May shifted her knees on the leaves, flinching. Great. Now she was even more uncomfortable. And the small twigs weren’t helping. At all.
Not that it was impossible to see coming. Forest floors were surprisingly bad for knees.
Cecily peered at her from behind a tree across the path, hands cupped to her mouth. “May, I don’t think they’re coming.”
“Oh, they’re coming.” May adjusted herself again—then gave up and sat down. Her lab coat would get dirty, but you know what? Sacrifices were sacrifices. What else could she do? Crouching was a pain.
“I’m not entirely sure of that.”
“Of course not. You’re a pessimist.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Cecily lowered her hands—then glanced down the path. “You’ve just—you’ve got to be realistic. They’re not coming this way.”
“Why not? And ‘realistic’ doesn’t make new discoveries.” May shook her head, rolling her eyes. “Really, you should know better.”
“I should, huh?” Cecily adjusted her own position, squatting beside the tree. “Sure. We’re going to find some hoppers, even though it’s obvious they haven’t been this way in a month. Rainbows and dancing mushrooms will escort them.”
“Ha, ha. Dancers don’t like hoppers.” May squinted into the setting sun. It was barely filtering through the trees now—but still there. Not nightfall yet. “Anyway, don’t act like this is a lost cause. I believe.”
“No amount of belief will save this expedition.”
“Look, I—” May put her fists on her hips, narrowing her eyes at Cecily. “You know what? We’ll just wait and see. How about that.”
“That sounds like a great way to—”
The sound of springs bouncing met her ears. Tons of boings, overlapping with crunched leaves and twigs.
May smiled at Cecily, eyebrows rising. “And there they are, doubter.”
Cecily cocked her head at May. “Okay. Not bad.”
“See? This is why you don’t make any major discoveries. You just don’t wait long enough.”
“Mm.” Cecily shook her head. “You mean waste inordinate amounts of time?”
“Something like that.” May shrugged, glancing down the avenue of trees lining the twig-strewn path. “You can’t be too practical.”
“Sure. Why not.” Cecily blew out her breath, shaking her head. “You are the award-winning scientist here.”
“By a smidge.” The hoppers were bounding into view now. Mushrooms that rose to her waist, with stems coiled like springs. Each bounce made a boing—and they hopped a few meters at a time, some leaping higher than the treetops. Eight or nine of them, at a quick count.
May gave her a thumbs-up. “Yep.”
They jumped into the path, arms out. May gave a “heyah!” and did her best karate pose. Not that it would help—but why not.
A hopper just missed Cecily—she flinched—and another collided with May. Its spring pressed into her shoulder as she stumbled back—then the hopper went sailing into the woods.
Nice! Now she could—
Another one bounded into her chest. May fell hard on the cold dirt with a grunt—skidding across leaves and twigs, legs in the air. Well. Now her lab coat was definitely dirty. She got to her knees, fingers digging into the soil—flinching as another one leapt by. She blew loose strands of red hair from her face—then found her feet, brushing off her lab coat. The last hoppers were bounding past.
“Whoo! Yeah.” May’s heart was beating way faster than it should’ve been—but she pulled a fist pump. “We got one.”
“Where? I don’t—ah.” Cecily’s eyes fell on the hopper planted upside-down at May’s feet. Its coiled stem was still twitching—not that there was any way it could right itself. With hoppers, they either landed right or not at all. “Nice.”
“Another one in the woods too. Bounced off me.”
“Excellent.” Cecily adjusted her spectacles—a straggler hopped past her, and she gave a gasp. Swallowing, she adjusted her lab coat. “Guess you were right about this path being active.”
“A hopper highway. And yep, I called it.” May brushed her hands against each other, then put them on her hips. She gazed at the upside-down hopper—then expelled a long sigh. Not bad. “Alright. Vinegar?”
Cecily pulled a vial from her lab coat, approaching May. “Here.”
May accepted the vial, eyes still on the hopper. “Perfect. Now for the alter spores.”
“That’s on you.”
“Oh! Right.” May handed the vial back—then started patting down her lab coat. “Let’s see…it’s here somewhere…”
Cecily blinked at her. “Really, May? You forgot.”
“I know I’ve got it…” Did she? It had to be here—right? She never left home without alter spores…
“Are you serious.”
May growled in frustration—then thrust trembling fingers into her pockets, closing her eyes. Where had she put it?
