by Christopher D. Carter, © 2015
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Table of Contents
Crush stepped through the doorway that Revalus had opened, and he came out into a positively white and sterile environment on the other side. The surroundings were so white that it messed with his vision. When he placed his foot down on the floor ahead, he could not tell visually where the floor started and ended. After several such blind steps, he began to gain some trust in where he was headed, and Pound followed in behind with the same cautious reluctance. They were wearing the robes that Revalus had given to them, and they walked many steps away from the door into the unknown.
“Where are we?” Pound asked, and Crush turned around and shook his head in reply.
“I’ve no idea,” he said, and the cat-man stopped suddenly while he looked down at his feet standing on nothing but white. Square tiles formed ahead, and they were able to begin to see the perspective of distance at their feet. Everywhere in which they turned to look around themselves, though, they could only see white and the grid lines formed by the tiles. There was nothing significant on the horizon where the grid lines converged, and they walked on for many minutes in a straight line of tiles toward that horizon until they had traveled for what felt like a mile. Crush led the way, and when he had counted two thousand steps, he stopped in the center of a tile. Pound was not expecting the sudden halt in the pace, and he almost ran into his partner. As it was, he stepped on the heel of the cat-man’s shoe.
“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting you to stop so suddenly,” he explained to Crush, and Crush held a finger to his lips, calling for quiet. Pound did as he was told and also carefully lifted his foot from the back of Crush’s shoe. He looked up and around at the endless surroundings, or lack of surroundings, if the white represented nothing. And really, there was nothing to see in his opinion. Pound was bored with the stale scenery, and he crossed his arms as he waited patiently for Crush to start moving again. Crush turned all the way around toward him, but his gaze extended to the space behind Pound where they had originated. Crush’s eyebrows rose in wonder, and Pound also turned on his heel to find that the doorway that had brought them there was no more than a couple of steps away.
“How can that be?” Pound asked aloud, but Crush only sighed in reply as he, too, stared at the empty gateway.
“Don’t worry! You’re almost there!” a voice sounded behind them. This time, they jumped around on both feet to find an elbow-high white table with an older gentleman behind the counter. He was clothed in white robes and seated. “And, here you are!” the gentleman said with a grin. Crush squinted his eyes at the man as he considered the man, and a low growl bubbled up through his voice box.
“Who are you, and what is this place?” Crush asked. The gentleman’s eyes rose, and he smiled.
“You know me,” he said to Crush. “Or maybe, I should say that I know you.” Crush’s suspicion eased, and he nodded his head, letting the angry growl soften to a purr.
“Captain Noggin,” Crush mumbled, and the gentleman stood to his feet behind the counter and began turning pages in a schedule book.
“Oh, goodness, yes, and you are the angels from earth, here to visit someone,” Captain Noggin said as his finger landed on a time slot in the schedule.
“Angels?” Crush thought to himself as he looked down at the robes that he wore. “Interesting.”
“Figgus and Branchus from Stratus, yes, and who is it that you would like to see today?” Noggin asked. Several names shot through his mind, but Crush quickly settled on the one name that he had had on his mind for quite some time recently.
“Sherry Lance, sir. We are here to visit Sherry Lance,” Crush said to Noggin. Pound had not had a chance to speak, and his mental concentration peaked at the mention of their former friend and comrade. She had failed to return from the battle with Drakthos, and they had believed her to be dead. Crush studied the countenance of Captain Noggin carefully, measured him up, and he was convinced in his own mind that this place where they found themselves was no parlor trick or illusion. They were in a spiritual realm. “Don’t you recognize me?” Crush asked the bearded gentleman behind the counter, and Captain Noggin drummed his index finger up and down on their time slot.
“Yes, I do Figgus. Time has passed since our last meeting, but I do recognize you,” the elder gentleman acknowledged from behind the desk, and then Crush reached out his fuzzy hand to him across the counter. Noggin looked at the hand as if it were an unwelcome guest, and Pound thumped his partner in the side to get his attention, as if to say, “What the heck are you doing?” Crush withdrew the hand straightaway and wiped his leg with it nervously. He had not seen the old man in the flesh since, well . . . he could recall ever seeing him in the flesh, only in his dreams. Crush was overwhelmed with emotion that he stood face-to-face with him across a counter. It was a miracle. He could recall very little about Noggin’s physical features, though Crush recognized him most clearly by his voice from the many dreams he had had. Now that Noggin was this close to him, Crush just wanted to reach out and hug the old man and tell him that he was glad to see him. But when Crush looked over at Pound, he knew that he could do no such thing. He pulled himself together and cleared his throat.
