By Cynthia M. M. Noble

Surprised, Valeth felt his mouth form an involuntary smile as the sinking feeling in his stomach disappeared and was replaced by a potent, almost giddy feeling of pure delight. He was standing in the shadows on the edge of a small, glorious clearing. The azure dome of the sky seemed so close that he could touch it, and the dappled light that filtered through the tree tops danced on the surface of a nearby stream with a blinding, almost hypnotic pattern.

The world on which Valeth now stood was more exquisite than anything he had ever laid eyes on at the Academy. For one short moment, he wanted to lose himself among the trees and remain a part of the seeming fairy land forever. But Valeth let the moment pass.

Within mere seconds, the clearing lost its power over him, and the details of his trial took control. Valeth tucked his teleport remote--waterproof and built to be nearly indestructible--into his belt pouch beside the poisoned bracelet. He gaged the time of day to be about mid day by the position of the sun and started off into the forest.

He knew he couldn't find the Lightning League in the middle of the wilderness. So the logical first step was to find the city or some sort of civilization. Then he could really get started.

Hours later, Valeth stopped to rest. He stopped thrashing his way through creepers and tangled underbrush, and sat his aching body down on a damp, moss covered stone. The young man glared with frustration at the vegetation that surrounded him and sighed at the growing shadows. The sun was sinking lower in the sky, and Valeth hadn't found even the slightest hint of the civilization he was looking for.

It just wasn't fair! A tiny voice in the back of his mind kept telling Valeth that he was a failure. He couldn't even begin his trial when he was lost in the wilderness. He admitted that to himself now--there was no use in pretending that he knew where he was going. For all he knew, he'd been walking in circles the entire time.

Valeth was hungry, thirsty, and his feet were killing him. And though the light was still bright and comforting, Valeth knew only too well that it would be dark soon enough. The forest was seeming wilder by the moment, and he began to wonder what kind of carnivores the trees were hiding. Valeth hadn't really gambled on spending the night in the wood, and now it looked as though he would have to sleep out in the open....


The muscles along Valeth's backbone tensed, and Valeth peered into the dense undergrowth. He could have sworn that he'd heard a sound--almost as though a twig had snapped.


Valeth was on his feet in an instant. He was sure of the sound this time, somewhere off behind him and to the left. He couldn't see anything, but a slight rustling of leaves drifted to his ears as what ever it was came closer. Valeth decided it was probably some hungry animal, and wasn't about to wait around and become the creature's dinner.

On wobbly legs, Valeth took off into the underbrush. He ran, with strength renewed, in the direction away from whatever it was he heard coming towards him, while a cold sweat trickled down the side of his face.


Despite the distance he thought he had been putting between himself and the unknown creature, the noise was louder this time. The animal was following him! Valeth turned from trying to see the thing on his trail to look ahead of him, and stopped just in time to keep from running head long into the giant pond that spread before him, completely blocking his escape.

Valeth groaned. He couldn't keep running, but he didn't know how to swim either. The creature in the forest was becoming careless in its haste. Valeth could hear it blundering its way toward him. He had to get away from it, but how?

Valeth wiped his sweaty palms on his trouser legs and turned towards one of the giant trees. It was his only hope.

He resisted the urge to glance behind him and look upon the dreaded creature that was pursuing him, and concentrated all of his energies on climbing. With each limb he could reach, he rose higher and higher, and felt his nerves begin to quiet when nothing seemed to be trying to climb up behind him. He finally paused in his climb and clung to the trunk, glancing down towards the ground and the surrounding area. From his vantage point, he could see much of the wild vegetation, and the vast expanse of the pond, but he didn't see a single wild animal. At that, Valeth concluded that his escape had been a complete success.

Valeth was positive that he would be safe from any predators up in that tree, and contemplated figuring out some way to sleep up there as he eased his way out onto a limb. He was so absorbed in his plan making that he didn't hear the limb begin to groan, nor did he notice how the limb itself stretched and sagged beneath his weight.

Just as his mind registered these factors, the limb broke with a sickening, ripping, snapping sound; Valeth found himself falling. Desperately, he tried to grab on to something--anything--to stop his descent, but he plunged into the pond anyway.

The dark, greenish envelope of water closed above Valeth's head and he sank down deeper and deeper. The pond water was all around him, and Valeth wanted to scream in terror. He salvaged enough sense not to do this--and instead managed to hold his breath as he pushed his arms this way and that and kicked wildly in an attempt to determine which way was up, and which was down. Valeth pointed his feet toward the murky abyss, and turned his stinging eyes upward towards the light which filtered down through the mire. With every remaining bit of strength he had, the young man made for the surface--which loomed so tantalizingly close, but seemed to take forever to reach.

