Enjoy the next exciting installment of Janine Caldwell’s Vortex series. The following a an excerpt from chapter one…
READY OR NOT
A cyclone, a black hole, and an earthquake of epic proportion. Add to that my shock, and, well, I’ve pretty much summed up the hell I unwillingly experienced. There I am one moment, ecstatically kissing my boyfriend, imagining all is right again in my world, and the next I’m whirling in the dark, gasping for air, while an invisible giant hand squeezes the bejeezus out of me.
“They’re not daydreams, they’re flashes!”Those were the last chilling words Trent screamed at me and . . . Poof! Gone in a blink is the boy I love. Ripped from my hands before I could ask him why his eyes were flashing with terror in the middle of our sweet reunion. My body, previously rooted outside my tennis club’s locker room, was hijacked and thrown into a horrific virtual roller coaster. Death, I thought surely, was the only possible outcome.
Is that torture a sampling of traveling through time? Because, as insane as the idea is, I think that’s precisely what happened. I jumped time.
But how could that be? I’m not a time traveler. That burden falls on Trent. Has his supernatural power suddenly become contagious, like mono? That would be just my luck. Or maybe he somehow accidentally transported me along with him. It’s never been done before, but I guess there’s a first for everything. Although it does defy everything we know about his powers.
Afraid to open my eyes, I grope around me, hopeful that Trent’s body is near and waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, I only come up with handful of dirt, fingering objects that resemble sharp, dry needles.
“Trent?”I croak. “Are you here?”
I swallow a bitter taste in my mouth—a cocktail of fear mixed with panic. My mind races through questions as fast as my heartbeat. Where am I? Am I alone? What exactly has happened to me?
Ready to at least face wherever it is I am, I attempt to crack open my eyes. They begin to water immediately, blurring from dizziness. The world rocks around me. Moaning, I reach for my head and tuck into a ball, willing the spinning to stop. I can’t think. All I can do is breathe. The deeper I fill my lungs, I learn, the better the recovery. The cool, heavy air smells like pine and damp woods, which is both soothing and terrifying.
Slowly, with careful movements, I manage to shift around onto my hands and knees. I think it’s progress, but before I can choke it back, I vomit. When that wave of nausea ends, another comes charging through me. I vomit again and again, ejecting my insides like someone being exorcised. My muscles from feet to neck are clenched tight, aching with the slightest movement.
After one last exhausting cough, my stomach calms down. The dizziness ends as well. I chance opening my eyes, and this time I’m able to keep them open, a sense of being more steady and grounded to the earth resonating through me. Sinking back onto my heels, I take in the scenery. I’m awestruck by the view of a grand forest. It’s very green and heavily wooded. Diagonal beams of light filter through an array of giant spruce, redwood, and pine trees, warming my face and highlighting the layer of mulch I polluted with my filth.
I’m stunned, petrified that I really did travel to some other place. My gaze roams around me, still clinging to the hope of finding Trent, but as far as I can tell, I’m all alone. My throat tightens at the thought—alone in a mature, wild forest. God only knows what year it is or for what purpose I’ve been sent here.
I hang my head in my hands. Wow, am I sincerely debating what year it is? I have so lost it. Never in my wildest imagination could I foresee something this insane happening to me. But as I take another gander at my current setting, I can’t deny I’m no longer home in Pleasanton, California.
Although there’s nothing left in my stomach, it doesn’t stop me from a surge of nausea at the harsh reality of my situation. All I want to do is huddle back into a ball until I can wake up from this nightmare. A sob escapes my mouth, echoing into the vast forest before it’s swallowed up by thick layers of bark. Tears threaten to fall until I sniff and force them to retreat.
No! This blubbering has to stop. There’s no point in feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing in self-pity will not get me home any faster. That’s right. Get up and do something, Cassie. Don’t wait for someone else to rescue you, because this time it looks like you’re on your own.
I take a moment to regroup, coaxing strength to arise in me. I consider everything I’ve learned about time traveling. If my instincts are correct and I can make sense of all this, I have to start accepting the facts. Somehow I’ve miraculously become a time traveler like Trent. A flyer through time. How this happened is a question to debate later. But understanding this much means I’m probably the only one who can get myself home. Me. To play this game and win, a mission has to be met before I’ll be given a ticket back to the present. It’s the only way.
Freshly determined, I straighten my spine, eager to figure out this puzzle. In the next moment, an arctic breeze cuts through my skin, and I’m promptly reminded of what I’m wearing, or not wearing, as the case may be, for an adventure gallivanting through Sherwood Forest. My yellow tennis dress looks practically neon compared to the surrounding russet and emerald hues. It’s of little warmth and even less protection from lethal branches. By the angle of the sun and the increasing shadows, I can tell it’ll be dark soon, too. The notion causes me to involuntarily shudder.
Using the aid of a nearby boulder, I claw my way to my feet. It’s an improvement from crawling on all fours, but I have Bambi legs, wobbly and feeble. With stiff fingers, I rub my bare arms and bump into Trent’s leather cuff, too big for my wrist. I forgot I had slid it on at the tennis match to show Trent that I remembered him. It seems suiting I would have it in my possession at the moment and certainly comforting to have a piece of him with me. The necklace he bought me for Christmas, regretfully, is tucked safely away in my locker back at the club.
A tad more inspired by the bracelet, I trek through the forest at a pace my Grandma Bertie in her last days could’ve kept up with. Of course, I have no idea where I’m going. It’s trunks, leafy bushes, and speckled boulders as far as the eye can see. I’ve yet to find any sign of other people, which makes trying to save someone a real conundrum. And besides the occasional squawk followed by a fluttering of wings high up in the trees, there’s no sign of animals, either. I should probably be grateful for that, but the eerie silence is creeping me out. The isolation pricks at my nerves. I have zero supplies unless you count the extra hairband I have in my pocket, which I don’t. No food or water, no shelter. I can’t think about what I’ll do if I have to stay the night out here.