“Good, good. Right. Sherry Lance,” Crush uttered nervously. Noggin stepped around the counter to stand with them, and he motioned with his fingers for them to follow. The captain was dressed in robes much like their own, and he walked briskly along a straight line of gridded tiles for many steps. They passed a couple of signs that seemed to float in the air, and the signs read “Eye Ward” and “Dragon Ward”. Beneath the signs there was nothing, just free space and more white sterile air. They followed Captain Noggin until a sign appeared overhead in the white atmosphere. In black letters, the sign read, “Bear Ward”. Noggin stopped and presented the empty air beneath the sign to them, as if there was a door or passage there to behold in the empty white space. But there was nothing.
“Here we are, my friends, the Bear Ward,” Captain Noggin said as he read the sign and ushered them ahead beneath the black letters.
“But, there’s nothing there,” Pound replied, and the old man looked at him in disbelief.
“That is strange. You’re telling me that you don’t see the swinging doors and hinges in front of you,” Noggin said, and he place his hand on his chin in thought. Pound then tried to make up for the obvious mistake he had made by revealing that he was not able to see the invisible doors that Noggin was showing them.
“Oh, no, you misunderstand. I see the doors,” Pound corrected. “I just don’t see what is on the other side.”
“Of course not, that would be silly,” Captain Noggin replied. “If you could see through the doors that would be a miracle, but miracles are not unheard of here.” He then placed a hand beneath the side of the unseen door and pushed the air with his hand. Space folded in, and a crack appeared to form a gap at his fingertips. There were trees and forest within reach, and curiosity got the best of the cat-man. Crush walked around the doorway to the other side of the sign so that the door was between himself and Noggin. The door had disappeared, and there was nothing but free space separating them. When he strolled back around to the front of the sign, he could see the doorway and the forest on the other side again. Crush wondered how the old man had opened the mysterious doorway, but he held his question in check so as not to give away his doubt. He did not wish for the old man to discover who he really was, and he felt that his disguise was a very thin one at best.
“Thanks for the tour,” Crush said as he made the decision to step through the doorway. With a hesitation, he placed his hand on where he thought the door frame should be, and he felt nothing solid there. His hand passed right through the edge as if it were simply air. He did not look to the captain for advice, but he went no further as he studied the entrance more closely.
“You fellows seem to be new at this,” Captain Noggin noted as he stood idly by, watching with curiosity of his own.
“Fairly new, yes,” Pound replied as he waited to see how Crush was going to handle the doorway.
“Don’t worry, I get a lot of new recruits coming through every day, but it has been four hundred years since the last person from Stratus showed up.” That statement confused both Crush and Pound, and each returned a quizzical look. “Yes, it has been that long, really,” the captain continued.
“But you just said ‘every day’. How does four hundred years fit within a day?” Pound asked, and he placed his hand on his chin in thought.
“Where we are now, a thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years,” Captain Noggin explained with a smile. “I don’t know how I can be any clearer.” With his hands held together and steeped at his chin, the old gentleman seemed content with his circuitous explanation, though Crush and Pound were understandably still puzzled. Captain Noggin saw the looks of disbelief from both Crush and Pound, and a gleam came into his eyes.
“You two are from Stratus, but you aren’t Figgus and Branchus. In fact, you are not angels at all, are you?” Neither of the two DAM agents answered as the captain waited for a reply. “I don’t have all day, or should I say, a thousand years. Tell me who you are.” Crush and Pound both looked at each other, and the same thought passed between the two men. With one hand held at attention on his forehead, Crush saluted the old man, and he jumped through space where he thought the doorway into the world on the other side should be. Crush disappeared through the unseen door, and Captain Noggin then looked at Pound, reached over, and grabbed his arm while he was still there. Pound shook off the old man’s weak hold on him, and he leaped through the unseen doorway to the forest below.
Captain Noggin did not follow; he simply stood there in the white sterile world with a grin that spread across his face. The robe that Revalus had provided had protected Pound’s skin from being touched, yet it had not completely isolated him from Captain Noggin’s abilities. He may not have been able to stop the mystery men from using the portal to the “Bear Ward”, but he had connected with Pound through that one touch on his arm. Some of Pound’s thoughts had traveled through the garment and were laid out like an open book for the captain to read, and read them he did.
“Farewell,” Captain Noggin said with a twinkle in his eye. The old man then clasped his hands behind his back, and he walked away through the nothingness to his desk in the whiteness of space.
