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Here’s the second installment in my third Bobby Ether adventure, Scions of the Sphinx:

Chapter 1, Part 2

Bobby grinned as he walked into the underground warren he shared with his friends. The savory smell of dinner hung heavy in the air. Passing quickly through the outer chamber, he took little notice of the softly glowing vein-like roots that ran across the walls and ceiling of the earthen lodge. Laughter drifted from the back. His friends were already eating.

Bobby walked into the kitchen to find Lily, Trevor, Jacob, and Jinx enjoying Bobby’s favorite meal—homemade tacos made from corn tortillas with self-serve portions of pinto beans, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and long-grain rice. As always, it was Chief’s special salsa, made from cilantro, onion, and jalapeño grown right there in the forest, that made everything taste so amazing.

Lanky Trevor and copper-haired Lily both wore loose-fitting yoga garb, clearly having come from class with one of the monks. Spiky-haired Jinx wore jeans and a blueberry-colored T-shirt with the caption “I <3 Pi” across the front. Taking a seat between the always-perky Lily and sullen Jacob, Bobby laid three tortillas on an empty plate and began piling on the goods.

“Where have you been all day?” asked Lily, her copper ponytail swinging like a pendulum as she leaned over to grab a hug. Bobby sighed, his mind still clinging to the memory of the girl in his vision.

“We thought you were eating with the others kids over at the cabins,” said Jinx. “Otherwise we would have waited.”

“Not with Slab around,” said Jacob, jamming an overstuffed taco dripping with salsa into his mouth. “Waiting for him is a sure way to go hungry.”

Lily gave Jacob a doleful look. “I thought you knew,” she said.

Jacob gave her a baffled stare. “What is it?”

Lily reached over and placed a hand lightly on Jacob’s arm. Jacob had been very close with Jimmy Thompson, the giant most of the kids called “Slab,” ever since their emancipation from the Temple of Eternity.

“Jimmy left this morning,” said Lily gently. “He said it was time to find his own path.”

Trevor coughed politely. “Technically all he said was ‘Go now,’ but we all knew what he meant.”

Jacob slammed his plate down on the table. “You mean that big oaf left and he didn’t even say good-bye?”

Lily frowned disapprovingly. “You know how hard it’s been on him ever since the temple. He was very sad after Melody and Jeremiah left on their second honeymoon. Even without the mask, the younger kids all stare at him.”

Bobby paused in the construction of his monster tacos. Over a hundred other kids now lived at the Eagle’s Nest, scattered among the various cabins, tents, and tepees. Despite their large numbers, these kids were well taken care of by Master Jong and the other monks who had voluntarily relocated to the Eagle’s Nest after Chief and his men found them wandering without food or provisions in the mountains near the destroyed Academy.

It occurred to Bobby that the girl in his vision might be one of the other students. Yes, that’s probably it. His mind had simply plucked a person he already knew and tossed her into a setting where he didn’t recognize her.

“You missed a cool session,” said Trevor, clearly seeking to change the subject away from their departed friend. “Chief took us into the Nexus again. Lily went into the tub, and the rest of us tapped in using the tentacles.” “The tub” was what they affectionately called the bathtub-like pod that people sat in when using the Nexus—a hub of living energy that connected all living creatures in the Eagle’s Nest. Inside the dome-shaped Nexus, the tub dropped the occupant into “the pond,” where they tapped into the immense bioenergy generated by the forest and collected via its beehive-like conduits. The “tentacles” were rubbery cables attached to the tub, which usually plugged into the Nexus’s central interface system.

As Trevor spoke, Chief arrived. The room quieted as the old Navajo walked in and dropped his haversack in the corner by the door. Dressed in a tasseled buckskin vest, faded jeans, and leather moccasins, Chief greeted them all with an exhausted smile that cracked his terra-cotta face into wide canyons. “It is good to see you all,” he said with a slight bow.

“Come eat with us,” said Lily, scooting her chair toward Bobby to make space.

“I’m afraid not,” said Chief with a weary sigh. “There is still much to be done. The Eagle’s Nest was not designed to accommodate so many people. Even after months, the ecosystem struggles to find balance. I must tend to the forest, to ensure that the animals and plants are healthy.”

Chief began to move about the room, gathering items from the kitchen cabinets—herbs and salves that Bobby didn’t recognize. Setting them on the table, he transferred the items to his bag and prepared to depart.

“I’ll go with you,” said Jinx, hopping out of his seat. “I want to check on Ana to see how she’s doing.”

Bobby smiled. The young girl, who had been a doe-eyed, frightened refugee when Bobby and Jinx first met her at the Temple of Eternity, had quickly blossomed into a promising and gifted student under the tutelage of the monks at the Eagle’s Nest.

Ana and Jinx had also formed a special bond, perhaps because they were among the youngest children. Or perhaps it was the camaraderie built from not only surviving but thriving during such a stressful situation. During their liberation, Ana had been brilliant, distracting numerous guards with her inherent ability to plant subliminal suggestions into their minds. Jinx had disarmed those soldiers who were too busy scratching and flailing to resist. Whatever the reason, Jinx’s entire face lit up whenever he was around the petite, pigtailed blond girl and her matching doll.

“I’ll come too,” said Bobby, hastily shoving a few more bites into his mouth before rising to his feet.

Chief inclined his head in acknowledgement, grabbed a few more supplies, along with a flask of water, and headed for the exit. Bobby followed him out into the hazy twilight that served as night in the vast underground dome. “I forget sometimes that not everyone can see the bioluminescence,” he said to Chief.

“Indeed,” said Chief. “It is one of the greatest beauties there is.”

“Gee, thanks, guys,” said Jinx, struggling to fix the twisted strap on his omnipresent backpack. “As if I don’t hear enough about all the cool things everyone else can do around here that I can’t.”

Chief turned to Bobby’s little cousin, his face solemn and sincere. “The Gift is different for everyone. Yours are perhaps the most unique and amazing talents I have ever witnessed. Do not envy what others have that you do not. Instead revel in your own peerless blessings.”

Jinx’s cheeks turned rosy in the soft half-light. “You honor me,” he said, clasping his hands together and bowing gently.

Chief returned the gesture. “You honor yourself with your commitment to grow and learn.” Then he turned and struck out on the trail.