“Uh-oh,” Temron said coolly as Jack-o rolled himself onto his belly and slowly pushed himself to his feet. The spinning wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been earlier, still Jack-o closed his eyes until he was all the way up. When he opened his eyes again the world was mostly still and his balance was stable enough that he didn’t feel the need to brace himself on anything. His body hadn’t felt like it imploded this time either, more like he just blinked and fell into the world. Jack-o wondered if maybe it was the jumpa juice he’d had earlier, or if Temron’s portal was just different than the way he entered books.
“Where are we?” Asked the boy wearily as he took in his surroundings. Whatever place they’d ended up in wasn’t one that Jack-o had read about in Into Gold. Everything around him was, wrong. The sky was dark but looked almost red, like there was a cover and the sun was shining just on the other side, lightly illuminating it. Around him, the land was broken and strange. Tree’s stood out of the ground with their roots pointing toward the sky, and debris hovered through the air as if only certain things in this world had to abide by the laws of gravity.
“Keep up,” said Temron, again acting as if Jack-o had said nothing at all. Then, he looked at the device on his wrist and took off before the boy had a chance to say anything at all. Jack-o didn’t need to ask where the man was going, he knew from the book even though this was not the exact same situation he’d read about. Temron’s portal malfunctions, always dropping him off too early and ends up with a pickup location somewhere else in the world. Since he hasn’t been able to figure out how to fix the issue, he built a gps tracker and has to find his way to it every time he enters a new world.
Inside his stomach, Jack-o could feel anger and dislike for his new travelling partner growing with each brief interaction. But he knew now was not the time for emotion, securing his bag tightly around his shoulders, he followed Temron through the disfigured landscape. Everything he passed made him uneasy and he had to constantly keep his eyes open on all sides while trying to keep up with the much faster, much more experienced man ahead of him.
Temron gracefully jumped over large rocks jutting out of the ground, or ducked under fallen trees and floating debris, while seemingly keeping his eyes on the locator attached to his wrist. Jack-o’s breath was heavy and as he ran determined to keep up with Temron and not get left behind in the dying horror of a world, his mind wandered to Rona. He hoped he’d made it out of the hangar, and Jack-o thought about the likeliness of the scenario. There was that one open-ending, but still, there had never been a little boy in any of the book.
Jack-o looked around and saw a house that reminded him of his own, slowly drifting apart from itself. Like invisible hands were unbuilding it outward into the sky, pulling apart each piece simultaneously. Up ahead he was losing sight of Temron, the man’s dark tattooed skull and clothes blended perfectly into the shadows. The boy pushed himself harder, his lungs hurt and his legs were tired. Suddenly, noises erupted from every part of the sky. It sounded like an army of injured animals were about to rain down on his head. The ground began to rumble but it wasn’t the same as the quakes he’d felt when his own world was being broken apart. It felt as if something was vibrating the ground from the top.
The noises came again, screechingly loud and filled with pain. Up ahead Jack-o thought he could see a low purple color peaking over a small hill, and seconds later the silhouette of a bald man flashed across it. The rumbling felt closer and the noise was getting louder, it hurt his ears and inside he wished whatever it was would be put out of its suffering. Pumping his legs as hard as his little body would physically let him, he decided to chance a look behind.
For the brief second his head was turned his eyes met an angry swarm of disfigured animals. There were horses with wings, but none big enough to lift the beasts higher than a few feet. Cat’s heads ran on duck legs, some animal torsos rolled across the land on roughly attached wheels. It was like someone opened the gates to the world’s largest freakshow zoo, and let out a stampede of disturbing experimental animals.
Jack-o immediately wished he’d kept his eyes forward and never seen the monsters behind him. The light was growing brighter over the hillside and the boy could feel a pang of despair setting into his midsection. He hoped Temron wouldn’t leave him behind, but inside he knew the man would be gone the first second he could. With, or without Jack-o.
He was close to the hill now and the light was almost as bright as it had been what seemed like only moments ago when they’d entered this nightmare. The boy spent his last burst of energy, certain he could feel something breathing on the back of his neck. Jack-o came to the ledge just in time to see Temron walking into the bright, circular portal. He jumped over the hill toward the light, losing his feet as he came down, the world spun while he rolled the last few feet to the bottom. It would only be seconds before the portal was gone now that Temron was through. Frantically, he looked up toward the light, it was close, maybe not more than ten feet. His eyes watered and the bright purple-white made everything else fade from his blurred vision. The screeching, squealing, painful cry came over the hill, springing to his feet on the intensely vibrating ground, the boy ran toward the light. He thought he could make out the shape of Temron’s body inside the brightness and his heart jumped into his throat. It was when he felt the hand wrap around his collar and yank him that he knew he was right. Temron had waited.