THUNDER RUMBLED and rain pelted us in sheets as we ran from our dorm building to the main school. By the time we got there, Grant and I were drenched to the skin. I pulled open the door and followed Grant inside. We stood there in the hallway, a large puddle forming at our feet.
“Damn. I’m soaked.” I picked up the bottom edge of my T-shirt and wrung it out, adding water to the growing puddle. “I’m going to catch pneumonia. Can we sue if we get sick because our teacher is making us come to class on a Saturday?”
Grant smirked at me. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Merlin?”
“Because I’m not stupid. If I complain about being wet, he’ll probably turn me into a goldfish or something.”
“Well, you wouldn’t care about being wet anymore.”
“No, but it would still suck.”
“True enough. Come on. He’s probably waiting for us already.”
We went upstairs to the second floor, to where Merlin’s history classroom was located. Our sneakers made squidgy sounds on the polished linoleum floors. We carried nothing with us—Merlin would never allow us to bring anything back in time for fear we’d forget it there and some confused future anthropologist would have to explain how they dug up a Bic pen or flashlight from their ancient Greek or Egyptian or whatever dig.
He was seated at his desk when we walked in, looking irritated as usual and as dry as a bone. One bushy white eyebrow arched as he looked us over. “Why are you leaking all over my classroom, Mr. Uh?”
Mr. Uh was a nickname he’d given me on my first day in his class. He’d asked me a question, and I’d stammered “uh.” I was Mr. Uh ever since, especially when he was annoyed with me, which was pretty much all the time.
“Sorry, Mr. Ambrosius. It’s pouring.” As if he couldn’t see the storm raging right outside the classroom window.
He sniffed and waggled a finger in our direction. In a blink our clothing was dry. I was halfway impressed. That was a nifty little trick. Then again, Merlin was full of surprises, although we were never sure whether we’d like them or not, and he never asked us first in any case.
“Did you peruse this photograph I left for you?” He tapped it with the same finger he’d waved at us.
Grant nodded. I noticed his hair was still damp, as was mine. We looked like we’d just gotten out of the shower. Seriously, Merlin could’ve dried us up all the way if he’d wanted to—he left us just damp enough to be uncomfortable. “We weren’t sure what it is, though.”
His beard twitched as if he were smirking at us and not surprised at all that we couldn’t figure it out. “What do you think it is?”
I shrugged. “I thought it might be a piece of jewelry, but Grant thought it was a game piece.”
“Hmph.” Merlin’s electric blue gaze darted from me to Grant and back again. “For once, Mr. Uh, you are correct. To a point, anyway. It was meant to be worn around the neck.”
I grunted and tried to bite back a grin. I managed to keep it to a small, crooked smile, at least, and jabbed an elbow into Grant’s side. “Hear that? I was right.”
Merlin growled low in his throat, and I swallowed my smile instantly. “I said, to a point. It’s not a mere adornment. It’s a hunting talisman, and it isn’t going to be easy for you to get. Unlike the other pieces you’ve procured for me, this one is going to take quite a personal effort on your part to obtain. You can’t steal it. You must earn it.”
“Are we going on a safari? My folks went on one a few years ago in South Africa.” Grant gestured toward the photo. “It was a photographic safari. They all had cameras and went out with their guides. When they took a picture of an animal, say a giraffe or a zebra, it was counted as a kill. Whoever bagged the most animals at the end got a trophy. My dad won.”
I snorted. “That’s stupid. Who goes on a safari and doesn’t shoot anything?”
Grant tilted his chin and glared at me. “No, it’s stupid to kill something if you’re not going to eat it.”
“Hunting is a sport.”
“So is baseball, but I don’t see you playing for the Yankees.”
“That doesn’t even make sense!”
Merlin’s hand slammed down on his desktop, startling us both into silence. “Enough! If you plan to continue acting so puerilely, I harbor serious doubts whether I should send you back in time again. Perhaps the world at large would be better served if you were remanded to the authorities instead. A few years in a correctional facility on a charge of arson might mature you.”
I gulped. “No, sir. We’re done fighting, aren’t we, Grant? Come on, Mr. Ambrosius. Give us a break.”
“Yes, sir. Please?” Grant added his plea to mine. The last thing either of us wanted to do was end up in prison. We were both on our last strike. If Merlin accused us of starting the fire that destroyed his office, we’d be locked up for sure.
He stared hard at us for a long few minutes, until I was almost sure he was going to refuse, but then he gave a small nod. “Very well. I believe this trip will be beneficial for both of you. It will build your characters.” Standing up, he reached up to the top of the dry-erase board behind him and pulled down a world map. He pointed to the east coast of the United States. “I’ll be sending you here, to the coast of Virginia.” The smirk on his face suggested there was more to it than he was telling us.