When Crush passed from empty white space into the cold of the forest, the dampness of his breath left a trail in the air. The sign had said, “Bear Ward”, but really, Crush had no idea where he was. He hoped that he was on earth at any rate, but that was something that he would have to find out by his surroundings. A few seconds after he had settled into the environment, Pound appeared out of thin air, holding his arm as if he were injured.
“Pound,” Crush whispered from behind an oak tree, and his partner turned around to see him peeking out from the deciduous tree. Pound was still holding his arm when he joined the cat-man in the cover of the woods, and he wore a look of loss on his face as the steam from his breath hovered in the air. “Are you okay?” Pound nodded in reply, and he slowly removed his hand from the robe that covered his arm.
“I think so, but the old man touched my arm before I went through, and . . . I don’t know, I think he knows who I am now,” Pound explained, though he was not sure of anything.
“He said that he knew we weren’t angels, so it may not matter if he knows who you are,” Crush reassured him. He had recognized Captain Noggin himself, and he knew that there really was nothing to fear from the old man, but he wondered if Noggin had caught on to him like he had Pound. If he had recognized the cat-man and knew that he was no angel, would he have sent him back to Revalus instead of directing him to the ‘Bear Ward’? It was one of the many questions that may never be answered on this journey, so Crush chose to forget about it for the time being and redirect his own energy to finding Sherry Lance. He knew that Pound would welcome the idea of meeting up with the young lady again. She had sparked interest in Pound, and he in her, that much was no secret.
“It matters to me,” Pound replied. He rubbed his head with both hands and tried to clear out his mind, and he looked up into the canopy of the surrounding trees. “I’m starting to feel better already,” Pound added as the treetops swayed in the wind. He was at home among trees, and he placed one hand on the bark of the oak to feel the smoothness of the tree. When his fingers touched the tree, he felt a shock surge through to his bones, and a flash of imagery passed through his mind. The image was of a face in a tree, and the face was screaming at him. He quickly pulled his hand away from the tree and stepped back a couple of paces from the trunk with fright. “Don’t touch that tree, Crush.” A look of concern spread across the cat-man’s face, and Crush backed away from the black bark of the oak. They noticed something crawling and moving over the whole outside of the tree’s bark, almost as if tiny creatures were inching across the outer surface. A closer look revealed that tiny wood boring worms were making their way from the inside out of the tree and covering the outside of the tree. They were mesmerized by the sickening absurdity as they watched the worms eating their way inside out, and something crawled up both of the men’s legs, coiled itself, and tightened around them both with great pressure. Crush and Pound tried to pull away, but the tree roots that had interwoven around their calves and up to their knees, keeping them bound to the ground. There was no hope for escape, so Pound willed his mind at the worm infested tree only to find that the wood ignored him altogether. Roots and limbs wrapped all around their bodies, separated the two men, and pulled them away from each other. Within seconds, the robed men were each restrained to the trunks of other trees, and the breath of life was being slowly crushed from their lungs by the wood.
“Pound! Isn’t there something you can do?!” Crush begged the other agent, and he tried to breathe in again before the wood collapsed his lungs. The limbs pulled his head tight against the bark, and he felt the inching of the crawling worms as they spread over his skin and burrowed into his fur.
“I tried!” Pound yelled out as the limbs flattened him in a mold around the base of the tree. Pound was a master over plant life, but he could do nothing to help them. The worms were crawling over his face and into his mouth, and he spit the insects out and closed his lips tight. He hoped to keep them out of his body, but the insects were finding their way into his nostrils. Soon, he would have to open his mouth and risk drowning in the bugs as they crawled down his throat. Their struggles were hopeless, and after a few minutes, both men passed out from lack of oxygen.
The breath of life came suddenly rushing back into his body. With the jolt of fresh air, Crush banged the back of his head against a rough, solid surface. He wanted to rub the back of his head, but something was wrong. He could not move his arms and legs; they were restrained. He flexed his arms to break the binding, and he found that he was weaker than normal and could not break them. He relaxed his arms and legs, and the binding held him in place. If nothing else, at least he did not have to worry about falling over from the weakness that crawled through his body. His vision was blurry, and he was nauseated from his head down to the swirling of his stomach. He closed his eyes and waited for the world to stop moving, but for the five minutes that he stood there hoping for the motion to stop, the relief never arrived. He also had a lump in his throat, and it was sore when he swallowed. He thought he felt some of the worms go down his esophagus as the acidic taste welled up in his mouth. The taste was repulsive, and Crush carefully leaned his head back against the hard surface and opened his eyes. Through blurred vision, he could see daylight passing through the leaves in the treetops above, and he felt the wind whip the cool breeze along the forest floor. For just a moment, he felt better.
