Chapter 1

Bixby stares at the world through a fish bowl. His body clenches in pain, but his senses fog with delirium. The bed shakes as it passes over the crack between elevator and hallway, flooding nausea up his throat. Doctors lean over him, poking his abdomen and asking for his pain level. Bixby groans in response. At eighteen, this is his worst brush with cancer yet.

The doctor shakes the bed and asks a question Bixby fails to comprehend. The nurse shouts for someone to place a new IV as she removes the current one. His eyes roll down to his right forearm, where large, white bubbles form beneath the skin. He moans, realizing it blew again. Another nurse pokes a needle in his left wrist, struggling to place the new IV. Bixby sinks deeper into the aquarium, water clogging his ears and eyes. The pain fuzzes and mutes his awareness. As he slips to unconsciousness, he feels his mother kiss his forehead, rubbing her hand over his bare head, tears spilling over his face. Then the darkness takes him, and he is free.

*

         Bixby’s eyes fluttered open. His brain struggled through the fog of deep sea dreaming. Misted forest blurred into view. Birds chirped and rustled about. The scent of fresh soil and grass filled his nose. Something frantically tapped his forehead. His clearing vision revealed a small creature with wings flapping in front of his nose. Her hair was a spiky black, clothes dark and torn, and her wings made of velvet moth. She floated there, one hand rapidly beating against his forehead. So she was the source of the annoying poking.

        “Wake up!” she said. Bixby let out a grunt, his vocal chords not yet responding.

         She momentarily fluttered away, and he thought he heard more tapping, although he didn’t feel any annoying fingers against his skull.

        “Wake up!” she cried again. “The two of you need to hurry! The giants aren’t far.”

         Bixby sat up, trying to gather his surroundings. A girl lay a few feet away from him. Her pale skin, slanted eyes, slender nose, and sleek, short black hair sent a shock through his system. It took him a minute to realize she was naked.

         “Would you like me to make you some clothes?” asked the pixie.

         “What?” Bixby said breathlessly, daring to look down. Sure enough, his naked skin stared back. Tears stung his eyes, as a miserable feeling sank to the pit of his stomach. His hands instantly shot to his area at the same speed red painted his cheeks. The girl sat up slowly, groaning as she came to.

        “Where am I? What’s going on?” she asked.

         As she looked from the forest surrounding them, to Bixby, then herself, she suddenly bolted for some thinly veiled bushes. Tears escaped both of their eyes in embarrassment and confusion.

        “Don’t cry. I hate crying,” said the pixie. “It only takes a few seconds to make you clothes anyway.”

        Her narrow eyes studied them. Bixby wiped away tears with the back of his hand, struggling to get a grip on himself. The creature nodded in approval.

       “I’ll make you some clothes,” she concluded.

       The pixie flew about him like a tornado, spinning clothing at lightning speed. Seconds later, he was dressed in a black shirt and camouflage pants. She then sped over to the hiding girl, who was now peeking around the leaves in awe of the fairy’s quick work. In a few more seconds, she was dressed in the same attire as Bixby.

       “Pixie dust,” she said, spinning and fluttering her wings towards Bixby’s hand.

       Bixby stared dumbly back. She lifted his hand into the air and rested under his palm. Gray snowflakes drifted from his fingers to her wings, which shivered in delight.

      “What just happened?” Bixby asked. “You gave me pixie dust. All children can make it; that’s why we work for you.”

       “Oh,” Bixby paused, perplexed. “What’s your name?”

       “Qixirgious. But everyone calls me Qix. What’s your name?”

       “Bixby.”

       As the name left his lips, a memory of needles and his mother’s hand on his head flashed through his brain. Instinctively, his hand shot up to the place where she had touched him. Thick, black hair met his fingers. He stretched his muscles, testing his body. The lack of pain made his mood soar sky high. Wherever he was, he wasn’t a weak, miserable wreck.

       “And what’s your name?” he asked the girl.

       She stepped slowly out from behind the bush, slender eyes cast to the ground.

       “Otsu,” she said in a decibel just above a whisper.

       “Nice to meet you.” Bixby wanted to ask her more questions, but her shyness stopped him. “So where are we?” he asked Qix.

