The trees rose up almost a mile here but because he was on the ground Professor van Hartesveldt couldn’t tell. The limbs and leaves sprouted from the enormous trunks starting only a scant ten meters over his head, hiding the tops of the trees from view. Giant leaves grew from those branches, forming a staggered roof over the spongy ground. They held whole eco-systems of insects and small reptiles and animals. They caught the water when it rained and spilled it back into the trunks of the trees through which it eventually filtered to the ground to feed streams and rivers, not to mention other plants and animals.
The branches were not close together but there were plenty of them, spiraling upward out of sight, almost to the tops of the trees. Daylight from the star this world orbitted glittered and ricocheted downward, feeding a sort of ghostly yellow twilight to the land. Moss grew on the lower reaches of the trunks of the trees; it grew like grass on the
It was a jungle, though not the kind of jungle Professor van Hartesveldt had known back on Earth. It was cool here, the air moist and pleasant, rich with the perfume of the flowers that grew from vines wrapped and rooted to the trunks of the trees above the moss line.
And it was gold. The leaves were a somber, burnished gold. The trunks of the trees and the moss that grew on them were the tawny color of an Earth-bound lion’s pelt. Dotting all that gold was bright color. Great, orchid-like flowers grew on the trees and limbs and even on the leaves. They were a riot of red, white, yellow, violet and even blue. Here was a place of great beauty.
A man might almost think he was safe here. As he dismounted from his gravity cycle, it didn’t even bob in the air. It was a tubular machine roughly the size and shape of a terrestrial horse, but it had a more comfortable seat and it was easier to get on and off. Van Hartesveldt listened intently a moment then took a small instrument from his belt.
The indicators related what he expected them to relate. Up over his head snakes, small lizards and a number of creatures, rodents and mammals for the most part, about the size of squirels or monkeys,
scurried across the giant leaves or up the great trunks, following the routine of their lives. Then he read an anomaly.
There was something about the size and mass of a human being and it was almost directly over his head.
He looked up. He was standing directly under a leaf. It was eighteen
meters up and motionless. He expected something mansize to cause it to move, but of course it wouldn’t. On this world, and sprouting from these trees, the leaves were as thick as matresses, constructed of tough fibers, and fastened to limbs that were thicker than tree trunks back on Earth. They were as big as baseball diamonds, too, and those were the small ones. Something – no – someone was up there.
He tucked the mass and motion detector back into its pocket on his belt and eased his gun into his hand.
Almost immediately he told himself that was a foolish precaution. The leaf was too high for anyone to jump from it to the ground without injury. Besides, whoever it was stood near the center of the leaf – too far from the edge to fire a weapon at him, or even know where he was. Yet some instinct told him to pull his weapon.shot
Professor Fred van Hartesveldt was a civilized man, a man of science. He seldom allowed his actions to be ruled by instinct. He was a member of the Science Corp. The title ‘Professor’ corresponded to the military rank of ‘Major.’ It was foolish that such a man should give in to something as primitive as instinct. Yet the skin on his back crawled and the weight of the gun in his hand was comforting. The scientific reasoning for what he did was simple: better safe than sorry.
Then he saw something move – a mere suggestion of movement behind a mound of mossy ground, and a glint of metal as something rose up. Van Hartesveldt dropped to the ground and hugged it as two beams scorched the air where he’d just been standing.
He saw the upper portion of a body and he aimed and fired and his shot
caught its target in the shoulder. There was a scream of pain; someone fell to the ground, out of sight of the professor. Somebody else a few feet from the man he had hit fired back at him.
The heat of the beam sucked the air in its path with a crackling pop-pop-pop. He rolled sideways hoping he wasn’t seen. A third shooter fired from cover back on the other side of the man he’d hit. It was clear he was aiming at where van Hartesveldt had been, but it was also clear that the two of them were far enough apart to catch him in a crossfire if he was careless.
And he hadn’t forgotten the one overhead. He fumbled for the gadget he had put back in its pocket on his belt and took a quick reading.
There was no indication of anything the mass of a human being on the leaf above him now. Whoever had been there had moved. In which direction, he had no clue. Score one for instinct, he thought, and wondered what he would do next. Then he heard a sound. He looked out, just far enough to see but not make a target, and behind a mound of mossy ground where he believed one of his opponents was hidden, he saw arms and hands moving rapidly. One of the hands held a knife. It came down and the other hands dropped out of sight, too. Someone cried out. The cry ended in a sort of gurgling sound.