“I can’t believe this. Of all the things…”
“I didn’t forget it!” May stomped the ground. “Don’t say that! Besides, we can go back—we have time—”
“Not really. Hoppers die if they’re upside-down for too long. We’ll have to—”
“I know what we’ll have to do! Don’t worry about it.” May started mumbling, dipping her fingers into the coat’s inside pockets. “We can find another horde of hoppers…and I probably have it somewhere in here…”
Nope. She wasn’t finding it. It wasn’t—
There! “Got it!” She plucked the vial from inside her coat, raising it so the multicolored sparkles glittered in the setting sun’s light. Perfect. “Knew it.”
Cecily crossed her arms, arching an eyebrow. “Okay…”
“Told ya.” May placed her free hand against her hip, wagging the vial. “And you were worried.”
“I’m always worried.”
“Whatever. What matters is we have the alter spores.” May combed her hair back, chest heaving as she took a breath. “Vinegar?”
“Sure.” A smile tugged at Cecily’s lips as she handed May the vial. “It’s your show, award-winner.”
“M-hm.” May pursed her lips—then popped both vials open with her thumbs. She knelt beside the hopper, which was still twitching—then dumped the vinegar and alter spores on it.
Nothing. The coiled stem twitched a little less—probably because it was starting to lose energy—and that was it. May tapped the vials with her index fingers, holding them upside down ‘til they were empty. That should do it.
May tucked both vials into her coat. Great. “They should at least be reacting to the vinegar.”
“Maybe we have to right it first. The alter spores should only make it bounce higher, as far as I remember.” Cecily knelt beside her. “I mean, for all we know the combination is doing something.”
That was a good point. May tapped her lips, narrowing her eyes. “Okay. That’s interesting. Not a bad idea.”
“Of course, it could just hop away…”
“M-hm.” Not like it was doing anything anyway. “Yep, let’s do it.”
They each grabbed a side of its cap—hoppers were surprisingly heavy—and flipped it over with a grunt. It tensed its coiled stem—then bounced up. And up…and up, flailing wildly as it gleamed in the sun. Then it plummeted—landing hard in a nearby tree. Branches snapped as it tumbled down. It landed on its stem, just fine apparently, and bounced high again. This time it did a backflip before landing.
“Well, the vinegar is definitely working.” Cecily arched an eyebrow, following its progress with a smile. “And the alter spores too. Not sure if they have a combined effect, though.”
“Oh come on!” May spread her hands. “You’re telling me nothing special happens! Just by themselves, alter spores and vinegar make hoppers go crazy. Shouldn’t it be doing somersaults or something?”
The hopper triple-flipped, then landed on a tree branch. It bounced at an odd angle, twirling through the air. It crashed into a bush—then bounced out, berries and leaves scattering in its wake.
“That’s more like it.” May flipped out her notepad, plucking a pen from her breast pocket. Now she could take some notes. “What are your first thoughts?”
“Well, it did go crazy.” Cecily shrugged. “About what I expected, really.”
“Fair enough.” May jotted some notes—sudden acrobatics, haywire bouncing—then touched her pen to her lips. “Wonder how long it lasts?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Cecily rubbed her chin, watching the hopper bounce between tree branches. A few broke, and it tumbled to the ground again. “Pretty destructive, though.”
“M-hm.” May jotted that down, pressing her lips together. About what she’d expected. Her shoulders relaxed as she lowered the notepad. “Honestly…I’m kind of disappointed.”
“Why? Because you predicted it?”
“Yep. Life is more fun when my hypothesis is wrong.”
Cecily shrugged. “Predictable isn’t bad.”
May tapped the pen against her lips again, narrowing her eyes at the hopper. It was bouncing away now, its boings fading in the distance. “Well, at least something happened.”
“Enough to report our findings.” Cecily put a hand on May’s shoulder, a smile tilting her lips. “Hey. It was a success—the experiment’s done.”
That, and stars were appearing. “Time to go, huh?”
“Don’t be so crestfallen. I thought it was pretty exciting.”
No disagreement there. “Yep. I was just hoping for a bit more—that’s all.” May shrugged—then flipped her notepad shut, tucking her pen behind one ear. “You know what I mean?”
“Oh yes.” They began walking down the path, and Cecily rolled her eyes. “I know.”
The Flames Chronicles, Book One
The Flames Chronicles, Backstory to Ayphae
The Flames Chronicles, The world of Ayphae
The Flames Chronicles, Book Two