesh blue jumpsuits.
“And, which way is that, young cousin? All sides to the forest look the same,” Ferral countered, his eyes growing bigger, and his clawed feet digging deeper into the pink and white sand as he leaned forward.
Janis ignored his cousin’s panic and grabbed his sister’s hand. She jumped down next to him.
“Let that thing go,” he told her, “There’s a good chance, it’ll fly back to its home, to a nest,” Ferral grunted.
“It’s mine,” Fresca protested, watching the moth grow limp from straining against the net.
Finally, with reluctance, she brought the net up, twisting the long silver flexible handle. With the net hanging down, she brought the handle forward over her head with such athletic prowess, it startled her brother and Ferral. Both jerked back. The moth shot out of the net like a catapult. Its colorful red wings with orange spots flapped slowly at first. Its captors eagerly watched which way it would go. First downstream, then around several trees, which stood miles high, then back toward the stream, the three kids hopped over crevices, and small boulders, like an obstacle course, their lithe catlike bodies handled the maneuvers with ease, but all were frustrated with the slow flapping of the moth which was trying to gain a scent. They jogged a short distance.
Finally, like a dart, it straightened course, going the opposite direction, crossing the stream.
“We couldn’t have crossed. There’s no way,” Ferral, doubting the way back, growled as the moth picked up speed.
“We don’t have a choice, cousin,” Janis said, patting him on the back as he passed by him, and pulling Fresca along. Sprinting with him, she had no trouble keeping up.
“Can you hear the water boiling behind us?” Fresca said, turning back, focused on something rising from the stream. “It’s nearly feeding time.”
“Don’t lose sight of that thing,” Ferral yelled, allowing his two younger cousins to scamper forward. From the water emerged the wide grin of a large scaly amphibian transplant called a Croaker. Early earthen brethren planned for them to serve as the cleanup crew of annoying large insects, which impeded the first homesteads on Sperran. Once under control, today’s inhabitants thought they had gone dormant into a long-term hibernation. Instead, they found homes in the deep waters and used the streams and river byways to go inland, hunting creatures like the great red and orange spotted moth. The oversized Croakers hadn’t been seen in some time.
Once its forelegs reach the shoreline of the creek, the amphibian beast croaked out a friendly salutation to the Sperrans so quick on their journey.
“Hail there,” he said, pausing. “The moth takes you deeper into the woods, where feeders will feed on you.”
The kids stopped dead in their tracks, skeptical about the announcement made by the oversized frog-like creature. Fresca kept her eyes on the fluttering moth, now a dense shadow in the purple cast from the atmosphere. Ferral’s gaze read doubt. Holding his cousin’s arm, he said, “what does a moth know over a croaker?”
“That moth is as lost as you,” the croaker said in a low bass voice, which bubbled as much as the water, each utterance going deeper. “Trust me. I’ve eaten many of those deceivers. They work on behalf of the darker creatures, the more devious side of Sperran.”
“I trust him,” Janis said. “I just have a feeling.”
“I’ll point you in a happy direction,” the croaker said. “Come this way, and several hills that way, you’ll find your castle. I’ve seen it, I know. I know. I’ll see you again, and you’ll owe, you’ll owe.” The croaker grinned, squinting his eyes in a jovial manner, then sank back into the shallow stream’s waters. Getting past the mile-high trees, into a clearing, the kids mounted a ridge, where the croaker told them to go, and they trusted, over a few hills, and then a third, they could see their home, the castle, and a clear path to it.
Standing between her cousin and brother, holding their hands, eyeing the gloriousness of the fortress, she said, “no one is going to believe us!” Laughing out loud, Fresca dashed down the hill pulling them along.