Van Hartesveldt stopped thinking about what he would do next and found himself wondering what in hell had just happened.
Maybe it was instinct, again, or rapid thinking at the subconscious level, or just stupidity. He leaped to his feet and started running.
He crouched low as he ran. There was no way to do this and not be seen but with the rolling ground and by staying low he could at least keep himself a poor target. He saw a man leap to the top of one of the hillocks and take careful aim at him. Just as suddenly another figure rose from the place where he had seen the hands and the knife. The figure fired an arrow from a bow, the arrow and the bow both straight out of a museum. The man who was about to shoot him suddenly stiffened with a feathered shaft sticking from his throat. He made no sound that van Hartesveldt could hear but the gun fell from suddenly nerveless fingers and his eyes widened in disbelief. Then he dropped heavily to the ground.
Van Hartesveldt stopped running. He stood there staring at the figure who had saved his life. The figure stared back. An arrow was nocked to the bow but it was pointed downward.
It was a woman. A human, like him, apparently of Terran stock. Her
long hair was red, a burnished copper set fire to by the errant daylight. She was dressed in animal skins, the same color as the moss that grew on the tree trunks. Her figure was magnificent, her legs long and strong and superbly shaped. Even at this distance her eyes impressed him. Brown and as fiery as her hair, but with a different sort of fire.
Then she turned away from him and ducked down behind the slope of the ground and was gone. When he got to where she had been there was no sign of her.
He checked the bodies of his attackers. All were dead, even the one who had been hit in the shoulder; the blast had taken off his arm. They wore the kind of overalls that might indicate they were crewmen aboard a spacecraft, roustabouts at a port, or just men who figured that sort of clothing was practical for the environment. He found no papers to tell him who they were.
How did they get here? There was no obvious means of transportation in sight. He didn’t
think they had walked. That meant their transportation was hidden. Either that or they had some sort of base around here, also hidden.
He checked his mass and motion detector again but he found no sign of the woman – he was now convinced it had been her he had detected on the leaf before.
On his gravity cycle he began a search going in spirals away from the point of the ambush. A half-hour later he saw the woman again. It was just a glimpse as she climbed up a tree that was as big around as a young mountain. She used vines for foot and hand holds. She moved rapidly, effortlessly. He got one good look at her before she vanished among the branches. He forgot about clues to the men who had tried to kill him. She was a more intriguing mystery.
On his gravity cycle he began a search going in spirals away from the point of the ambush. A half-hour later he saw the woman again.
It was just a glimpse as she climbed up a tree that was as big around as a young mountain. She used vines for foot and hand holds. She moved rapidly, effortlessly. He got one good look at her before she vanished among the branches. He forgot about clues to the men who had tried to kill him. She was a more intriguing mystery.
He grabbed a vine and began climbing.
The low gravity of the planet helped him. He went up until he came to an arching branch at the end of which, like a great, poised platform, grew a leaf. The leaves closer to the ground were smaller than the ones higher up but even so it was impressive.
Something scurried a short distance from where the Professor stood. Something the size of – and probably corresponding to – a ground squirrel. Spiky growths like clumps of grass sprouted here and there from the leaf. Some of them were tall enough for a human sized animal to hide behind. A vine snaked across the leaf and, at various places, sprouted blossoms the size of a kitchen chair, violet and white with orange leaves.
There was no sign of the woman. There were at least a dozen places for her to hide on this one leaf.
“Hello,” he called. “Can you hear me? I won’t hurt you.”
As if that exotic creature could understand his language
He was beginning to wish he wasn’t on this mission alone. There were, in the Terran Sphere, numerous agents of the Science Corp. But they were spread through close to a hundred star systems, with thousands of problems and a million times that number of things to be studied. He was the only agent available to check out the reports in this area. It had been assumed that the reports were routine, but because Morran had disappeared on this planet van Hartesveldt had taken special interest. He was one of the agents who brought down Morran’s syndicate a year before. It grated that the man was still free.
Six months ago Mal Tibbitt had gone to a place north of here pursuing a rumor Morran was operating in that area. Tibbitt disappeared.