There had to be a catch. He sure as hell wasn’t sending us to some souvenir shop in Virginia Beach to pick up this talisman. “When, Mr. Ambrosius? What year will it be where we’re going?”
He chuckled, and it was a scary sound. “I don’t believe they had a reckoning of years back then. I’ll see you when you get back with the talisman.” He began to wave his hands in esoteric patterns and whisper his spell.
Before I could ask him what he meant, the room began to spin, and the now-familiar dizziness I got when Merlin sent us back in time washed over me. Just before everything went black, I thought I heard Merlin say, “If you survive, that is.”
THE FIRST thing I became aware of was the sound of the ocean. It was loud, like a dull roar, or low, pulsing thunder. I cracked my eyes open and found myself lying on a wide, sandy beach. It’d been warm and wet when I woke up that morning. Now it felt like late November, almost cold enough to snow. The wind was blowing and bit through my clothes, making me shiver.
I sat up and looked over at Grant, who was lying next to me.
He blinked awake and sat up too. “Where are we?”
“Virginia, according to Merlin. The more important question is, when are we?” I glanced down at what I was wearing, examining it more closely. Merlin had always dressed us appropriately for whatever time he sent us back to, and if that was still true, then what I’d been dressed in did not bode well for us.
My shirt was cut from some sort of animal hide. The sleeves were sewn onto the body with knots of brownish fibers too thick to be called thread, but too thin to be considered rope. I wore pants fashioned the same way. Soft boots were on my feet, attached to strips of fur wrapping around my calves to the knee. The heavy fur cloak draped over my shoulders hung nearly down to my knees. Everything I wore smelled like wood smoke too.
Grant was dressed similarly, with only minor differences in color and texture. The fur of his cloak was thick, rough, and gray while mine was curlier and black. He looked out at the ocean, one hand absently stroking the fur. “It feels like dog.”
I blinked, confused. “What?”
He looked at me and smiled. “The fur. It feels like dog fur. It’s probably wolf. Yours looks like bison.”
I fingered the black curly fur. “Huh. Weighs a ton, but it’s really soft for fake fur. Good quality costumes. We must be in some sort of play, huh? Or maybe we’ll be working at one of those Renaissance fairs—you know, the ones with the fake jousting and knights and stuff. I went to one once and ate a turkey leg that was as big around as my head.”
Grant snorted and rolled his eyes. He gestured toward the wide, empty beach. “Look around you. Do you see any tents? Do you see any other people for that matter? There’s nothing here, Ash.”
I shrugged. “So? When does Merlin ever drop us right in the middle of where we need to be? We always need to hike in. There’s probably a town or something right over that dune.” I got up and trudged across the sand. The wind was cold and whipped sand across my face, so I put an arm up to shield my eyes.
The climb up the dune was difficult. My feet kept displacing the sand, and I kept sliding backward, but eventually I made it. When I finally did, I swore out loud.
My struggle up was for nothing. There wasn’t anything but more sand on the other side. It stretched in both directions, broken only by clumps of wild grasses and the tree line in the distance. There wasn’t even any trash, and that’s what really got me.
On every beach I’d ever been to, there was some sort of reminder that people had been there. A sign, a trash bin, a paper, a cigarette filter… something. Here there was only sand, grass, a few little side-walking crabs, birds, and a whole lot of nothing.
I heard feet shushing in sand and saw Grant climb up the dune next to me. His sigh, although warranted, irritated me.
At that moment I knew Grant was right, but I still didn’t want to admit it. I gave him a shrug born of pure stubbornness. “So, we’re in a state park or nature preserve or something. No biggie. The fair or whatever is probably a mile or so inland. No worries. Come on. Let’s get going. I’m getting cold.”
His hand on my arm pulled me back and kept me from sliding down the opposite side of the dune. His voice was little more than a whisper, almost lost in the sound of the wind and waves. “Ash, look.”
I looked in the direction he pointed. Several hundred yards from the dune was the beginning of what looked like a thick forest. I saw it immediately, although my brain had a little trouble making sense of what my eyes insisted they saw.
The animal was huge, maybe the size of a rhinoceros, but it didn’t look like any rhino I’d ever seen in a zoo. Covered in shaggy dark gray fur, it walked on four stout legs, the front longer than the back, which gave it a peculiar gait. When it stood up on its shorter hind legs, it sat supported by a muscular, furry tail. I watched in awe as it reached up and used long, curving claws to pull down the branch of a tree so it could eat the leaves.
“What the hell is that thing?” I asked. “Is it a bear?”
“No, I don’t think so. It looks like some sort of sloth.” It sounded to me like Grant’s voice was heavy with the same terrified fascination I was feeling. “A giant one.”
