By Michael Dolan
“Declan, Sierra, have you seen Jade recently?” Dr. Vansyl asked her two aspiring xenyptid trainers.
“Not since this afternoon.” Declan switched to a new tab on the institute’s shared computer. Jade’s section for the day’s survey findings was still blank.
“Hmm.” The doctor looked out the windows of the Calsced Institute, where dusk was quickly falling over Calsced Forest. “She should’ve returned by now. We should make sure she’s okay.”
Declan started for the sliding door, but the doctor motioned him to stop. “One moment. I was hoping to have all three of you here for this, but… I think you’d benefit from having a partner.” She pulled out a container and set it on a table, opening it to reveal three xenypods.
“You’re giving us our first xenyptid?” Sierra bounced, her brunette ponytail bobbing with the motion.
“Yes, I think they’ll be helpful in searching for Jade.” Dr. Vansyl activated the xenypods, releasing the creatures onto the institute’s floor. “Pick one, and I’ll take the last to look for Jade.”
Declan considered the three creatures before him. The Suglid was a small, furry specimen that would be able to search the forest quickly, thanks to the membranes stretching between its front and back legs that allowed it to glide between branches. On the other hand, the lithe, intelligent Pherreth had a reputation for its keen senses, useful for tracking Jade. The scaled Newth, however, was covered in a faint, bioluminescent mucous that would light the forest better than any flashlight and help attract Jade’s attention in the falling twilight.
“I choose the Newth.” Declan knelt to gently stroke the xenyptid’s chin.
“I’ll pick the Suglid.” Typical. Sierra’s choice would have an advantage over Declan’s in a duel.
“Excellent choices, both.” Dr. Vansyl handed the xenypods to the teenagers. “Now let’s find Jade. Declan, you search the south part of the forest. Sierra, you take the north. I’ll be in the center section. Return here in an hour.”
They exited the institute, and Declan jogged along the southern path into Calsced Forest. He and the Newth made steady progress, with the creature’s softly glowing scales illuminating the undergrowth. As they searched, they encountered a few other xenyptids—leathery-winged Chirops flitting through the canopy, skittish Antles leaping out of their path, and unseen others that rustled bushes and snapped twigs in the shadows.
If Jade had been surveying this area, Declan knew she’d most likely be by the stream that ran southeast, the most reliable water source for xenyptids in the forest. He led the Newth toward it, guided by both his companion’s light and the current’s burbling.
As they approached it, he heard something heavy plowing through the brush. It was farther south, still near the stream. “Jade!” Declan called.
“Declan?” came the faint reply.
He and the Newth adjusted course, the xenyptid’s soft glow acting as a beacon in the wooded twilight. After a few minutes, its light illuminated Jade, beaming as she hauled an enormous antler along the ground. Her damp jeans suggested she had dragged it from the other side of the stream.
“What’s going on?” both teenagers asked in unison.
Declan chuckled. “You first.”
The other aspiring xenyptid trainer hefted her prize, though its opposite tip still touched the ground. “I found this Elcken antler on my rounds this afternoon. Isn’t it huge?”
“No kidding. Looks heavy too.”
“It is!” She dropped the antler and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Good thing you’re here to help.”
“That’s the thing. You took so long, Dr. Vansyl sent us to look for you.”
Jade blushed. “My bad. Getting it across the stream was tougher than expected.”
Declan grabbed the other end of the antler. It was probably three meters long and heavy, but he figured the two of them would manage.
“And what’s the story with the Newth?” Jade asked as it led their return to the institute.
“Dr. Vansyl let us take a xenyptid to look for you.”
“Wait, I missed that? Not fair.”
“This is a cool find. Maybe she’ll let you have an Elcken!”
“That… might be a little big for my first xenyptid.”
The duo chuckled. As their laughter subsided, a loud rustling approached through the forest. The Newth turned toward Declan, and all three explorers slowed, staring toward the disturbance.
Seconds later, an enormous Elcken, with antlers as long as the one they carried, stepped into the Newth’s light. The smaller xenyptid inched toward Declan, but kept its eyes on the newcomer—which pawed at the ground with a large, black hoof.
“This… might be its territory,” Declan said.
“It’s never challenged us before.”
“We’ve never carried another Elcken’s antler across the stream before.”
The beast snorted. Pawed the ground again. Then it charged.
The teenagers dropped the antler and dove away. The Elcken barreled between them, turning at the edge of the light for another charge.
“What do we do?”
Declan looked at the Elcken, then the Newth. “Can you get any brighter?”
The Newth blinked and smiled.
The Elcken charged.
“Do it. As bright as you can. Now!”
Declan covered his eyes as the xenyptid’s scales blazed white. The Elcken roared as the blinding light flared then winked out. Moments later, Declan heard loud crashing leading away from them.
“That ought to keep it away for a bit. Let’s hurry.”
They carried the antler back to the institute without further incident. As they approached, Dr. Vansyl met them.
“Jade, glad to see you’re okay.” Her eyes widened. “Is that an Elcken antler?”
“Intriguing.” She faced Declan. “How did it go with the Newth?”
“Great.” The xenyptid jumped up to perch on his shoulder. “He definitely came in handy.”
“That’s wonderful to hear.” She patted the creature’s head. “Because, if you agree, I believe this would be a great day to begin your adventure as a xenyptid trainer.”
Declan and Jade exchanged smiles. “Doctor, I think it may have already started.”