It was Tibbitt he worked with to expose Morran. He wanted to accompany Tibbitt, but another assignment prevented that. Van Hartesveldt was certain Tibbitt ran into trouble.
The fact that he had not been there was bitter.
Of course he had no proof the men who tried to kill him were
Morran’s. They could be smugglers or simple poachers who had panicked at sight of a Science Corp officer.
Admittedly murder was an extreme reaction, but since he had no idea of their crime or what stakes were involved, the Professor had to assume they had their reasons. If enough money was involved, a certain sort of personality would not balk at murder.
But the woman … there was no precedent to explain her. As beautiful as a goddess, moving like an animal, fighting like a savage – a very efficient savage, at that. She got in range of the men without them suspecting she was there. She had killed them without any display of hesitation or pity. Where did a woman like that come from?
No place he was familiar with.
There were many matters to deal with. Should he take time to search here, or continue climbing? He was weighing the pros and cons of that when he heard something. Someone stepped out from behind a clump of blossoms and shot him.
He came to staring up at a hazy, out-of-focus face. He forced his vision to clear. The face was Morran’s.
There was another face behind it, not a human face. He had never seen its like before. He struggled to move. He couldn’t.
“Don’t bother,” said Morran pleasantly. “You’re paralyzed.”
He tried to speak. He couldn’t.
“Paralyzed, I say, but don’t worry.” Morran held the gun up. “See? Just a paralaser. You’ll recover in a matter of minutes.” He laughed, lightly. “There’s the rub.”
The face behind Morran watched closely. A sleek, reptilian face showing no emotion. But not the face of a friend.
“You killed three of my men,” Morran said without much feeling. “Once again you’ve made yourself into a nuisance. I could kill you easily. Think of all the ways. I could slice open an artery and let you bleed to death while the paralysis wears off. I could take out
a power gun and point it to your face and fire it. I say this so you’ll realize how much trouble you’re in.”
Van Hartesveldt thought of several things he would like to call Morran but his vocal chords were as paralyzed as his arms and legs. Besides, he didn’t want to call him names. He wanted to pound his face into jelly while he called him names.
“Your facial muscles are starting to lose paralysis,” Morran said. “I can see your hatred for me. That makes what I plan all the more satisfying.”
The reptilian thing behind him said something Van Hartesveldt couldn’t understand. “This is Chairn. He thinks I’m wasting time gloating over you. He has a point. But I have to tell you, Professor. When I caught Tibbitt, I took my time with him. It was very pleasurable.”
He smiled. “Show him what you have, Chairn.” It was an insect. Its segmented body was as thick as van Hartesveldt’s forearm, and almost as long.
“I don’t know the name for it,” said Morran. “For that matter, I’m not sure if it’s an insect or some type of crab or what. Chairn seems to have a way with it. He’s going to put it on your chest. As you can see it’s drowsing. It will continue to drowse until something startles it. Then it’ll drive its sting into you. I’m told the venom is painful. The victim screams for hours while it burns out his insides. I’ll be gone but the chances are good I’ll be able to hear you.”
Gently, Chairn set the insect on van Hartesveldt’s chest.
“Don’t worry. The movement of your breathing won’t disturb it.” Morran smiled. “But did you ever notice that when a man recovers from a paralaser blast there’s a spasm that shakes his whole body? That will be enough to startle our pet and cause it to strike.” They left.
The professor could feel his numbness receding. The thing on his chest scrunched its dozen or so legs comfortably under its body and settled down for a nap.
He could smell the heavy perfume of nearby flowers, feel the lightness of the breeze touching his face, the weight of the creature that nestled on his chest. He couldn’t move. In a few minutes he would, though, and the thing would kill him.
Then the creature would leap away into the cover of the bushes or blossoms near at hand and the professor would lie there for an hour or more, thrashing in pain and screaming as vital organs burned away.
The wearing away of his numbness was like a clock counting down to death. The more feeling came back to him, the closer van Hartesveldt was to the spasm that would bring his death.
It was minutes now . . .
Seconds . . .
Then he was looking up into the face of the mystery woman he had seen before.
She gazed down at him gravely, her soft brown eyes troubled. He couldn’t speak. There was no way to tell her his condition or the danger he was in. No way to tell her to remove the insect on his chest before the spasm shook his body and shocked the creature into injecting venom into him.