He heard something move. A snarl, followed by a grunt, broke the silence and peace of the moment. Crush leaned his head toward the origin of the noise. His vision was still blurred, but he could see the outline of a hazy beast move into his sight. At first, Crush did not comprehend exactly what he was looking at. He guessed that since they had entered the ‘Bear Ward’, maybe it was a bear. That was a horrible thing to imagine. Crush had witnessed a bear swallow a demon whole once before, and he knew that he would not stand a chance if that particular bear came after him. Still, it seemed to him that he was looking at the world through lenses smeared with petroleum jelly, and he could not tell what it was. A second grunt followed the first as daylight disappeared, and the shadow of the beast blocked most of the light. Crush struggled against his bonds, but there was no breaking them. He heard a moan of pain arise to his left, and he recognized the voice. It was Pound.
“We’ve both survived the worms, but we’re bound to the trees,” Crush thought to himself. He was not sure what was going on, but it appeared that they were being held against their will by a huge creature. The beast turned up its nose and sniffed the cool, moist air. A grunt, a snarl, and a spit followed close behind. Whatever the creature was, it really had poor manners.
“Who are you?” the creature barked out at him, and Crush smelled the stink of the beast’s foul breath. It was indescribably bad, and the smell did nothing to ease the queasiness of his stomach. Crush wanted to vomit, but he held the gag reflex in check. Maybe he could hold back, and then his nausea would ease. If it did not, he would have to let it go. “I asked you a question, and I expect an answer, human-thing.” Crush swallowed the lump in his throat again and tasted the bitterness on his tongue. He had not tried to speak since he awoke, and he found it very difficult to do with his stomach churning. He said two words.
“What-are . . .” he mumbled in a struggled slur. He could not finish his sentence, and he stopped in order to keep the contents of his stomach down.
“Water! Don’t mention water to me. Some of my best friends drowned in the hateful stuff,” the beast growled. Crush had not been able to finish his sentence, and the creature misunderstood what he was trying to ask.
“No,” Crush answered with a little more strength and clarity. “What are you?” The beast grunted angrily, and hooves scraped the ground letting Crush know that it was not a bear that he was up against.
“I’m the one asking the questions, human-thing, and I want answers from you,” the beast snarled. “Who are you, and why are you here?” Crush licked his parched lips and swallowed again. He was thirsty, and the more the beast talked to him, the drier he felt inside. He also felt compelled to answer the questions, but he wondered whether he should lie and continue to pretend to be an angel. It was not in his nature to lie so easily, but his life was not the only one on the line this time. He had to think of his partner’s life, too.
“By my appearance, you would call me Figgus,” he cleverly replied. It was not a lie; he did look like Figgus. He was nervous though, and he tasted salt from sweat on his lips as he spoke. The beast backed up at the mention of the angelic name, and it snorted once in derision at Crush. A sudden malevolent power dried him out and made him extra thirsty. His vision began to clear, and he sensed some relief of the nausea which ate at his stomach. His head began to clear, though his vision remained blurry.
“That’s a lie, and don’t try to deny it,” the beast answered, and Crush could hear Pound stirring beneath the bindings. “The next thing you would tell me is that the other one is Branchus from Stratus, and I would spit in your general direction with that claim. You two are humans, not angels, so start again.” The animal’s breath blew dryly past Crush’s face, and he felt the limbs loosen their hold on him slightly. He could not know for sure, but maybe Pound was fully awake and gaining some control over the trees. He did not know and could not tell since his vision was still not one hundred percent. Whatever the case, Crush prepared for the worst. He extended the claws from his fingertips, and the beast came in close enough to blow on his face. He would have to say something to keep the conversation going. Stall for more time. Before he could try to answer the beast, Pound spoke up.
“Oh, okay. You’re right. We are who you think we are, beast,” Pound replied, and the limbs loosened a little more as his strength returned.
“I could smash you where you stand, little people,” the beast growled. “You would not be the first men to squish between the gaps in my hooves.” A hard and sharp hoof pushed into Pound’s midsection. It was covered in mud, and by the smell, feces.
“Okay, that’s just disgusting,” Pound said to the beast, and he kept trying to communicate with the tree on his backside. He had made a mental connection, and he had convinced the wood to let them go without the beast noticing what was actually going on. The creature snorted and huffed, but it backed away and kept enough distance from them so that it did not notice the wood loosening up around the two humans. Pound was free to move, and he thought his freedom would go unnoticed as long as the creature in the shadows kept its distance. He felt his strength return, and he flexed his fists to feel the power in his hands. Somehow, and he did not know how or why, he was revived and ready for action. He looked over at Crush, and he was certain that the cat-man was revived, too, and that he had wriggled his own body loose from the tree. The cat-man had that look, that really nasty and pissed off look. He knew Crush was raring and ready to get moving. Then he gave the quiet nod.