Valeth broke the surface less than a minute after he had gone under, but even that short interval had almost been enough to finish him off for good. He hastily filled his oxygen starved lungs with sweet, forest air.

"Help!" he gulped. Foul tasting pond water filled his mouth. Valeth spat and choked, trying to clear his throat. "Somebody help me!" His second plea escaped as not much more than a terrified gurgle. As Valeth coughed and sputtered, he gave up on trying to call for help again. He was in the middle of the wilderness. There was no one around to hear him. Pure terror shot through Valeth, heart and soul. He was doomed.

He was barely aware of something hitting the water near him, and he ignored it as he fought to breathe and keep from sinking. But when the object hit the water again, right near his hands this time, Valeth saw that it was a vine of some sort.

"Calm down and grab hold," urged a voice. It seemed to have come out of nowhere, like the vine.

Valeth flailed around and tried to see where the voice was coming from. But all he could distinguish were the blurred forms of the trees and other vegetation that towered over the shoreline. Everything else was obscured by the splashing, stinging water.

"Don't try to look around! Grab onto the vine," the voice ordered. "Just calm down and I'll pull you to the shore."

Realizing that the command was for his won good, Valeth tried to control his crazed thrashing and searched for the vine. When his hands found the lifeline, he curled his fingers around it and clung to it, barely conscious of being pulled to the shore.

"Put down your feet," the voice suddenly said. With the fear of immediate death by drowning sufficiently lessened, Valeth now noticed that the voice of his savior was high in pitch, like that of a young child. "It's shallow there, you can stand up."

Valeth complied, and was surprised to find that he could stand. As well as he was able, Valeth stumbled the rest of the way to the shore and pulled himself up onto the bank. Then Valeth simply lay there on the muddy slope, resting and breathing hard.

"Are you all right?" asked the voice. It sounded much louder to Valeth, now that it no longer had to compete with the roar of water in his ears. Valeth became acutely aware that someone was leaning over him.

"I am fine," Valeth managed to say, though his breaths still came in erratic gasps. Slowly, he managed to roll to his back and look upwards, catching his first glimpse of the one to whom he owed his life.

Valeth sucked in his breath, mildly shocked. The face that peered down at him was that of a small child... a young girl. She was upside down because of Valeth's prone position and the angle at which she was leaning over him. The child's face was framed by a fiery halo of orangy hair, hanging down from her forehead in a fringe, and from the sides of her head in two large bunches. The rest of her thick tresses fell over her shoulder in one long tail that was secured at the end. Her small face was of a very pale complexion, and her delicate features were twisted into a look of unmasked concern. Her unusually large, greenish eyes peered at him intensely, and her entire image was set against the crystal clear backdrop of the sky, dotted here and there by wispy clouds.

The child moved back, and gave Valeth the chance to sit up and view things in the proper perspective. Right side up, the girl seemed to be much more of a mundane figure, but there was still something about her--a certain exotic quality--that made her seem not quite human, though everything about her looked human enough.

"Are you sure you're okay?" she asked. "You almost drowned."

"I'm sure that I am fine," Valeth replied with a smile. "Thank you for saving me, ah--"

"Flora," the girl supplied. "Who're you?"

"My name is Valeth." As his wits began to return to him, Valeth realized that he had accomplished the first step of his trial despite, and perhaps because of his near brush with death. The child, Flora, did not look as if she was from the wild forest. Her clothing was brightly colored and well made. Valeth was willing to bet that she was from the city.

"I am not used to this wilderness," he admitted. "I became lost, and now I have no idea of how to return to the city." Valeth looked longingly at the child, hoping that she would offer to take him there.

Instead, Flora's large eyes popped open with pure surprise. "You came from the city? " She looked towards the sun and then back toward the forest, where the shadows were becoming thicker. "I think it's too far to make it to the city before nightfall," she remarked.

Valeth tried to object, but Flora continued before he was able to get the words out.

"Besides, you're all wet," she said. "You must be freezing cold."

It was hard for Valeth to admit it, but the child was right. He tried to suppress the sudden chill that ran through him as he surveyed the state of his attire. His common clothing was muddy and dripping with water, and he was rather waterlogged himself. His hair was plastered to his head, and little rivulets of water trickled down his back. Dismayed, Valeth shook his head. This was not the way he had planned to start his trial.

"I don't think you could walk back to the city from here. Why don't you come back to the barge with me?" the little girl asked.

This time it was Valeth's turn to stare with shocked disbelief. "You mean you aren't from the city?" he demanded. He noticed the surprise in his voice and toned it down. He had made a mistake--it could happen to anyone. But he had felt so sure in his analysis.

"No," admitted Flora. "We landed here so Herc could get some fuel and supplies, and make some repairs on the ship. But I went into the city with Herc when we first got here. That's why I know it's so far away. It took a couple hours to get there in the truck. It would probably take a whole day to walk there."

"You're from another world, then?" Valeth was able to mask his skepticism this time.

"Sure," replied the girl, totally unperturbed by the idea of traveling between worlds.

Valeth sneezed. The first was followed by a second and a third, which in turn touched off a violent spell of chills. Valeth felt that his nasal passages were beginning to fill with mucus, and he couldn't stop shaking.

"You're no just cold," Flora remarked. Valeth saw concern in her large eyes. "You're catching one!"

Valeth sneezed again, then sniffed. He noticed that the stiffness in his arms and legs was getting worse, not better. His head had started to ache, and felt as if it were much too big. Flora's voice and the other forest sounds were becoming rapidly muted and distant. That's when Valeth realized that the girl was right. Something was wrong with him.

"Perhaps I had better come along with you to your ship," Valeth said. It was his only real option.

"Now you're making sense," exclaimed Flora. In a flash, she was on her feet and struggling with Valeth's weight to help him up. Despite her feeble help, Valeth scrambled to his feet almost entirely under his own power.

With dismay, Valeth noticed that his child savior wasn't much more than a meter tall. She didn't even reach to his waist when he was standing. "How did you pull me to the bank all by yourself?" he demanded.

"You're lighter when you're in the water," she replied, with a somewhat mischievous smile. "Besides, I had some help to pull you in." With that, she turned away from him and looked toward the sun again, shading her eyes from the glare with her hand.


"There's no time to explain it now. We have a long way to go, and we have to get back to the barge before it gets dark. If I'm late again, Herc's gonna kill me." She gave a decisive nod. "Come on."

Motioning for him to follow, she struck up a path through the forest. Valeth was left to wonder about her cryptic reference to help as they made the slow trek back to the girl's ship. She led the way, winding this way and that around the trunks of the giant trees. Though Valeth was pretty sure they had started out on an easterly track, within just a few minutes he was utterly confused. He followed as closely in Flora's footsteps as he could manage, and could only hope that really did know where she was going. Valeth's head swam and, on top of everything else, he grew more and more tired--which only made him more clumsy in the wilderness.

Flora was entirely to the contrary. She seemed fearless of the forest around them--graceful and quite at home amid the dense undergrowth and the wild, gargantuan trees. She threaded her little body easily past prickers and vines which clung to Valeth's clothing and held him back. It almost seemed like the brambles moved apart, clearing a path for his sprightly guide.

Valeth shook his muddled head, and blinked a few times to clear away the obvious hallucination. Gritting his teeth, and trying to keep his shallow breaths even, he cautioned himself against confusing imagination with reality. He needed to keep a clear head if he were going to get through his trial.

Determination wasn't enough. His head soon swam, and he found it harder and harder to keep up with Flora. It felt as though he were lifting heavy, lead weights with each step he took, and his exhausted, achy muscles were hardly able to drag each foot forward. He couldn't breathe right. His lungs felt raw and tight.

When they reached the top of what seemed like the millionth small hill, Valeth was amazed that he had even been able to scramble up the gentle slope at all. What had begun as a dull ache behind his eyes now throbbed in excruciating rhythm.

"How much farther is it?" he demanded. He stumbled along for a few more steps, then stopped--doubling over in an attempt to catch his breath.

Ahead of him, Flora halted. She turned back and saw his condition, and suddenly seemed surprised by it. She hurried back to his side. "It's not very far," she said, her voice alarmed. "The ship is in a clearing in the flat lands, just over the next hill."

She sounded as though she were under water, and very distant. Her words seemed alien as they bounced around inside Valeth's spinning, throbbing head. Wheezing heavily, Valeth lowered himself to the ground and sat. He just had to rest his aching legs before he went on.

"Do you think you can make it?" Flora asked, her voice still pulled tight with concern. She laid what should have been a warm hand on Valeth's shoulder, but for some reason, her hand felt cold. "You don't look so good," she explained.

Valeth didn't feel so good either. The lightness that he felt in his head spread to his arms and legs. It felt as though the ground swayed beneath him. Instead of replying to Flora's nervous question, Valeth laid back on the ground, trying to dispel the feeling of movement.

Lying there, he seemed to experience the actual rotation of the planet beneath him as the murky shapes of the trees and creepers and Flora's concerned face swirled around him. Suddenly, images of the sky, of the trees, of Flora's pale face melted together and grew dim. Before Valeth knew what was happening, his pain ceased, and the most promising Junior scientist in his class lost consciousness.

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