“I’ll get it off,” she said as if she knew.
Slowly she reached for it.
He felt his muscles cramping and knew his time had run out; the spasm was gripping him.
Her hand closed on the insect. She lifted it quickly. He saw the sting flick, not touching him.
His muscles shook, violently. For a moment he was wracked with cramps through his whole body.
She threw the insect far away.
The cramping stopped. He was lay there, breathing heavily, sweating. He found presently that he could roll over. He tried to push himself up.
“No,” she said. “Take it easy. Your strength will come back soon. Don’t try to force it.”
He slumped down and lay there. He felt strength ebbing back.
“You’re angry,” she said. “But you’re still weak. Don’t let the anger and other feelings – the – embarrassment – force you into recklessness.”
Embarrassment? That startled him. Well, he realized, he was embarrassed, almost being killed that easily. But how had she known?
He said, “You can read my mind, can’t you?”
“In a way; not quite. But I know some of your thoughts, most of your feelings. It’s how I’ve learned your language. It’s how I knew you were a friend when I saw you. And how I knew I had to get that thing off you.”
“Who are you?” he asked.
“You can call me Marr Reeahn,” she said.
“No, I don’t mean your name. Not just your name –”
“You mean who I am. I know. And I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you about Tibbitt, also.”
“Tibbitt? You knew Mal Tibbitt?”
He was stronger now. She helped him sit up.
“Later. There isn’t time now. They’ll come back to see what happened. We need to go.” She was right, of course. He sat there a moment to let his strength return. He said nothing.
His weapons were gone, as well as the instruments he had carried. When he was able, she led him to the tree trunk and started climbing up. He followed. The low gravity helped, but he was weaker than he wanted to be.
They grabbed handholds provided by branching lengths of the main vine. The vine itself was wide enough to walk on, if you took care. She led him up to a branch about thirty meters higher and out to a leaf.
“We won’t be safe here,” he said. “Morran has my detector. He’ll know we’re here.”
“There’s something here we need,” she said. She moved across the leaf toward a place where the foliage grew heavily. The professor watched, not knowing what to expect. She reached a grassy spot and stooped down, feeling around for something.
When she stood up she was holding a pouch.
Whatever she wanted was inside it. She fastened it to her belt and said, “Come here. This is for you.”
He moved across the expanse of green to where she stood. She pointed down and he saw something that was hidden by the grass.
It was a box. The emergency kit from a gravity cycle. “Tibbett’s,” she said, bending down to open it.
She stood up so he could see inside it.
It was no longer complete. But there were still a few things in it. A small first aid kit and a gun.
Van Hartesveldt picked up the weapon. It was a standard SC model, like the one that had been taken from him. It would fit his holster nicely. He pressed the test button and saw that it was fully charged.
“Tibbitt hid this, as backup,” she said. “Before they killed him.”
“You need to tell me that story.”
“I will, but not just yet. We need to go now.”
He wondered about the pouch at Marr Reeahn’s waist, but it was really just one more question among many. She started back to the trunk. He kept quiet and followed.
She took him to a leaf higher up on the other side of the tree. “We’ll be able to see them from here,” she said.
“With the detector, Morran and Chairn won’t have much trouble locating us,” he said.
“They won’t, though.” She took the pouch from her belt and opened it, sliding its contents into her hand. “That’s one of the reasons I stopped for this. It can hide us from your detector.”
“It can, huh?” It looked to him like a flat, round piece of blue glass. A system of veins of darker blue ran through it, like small cracks.
For the first time he saw her smile. “You don’t sound like you believe me. You have a lot to learn, I think. And maybe it’s time we started on your education.”
“While waiting for Morran and Chairn to find us?” He sighed. “All right, if you’re so
confident. Who is Chairn? I’m familiar with the intelligent species my people have encountered in our explorations but I’ve never seen any like him before. Who are you for that matter?”
She pointed to a flowering vine. Beneath the bright yellow and white blossoms were clusters of berries. “I think you’ll find those edible,” she said. “I’ll find us some water gourds.”
She put away the pouch, went back to the trunk of the tree and returned with two gourd-shaped objects. He recognized them at once. He had seen such things growing on the trunks. “They collect water,” she said. “Quite drinkable.” They sat down on the leaf and began their small supper.