Crush did not let his partner down. Crush reached out and snatched Pound by the robe and yanked him upward into the tree with him. With his strength returned, Crush could easily lift Pound, and the cat-man quickly scaled the tree with him to the first limb that he could see. He tossed his partner up higher to the next branch and out of reach of the beast below. The two agents climbed higher and further away from the creature’s mystical influence, and they felt better inside. Both Crush and Pound’s eyesight cleared up completely, and they could see where they were going.
“This is insane,” Pound said, and he gripped the limbs of the tree.
“Yeah. Just being near that thing was making me sick,” Crush replied.
“Revalus screwed up again and sent us to the wrong place.”
“Don’t be so sure. We were the ones who jumped into the invisible door, so you can’t blame that on him.”
“Sure I can,” Pound said, and the beast roared with its mouth pointed at the sky.
“I think he’s a little peeved. Maybe we should get out of here.”
“There’s an idea I can live with,” agreed Pound. The beast was stamping around on the ground and thoroughly upset at their escape. It rammed the tree with its head, and the tree shook violently with the impact. Crush hung onto the bark and limbs with his claws. Pound was not so fortunate to have claws, and his hold in the upper limbs slipped as the tree shook with the creature’s ferocious head butts. He tried to communicate with the tree for help, but nothing was happening. “Come on!” he yelled at the wood, but the tree was of no help to him at all. Though he had been able to convince the tree to let go of them, Pound had very limited authority over the vegetation in this forest. The tree would not help him climb, nor would it reach out to save him if he fell. The creature below rammed the tree again, and despite his determination to hold on, he lost his grip. The old saying, ‘What goes up must come down’, held true. Gravity tugged Pound downward toward the beast that waited for him in the shadows on the ground. It would have been the end for him, too, if Crush had not been watching. The cat-man reached down and snatched him with his claws again, barely catching the back of Pound’s robe just behind his neck. The claws were sharp, but they did not pierce the integrity of the angelic cloth. He had a momentary hold, and Crush closed his fingers around the material to keep it from slipping through his hands. Pound swung one leg around a nearby limb, and he had an unbalanced and awkward hold on the tree. But he was not falling, and that was good enough for a government worker. The two men dangled in the limbs high above a really angry and evil beast. There they were like flies in a web.
“Can you get me in a better position, please?” Pound asked. He stared down at the ground, and he knew the fall from that height would kill him. Even if the fall did not, he knew he would be stomped into a mud hole by the animal on the ground.
“Are you kidding?! I’m upside down! Why don’t you do something?!”
“I don’t know! You’re the tree talker! TALK-TO-THE-TREE?!”
“I tried that! It’s not listening!”
“It’s not listening?! What does that even mean?!”
“It means that the tree is not doing what I ask it to do.”
“Well, ask again!” Pound closed his eyes and let his mind wander into the wood. Nothing happened.
So there they hung from the tree. The branches that held them snapped and cracked as time passed. There was very little that either of them could do to make the situation any better. Crush was at the crown of the tree, and there was nowhere else that he could drag his partner up into for safety. If he threw him at another limb, Pound might not get a fair hold on the wood and could fall to his death. If he did nothing, they would remain there, dangling from the tree like cheap Christmas ornaments. Crush was strong, but blood was rushing to his head, and he did not think that his biceps and shoulders could handle Pound’s weight for very much longer. There was nothing that he could do. The situation looked bad for them.
They were fortunate in one respect: the beast did not attempt to climb the tree. But that did not stop it from trying to get them down. It backed up to get a running start and slammed full force into the trunk with its skull again. The thin branches wiggled with the quake, and the limbs bent low with the weight of the two men. The beast was relentless. It would ram the tree, shake its head, and then look up at them. Over and over again. Every time it hit, it could see that it was making progress.
“This isn’t good!” Crush said after he felt the biggest crack in the limb yet. The beast rammed the tree again. The branch that held Crush snapped with the force of the final blow. They dropped into the air, and the angelic robe with Pound inside slipped through Crush’s loosened grip. Pound still had one leg entangled around the wood, and luck was on his side. He was able to swing awkwardly upside down and grab a lower limb with his hands. Crush was desperate, and as he dropped down, he reached out with the other hand to grab the same thin limb as Pound. The poor limb was stressed with the weight of two men, and it sagged toward the ground like a rubber band. Pound was pulled as tight as a guitar string, and Crush drooped down low in space. The cat-man looked like fishing bait dangling above the snarling creature that waited on the ground.
