The winding journey through the Morphing Mountains seemed to go on forever. The tunnels looped and twisted and sometimes seemed to be leading them back to where they came from, but Zena and Zeta led the way, bouncing and skimming along on their winged heels, occasionally taking off and swooping through the tunnels horizontally.
It was an enormous relief to come out into the open. Dawn was approaching and the three massive moons of Ventura hung over them like rice paper discs. They were on a plateau overlooking a tropical forest, sloping to the shores of a sapphire blue lake perched high in the foothills. Below that, the plain rolled towards the horizon. As the sun rose, a cacophony of forest noises rose to greet them; wild bird calls, hoots and cries and the throbbing din of insects.
Pluto took out his map and unfurled it. ‘Behold! The Forest of Invisible Paths!’ he announced importantly. ‘It has moved recently, so we will have to go through it to get to the Pargo Plains.’
‘Why Invisible Paths?’
‘Because it has invisible paths – paths not worn by living creatures, paths we can’t see; paths that have not yet been trodden. ‘
‘So really it’s just like any other forest then?’
‘I think you’ll find this one a bit different from those on earth,’ said Skye.
‘Let’s scout!!’ said Zeta, and the two girls swooped away down the hillside like a pair of birds.
The din got louder as they descended into the lush vegetation. The forest was a riot of exotic plants, brightly patterned butterflies, droning insects and colourful birds. Zena and Zeta swooped ahead of them, weaving through the trees and dodging the flying creatures. Dotted amongst the tropical scenery were towering conifers and strange monkey puzzle trees and luscious fruit grew in abundance.
They gathered as much as they could carry in their rucksacks and ate as they walked along. There were yellow melon things that tasted like custard and cream, and red bananas that tasted like spicy sweet peppers. There were white doughy puffball things that grew out of the ground like mushrooms. When you bit into them they had a red berry heart that tasted just like jam. Most interesting of all were the skyberries. They were bright blue and looked inedible, but they tasted delicious, like liquorice and chocolate all rolled into one.
‘This is just one great big canteen!’ exclaimed Venus.
‘Just be careful,’ said Pluto. ‘If you eat too much you’ll get ill.’
Alarmed, Venus spat out what she was eating. ‘Crikey! There’s nothing poisonous here is there?’
‘No, not as far as I know,’ said Skye, ‘but I don’t like the look of those plants. I’ve never seen anything like that here before.’ He was pointing at a dark, sinister plant that seemed out of place in this vivid environment….black pods, the size and length of a runner bean, bulging with fat seeds, some burst open and mysteriously empty.
Venus crept up to one of the plants and sniffed it. ‘Uhh! Minging.’ It smelt like all the worst things in the world put together; manky drains, your grandma’s farts, stale, unwashed bodies, rotting vegetation, industrial waste and the sewage that farmers sometimes put on their land.
Skye’s third eye flipped open and he peered closely at a pod. ‘Nargy. Can’t see what’s inside it.’
Venus stared at him in horror. ‘You mean you have x-ray vision. Did this mean he had seen through her clothes?
Skye’s face turned a deep turquoise. ‘I can only use it on inanimate objects Venoos.’
Pluto was striding around the plant, whiskers twitching. ‘Come! Get away from this thing!’ he cried sharply. ‘We must keep moving.’