the summit

Alex climbs the rope ever so slowly, heaves herself over the top of the cliff, grabs onto Carson’s waiting hand, pulls herself up to her feet.

“Was all worried about you there!” Carson latches onto her with a hug. “You good?”

“Ya, I’m good now,” she smiles. “Guess you did get up here faster than me!”

“Check that out.” Soren points further up the blossoming plateau, across its rolling meadows and wildflowers. “Some goats up here today. Ibex.”

“Their horns are massive!” Carson says. “Do you think they’re friendly?”

“Hmm, best not find out. Besides, the surprise I wanted to show you is the other way, other side of this meadow.”

“What is it?” Alex asks. “Can you at least give us a hint?”

“Hmm . . .”

“Is it an animal?”


“Is it a person?”


“Does someone live all the way up here?”

Soren laughs. “You’ll see for yourself what it is soon enough.” The three venture through the lush meadow, daisies and dandelions fluffing their ankles, sun starting to set into the vistas and valleys surrounding their mountain.

“You think we’ll be late for supper?” Carson asks. “They got the good pork belly tonight, I don’t wanna—”

“Carr, look!” Alex shouts. “It’s all the sunflowers I told you about! I told you it’s just like the garden up here!” Alex hurries over to a patch of wild sunflowers, smiling up at the blue sky from their soft soil and tall grass. “Aren’t they pretty?”

“They sure do look happy here.” Carson strolls over to survey the sunny patch, spots the biggest flower of the bunch, and plucks it from its stem. “Happy flower for a happy girl.” He giggles, tucks the golden flower between her ear and her bright white hair.

Alex blushes, turns away to giggle for a moment. She plucks another flower from its stem and holds it out to him. “For you, gym class dork.”

“Why thank ya miss,” he chuckles. “What should I do with this?”

“I dunno,” Alex shrugs. “Take it home? Keep it as a souvenir? Good luck charm?”

“Wonder where all these sunflowers came from.” Soren saunters up to the patch. “They don’t normally grow all the way up here all by themselves like this.”

“Maybe someone planted them here?” Alex guesses.

“Could be. Y’know, Auntie Cass thinks sunflowers are a sign of truth. Help reveal hidden things. Help us keep faith in what we believe.”


“I mean, Auntie Cass thinks a lot of strange things have special powers,” Soren snickers. “But these are some beautiful flowers. Sometimes I do wonder.”

“Well, maybe she’s right!” Carson chimes in. “Because you still have to show us this cool thing you’ve been keeping secret!”

“Alright alright,” Soren laughs. “Let’s keep walking then. Just a wee bit past this field.”

They march on through the flowers, cool wind whistling across the field, tufts of sweet pollen dusting the air and their noses. As they twist around the side of the mountain, the tall grass of the meadow shrinking and shrinking into a narrow trail beneath the dark face of the mountain. The sun vanishes from view as they tread through the shade, the mountain’s peak looming not far overhead.

“See down there?” Soren nods down the trail. “That’s what I wanna show you.” The trail forks in two directions. One path leads to a dead end, a cliff dangling hundreds of feet over the woodlands below. The other path veers off into the mountain, but is covered in tall, unruly shrubs and bramble.

“What, that there bush?” Carson squints ahead, tilts his head up at Soren. “You brought us all the way up here to see a bush?”

“You’ll see.” Soren smiles as he ducks under the dense foliage on his hands and knees, herds the gang along. “C’mon, it’s right on the other side of this bush. Just be careful of the thorns.”

“Thorns?” Alex lifts her brow.

“Oh c’mon,” Carson nudges her. “You literally just fell off a cliff.”

“Yeah, but—”

“I thought you were tough? We’ve crawled through way worse than this down in the woods before.” He drops to the ground and starts crawling behind Soren. “C’mon now, sunflower girl!”

“Fiiine.” Alex rolls her eyes, drops to the ground, and follows along, heavy leaves and knotted vines swatting against her arms and legs as she crawls, sharp thorns grazing against her soft hands.

“Soren, how much further?” She calls ahead. “I don’t like thorns!”