       “This is Centerra,” Qix said, spreading her arms and twirling as though showcasing a gallery of art.

        Bixby studied his surroundings. Hunter green ferns decorated the forest floor, and the trees glinted red through purple mist. Small trickles of sunlight broke through, and the grass twinkled back in greeting. Besides the occasional flutter of small birds, there wasn’t a sound to be heard, until a deep rumbling shook the forest, and Qix’s eyes widened.

       “They’re coming!” she said. “Run!”

        With a twitch of her wings, Qix sped off through the trees. Bixby and Otsu chased after her, tearing through twigs and brush, leaping over fallen logs and trickles of streams. Several times Bixby tried to scream after Qix, wanting to know what he was running from. All he received was an annoyed shake of her spikes and a faster pace. It took all his focus to not lose sight of her while trying not to trip and fall. Several times he glanced at Otsu, whose eyes were trained on Qix, her stride never wavering. A vine of thorns scraped at his arms and legs, yet still he didn’t slow.

        As the branches shook more fervently, and the ground vibrated more violently, panic seized Bixby, and he turned to look over his shoulders. A giant, perhaps around twelve feet tall, bore down upon them. His square jaw was covered in scruff, and his clear green eyes stared Bixby down. His upper lip decorated with a spiraled scar curled into a snarl, and Bixby dove behind a thick, twisted tree, squeezing himself into the maroon crevices. Qix reappeared, tapping his forehead frantically.

      “What are you doing? Keep running!” Qix commanded.

       A deathly croak rumbled behind them, as the giant reached his hands around the trunk of the tree. Qix and Bixby backed slowly away, unable to stop him from tearing the body from its roots, spraying blue tree-blood into the smog. Bixby heard Otsu gasp. Something in Bixby’s heart cracked, wounded by this death. Qix tugged his ear, so he turned and ran, the whoosh of branches scraping past his ears. Qix began to fly zigzag, making it harder for Bixby to keep up. Otsu, however, followed her in stride, gracefully bounding over and around foliage. His muscles ached; his lungs burned, but he loved it. This body was strong.

      Suddenly, Qix disappeared behind thick brush. Bixby dove through it, thorns scraping his face and arms. Qix tugged his ear, whispering that they had to stay still. In such a confined space, Otsu was squeezed next to him, their skin touching. The feel of her arm against his distracted him. The sound of massive footsteps snapped Bixby to reality, and he imagined he was stone, immobile amongst the brush. The giant walked past slowly, scanning the area. Bixby looked down; suddenly skittish that eye contact would give him away. As he moved on, Qix tugged his ear again and took off. They obediently chased after her.

      They put more distance between themselves and the giant when they reached a fat river with a crooked island protruding from the center. Qix fluttered between them and gave instructions.

      “Swim underwater as long as you can to the island and hide. I’m going to send this giant in the wrong direction then come back for you.”

      “Wait! I need to know what’s going on!” Bixby hissed, but his only answer was another yank on his ear before her moth wings disappeared into the brush lining the opposite bank.

       Bixby and Otsu simultaneously sucked in a deep breath and dove, cutting straight for the island. Otsu swam just ahead of him underwater, her body cutting smoothly through the river. They eased through the surface slowly, taking care to cause fewer ripples while getting their bearings. The island wasn’t far, and the south end had a sharp peninsula filled with trees and vines. Bixby figured that with the current on their side; they could make it around without coming up again. Otsu glanced back at Bixby, shooting him a look that meant she was thinking the same thing. He nodded in response, and she vanished under the surface. Bixby dove deep and swam with all his might, squeezing his eyes open to find the curve of boulders and sand. By the time he reached the tip, he felt his lungs screaming for air. His hands pushed against the rocks, his body now against the current. Just a few more feet, he thought. He swam desperately until he had to surface.

      A large boulder blocked his view of the shore. He eased himself along the edge, searching for a path onto the island. Otsu had already scrambled ashore, and she motioned to a slanted rock littered with craters. Once in the cover of leaves, they lay stone still. In under a minute, the giant splashed past, fooled by Qix’s trick. Otsu exhaled in relief. As instructed, they continued to lay low amongst the thorns and vines.

