Chapter one: Gathering the Last
Jack Lunday slowed his horse to a halt and breathed a sigh. The view below him was amazing: a full moon was rising behind Ayers Rock and casting shadows on nooks and crannies of the Australian outback. The world was spread out below him, like a moonlit carpet at his feet. He took the black fedora off of his head, ran a hand through his dark brown hair, and replaced the hat securely before he took another look at the land that was comfortably familiar to him. The outskirts of Alice Springs had always been Jack's home, but he often traveled into the outback on biweekly hunting trips. It was up to him to provide food for his family, ever since his dad had been in a crippling car accident five years ago. Even at age fifteen Jack could manage a gun and a hunting knife rather well, but nowadays he seldom carried a gun; when he did, his hunting rifle stayed in its holster behind his horse's saddle. His knife was with him at all times, for his twenty years of experience in the outback had taught him to never travel without it.
The boy was tall, lean, and very fit from years of work on his family's farm. His dark brown hair, which in dim light appeared a shade of ebony, was cut so the longest strands would reach the middle of his neck. Deep brown eyes peered out from under the brim of his favorite black fedora. A tangle with hungry dingoes no more than a year past had left a visible diagonal scar across his left cheek, which he prided as a sort of "battle scar".
As he glanced over the land, he saw a peculiar shadow that was unlike the others created by the moonlight. It was shaped like a horse and rider, moving at a relatively slow pace. He jumped when the rider's silhouette appeared to look his way. What would anyone else be doing out at this time of night...?
Suddenly, the horse of the shadow-hidden rider reared back and lurched forward into a run. Jack grimaced and clacked his tongue to his own horse. "Yah! C'mon Midnight, let's go!" His horse reluctantly galloped down the ridge after the runaway rider. Jack felt his hat lift on a gust of wind and put a hand up to catch it, but it had already flown from his grasp. He muttered a curse under his breath and resolved to find it later.
The panicked rider had grabbed onto their horse's neck in a death-grip. But as Jack drew near, he saw that the reins were firmly grasped in one hand, as if the rider had been riding Western style. I've a bad feeling about this, he thought sullenly.
"Hey," he called out, "jump over when I come up alongside!"
The rider was obviously terrified, though the shadows from the moonlight masked any visual facial or physical features. The only things he could make out were jeans, an unbuttoned plaid over-shirt, and a faded khaki baseball cap. "I— I can't!" The rider was still clinging to the horse's neck.
"You have to!"
When Jack had grabbed the runaway horse's reins, the rider managed to jump on behind his rescuer, but the momentum was too much. Jack felt himself being pulled to the ground and he let go of Midnight's reigns. The two riders fell to the ground in separate directions.
Jack quickly got to his feet, despite being dazed from the fall. "All right, mate?"
"No," the rider moaned from the ground. "That hurt..." Jack picked up the stranger's hat, which had also fallen, and gazed now upon the much softer complexion that had before hid beneath the hat's brim.
"You—you're a girl!"
She groaned as she sat up painfully. "Thank you for noticing." Her American accent was almost disturbingly out of place with her surroundings. She would probably be pretty, he reasoned, if her chestnut hair was not falling out of its ponytail and if she washed the smudges of outback off of her face; even in the light of the moon Jack could see her golden eyes, which he noticed were now fixed on him. "Look, I'm sorry for the whole, um... the damsel in distress thing. Honestly, I don't think that horse liked me too much," she added, more to herself than to Jack. "I, eh... if you don't mind, I'm a little lost. I'm near Alice Springs, right?"
Jack frowned. "Yeah, close enough. Who are you?" He asked, a little more sternly then he meant. "What're you doing out here in the middle of the night?"
"I'm looking for someone." She was cross. She must have really been embarrassed about losing control of her horse... "Who are you?"
"I asked you first."
"...okay, fine, whatever. I don't have time for Twenty Questions. My name is Anne, and I'm looking for someone named Jack Lunday. Do you know him?"
What the... "That's me," he said warily.
The girl's expression changed. "Whoa, no way! You... you're serious? You're Jack?"
"Uh... yeah, I'm me, last time I checked. Why are you looking for me? What did I do?"
"Ha! This is great!" She had stopped listening, and Jack gave an inward sigh of frustration as he watched the girl talk to herself. "This is just awesome... I mean, you have no idea! Everyone's gonna be thrilled when I come back on the same day...!" She grabbed Jack by the hand and tried to pull him towards the direction of Ayers Rock. "C'mon, you have to come with me. The fate of the world may as well depend on whether you help us or not!"
Jack roughly broke her grip with a jerk of his wrist. "I'm not going anywhere!"
"What? Why not?" Did it not occur to her that he would protest?
"...you didn't seriously just ask me that."
She was getting flustered. "Look, I'm sorry that this is so very, um... very sudden. I completely understand. And I'd love to give you the whole shoot-n-match right now, but the portal may close on me if I don't hurry! So, please, just come with me—"
"A portal? No, now I know you're crazy," he said with a laugh. "Did you find a world in your wardrobe, too, or was it just your sock drawer?"