Marr Reeahn put a berry into her mouth and chewed it. There was a hint of a smile in her beautiful eyes as she watched him. Finally she said, “I’m very much like you, van Hartesveldt. A police officer.”
“Which service? Which planet for that matter?”
“No service you ever heard of, or planet, either.” She sighed. The smile was replaced with a perplexed look. “In some ways this will be difficult to explain. I’m not from this universe.”
His eyebrows arched. “Oh?”
She took the pouch from her belt again and worried it open. She slid the flat blue piece of glass onto her hand and showed it to him. “Touch it.”
He took it in his own hand; and was so surprised he almost dropped it.
It was vibrating. Or something was vibrating. He could see no movement but he could certainly feel it. Now it was his turn to look perplexed. He handed it back to her.
“This,” she said, “is the secret of traveling from one universe to another. Or part of the secret. You need two of them. I lost the other, so I’m stranded here in your dimension.”
“A few months only. It is difficult to comprehend time even with the help of mind-reading. Six or seven months, I think. I was following Chairn, a criminal I’ve sought for some time. He managed to elude a trap and, using stolen beacon stones, opened up a passage
between our dimensions. Using my beacon stones I set up a passage and followed him. I had no chance to report to my superiors. I must have gotten here about an hour after he did. I had no clue where he was and no equipment except what I carried on my person. The only thing I could do was wait. The passages swing like pendulums. After a time they return to the same place. Only then could Chairn reopen the passage and return to his home world. “So I waited. When Chairn came back, there were others with him. Morran. I spied on them and learned what I could. They planned a link between your universe and mine, to commit crimes in one selling the proceeds in the other. Morran came up with the idea of selling slaves from this universe in the markets of Chairn’s world.”
“Morran’s tried that before,” van Hartesveldt said, grimly. “Nothing on an interdimensional scale, though. Just raids on primitive planets and selling his captives on richer but equally primitive worlds.”
“Shortly after I got here, Chairn and Morran came back,” she resumed. “That was when I learned their scheme. Chairn knew I was after him and realized he had to find and stop me.
I got careless and was captured. Worse, he got his hands on the beacon stones I carried. While Morran held me, Chairn placed one of the stones on a rock and smashed it to pieces. “That was when Tibbitt arrived. He was after Morran and had followed them from their headquarters north of here. Tibbitt exchanged shots with them. I managed to break free and recover the unbroken beacon stone. We made it into the jungle and decided to work together to stop them.”
“We never received any reports from him about this,” said van Hartesveldt.
“He called in reports,” she said. “It’s possible someone in your organization intercepted them for Morran. It could explain how he was able to stay ahead of us in the following weeks.
“Tibbitt and I did what we could to stop them. Finally, Tibbitt was killed and all his equipment except the emergency box taken. Without him, I was forced to live off the land.” She smiled, indicating the bow. “I went from using blasters to fashioning weapons out of wood. Even my clothing is made from the skins of local animals. I knew Morran and Chairn would be back and I hoped I could stop them.
When they returned and I saw you following them, I knew from your uniform that you were Science Corps. When you were captured I was terrified they would kill you.”
“Thanks to you they failed,” van Hartesveldt said.
“They’ll try again. They’ll try to kill us both,” she said. “The beacon stone I still have can baffle your detectors and it assists me in translating thought. But I can’t open up an interdimensional passage without two of them, so I can’t count on help except you.”
“Then it’s a waiting game for us,” he said. “They’re likely halfway back to their main base by now. And they would have destroyed my gravity cycle or taken it, so we can’t follow.”
“I agree that they’ve probably destroyed your vehicle,” she said. “But not that they’ve left. When I handed you the stone, you felt the vibrations. That means the passage between dimensions is returning. Chairn will be able to open it again soon. He needs to make contact with his cohorts on his home world so they can organize their operation. I’m sure Chairn and Morran are still around here, waiting. But not for long.” She held up the stone. It glowed with a faint blue light. “In fact, we’d better get going. It looks like the passageway is almost open again.”
Later, the two of them lay side by side at the edge of another leaf, watching the ground almost sixteen meters below.
The forest was still. It glittered, burnished gold, below and all around them. They waited in golden light and golden air and golden silence – unnatural silence it seemed to van Hartesveldt. Even animals were quiet, sensing the arrival of something strange and preternatural.
