Jed Hayes wondered how there could be snow in the middle of summer as he glanced at the small pile of white beside the tree behind him. Sitting on a park bench near the local baseball field, he turned and stared at the snow before blinking rapidly to see if he was seeing things. His thoughts of bewilderment were blurred by the banter from nearby children playing tag on the large grass field.

A man appeared on the sidewalk. Jed looked up eagerly, only to back down when he realized it wasn’t his father. To someone who didn’t know, the 17-year-old acted like he was expecting a Hollywood celebrity to arrive instead of “Lieutenant Colonel Hayes,” back after completing the final active duty assignment of his career. Any minute now, he was supposed to arrive, the first time the two had seen one another in months.

Jed was like his father, possessing a medium height and build that had aided every man in the Hayes family for 200 years rucking across America, Europe and everywhere else in an Army uniform. His unusual maturity, frequently noted by friends and family, contrasted with youthful, boyish features unblurred by hardship or experience. It was that disconnect or something else about him that had recently convinced his father he wasn’t ready for Junior Army ROTC, much to his son’s dismay. Jed hoped to change his father’s mind while they played catch and caught up on life, having spent the last hour thinking of how to bring it up in a strategical manner.

Leaning back on the bench as he whittled on a piece of wood with his Boy Scout pocketknife, he caught sight of a cute girl his age sitting on the grass with a book in hand. When their eyes locked for a moment, he suddenly grew shy and looked back at the pile of snow.

Unable to contain his curiosity, he got up from the park bench and placed his hand on the snow. The wet, cold feeling on his fingertips felt real enough. He pushed his fingers down further.

An eerie sensation ran through his hand and up his arm. He tried to pull his hand out, but a magnetic-like force pulled him closer to the snow until his head was went in. On the other side, the snow was gone. He found himself in a freefall amid a kaleidoscope-like vortex of multicolored rays as bright as the northern lights. His senses dazed by a loud, distant noise like that of a crashing wave, he was unable to think or even fear what was happening.

Within the vortex, time did not seem to exist. It felt like a thousand years as much a mere instant. The experience reminded him of the Gravitron ride at the local county fair, except now he didn’t have that sick feeling his gut making him want to vomit.

Without warning, he landed on soft ground. After a numb moment, he began shivering as the wet, cold sensation of snow returned to his fingertips. Slowly opening his eyes, he struggled to make out his environment. His vision improved until he could make out the scenery.

Around him was a vast mountain range unlike anything he had seen before; pale blue-shaded peaks were like jagged columns, shrouded in soft snow that continued to fall gently and silently. The peaks rose from the narrow ridgelines and into the thick, misty clouds.

Glancing down at his feet, he looked at his T-shirt and shorts. Taking long, deep breaths, he fought back the anxiety swelling inside as he trudged through the snowdrifts. An aching pain soon developed in his feet as he lost sensation in his toes. Spotting an arched curve along the mountainside, he walked toward it and found a cave.

Throwing himself inside it, he took off his soaked shoes and socks and placed them aside. He hastily recalled his wilderness survival training. He already found shelter, but he needed to find a way to get dry and locate food. He held his feet in his hands to warm them properly as he searched the cave. There was nothing except strange-looking rocks. He would have to go elsewhere once he got his feet dry. But then he would have to find a way to protect them.

He glanced out the cave. Straining his eyes, he thought he saw figures out along the ridgeline.

Blinking rapidly, he looked again.

The faintly visible figures continued to move.

Watching them in silence, his gaze followed their movements as they ascended the ridgeline across from his cave. He took another long breath and exhaled.

He had to risk it. He had no idea where he was or how he had even gotten there. But it seemed certain that no food would be found outside. Even if he did, his clothes could not keep him alive through the night.

Bracing himself for the cold once more, he dashed outside. Hurrying as best he could along the ridgeline, he called out to the figures now headed in the opposite direction. The wind blasting between the peaks overtook his calls. Growing weary from pushing through the snow, he grew anxious as he cried out louder.

He pushed all his strength into his legs; thanks to his physical training regimen, he was able to close the distance. By then, he could make out the people better. Their long blue coats seemed dyed in the same light reflecting off the peaks.

He called a final time, and again, no one heard him. Summoning the last ounce of energy within him, he broke into a sprint and reached the last person in the group. Gasping for breath and his lungs charred from the frigid air, he lunged out and grabbed their shoulder.

Before he could even touch them, the figure spun around and threw him on the ground, a sword already drawn. Disoriented, Jed was too exhausted to protest as the figure placed the blade’s tip against his throat, his face concealed by the hood placed far down over his forehead.

“Stop,” a female voice called.

Cautiously, the figure brought back the blade and sheathed it. A small person knelt beside Jed and pulled back their hood.

His eyes were wide and large as he looked at a girl. She seemed human and had a gentle expression, but her complexion and hair were as white as a corpse.

“What are you?” she said.

Jed tried to speak, but drifted off into unconsciousness. As he did, he could hear the girl pleading with her companions while she brought his head up from the snow and placed it in her lap.

***

Jed woke to the soft warmth of a small fire in front of him. A blanket had been placed beneath him, a pack serving as a pillow. The girl was sitting near him concernedly. The other figures stood above her. Like her, their humanoid faces and hair were a deathly white, and they looked at him with the same amber eyes.

He kept silent.

The girl offered him a drink from a canteen. “Feeling better?”

Jed nodded as he took small sips. Despite their different appearances, she seemed friendly enough. She waited for him to talk until it was evident she would have to initiate.

“I’m Kara. What is your name?”

“Jed.”