"You don't understand, there's a whole 'nother world in danger right now!" She blurted out. Then she stopped, took a steadying breath, and tried again. "That came out a little too fast; let me explain—"
"Explain what, that you're bloomin' mad?"
"I know that's what it seems like, but I promise I'm telling the truth. It's very, very important that you just trust me, okay?"
"Yeah." Jack leveled a skeptical look at her. "Why should I?"
To his surprise, she grinned. "What've you got to lose?"
They stood and stared in silence, their eyes silently daring the other to back down. Finally, Jack gave a heavy sigh and turned away. "Sorry, no. I've got to find my horse before he gets too far. Good luck with that portal, though." He saw a fleeting glance of astonishment on the girl's face, but he chose to ignore it. He heard her call to him, but he kept walking away. He ambled along the edge of the incline he had come down from, still feigning deaf to the girl's calls.
As Jack rounded a curve in the incline, he spotted a curious glow casting shadows on the ground. Before he could see anything, something ran into him from behind and knocked him over. He saw the rock that his head was going to land on, but he could not catch himself in time.
The sheer pain of Jack's pounding head dragged him from his unconsciousness. His body still felt slightly numb, and his mind swam as he tried to remember what had happened to him. When feeling began to return, straight off he could tell that everything was sore, and neither his arms nor his legs would respond when he tried to move them. A faint taste of fabric coated his tongue, and his eyelids felt like two-ton weights. Even with his eyes closed, everything was unbelievably bright around him, and that only made his head hurt worse; he could hear the wind blowing through the leaves of trees, and somewhere there were birds... where was he?
A male voice called out to him. "C'mon, Jackie, time to get up. I know you're awake." The voice came from behind, but it sounded more distant than it could have been.
Jack tried to say something to whoever it was, but found he couldn't move his mouth. His once-heavy eyelids flew open. He was lying on the ground of a forest clearing on his side, his wrists and ankles were bound, and a gag was tied around his mouth. A few moments of futile struggle assured he wasn't going to do anything heroic, and he resigned himself to lie helplessly on the ground and ignore the throbbing in his head.
"No use in trying to get free," the voice sneered. "Did you really think we'd let you get off with—"
A female voice suddenly came into the conversation with a disgusted shout. "Ryan O'Connor, what are you DOING?!" It had an odd American accent in it, almost like the accent the girl had last night. But this one had a more obvious drawl.
"Hey, I had to make sure he didn't get away!" Ryan's voice protested. "I don't see why Anne went to so much trouble for him anyway. The Brit and I do a good enough job of protecting you girls without the help of some dusty Crocodile Dundee wanna-be!"
Jack growled low in his throat. He wanted this guy's head on a platter.
"We're not defenseless!" The female voice snapped. "You know the drill, and you know that it doesn't include tyin' up the new guy. Let him go."
The threat in the girl's voice must have been enough, because a moment later, he gag came off from around Jack's mouth. "Try anything smart and these ropes are going back on, pal," Ryan's voice snarled in his ear.
Reluctantly, Jack allowed him to untie the bonds, rubbing his wrists painfully as he stood. "Wasn't planning on it, pal," he growled back.
The girl, who had remained behind the boys until this point, gave a little smirk as she crossed in front of them. "Oh, this one has an accent! That makes him easily more interesting than you, Ryan."
She was American, all right; maybe hers was a southern American accent, though he couldn't be sure, since he had never heard it before. Jack looked his captors once-over with a wooden expression, secretly trying to see what he was up against in case there was the chance to escape. The girl didn't seem to be very threatening; she was barely as tall as he, and certainly not as strong. She stood with an air of mild boredom towards him and the situation in general, not as though she could be unsuspecting of an escape attempt, but moreso that she seemed to know he was a trustworthy fellow. She idly fingered her long golden braid that, when she let go, dangled just above her waist. Her grey-blue eyes hid behind a pair of simply designed glasses, but he could see the glare she was still occasionally giving Ryan. Even when she was not looking at the other boy, she seemed to project a general air of annoyance toward him.
Ryan, on the other hand, was not only taller and older than both of them, but he seemed to seethe with unpleasantness. Where Jack saw boredom towards himself in the girl, he saw aggression and condescension in Ryan's defiant green eyes. Of the two, Jack would have been more worried about the girl planning anything sneaky or underhanded, whereas Ryan would probably just explode. Jack saw that Ryan was halfheartedly glaring at him, as though he knew something would happen to him if the girl saw him. "Looks like you've got another admirer, Jackie," he snorted indignantly.
The girl frowned. "You're just stirrin' up trouble, Ryan. C'mon, you two – everyone's waiting for us back at the campsite." She turned and left the clearing, treading almost silently on the leaf-laden forest floor. Jack noticed with some sense of awe that she was barefoot, and walking as if the sharp sticks and thorn-bearing plants didn't bother her at all. He shrugged the observation into the back of his mind.
