Serafina has grown up in a harsh jungle full of ferocious predators and crafty prey. She knows little of the world outside the jungle, and her only human contact has been with Arken, whom she looks to as a father.
But by the age of seventeen, Serafina’s desire to explore the world outside the jungle grows daily. And eventually, her curiosity may get the better of her…
Serafina watched her prey through a tangle of leaves and forced her body to petrify. Her toes pushed against the thin leather fabric of her boots and dug into the soil, like a tree planting roots. Her breath softened until it matched the flow of the breeze weaving a melody around hundreds of tree branches. The muscles of her limbs tightened like ropes pulling taut. Her fingers clenched around her spear, but she refused to let the wooden shaft tremble until the moment came to throw it. Her green eyes glittered as they focused on her target, and the rest of the world melted into darkness.
A furry capybara munched on the leaves of a grenzo bush beneath a single beam of sunlight. Grenzo plants provided a rich source of nutrition in the Darzian jungle, but larger herbivores usually dominated the areas in which it grew. Grenzo bushes needed a great deal of sunlight to survive, and under the the thick jungle canopy such illumination was scarce. To find a grenzo bush unprotected like this one must have been a dream come true to the little capybara. Thus as it ate to its heart content, forgetting its surroundings, the scenario provided Serafina a rare opportunity, as well.
Serafina had been hunting all day without success—until now. She had wandered further from home than she usually dared, so far that she did not know the layout of the jungle beyond this point.
Normally she would continue to scout the area before initiating a hunt, ensuring that she would not be surprised by a larger predator or trip unknowingly into a grove of poisonous pollies. But this lone capybara provided an opportunity too prosperous to ignore. Capybaras, which looked like over-sized rats, were far from her top choice of meats, but they were also clever and quick and she rarely laid eyes on one for more than a few seconds before it vanished from sight. She would not squander this chance to obtain one for dinner.
She felt the moment approaching, like a rhythm building towards a grand crescendo. Perhaps she got a little too excited, for she lifted her spear and shifted slightly. Then the capybara looked up.
A moment of stillness, as Serafina held her breath and the capybara strained its tiny little ears for other signs of danger. But its hunger trumped its fear, for at last it plunged its head back into the grenzo bush.
Serafina sprang. Her body launched upward, and all the coiled muscles of her body released their dormant strength into the shaft of her spear. The metal tip sliced the air faster than the eye could follow, flying wingless towards the vulnerable flesh of the little capybara…
…only to sink into empty soil.
Serafina blinked a few times, unbelieving. The capybara was gone, except for a faint brown blur on the edge of her vision. Somehow, it had reacted quickly enough to escape the bite of her weapon. The little wily bastard! Rage rushed through her, forcing her hands to clench until her nails stabbed her palms. She should have speared it. She had done everything right. Her stomach ached with hunger, and she wanted to appease it with that pesky little rodent!
At last she rushed forward to retrieve her spear, and she should have stopped there. She should have accepted defeat and begun the search for another source of sustenance. But her rage pushed her onward. And before she paused to consider the consequences, she raced after the capybara.
The capybara could scramble through tight tangles of vines and twigs in order to escape Serafina, so she needed to use her size to her advantage. Her legs pumped upwards and her hands slapped the gritty bark of a chinder tree. The forest floor shrank beneath her as she scrambled up the tree trunk. Her eyes scanned the maze of branches stretching skyward until she found a path forward. Then she climbed into the labyrinth.
Soon she soared above the forest floor from one branch to the next, her hands extending, gripping, and releasing in perfect harmony with the jumping of her feet. Leaves and twigs whipped her body as she sped through the intricate network of foliage, slicing her skin and drawing out tiny beads of blood. But she ignored every lash of pain, every ache of her muscles as she landed on one branch and pounced for another, as she fought to keep her balance and never lose momentum, and while her eyes searched tirelessly for tiny brown blur of the capybara far below.
She had already passed the point of no return, for she had broken the most important rule of surviving in the jungle: never rush into unknown territory. She did not know this part of the forest. She had no idea where she was going. She might not even know how to get back to where she started.
She had already placed herself in grave danger. So she might as well keep going.
Her state of mind had lost all equilibrium. The world started to brighten, as if a flood of light was pouring into the forest. She did not pay much attention. The strange vision could very well be a result of her panic, manifesting in the sensation that the shadows of the jungle faded into a white oblivion representing the unknown.
But the intensity of light surrounding Serafina was no trick of her subconscious. It was reality; a result of the fact that the canopy was thinning, that the trees spread out and left wider gaps between them, and that eventually she could no longer jump from branch to branch but had to jump back down into soil.
She kept running through the sparse trees, but she did not see the capybara. She saw nothing but a bright light ahead of her, growing brighter and brighter, like a huge tide of golden air pouring into the forest. Then reached the edge of the shadow, where nothing but light lay ahead of her.
She skidded to a stop, shook her head, and waited for her eyes to adjust.
Thousands of tall, skinny blades of yellow grass leaned into the wind. A vast blue sky stretched to infinity above and before her. So much light, so much open space… she felt like the emptiness would drown her. The breeze struck her body, an unusual sensation, sending tingles across her skin and dozens of new scents into her nose.
She had reached the edge of the jungle—which she must never leave—and stared for the first time into the great world beyond.
She struggled to breathe. Fear flowed through her limbs. Papa said that the world beyond the jungle was a terrible place, rife with evil humans and mind-bending illusions. The world beyond encompassed a human hive of greed, debauchery, and cruelty. The jungle consisted of physical danger, but the world beyond would poison her mind beyond repair.
She saw something moving in the grass. She took another step forward.
Then she saw a young man.