One of the men approached the girl and spoke over her shoulder. “We have to go.” He then spoke to Jed suspiciously. “Know how to fight?”

Jed tried not to smile as he nodded. It was good for them to know he was useful, but he still did not have the slightest clue what was going on. He preferred to say as little as required.

Intrigued, the man reached into a large pack and handed Jed a pair of trousers and the same tunic they all wore underneath their cloaks. Jed hastily put them on, then a pair of hefty knee-high boots the man gave him. He was amazed at how light they felt, but were as warm as a down jacket.

With reluctance, the man then handed him a short sword. “I’m Telman. I can tell you don’t know where you are or how you got here, but I don’t have time to say anything else. I just know you’re not an enemy, and that’s enough. Do as you’re told, and be prepared to fight if it comes to that. Stay back with Kara here and keep her safe. Do you understand?”

Jed gestured affirmatively.

The band quickly gathered their things, heaped a pile of snow on the fire, then continued trudging across the ridgeline. Telman took point while the other four men followed shortly behind him. Kara and Jed remained back, but not too far away. For a while, they remained silent as they walked. Jed wanted to learn more, to find out where he was. Yet, he felt guarded about revealing anything.

Kara watched him glancing up at the pike-like peaks around them. “The Perelor Mountains. Are they not beautiful? I’ve never seen them before, except the illustrations. I always wondered if they were truly this tall.”

Eventually, they came to a point where the ridge became so narrow that they had to walk with one foot in front of the other. On both sides was nothing but a steep drop into a murky abyss. Retrieving a rope from his gear, Telman walked carefully across the section of the ridge, then tied the rope to a rock and tossed it across to the others. One of them then tied the other end around another rock. Gripping it tight, they each took slow steps as they crossed.

When it came for Kara’s turn, she grasped the rope and began moving forward. Her foot slipped, causing her knees to buckle. As she regained her composure, a bundle in her cloak fell out. Frantic, she grabbed it with an outstretched hand. Unable to keep her grip on the rope, she began to slide off the ridge.

Anticipating her fall, Jed leapt over to her and grabbed her hand. Pulling her up, he helped her regain her hold on the rope. On the other side, Telman was aghast. However, he waited until she was safely across before he chastised her. “You cannot be that reckless.”

“I was going to lose the manuscripts.”

“There’s no point if you’re dead.”

He then had Jed cut the rope loose behind him and then walk it across the ridgeline.

“I’m impressed,” he whispered in Jed’s ear, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. The gesture reminded Jed of his youngest uncle, Vern. He had always been there to care for him and his mother when his father was away. Content to remain a captain, the Army had moved him and his family to the other side of the country just the year prior.

The group continued onward between two peaks. The wind was so strong it felt as though it might lift Jed up from the ground. Unable to fight it, they eventually took shelter behind a large slab. Telman and the other men remained huddled together and talked amongst themselves. Kara sat beside Jed and listened to the wind.

“Thank you for saving me just now,” she said as she opened her cloak and showed him the bundle now firmly tied to her belt. “I had to save these. You don’t know how important they are.”

Jed raised his eyebrow curiously as he gestured at them.

“They’re our religious texts,” she said. She was about to say more, but stopped herself. “That’s right, you don’t know where you are. This is Forenia. How did you come here?”

“I’m trying to figure out that myself.”

Self-conscious of how she gawked at him, she laughed. “I’m sorry for staring, but I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you before. Forenians are the only people here. There might be in other places, but we’ve never been able to venture that far out.”

Telman called to them. “The wind is dying down. We’ll give it another minute, then we go.”

Kara buttoned up her cloak. As they walked again, she spoke to Jed. “It’s not that we can’t travel. We have old maps. But nobody wants to. There’s only one reason for someone to come here.”

Jed was eager to hear more, but Telman interrupted. “We must go faster, or they’re going to catch up.”

“Who?” Kara asked.

Telman appeared incredulous. “Do you really think he hasn’t been tracking us the moment we left the castle?”

She tried hard to hide her apprehension as she brushed her gloved hand against the manuscripts inside her cloak. Her amber eyes looked down before she touched Jed’s arm. “Wherever you’re from or how you got here, you’re certainly come to Forenia at a strange time.”

***

Grancaliga stood atop his steed at full height as he surveyed the steep pass ahead leading into the Perelor Mountains high above. The scores of soldiers behind him waited on their horses in perfectly formed lines. Their tall banners flapped furiously in the bitter wind as it swept down from the mountainside as though one of his cavalry units in a charge.

Unmoved by the chill on his exposed face, Grancaliga turned to his colonels seated on their horses beside him. “Have the men dismount. Tell the men-at-arms accompanying us to lead the horses back to our nearest outpost and await our return. They are also to investigate the local hamlets. If anyone gave them so much as a morsel of bread, burn everything to the ground.”

“How far ahead are they?” they asked.

With an open hand, he cast a spell from his fingertips that fell over the snow, revealing footprints running up the pass.

“Not far,” he said. “We are less than a day’s journey behind.”

“They’ll be able to travel faster and lighter.”

Grancaliga grinned as he dismounted his horse. “Our men have marched harder than this before for two days and fought a battle afterwards. We will catch up and overtake them.”

Inspired by their commander’s total confidence, the colonels returned to their ranks and had the soldiers leave their horses. Now afoot, they formed a large single column behind Grancaliga and approached the pass.

“Is it wise for you to travel in the front?” a colonel said. “There could be an ambush. They might be awaiting our arrival.”

“No. If there is an ambush, I will be the one to set it.”

***

For all installments from The Legend of Forenia: The Twilight Kingdom, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue