By Jane Maree
You’d think that meeting a dog made of stars and an old friend of my parents would prepare me for anything. But I still gape when the glowing, nebulous portal appears. Auburn and purple swirl together in a maelstrom of color suspended in the air.
Major turns, hand at his wristwatch—which somehow conjured that… thing—and lifts his eyebrows. “Never seen a portal, Kieffer?”
Closing my mouth before I make too much of a fool of myself, I hope my shrug looks casual. “I just assumed we’d be taking a ship.”
Not even the bigwigs in the Nova Alliance have access to teleportation tech, and they’re some of the richest humans this side of the galaxy.
It seems my new partner is more impressive than his old trench coat and ragged hair betrays. Wish I could say the same for myself.
The star-dog, all glittering coat and laughing eyes, looks at Major hopefully, even though his master can’t see him like I can. That’s my only claim to impressiveness—the ability to see an invisible dog.
The man grunts. “Yes, you can go first.”
“Me?” I balk.
“I was talking to Kip.”
I file away Major’s invisible-dog communication skills for future reference as Kip bounds past his master and vanishes through the whirlpooling portal.
Major gestures for me to go next. “It’s perfectly safe.”
Despite my dry mouth, I pretend to be cocky as ever. “Guess you don’t wanna kill your brand-new partner, eh?”
“We’re not partners.” Major lifts one eyebrow. “At best, you’re an assistant.”
Great. “Assistant” sounds far too expendable. But I had already agreed to repay the favor my late father owed, and I won’t go back on my word so quickly.
“Come on, Jesse, you can do this,” I mutter, then shut my eyes, and step through.
I plummet. It’s just the teleporting. It’s meant to feel like this.
The rush of wind steals my breath, and I peek at the inside of the portal as it whisks me to another world.
A landscape of red dirt, gray stone, and bold, purple trees spreads out below. Mountain crags stand up like teeth, and a white cloud drifts lazily by.
I’m freefalling through the air, straight toward those stony peaks.
Something grabs the back of my coat. I struggle, but the shoulder seam starts to rip, and I freeze.
Movement draws my attention sideways, and my jaw drops again.
Kip—happy-go-lucky as ever—dangles from the claws of an eagle with more scales than feathers, except on its huge rust-colored wings. The monster’s head is lizard-like, but for the hooked beak as big as Kip’s body. I peer over my own shoulder and my heart drops.
It’s an eaglesaurus. Dragogle. Dragon-please-don’t-eat-me-eagle.
Gray stone closes in, but just as I brace myself for the final impact, we skim over the peak and rush down into a valley. Gray blurs into red and purple. We bank sharply, leaving my stomach behind, and the ground surges up.
I hit the dirt, tumbling head-over-heels until I pitch against a tree trunk. My body groans in protest, and I stare numbly up at a canopy of purple flowers.
Kip leaps onto my chest and I groan as he licks my chin.
“Get off.” Pushing away Kip’s cold nose, I stagger upright.
Dropping from another eagle-monster’s claws, Major hits the ground running, easing off his speed, then closes the final few paces between us.
“You could’ve warned me.” I pant. “Some partner you are.”
“Already told you, we’re not partners. Besides, the dreagles wouldn’t let you fall to your death. Unless I asked them to.” His lips twitch, which is Major’s version of a chuckle.
I huff and turn my attention to our surroundings.
Purple blossoms drape each tree; fallen petals pool beneath sprawling boughs. Ant mounds rise more than ten feet high, and stiff tufts of grass poke up here and there across the rock-strewn ground.
“What is this place?”
Major taps several buttons on his watch. “The land of the Harbingers.”
Harbingers? That’s more ominous than dreagles.
Major seems unconcerned. I’m starting to wonder why he hired me. I can see an invisible dog, breathe in space, and tell a good lie, but what does a guy like him need any of that for?
I turn toward Kip as the dog shakes himself furiously, sending tiny motes of starlight scattering. A couple gleaming red specks fling off too, and I frown.
Glowing ants crawl over Kip’s starry fur. I flick a couple off, then spot a trail marching toward us from one of the huge red mounds.
A chill traces my spine. “Major…?”
Can’t he see the ants? They must be invisible too. Seeing an invisible star-dog is one thing, but glowing red ants seem worse. A lot worse.
My palm suddenly burns like fire. I yell, smacking off the offending insect. “Flamin’ ants!”
Major’s eyes widen. “Run.”
He sprints toward the mountains. I book it after him, Kip on my heels.
Buzzing fills the air, and I glance back. A red cloud rises from the ant mound. I almost face-plant. “They can fly?!”
“Come on!” Major vanishes beyond a boulder.
I tumble down a stony gully after him. “We’ve got to keep going!” I turn, expecting to see the mass of ants descending upon us.
“They can’t follow us onto the stone.” Interest sparks in Major’s eyes. “Did you say ants?”
Kip snaps a last insect off his coat, and I sag against the rocks, nodding. “Red and glowing. Couldn’t you see?”
“Only hear them. That’s how I’ve escaped them previously.”
Swallowing the pain from the burning welt on my hand, I wink at Major. “Good thing I warned you early, huh? Seemed pretty aggressive today.”
Major grunts noncommittally and gestures along the gully. “Come on and meet the rest of my team.”
“Our team, you mean. Because we’re partners.”
Major rolls his eyes, but there’s more humor than annoyance now. “Keep dreaming, Kieffer.”