     Something poked Bixby’s side, but he refused to budge. A centipede-like insect with neon yellow stripes and curved fangs crawled across his arm. Bixby held his breath, wanting to shake it off. Otsu studied it curiously. When she noticed Bixby’s fearful expression, a grin broke across her face. Bixby realized it was the first time he had seen her smile. He wanted to smile back, but the bug was traversing his forearm, turning to patter a hundred wasp legs over the back of his hand. The fangs dabbed against his skin like feelers. Finally, it slid off his fingers, returning to the soil. Bixby exhaled, trying to smile and look brave.

    Something roughly grabbed his shoulder. He turned his head, a scream frozen in his throat. His vision blackened, and a force gusted against him for several seconds. It released as abruptly, and he opened his eyes to find himself in a different area of forest. No more purple mist thickened his gaze. Sunlight glittered off flowers, and breeze swayed the tall grasses. Large oaks with twisting branches dipped to the ground and back up towards the sky. The thick trunks indicated an unfathomable age. And then he saw it- a large charcoal grey tree with branches splitting in the middle, stretching out like arms and a black arrow protruding from the fork. It contrasted with the lively red and green trunks surrounding them.

    A boy appeared inches from Bixby’s face, startling him into a backwards stumble. He was younger than Bixby; with coffee skin and tiny braided strands of hair that met his shoulders. He wore only frayed camouflage shorts, and several jagged scars streaked his bare chest and back. Bixby glanced at the dirt-encrusted fingernails reaching to shake his hand.

    “Dionté” he said.

    “Bixby.”

     Bixby shook his hand cautiously, his mind still wrapping around his sudden change of surroundings. Otsu gave her name while dipping her head. Bixby found the gesture strange.

     “What do you do?” Dionté asked.

     Bixby stared blankly back.

    “Yeah, what do you guys do?” asked Qix.

     Bixby jumped again, not realizing she was there. His face froze, awaiting more information, while his racing heart took time to slow, but Dionté and Qix simply stared back. Otsu, equally stupefied, turned her eyes away to the surrounding trees. Frustrated, Bixby erupted.

     “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I want to know what’s going on. Why was a giant chasing me? How did I go from an island to forest? How did I even get here? The last thing I remember is being sick in a hospital and then I wake up to this place, and I feel awesome, by the way, but how did this happen? Am I dead?”

     Dionté tapped his foot impatiently during his brief monologue, clearly bored with these types of outbursts.

    “Want me to answer your questions in the order you asked them?”

     Bixby, perplexed by his reaction, simply nodded.

    “Giants capture children to harvest their skills and make them slaves. I teleported you from the island. Everyone has a tragic Earth story, so we’re probably all dead. What’s your skill?”

    Bixby shook his head, his brain trying to snatch and retain each of Dionté’s words like slippery fish. Dionté sighed laboriously and demonstrated teleporting again. He jumped into the air and disappeared, reappearing behind Bixby to nudge his shoulder.

    “How do you do that?” Bixby asked.

    “I don’t know. Kids figure out what they want to do right away, like an instinct. Nadia is a speedster. Akili flies. But it took me a while to figure it out. There are other ways I’m different, too, but that would take time to explain and you’re already slow with this whole catching on business. So, what skill would you like to have?”

    Bixby’s thoughts tried to swim through a world of possibilities, but nothing stood out to him. The silence screamed into his thoughts, reminding him of the awkwardness he was creating, so he simply shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Dionté asked Otsu the same question. She, too, responded with a half-hearted shrug. Bixby speculated she wasn’t one for words.

    “Dionté, maybe they’re like you?” asked Qix.

    “I doubt it; that’s never happened. Maybe they just need a little more time to adjust since they aren’t quick ones. Come on, I’ll show you our fort.”

    “I’ll let you get acquainted,” said Qix, fluttering her wings under Dionté’s nose as a hint. He paid her in pixie dust and told her good day. Qix’s velvet wings quivered as she tugged Bixby’s ear and giggled before soaring back into the mist.

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