“Almost there!” The sun fades further and further as the underbrush grows darker and darker. The tight dirt path turns to gravel, then to granite, the leaves and vines thinning, their prickly grasp on her loosening, the sunlight still dimming and dimming and dimming until the faint walls and ceilings of a rugged cavern come into view.

“Wow!” Carson stands and gasps, dusting his legs off. His eyes glitter up at Soren with reverence. “You found a whole cave?!”

“Yessir!” Soren echoes out and spreads his arms around. “See, I promised you’d like it!”

Alex scans the dim ceilings and damp limestone. Her electric eyes sparkle and click, night vision turns on, revealing tight cracks and narrow passageways through the giant rocks.

“You were right, this place is so cool!” She looks up to Soren and smiles. “I’ve never been in a cave before, it’s huge!”

Soren points up to the ceiling. “This one’s extra special. Biggest cave I’ve seen this side of the Alps.”

Carson rubs his hands against the mossy walls. “How old you reckon this place is?”

“Probably as old as the mountain,” Soren shrugs. “I haven’t explored it though, been savin’ that for you two. Wanna have a look around?”

“Really?!” Carson bounces.

“Is it safe?” Alex peers at the slippery boulders and steep ledges all around them.

“Hmm, good question.” Soren drops his backpack to the ground and zips it open. He shuffles through his med kit, his canteen, his rations until he finds the hidden pocket he’s locking for. “You two wanna play with the drone?”

“Oh hell ya!” Carson yelps. “Is it the one my Daddy’s company made special for ya’ll?”

“Yessir.” Soren grins as he pulls a pitch black box out of his bag. “Gibson Xenomoth-XR4. Custom loadout. All the latest hardware and wetware.”

“Those are the ones you use to fight rebels down in Florida, right?”

“Sure do.” Soren sets his fingers into the sides of the black box. “Blends right in with the local moth population. Bad guys never even notice ’em.”

Invisible sensors scan his fingertips, read his blood, verify his genetic code. His sunglasses flicker with data, glow with murky light as the black box hums, clicks, slides open. Commands and controls keep flickering through the inside of his sunglasses until he softly raises a hand, summoning his servant from its slumber.

“Whooooa!” Carson gapes at the dainty grey moth flapping its furry wings, floating up out of the black box, hovering above their heads. “It looks just like a real moth!”

“Mhm.” Soren’s gaze scrolls through more settings. “She’s got all kinds of flight modes, stealth modes, camouflage, speed modes, and—” the moth suddenly pops with light, brightening the dank, dripping cave around them. “Firefly mode.”

“Whooooa, hot damn!”

“It can’t hurt people though, right?” Alex leers at the moth as it creeps and crawls onto Soren’s hand.

“Well, this one can’t,” Soren nods. “Mine’s set up for pure recon. But it has realistic claws, so some of the boys load diseases into theirs.”

“Diseases?” Carson raises an eyebrow. “You mean bio-weapons? Is that allowed?”

“Nope.” Soren clicks his tongue. “No honor in it if you ask me. But they do it anyways.”

“But you only use it to explore, right?” Alex curls her nose up at him. “No hurting people with it?”

Soren laughs, looks away from her, stares off into the black cave. Hangs his head in dark thoughts. “That’s basically true. I do use it for exploring.” He smiles back up at her as his eyes light up with more control panels. “Soooo how about we use it to explore this cave?”

“Hell ya!” Carson yips. “Can you send ‘er through these cracks in the rocks?”

“Sure can!” The moth pulses with bright light as it flutters along the dark walls, peering through their cracks and crevices until it spots a distant passageway. It stops. Hovers in midair. Locks onto its target. Wings go stiff. Furry insect belly hardens into deadly steel. The moth folds into an arrow, darts off through the cave in a flash, startled bats screech and scurry out from the ceiling.

“Daaaaaamn,” Carson drawls. “I ain’t never seen no moth fly that fast!”

“Dash mode,” Soren smirks. “We use it to move ‘er long distances fast, then back into stealth mode when she closes in on the target.” Soren peeks through his moth’s eyes, searches the video feeds inside his sunglasses for any points of interest, safe passages, fun cave surprises.

“See anything good?” Alex asks.

“Hmm,” Soren mumbles. “Looks like this one passage could be safe for us to squeeze through. And there’s a little pond at the end of it!”