As I roam, teeth chattering at the dropping temperature, I contemplate what Trent would do on one of his missions. Probably not wig out like me. I’m sure he’s above that by now, having years of completed missions under his belt, but, hey, this is my virgin jump, so I think I’ll give myself a break.
Hmm . . . let me see. I suppose Trent would think back to his flashes. Yes, that’s it! He explained once these spontaneous, uncontrollable flashes are visions conjured from . . . well, I don’t know where they come from. From a supernatural force he can’t fully explain. A spiritual dimension of guides championing his missions, perhaps. These images play through his mind to give him clues of the victims he’s been summoned to save. As I told Trent, I thought I was only vividly daydreaming these last few weeks. Apparently not.
Before I begin to pick through my brain for images that might help me figure out what I’m doing here, a lone wolf howls a hundred or so yards away. A second wolf howls until a chorus of haunting wails sends an icy chill through my bones.
Come on! Seriously? Did it have to be wolves? It couldn’t have been a horde of gentle bunnies or a herd of harmless, grass-eating deer?
I’m about to run as fast as I can in the opposite direction of the howling when a human scream pierces through the forest. With that scream reverberating through my mind, time stands still. Suddenly, I become hyperaware of my surroundings, as if I can hear the blood surging through my veins, sense the microscopic particles floating on my fingers, see the forest breathing in and out. Soon a flash of a panicked child in harm’s way burns through my brain, clear as water and impossible to forget.
Got it. It’s no longer a question. As warm adrenaline courses through my veins, I’m reminded I’ve seen this kid before in what I thought were meaningless daydreams. An instinct planted somewhere deep in my core assures me I’ve been sent here for him.
With no more time to ponder, I gallop, weaving through the thick brush. I am strength. I am power. Leaping over boulders, I swipe at any branch blocking my path as if I’ve been raised in the forest and know how to command my way through it. It’s easy to ignore the thrashing on my naked skin, distracted by the thousands of sharp tingles invading my nerve endings. It’s an odd sensation—like I have a fever, though moments ago I was shivering from the cold.
When I reach a small clearing, I find a young boy, a raccoon hat on top of his head. My heart stops. He’s sitting on the ground with at least five sandy gray wolves snapping and circling him. He not only appears to be in horrible pain, but beyond terrified by these beasts inching closer. I can understand why. These wolves are not your fluffy Hollywood specimens, but real savages—scrappy, ravenous-looking. Backed up against a tree, the boy continues to pull at his bloody leg with desperation, but he can’t seem to free himself. It’s caught in something. A metal animal trap of some sort. In the meantime, his only weapon is a long branch he periodically strikes in the air, but it has little effect of scaring the wolves away.
As I hunch down behind a patch of shrubbery, my heart caught in my throat, I rack my brain for what I’m supposed to do next. This is so beyond my expertise. I’m a high school tennis player, for Pete’s sake, not Davy Crockett. Think, Cassie! What would Trent do?
I scan my surroundings, searching for anything that might help distract the wolves from wanting to gobble up this poor kid, but there’s nothing! Only rocks, spiky foliage, and a few dead, sap-spattered pinecones. I’m debating whether I should take off my tennis shoes to chuck at the beasts when I hear the boy scream in a way that makes my stomach lurch. It sounds like a wolf has moved in near enough to nip at him. If I don’t hurry up and do something, they may all attack him at once. There’ll be nothing to stop their eating frenzy at that point.
Wait a minute. Rocks!
Without hesitation, I seize a few jagged rocks the size of my palm that my eyes previously swept past. I spring out from behind the shrubbery with my ammo, ready for battle. A primitive roar spews from a deep-rooted part of my spirit, drawing a couple wolves away from the boy. With superhuman strength, I launch the handful of rocks at them until I nail one between the eyes. It yelps and stumbles before shaking its head in a daze. This gets the rest of the pack’s attention. They reassemble, growling as they tentatively move away from the boy and face my direction.
Oh, crap. This can’t be good.
The wolves advance as one unit, creeping toward me, stalking me with their raised tails and hackles. Their orange irises are fixed directly on mine, appearing as feral as their unruly coats. Their razor-edged teeth are bared, columns of foamy drool spilling out of the corners of their black gums.
A fit of trembling wreaks my body, my mouth as dry as the dusty forest floor. Way to go, genius. What’s your next brilliant step? Sure, you prevented the boy from being attacked, but by way of offering your own flesh for them to feed on. Nice. Some time traveler you are. One mission and you’re already finished!
I’ve lived through a few nail biters—being held at gunpoint by a lunatic scientist and plummeting to my most certain death in a hot-air balloon mishap, for example—but at the moment, feasted on by wolves is ranking up there as the most horrifying. The pack has moved in dangerously close, growling at me from deep within their chests. They’re pushing me back out of the clearing, cornering me against the same dense patch of shrubbery I was hiding behind. In another second, my plan is to turn around and sprint like an Olympian track star, but I’m already doubtful I can outrun them. They’ve got to be familiar with every nook and hollow in this blasted forest. There’s nowhere I can hide they won’t track my human scent.
As I continue to cautiously step backward, one eye steady on the wolves, my foot catches on a root. I trip and land on my backside with a painful thud. So much for running. My vulnerable position excites the wolves. They look moments from pouncing, leaning back in their haunches, licking their chops at their easy prey. A scream escapes from my lungs.
I’m sorry, Trent. I really did try. I love you.