Lieutenant Abner stood somberly in front of the kids for a good moment. “Children of Argos, listen carefully,” he said, breaking his silence. “By some miracle in heaven, you’ve escaped that dreadful explosion alive, and for that we’re eternally grateful. However, you should know that your so-called Winter Wars have opened the door to an infiltrator who wished to inflict grave harm upon us today. Our laws exist to protect us from the enemy. Yet, today our security was breached by someone among us. It pains me to say this but one of you is a traitor.”
“What? Who could it be?” the children murmured among themselves.
The lieutenant signaled his corporal, Vorenus, to take charge.
“Everyone form a straight line,” said Vorenus. “Now stretch both palms wide open—and don’t move unless you’re told.”
Vorenus opened his hand and white dust drifted out and passed over each boys’ and girls’ hands, but settled abruptly on the palms of one very young boy whose face was still pitch black from the smoke of the blast. His name was Simon.
Simon was a small, scrawny boy with dark, ruffled hair and heavy eyes that gave the impression that he hadn’t had much sleep in days.
Lieutenant Abner marched directly toward Simon. “Your name, age—and why can’t you stand up straight like the others?”
“I’m Simon of Argos, thirteen, Sir. Um…it’s my left leg…I can’t stand on it too long without my cane.” Simon tried to stand upright but his leg failed him each time.
“He was born that way,” said Gadi. “They’ve tried to heal him but—”
“Silence!” roared Lieutenant Abner. He unsheathed his sword and pointed it between Gadi’s eyes, which had become crossed-sided. “You will address me as Lieutenant or Sir and will speak only when spoken to. Is that clear, boy?”
Gadi’s round face froze as stiff as an icicle, and he dared not utter another word.
“Now would be a good time to speak, boy,” said the lieutenant, shaking his head.
“Lieutenant Abner, Sir—?” said Simon, cautiously. “Please excuse my friend’s poor manners. I assure you he meant nothing by it. A few minutes ago, we thought we might not make it out alive from that bottomless pit. I’m sure his brain is just now catching up to him.”
“I loathe small boys with big mouths,” groaned Lieutenant Abner, finally lowering his sword.
Gadi breathed a sigh of relief.
“Simon of Argos,” said the lieutenant, “our test revealed that your hands are covered with radioactivity—extremely harmful energy—capable of unspeakable destruction. When did you decide to betray your own kind?”
Simon felt weak at the knees and wished that the explosion had swallowed him up alive rather than face Lieutenant Abner’s fury.
“But I’ve done nothing—”
“Silence! arrest him at once!” he commanded.
“What about his friend, with the big mouth, Sir?” asked Vorenus, while dragging iron shackles out of his chariot.
“He looks rather suspicious, doesn’t he? Place him in custody, too.”
So off went Simon and Gadi, taken away to a secluded area behind a large boulder, their hands and feet bound.
Simon could hear his mom’s voice nagging him inside his mind, and the mere thought of it made his head spin. Even if I ever got out of prison—she’d ground me for life anyway—so what’s the use, he thought.
But he had forgotten all about his mom when he and Gadi witnessed something that made their jaws drop. A soldier drew his sword and tapped on a giant boulder next to them. It fractured in half from top to bottom. Green fire shot up from its core, melting the large stone and morphing it into a fortress with four white pillars in front and two giant doors that seemed impenetrable, torches burning on each side of the building.
“Epic,” said Simon and Gadi.
The two towering doors opened in front of the boys and the guard. They walked inside toward the west side of the fortress, crossing a long, narrow hallway until they got to a large bolted door with heavy locks on each side. The soldier reached for his sword again and tapped on the door; one by one, its locks unlatched, and each time Simon and Gadi winced at the deafening noise. When the door opened, the floor shaped into an underground stairway, Simon and Gadi’s eyes wooed in dismay.
“What’s the matter with you two?” said the soldier. “Never seen code breaking before?”
“Just the soldiers at the summer carnivals,” said Simon.
“The best shows ever,” said Gadi. “They’d move all sorts of things without touching them, and once they even turned a lizard into a giant three-headed dragon.”
“Then why the dumb look on your faces?” asked the soldier.
The boys shrugged their shoulders.
“Do your kids like code breaking?” Simon asked the soldier.
“That’s all they talk about, and with that same dumb look on their faces.”
The soldier carried a torch, leading Simon and Gadi through a steep stairway to an underground dungeon inside the fortress, and slammed the cell door on them as soon as they walked inside.
“It’s freezing cold in here,” said Gadi. “Do you have blankets?”
“Blankets?” said the soldier, sniggering as he climbed up the curved stairway.
“Wait,” yelled Simon.
The soldier halted.
Simon pulled a quill pen from under his belt and jotted a brief note on a small scroll and stretched his hand outside the cell bars.
“Please give this to Lieutenant Abner…please.”
The soldier walked back to the cell out of mere curiosity.
“And why would I do such a thing?” he said.
Gadi shrugged his shoulders at the soldier, looking just as befuddled.