“Let’s go!” Carson hops to Alex. “I wanna see the pond!”

“Whoa, wait a sec.” Soren moves his hand side to side, tilting the moth’s gaze. “There’s another passage from the pond that goes back outside.”

“Like back onto the trail?” Alex asks.

“Ya, but a different trail. One I haven’t seen before.” Soren waves his hand up and down and left and right, pivoting his moth along the mountainside. “Looks like this trail goes all the way up to the summit!”

Carson hops again. “Alli! We gotta go to the summit!”

“Won’t we be late for din—”

“Hell with supper!” Carson scoffs. “I can get that pork belly another day, today’s the day we’re finally gonna climb to the summit!”

“Path looks safe enough.” Soren glances down at them. “You two wanna go?”

“But won’t Mom—”

“HELL YA!” Carson hollers as he charges toward a narrow passage in the wall. “Moth went this way, right?”

“Yep!” Soren responds. “Should be a tight fit, but we can all make it through if we squeeze the wall close.”

Carson presses his back against the wall and shimmies into the crack. “C’mon Alli!” His voice echoes back.

“You comin’?” Soren asks, slipping into the crack behind Carson. “Sure you’re feeling fine after that fall?”

“Um, yes.” Alex rolls her eyes. “Of course I’m fine, I’m not some weak little girl. I’m coming right now.” She slides into the wall behind Soren, scrunches herself between the cozy stones, sidesteps through the dark passage one foot at a time.

“Pond looks shallow, but be careful not to step in it when you get there!” Soren calls ahead to Carson.

The faint light of the moth grows brighter as they slide further down the passage. The solid granite walls at her fingertips turn damp, then wet, then slimy.

“Eww, what is all this stuff?”

“It’s just moss!” Carson echoes back at her. “Don’t be such a baby!”

“Pond’s down there!” Soren calls out as they creep out of the passage into another hollow cavern. He points down to a cloudy green puddle, oozing and rippling under the buzzing sound and light of the hovering moth. “Careful goin’ around, I wouldn’t wanna fall in. Looks all gross and mossy.”

“See!” Alex shouts back to Carson as she leads the gang around the slimy pond. “Even Soren thinks moss is gross!”

“Certainly not my favorite texture,” Soren snickers. “Had a bad experience in a pond like that once.”

“Pssh, whatever.” Carson sneers. “Alli, you’re just afraid of everything.”

“Am not.” Alex herds them around the pond over a smooth, rocky outcropping. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

The glowing moth flutters down beside them, then pops ahead into another passageway. “Trail’s down that way!” Soren points them into the passage. They slide and step through more cave moss, more uncharted stone, more nooks and crannies until sunlight beams in from the mountainside.

“Look!” Alex points up and out of the passageway. “The summit’s right there!” They shuffle and snake out of the cave, up the steep gravel path, through the airy mountaintop expanse until the path ends. The cool evening wind blows through their hair as they look out in every direction, the woods and fields and rivers now far below, other mountain peaks poking at the sky far, far away. Steady stones and ancient pebbles crunch at their feet as they rise to the summit.

“We’re so high up now!” Carson gasps. “We must’ve walked up real far in that cave!”

“Check it out!” Soren calls over from another ledge. “You can see the Palace from over here!”

“Really?!” Alex skips across the stones with Carson close behind.

“Mhm. Right down there.” Soren points to the huge marble fortress nestled away in the valley below. Pools and flowers and statues shimmer in its back garden. Glass residential halls and security compounds glisten pink and blue beneath the setting sun.

“Oh boy, we’re definitely not gonna be back down there in time for that pork belly now,” Carson chuckles.

“That’s okay.” Alex turns to him and smiles. “It’s so nice up here.”

“How about a little group photo?” Soren kneels down behind them. They all scrunch in together as the moth drops down from above. “Smile at the moth, and 3. 2. 1. Say summit buddies!”

“Summit buddies!”

“Wonderful.” Soren grins at the image flickering inside his sunglasses. “Let’s sit down to catch our breath for a minute, ya?” Soren plops his backpack to the ground. Alex saddles up on a big rock beside him.

“I’m gonna keep lookin’ round!” Carson shouts from behind. “This view is goddamn mythic!”