“Where are we?” I looked up at the sky, as if I might see Merlin’s face in the clouds and yelled. “Where the hell did you drop us this time, old man?”
Grant shoved me. “Shut up, Ash. Do you want to get us killed?”
I turned on Grant and snarled. “That thing is big, but it’s eating leaves, and it moves slow. What are you afraid of?”
“Stop and think a minute, you idiot. Sure, that thing’s a vegetarian, or at least an omnivore, but what if there’s something around that eats it?”
I started to argue but then froze as my mind conjured up images of Godzilla-like creatures breaking through the trees and chasing us down the beach, eager to chomp on two time-traveling high school seniors. “Point taken. So what are we supposed to do on a beach? Have a bonfire? Maybe grill some sloth burgers?”
“I think the more important question is when are we rather than where are we. You know, last night I was thinking that with our luck, there not only wouldn’t be inside plumbing, but probably wouldn’t be any insides at all.”
“Smart guy. So?”
“I think maybe I wasn’t very far off the mark.”
The thought sank in, and I gaped at him as understanding dawned on me. “Are you telling me I need to worry about becoming lunch for a T. rex? Because if you are, I’m going to lose my shit right here on the beach.”
Grant shook his head. “No, no. That creature over there is a mammal. You can tell by the fur. There were no mammals that big when dinosaurs were around. Besides, Merlin said we’re looking for a hunting talisman, and people definitely weren’t around during the age of the dinosaurs.”
“So, what’s around, then? Bears? I’m no fonder of having my face chewed off by a bear than I am a T. rex.”
“If there are bears, then they’re probably really big ones. I think maybe we’re in the middle of an ice age, and mammals were a lot bigger then. They called them ‘megafauna,’ emphasis on the mega part.”
“Swell. And what do you mean by an ice age? How many were there?”
Grant shrugged. “A lot, from what I’ve read. Big ones and little ones.”
I was a little annoyed he seemed to know so much. It made me feel stupid. “You read too much.”
“Well, it’s a good thing one of us reads, so we can figure out when the hell we are and how to get what we need to go home.”
I decided to change the subject since he was, once again, right. “Speaking of, why can’t Merlin just be up front with us? Why play these games?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s bored.”
“And maybe he’s a freaking sadist.”
“Yeah, that too.”
I grunted and kicked at a small seashell in frustration. It bounced down the side of the dune. “I’m getting tired of Merlin’s crap.”
Grant smirked at me. “Well, you make sure you tell him the next time we see him. Of course, he’ll probably turn you into a salamander or something, but at least he’ll know how you feel.”
“Oh, get bent.” I fumed in silence for a minute or two. “What makes you think this is an ice age?”
“The cold. I’ve been to Virginia Beach in the winter. This is way too cold, and that sloth—or whatever it is—has really thick, heavy fur. It’s not built for hot summers.”
“Makes sense, I guess. So, the question is, where do we go from here?”
He looked up and down the beach. “Since the sloth is heading south, whatever might hunt it is probably going that way too. I suggest we go north.”
“North it is, then.” I figured it was as good a direction as any and was too tired to come up with a reason not to take it.
We turned toward the north, keeping the still-rising sun on our right, and trudged across the sand. It was difficult walking, and while going toward the tree line and firmer ground would’ve made our travels easier, we both agreed the thickset forest might hide predators we’d rather not meet. At least there was no place to hide on the dunes.
By the time we stopped for a rest, the sun was directly overhead. Noon, and I was thirsty and hungry. Grant was too, and we were both full of complaints about Merlin, who’d dropped us here without a single bottle of water or energy bar.
“We’re going to have to go into the forest.” Grant sighed and looked toward the trees. “That’s where we’ll find potable water.”
“I don’t care how potable it is—we can’t carry it without a canteen.”
“Potable, not portable. It means drinkable.”
“Oh, okay, Mr. Big Vocabulary. What about predators, huh?”
“We’re going to have to take our chances, Ash. Dehydration will kill us. Do you really want to test what would happen to us if we die in the past?”
I grunted, unwilling to reply. I didn’t, of course. We’d discussed the possibilities before. One, we die and wake up back in our own time. Two, we die here and wake up dead there. Or rather, don’t wake up. Merlin refused to tell us which it would be. Maybe he didn’t even know. “Okay. To the forest. But let’s find something to arm ourselves with, okay? Big sticks, maybe.”
“Sure. A big stick will be great protection against a Smilodon.”
“Smilodon. Saber-toothed cat.”
I snorted at him. “You do this on purpose, don’t you? Show off, I mean.”
He scowled at me, but then a grin broke free and he shrugged. “Maybe sometimes.”
“Ass.” I shook my head and didn’t bother to bite back a smile as we headed toward the trees.