“I have you now!” the creature yelled, and it leaped up at Crush’s feet with an open mouth. Crush jerked his feet up as the tusks of the maw darted at him. He still had a chunk of broken limb in his hand that he could use as a weapon, and he whipped the limb across the creature’s sweaty snout. The yellow teeth snapped shut, narrowly missing Crush but trapping the offending stick in its jaws. Crush held himself up with one hand above his head, and the other hand held the weight of the creature below. The load of the beast then stretched Crush’s arms, and he thought that his shoulders were going to pop out of joint. Crush let go of the stick, and he released the beast to fall to the ground. One would think that was the right thing to do. The only problem was the reaction afterward. When he let go of the creature’s weight, both he and Pound went like a slingshot up into the air with the release. Pound used the momentum to grab the limb he was on with both hands and gained a safe hold in the crown of the tree. Crush however shot up over the tree and into the open air of the cool winter’s day. The cat-man flew in a parabola out of the tree which he had climbed and landed in the canopy of a neighboring tree. He reached out and grabbed hold of the nearest passing limb as it zoomed by, and he swung around it gracefully to hug the limbs with his legs. He climbed the few feet to the top just in time to see Pound heaving all of the contents of his stomach to the ground below. Maybe he will feel better, Crush thought, except that some of the vomit landed in the creature’s face. The beast bellowed with rage, and the scream echoed through the woods. Pound held his hand over his mouth and burped again.
“That’s unfortunate,” Pound said under his hand, and Crush laughed at him.
“Good going! Got him right on the snout. Probably went right up his nose.”
The ferocious animal was in the shadows of the forest, and they still could not tell what kind of creature it was. It snorted and sputtered and spit wildly, and it stalked around the tree that Pound was in in a circle, as if searching for an easy way up into the tree. It was lucky for them that Pound could exert some small level of communication with the trees and that the limbs did not simply wrap around them like it had before, or they would have only delayed the inevitable.
“You can’t stay up there forever, humans,” the beast grunted as it wandered around in circles below. “You’ll fall asleep eventually, and down will come baby, cradle and all.” There was no denying that they were in a tight spot this time with nowhere to go. Crush placed his hand above his eyes to scan the treetops around them for any clues about what to do, and he saw a bird soaring overhead.
“Great, just what we need. Another giant bird!” Crush exclaimed, but as the bird flew down lower, he found that it was not as large as he had first feared. The bird landed in the tree next to him, and it turned its head almost all the way around in a circle to look at him. It was an owl, and its big eyes blinked once as it inspected him. When the raging beast below bellowed out again in anger, the owl simply looked down below into the forest and hacked up a mouthful of fur which fell out of its mouth to the ground below. Everyone seemed to be taking their turn vomiting on the beast, but Crush held down his own food. He thought he might need the energy later. The owl then took off and flew gently to the adjacent tree, landed in the top, and then turned back to Crush as if it were waiting for him. Pound took notice of the owl as well, and he was the first to follow its lead. He was high up in the tree, and the limbs of the trees all touched each other in the tops. With his hands balancing on either side, he walked out to the end of the limb and jumped to the upper limbs of the next tree where the owl was roosting. He then climbed up and around to the other side of the tree to the limb that the owl was on, and the owl seemed content with him there. The owl then turned to look at Crush and cocked its head sideways as if to say, “Aren’t you coming, too?”
“Oh, why not.” Crush crouched down on the limb and balanced his way out onto the end, and he leaped across to grab the canopy of the next tree. He had trouble finding the safe paths to tread, but within minutes, he was in the same treetop as Pound and the owl. The owl then flew over to the next tree in line and stared back at them, waiting for them to join him. Crush and Pound followed, and it went this way time after time that day. The owl would fly from treetop to treetop, and the DAM agents would make their way over while the angry beast on the ground slammed into the tree trunks below.
“Look.” Crush pointed out in the direction they were headed, and there was a large opening or clearing where no treetops could be found in the vast forest. “The owl is taking us there,” he added.
“I’m glad, because I’m getting exhausted from climbing and swinging,” Pound replied. When they reached the edge of the clearing, they could see a body of water below, and the owl lifted off from the treetop and glided in a circle above the lake.
“What do we do now?” Crush asked aloud, though he thought he knew the answer.