“Ay man, suit yourself.” Soren chuckles. “The best view is over on this side!” Soren and Alex look out from the edge of the peak, gaze down at the Palace and out into the pink and orange sunset.

“So sis,” Soren sets his sunglasses down and turns his head to her. “Was it worth the trek up here?”

“Oh ya!” Alex nods. “It was a little scary, but I had so much fun.” She smiles up at him, her heart full and bright. “Thanks for bringing us here.”

“Good.” Soren smiles back down at her. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Told ya I’m strong,” Alex teases, dropping her voice and buffing out her shoulders to imitate him. “Way stronger than you think, bro.”

Soren laughs nervously, staring off into the horizon. The green valleys. The white peaks. The peaceful village so many miles away. Streaks of electric red begin to light up the sky as the sun sets deeper into the distance.

“They’re re-deploying me in a few days. Pakistan. Dunno when I’ll be back.”

Alex’s cheery heart empties, lip quivers as she looks up at the vacant gaze in his eyes. “But you just got back! And you promised to take us out on the boat one day!”

“I’m so sorry, sis.”

“You’re always away.” She folds her arms and turns away to gaze at another faraway mountain. “Always fighting.”

“I don’t have much other choice.”

“But you told me we can refuse to fight!” She pouts. “So why can’t you just stay with us at the Palace a little bit longer?”

“I can’t. You’ll understand why when you’re older.”

Her eyes water, lip trembles. “Please?”

Soren sighs, his eyes fixed on the sprawling red distance. “Alex, I wanna give you something. I was gonna wait until my last day here, but maybe this is a better time for it.”

The surface of Alex’s eyes sparkles with digital light. A shared file pops into view, goodbye.letter, then fades out into the sunset.

“What is it?” Alex asks.

“It’s a letter I wrote for you. And a photo of us from last summer. My favorite photo of us. Open it after I’m gone, or if you ever need some words of encouragement.”

“A goodbye letter?” Alex pauses, pulls the file back up into view, furrows her brow at Soren. “You are coming back, right?”

“Alex, I . . . I—”

Promise me you’ll come back? So we can all go out on the boat together?” Alex leers at him suspiciously. “There’s no point in all those nerdy sea shanties you taught us if we can’t sing them on a boat!”

Soren sighs, anxiously rubs his puffy beard. “Okay, sis.” He nods firmly. “I promise you we’ll go out on the boat one day. And sing together.”

“Good.” Alex nods back at him. “As long as you promise.”

Behind them, Carson hops between the peak’s sturdy boulders and rolling stones, bouncing with excitement, admiring all the views from the summit. They all watch as the red streaks in the sky grow bigger and brighter, the fiery sun plunging deeper behind the distant mountains.

“Soren.” Alex turns back to him. “What if I do want to fight?”

Soren smirks in surprise. “I thought you hated fighting?”

“I mean . . . I don’t like fighting now. But maybe when I get older like you.”

Soren frowns. “Why would you want to fight? What would you even fight for?”

“I dunno,” Alex shrugs. “Glory? Honor?”

“Those aren’t good reasons to fight, sis.” Soren bows his head, his empty gaze focused on the mile-high drop below. “There’s no glory in what I do. No honor. There’s nothing noble about war.”

“But you always tell us stories about how you—”

“It’s all pure myth,” Soren cuts her off. “Like your Gods & Titans stuff. It’s just stories I tell to feel better about what I do.”

Soren stays transfixed on the woods far beneath the edge of the cliff. The voids in his eyes beg for help, but his lips stay sealed shut.

“What if I fight for you?” Alex nudges him. “Is that a good reason?”

Soren furrows his brow. “Why would you do that?”

“So that you’ll come home safe,” Alex smiles. “And then we can go out on the boat together!”

Soren laughs. “Hey, I’m the one fighting so you don’t have to fight!”

“Yeeeah I know.” Alex twinkles with a mischievous grin. “But I was climbing that cliff down there way faster than you.”

Soren peels his eyes away from the mile-high drop, chuckling and snorting. “What, you think you’d make a better soldier than me?”

“Maybe,” Alex giggles.

“Alright then, Commander Alex.” Soren flips a mischievous grin back at her. “What would your first mission be?”