The Seventh Element Read online

  The crew spilled out, gasping at the beauty of the wildflowerfilled valley and the majestic forest spread before them. The forest wasn’t scary or forbidding, like the deep jungle of J16 had been, just very, very beautiful. Enormous—both in width and height—trees reached toward the sky. Moss-covered rocks the size of trucks dotted the landscape. “Total LOTR!” Gabriel said excitedly to Ravi.

  “Total!” Ravi agreed.

  “LOTR?” Carly asked.

  “Lord of the Rings,” Anna replied with an eye roll.

  But she totally agreed. She almost expected to see a hobbit walk out of the lush woods. The breeze carried a faint salty smell from an ocean too far away to see. The air smelled woodsy and alive, a smell that was decidedly missing from both the Light Blade and the Cloud Leopard. In fact, unless Chris was making one of his special meals, there were practically no smells on board the spaceships at all. She breathed in deep again, hoping some of it would accompany her back up.

  Carly flopped down on the thick, soft grass and stared up at the blue-purple sky. “I wonder if this is what Earth was like, you know, before people. All wild and peaceful.”

  “It won’t be peaceful for long,” Piper said, looking up at the sky. “Not when the ogres and dragons come along.”

  “Dragons?” Niko said, bending his neck backward to look up. “Did someone say dragons?”

  “Relax, dragon boy,” Siena said. “They’re not out yet.”

  “Rats,” Niko said.

  “I’ll try to take a picture for you,” she offered, patting him on the arm.

  “Try to get one face-on,” he said excitedly, “and then a profile, and if you can get an action shot with him, you know, actually setting something on fire, that would be great.”

  Siena stared at him. “Sure, I’ll ask the ferocious fire-breathing dragon to pose for me.”

  “You’re a pal,” Niko said, grinning.

  “All right, guys,” Anna said, checking her MTB. “We’ve got to let them get to it. Those ogres aren’t gonna wake themselves.”

  Carly gave everyone hugs, then climbed back into the Cloud Cat with Anna. “I’ll leave the tank in this same spot,” Ravi said, before climbing in himself. There hadn’t been room for the large vehicle with all eight of them in there.

  “After testing it out, of course,” Niko added. He turned to go, but Dash reached out for him.

  “Thank you again for everything you did to get me here. I feel a hundred times better.”

  “No problem,” Niko said. “Thank you for not bursting into flames when I did it.”

  Dash raised one eyebrow. “Was that a possibility?”

  Niko smiled and shrugged. “Ya never know.” He stepped inside and shut the door behind him.

  The ground team watched the Cloud Cat take off, and then double-checked the maps Chris had loaded onto their MTBs. “The Horn Tree is the tallest, oldest, most sacred tree of the Elfin Forest,” Siena said, twisting her arm back and forth to get a clearer view of the small screen. “It says we should do our best to reach it without being spotted and only talk to the two guards posted out front. That must be new info from Chris’s update, to help us save time. Supposedly, we should have spotted it easily as we flew in.” She looked up from the readout. “Did anyone think to look before we landed?”

  The other three shook their heads, then craned their necks to look up at the forest. “They all look the same height from here,” Gabriel said.

  Siena turned to Piper. “Can your chair go up high enough to scope out the area?”

  “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Those trees are really high.”

  “Maybe for a regular person,” Gabriel said. “But not for someone who once strapped a gassy robot onto her lap and sailed through outer space.”

  Piper grinned. “True. Okay, I’ll give it a try. As long as the trees don’t disrupt the signal between the ground and the chair it should work.”

  “Do you want company?” Siena asked. “You know, like we did this morning?”

  Piper shook her head. “Thanks, but I can only go a few feet off the ground with more than just me.”

  “Be careful,” Dash said. “Come down if it feels too dangerous.”

  Piper gave him a salute and zoomed straight up until they lost sight of her among the wide branches and large leaves.

  The foliage got thicker as Piper flew higher. She slowed down in order to carefully maneuver through the maze of branches. At one point, she couldn’t see anything but the green leaves all around her. Just when she thought she’d never reach the top, the closely knit branches started to thin and she broke into a clearing between one tree and another enough that she could see blue sky above.

  Piper smiled and pushed her amazing chair to top speed. She brought up her hand to shade her eyes from the glow of the orange suns. She was almost above the trees, where she could get the best view, when—whoosh! Piper’s chair dropped twenty feet, slamming into a mess of branches. It slid, toppling over so that Piper now hung upside down. She could feel herself sliding along a wide branch, lower and lower. The crackling of leaves and wood sounded, and Piper knew she was about to plummet hundreds of feet to the ground. Her fingers grasped at the joystick, desperate to get the motor restarted.

  There was a loud snap! and Piper’s chair slid rapidly down the broken branch, flipping right side up again. She finally managed to hit the correct button, and her chair suddenly hummed to life, propelling her straight up toward the blue sky. She slowed and hovered just above a solid-looking set of branches. Her heart pounded as she took a couple of deep breaths.

  Down on the ground, Siena, Dash, and Gabriel craned their necks looking for any sign of Piper.

  “There she is!” Siena shouted, pointing out a golden speck in the air. “That’s her hair!” A few very tense moments later, they could see the rest of her, carefully floating down through the leaves. Her face was paler than usual when she reached them.

  “It was touchy for a few seconds there,” Piper said, peeling off a few stray leaves from her clothes. “The chair must have lost signal strength or something. I was pretty sure I’d be making a new home in the treetops—or falling back down to you, rather than flying!”

  She shook out the last of the leaves and said, “So…you know how we’re supposed to walk backward and whistle when we first approach the elves or they might take our being here as a declaration of war? Yeah, well, it might be too late for that.”

  “What do you mean?” Gabriel asked.

  “A girl in a flying wheelchair is a little hard to miss. If anyone was looking up, they’d have seen me.”

  “They’re supposed to be friendly, though, right?” Dash asked.

  Siena nodded. “Chris’s records in the library confirmed that. His notes talked a lot about how kind and generous they are with each other. But after the ogres were so awful to them, it makes sense they wouldn’t like outsiders.”

  “Did you find the Horn Tree?” Gabriel asked.

  Piper nodded. “And from the top I could see the horn itself. It’s inside a room in a sort of tree house about halfway up.”

  “How far away is it?” Gabriel asked.

  “It’s in the center of the woods, about a mile deep. If you guys run behind me, we can make it in ten minutes.”

  “Easy peasy,” Gabriel said, slinging his backpack onto his shoulders.

  “Famous last words,” Siena muttered as she dashed into the woods after the others.

  The temperature in the forest felt twenty degrees cooler, and the tree cover was so complete that they could only see tiny patches of sky far above. The utter quiet made the crunching of the leaves under their feet sound like thunder. “Can’t you guys run more quietly?” Piper called back to them. No one answered. They were too busy avoiding large roots from the massive trees, the occasional fallen log, and the small creatures that darted back and forth across their path. The animals looked like a cross between a rabbit and a mouse, with twitchy noses and fluffy tails. T