“If I had to guess, I would say that the owl wants us to go into the water,” Pound answered. They were above the edge of the shallow side of the water, and they could see fish swimming just beneath the surface. “But we’re too high to jump. We’ll have to climb down.” They did. They climbed down several feet, and they kept a close eye on the shadows in the forest. The beast had followed them the entire way over, and it was hiding in the gloominess of the woods and underbrush. When they thought they had gone as low as they dared without tempting their fate with the beast, they climbed out as far over the water as possible to jump into the lake below. Based on its comments to him when it thought he said ‘water’, Crush thought that the beast had a healthy fear of water, and he dropped in feet first to the water below where he plopped beneath the surface and bobbed up to the top. Crush treaded water in his robes and waited for Pound to jump in with him, but his partner watched the movements of their enemy in the underbrush. A snort came through the brush and blew the leaves aside, revealing its sweaty snout, but the animal did not show any more of itself than it dared to allow them to see. Pound finally gained the confidence to move ahead, and he dangled from the limb by his hands before letting go and dropping into the water a few seconds later. Another angry grunt came from beneath the bushes, but that was all that they heard of the beast for the time being. Crush swam ahead and pointed up into the sky, and Pound looked to see what the owl was doing. The bird glided slowly across the water to the other side of the lake where it landed on the lower limb of an oak tree at the edge of the water and waited for them to cross.
“That’s a long swim,” Pound said to Crush.
“I hope there’s nothing waiting for us on the other side,” the cat-man said as he swam slowly across the lake.
Exhausted from the swim, Crush crawled up onto the rocky shore, found a flat rock that was bigger than he was, and he rolled over onto his back to watch the clouds in the sky float by. The thin billowy pockets of steam slowly passed, and they formed the face of a being with eyes and a nose as they drifted. Crush could feel the drops of water fall from his robes and hair, and as the water rolled from his body, he had not a care in the world except to watch the magic of the clouds in the sky. Pound scrambled onto the shore on his hands and knees, and he approached Crush as he lay on the ground.
“That was dreadful,” he said to Crush, and the cat-man looked at him with squinted eyes and nodded silently as he rested. Then Pound found a good place to roll over onto his back on the ground, and he too became captivated with the play of the clouds in the sky. There were many images which developed from the clouds, and they relaxed and watched the master painter create new pictures and wipe other ones away on the big blue canvas. One cloud, formed in the shape of a round hay bale, rolled into a face that had begun to fade, and the two merged to form a rabbit’s head. A gray cloud streaked across the sky and through the center of the rabbit’s head to form a sideways cone of vanilla ice cream. Then every part of the white cloud disappeared into a circle again, one that looked like a giant circular timepiece. There was one hour hand on the face, and it ticked slowly at first. Later, the hand wound revolution after revolution, faster and faster until it became a blur. The wind picked up at that moment, and the clock, hand and all, faded into the blue of the sky.
“I think that I could stay here forever,” Crush admitted as he watched the beauty of the heavens from where he was on the ground. Pound tilted his head and looked at him, and he saw the age lines beneath the thin fur that covered his face. Crush had lived many tireless years on earth, and his age was beginning to catch up to him. He hated to disturb his partner from his rest, and so he looked back up at the sky and then closed his eyes. Maybe they could wait for a little while longer before they started walking to . . . and he realized that they really had no compass to guide them. He sighed to himself, but he did not open his eyes. He needed the rest as well as Crush.
“We’ll stay for a little bit,” he conceded and fell asleep to the sound of the water lapping onto the shore.
When Pound opened his eyes again, the sky had dimmed from a bright blue to a thicker blue with an orange tinge that stretched above the forest across the lake. It was beginning to get late, and daylight would soon be gone for the day. If they had intended on completing the quest in one day, they had certainly failed. He looked over to see if Crush was awake yet, and the cat-man was gone. In his place, there stood the owl that had guided them through the treetops and across the lake. The bird looked at him and blinked both eyes once. It was an intelligent creature and seemed to watch and absorb the details as if it were human. The owl then turned its head toward the water, took off over the lake, and circled overhead toward the forest which started at the tree line up the hill from where he now lay. The bird landed in the upper limbs of a tree, and when Pound looked down at the base of the tree where it was perched, he saw Crush standing in his robes at the edge of the woods.
“I guess I have to get up,” he said to himself, and he got to his feet and stretched. He did yawned quietly and bent over to touch his toes. When he was ready to go, he was hesitant to make any noise and draw any unnecessary attention to himself, and he waved his hand back and forth above his head to signal his partner. Crush waved back, but he stayed and waited at the top of the hill. It was time to get moving before darkness set in, and Pound stretched his arms and legs again and then climbed the hill to join his companion. The temperature was falling quickly, and they would need to collect firewood to stay warm that night. While Pound slept, Crush had been busy. He had already found vines, cut them to length, and bound the fibers high up between two trees to form hammocks. That seemed to completely negate the importance of the fire, after all the fire would be on the ground, and they would be suspended in the air.