Soon they came across another clearing, and four other teenagers greeted them as they arrived. One of them Jack recognized to be the girl he had saved the night before, and he frowned at her in passing. "You look different since you washed your face," he muttered in what he hoped was a dark tone.
She looked a little injured. "Oh... I guess you're still not happy about last night, are you?" Jack leveled a glare at her. "C'mon, don't be like that, Jack... I'm sorry. I know you must hate me, but it was necessary." Now she was at least trying to smile. "Let's try again, please? My name is Anne; Anne Madison." Jack tried to look indifferent by averting his eyes to the ground. Anne sighed. "Good heavens, how many times do I have to apologize? I'm sorry I knocked you over, for goodness' sake!"
Another boy, whose flaming red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, burst out laughing and spoke in a British Cockney accent. "You knocked him out?" His laughter died down under Anne's icy glare. "Ah... never mind." The boy turned to Jack. "The name's Shawn Bennett. I know it'll be hard here the first few days, but really, try to go easy on everyone?"
Jack glanced at the others, who were all girls, and Anne motioned to them in turn, including the one who had been in the clearing with him and Ryan. "Over there is Kitt Tanan -the one with the gun- with Erin Patrick beside her, and behind you is Soren McCain."
Kitt looked up from what appeared to be a ray gun that she had been tinkering with. "Welcome, boy. ...Anne, I've got to ask. Is he as much of an egomaniac as Ryan?" Her short auburn hair swayed when she put her head back down to concentrate on her weapon, not waiting for an answer from her friend.
Ryan glared at her. "I am not an egomaniac!"
"Yeah, right." Erin, the other girl, ran a hand over her wavy brown hair and replaced the turtleshell headband that was in her other hand. She turned her head to look at Jack for a moment; Jack got the feeling that not only could she have beaten Soren hands-down in an indifference contest, but that she also was not impressed with what she saw. She looked back at Anne. "Look, I know the magical prophetic dreams are never wrong and there's some higher power at work here, yada yada... but why did we spend all this time tracking down a portal to find him?"
Anne cocked an eyebrow threateningly. "Same reason I came after you," she said. "Besides, he's the final member of the team."
"What team?" After the short moments of being overwhelmed by everything, Jack had finally found his voice. "What IS this? I've had just about enough of the pleasant little introductions, and quite frankly, I'm getting angry! Now, we'll take it a step at a time, if it would be easier on youse. I want to know where I am, all right? That's not too hard, is it?"
Erin laughed. "You wouldn't believe us if we told you."
"Yeah? What I do believe is that I'm losing patience with people like you being so unimpressed with me, sheila. If you had saved a girl off a runaway horse only to be knocked out by a well-placed rock, and wake up bound and gagged—"
Anne whirled on Ryan. She looked furious. "You did what?"
"I had to do something to keep him from running off!"
Jack didn't seem to hear them. "—and found yourself surrounded by strangers... I'm getting more than a little cranky because of all this, and I truly think I'd believe anything right now."
Soren laughed at him. "Even if we told you that we weren't on Earth anymore?"
A long silence fell over the camp. Jack's wide-eyed stare was enough to quiet the group of teenagers. "Come again?" He finally asked.
"We're in a world called Myrran," Anne began slowly. "It's... a parasite universe to Earth, in a manner of speaking—"
"Wait, a what universe?"
She sighed. "A world or galaxy that is dependent on another seemingly separate world or galaxy," she rattled off in monotone. Apparently, this wasn't the first time someone had required the explanation. "Myrran and Earth are tied together by a few random threads of the fabric of time and space... or something like that, anyway."
Shawn clapped him on the back. "You're one of the lucky few who gets to see this, mate! Isn't it exciting?"
However, Jack was still in shock. "This... this isn't—"
"This isn't happening? There's no way this could be true? You're off your rocker? I'm dreaming?" Ryan snorted. "That's what we all thought, too. You don't go home when you wake up, Jackie, and there's no yellow brick road that'll take you back to Oz. You want proof? Just look up."
Jack hesitated at first, but he took his eyes off his captors and looked toward the sky. Through the leaves of the trees, he could just make out the distant sight of another planet in the sky above him, and on second glance it seemed to be just a very large moon, whose light was faded by the afternoon sunlight. "But... I can't just leave my home," he murmured. "What about my family? Are they taken care of without me?"
Erin gave him a halfhearted frown. "They're fine. Trust me."
"No, you don't understand; they won't have food without me! My dad can't hunt anymore, and I—"
"I know, and even though it doesn't seem like it now, I promise they'll be okay," Anne reassured him. "And we can talk more about it later. For now, though, we need to move on... we won't make it to another village until tomorrow, but we need to make as much headway as possible."
Jack knew he had no chance to escape, even though the thought crossed his mind as everyone was distracted with gathering their effects together; to run off into the strange forest alone would mean getting horribly lost, possibly injured, and could even mean starvation, as he did not know who had taken his hunting knife from him. He took one last look at the moon through the leaves, gave an inward sigh of defeat, and trudged along behind the others as they set off into the woods.