Below them three figures walked into view at the far edge of the clearing, Chairn, Morran and one of their henchmen. Van Hartesveldt felt Marr Reeahn’s hand on his shoulder and nodded. They had already discussed what they would do. There was no further need for speech. He slipped away from the edge of the leaf, crouching so he could not be seen from the ground, moving back toward the trunk of the tree.
A vine as thick as his arm wrapped around the trunk. Its blossoms shielded him from view. Grabbing an upper twist of the vine with his hands, he set his feet on a lower one. He moved around the trunk, keeping out of sight. The vines were attached to the tree at varying angles and irregular distances, but they were the rungs for the ladder he climbed down. He reached the ground and slid his weapon out and moved where he could see them. And where he could see the pale, blue glowing air in front of the three criminals. The air seemed
to vibrate with color, marking the arrival of the passage.
Chairn saw him. His mouth fell open. He yelled in a language the professor did not speak. Morran and his henchman turned, gaping also.
The henchman held a gun. He leveled it but Van Hartesveldt fired first. The man yelled. The weapon flew from his hand. He dropped to his knees, then pitched forward on his face, arms out flung.
An arrow from Marr Reeahn’s bow clipped Chairn’s wrist as he lifted his gun. Morran didn’t even try for his weapon. He ran. Van Hartesveldt caught him low around the knees in a tackle that drove him to the ground.
Marr Reeahn swung down on a vine. As she struck Chairn, her long, athletic legs wrapped around his neck. He fell to the ground. She let go of him and landed standing.
Morran rolled over. He had a knife. He slashed and missed Van Hartesveldt.
The blue light of the portal intensified; strange, greenish light reflected from the golden foliage around them. There was a keening sound. Before Morran could bring his knife back for another slash, van Hartesveldt hit him hard. He hit him twice more and Morran went still.
Van Hartesveldt took the man’s knife and gun and scrambled to his feet. A new sound filled the clearing, a hum of new energy.
Marr Reeahn and Chairn grappled. It seemed to van Hartesveldt that she was winning. The humming sound became a low, heavy rumble like distant thunder as Chairn was thrown to the ground.
He rolled away from her and scrambled to his feet.
He changed. Suddenly the human figure disappeared, replaced by a dark patch of air. It was the color of smoke but it crackled and leaped like lightning and then grew until it towered over the girl, nine or ten feet tall.
Marr Reeahn changed also. One moment she stood there, beautiful and strong in her human form, her hair ablaze with the reflected glory of the light of the portal forming behind her. Then she became light – so bright he couldn’t stare at it. The light softened and became golden. It expanded to the same size as Chairn, and he knew that he was seeing her in her true form, the form she wore in her own universe.
They grappled and almost at once the light that had been Marr Reeahn became dazzlingly bright. The gray lightning that had been Chairn gave a new sound, a loud whine like the skirring of a dynamo that deadened as it was engulfed in a crackling red glow. The gray cloud dropped to the ground like a man on his hands and knees and the golden cloud that had been Marr Reeahn stood above him.
The blue light behind her seemed an almost concrete form. It rose tall and majestic, gate to another universe.
In the golden cloud he thought he could see the form of Marr Reeahn as he had known her, standing there, gazing at him.
Then she bent down and took something from Chairn. When she stood up again, she was holding two beacon stones.
In his head he heard her voice. “I will miss you, van Hartesveldt, very much.”
She clapped her hands, bringing the beacon stones sharply together. Thunder rattled; the world twisted, slid. A great, violet light exploded throwing van Hartesveldt to the ground.
When the light faded, the portal, Marr Reeahn and Chairn were gone.
He got up, stood there a moment letting a sort of numbness, his only immediate reaction, wash over him like a tide.
He found three gravity cycles not far away. He threw the still unconscious Morran over one and tied him belly down across the saddle.
He went back to check for evidence, knowing there was none; knowing also that that was not the real reason he went back. His emotions were garbled and alien to him just now and it would take him a while to sort them out.
He stood for a time where he had watched her transform. His head was empty of any sound that was not his own thought.
As he turned away, his foot touched something. He picked it up. It was flat and blue, like glass or a gem, riven with cracks like a working of veins.
He put it in his pocket and went back to where the gravity cycles and Morran waited for him.
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Goddess of the Golden Forest