“Trust me,” Crush reassured him. “The fire will keep us warm, dry us out, and allow us to heat up these stones that I found near the shore. When we climb up into the hammocks to sleep, we’ll have these stones wrapped up in our robes to keep us warm for most of the night.” Pound held one of the stones in his hand, and he lifted it up and down to test the weight.
“That’s pretty heavy. Are you sure those vines can hold each one of us and the stones?” Pound asked with some doubt.
“I made the hammocks,” Crush replied. “They’ll hold.” Pound did not see any point in arguing anymore, and he went about collecting old wood and dry leaves for the fire. When he got back, he unloaded them in the middle of a circle of stones that Crush had laid out on the ground. Then Crush struck two flints together that he had found, and sparks flew freely. Everything was going better than it had earlier in the day, but still, getting the leaves to catch fire proved to be a monumental task. It was half an hour later before the fire was any more than a smolder. Finally, when it was burning well enough that they did not have to tend it persistently, Crush whipped out a can of beans that he had somehow smuggled within the confines of his robe.
“I’m not going to ask where you had those hid, but I’ll take some. Nothing makes a camping trip feel quite right like beans,” Pound replied. His stomach had calmed down from the nausea earlier in the day, and it was rumbling out loud with hunger.
“Yeah, beans are good, and they keep you warm at night, too,” Crush added.
“I’ll take the hammock upwind,” Pound suggested, but he wolfed his half of the beans down in a few bites and laid back against the trunk of a tree. Crush ate slower, and he kept a careful watch at the forest around him.
“Do you think you can talk to these trees?” he asked Pound, who then closed his eyes in deep concentration. A few moments later, he opened his eyes and looked at Crush.
“I’m not getting much. We were lucky to get away in the woods across the lake earlier today,” Pound said to him.
“That does not surprise me to hear. The woods, the water, the ground, they all feel like earth, but I don’t think this is our planet. It could be somewhere in between, but I don’t know precisely,” Crush explained humbly.
“In between,” Pound echoed. “In between where?” Crush shrugged his shoulders and filled his mouth with beans. He did not answer quickly; he seemed to be thinking over what he wanted to say. When he finished the mouthful, he set the can down on the ground and wiped the sauce from his lips.
“I’m not sure,” he said, but Pound was not letting him off with that answer so easily.
“You’re thinking something, but you’re not saying it,” Pound charged him gently. Crush then looked him sternly in the eyes, and he told him what he thought.
“Between earth and paradise.”
Pound laid in the hammock and watched the stars in the sky. It was a beautiful, cold night to be outside; the stars twinkled, the heavens were endless, and the clouds that had played earlier had gone in for the night. If this truly were paradise, he could believe it, but he wondered about the beast that had attacked them across the lake. What was that thing, and how could it be in paradise? The questions kept rolling around in his mind, and there were no answers that he could find out for himself without going back to ask the beast, which seemed like the worst idea he had ever had. The more he thought about it, the more concerned he became that Crush had told him wrong. He looked over from his hammock to Crush’s, and he could hear the cat-man purring. He thought about their conversation some more, and he realized that he had mistaken Crush’s words. Crush did not say that they were in paradise; he had said “between”, and that made more sense to him. If they were between earth and paradise, maybe there could exist beings that were evil. He hoped though that there were more beings of good than ill floating around.
“Maybe I won’t catch a cold here either,” Pound reasoned, and he tried to close off his mind so that he could get some rest. Crush had brought them here to find Sherry Lance, in between earth and paradise, and he wanted to be at the top of his game when they found her. Hopefully, Revalus had not steered them in the wrong direction, though the encounter with the beast in the forest would have qualified as the wrong direction. Now it seemed that the toughest part of their journey may be in finding their way back safely through the forest to the invisible doorway which Revalus had opened without coming across the wild beast. “So much for shutting down my mind for the evening,” he thought, and he pulled the robes in tight. The mystical robe had an unexpected benefit in regards to the environment. He was able to stay warm where the robes covered his body, and it was only the exposed skin that really felt the sting of the cold night air. He rubbed his nose with the sleeve of his robe to try to warm it up, and when he closed his eyes for a moment, he fell asleep.
Crush woke up first as usual, but he did not make any attempt to get out of the hammock too early. The sunset had been colorful the previous evening, and the sunrise was even more gorgeous as the light beamed through the leftover fall leaves that still hung in the trees. He could see the rays of sunlight pierce through the misty air, and he enjoyed the view that he had hanging in the sky between the trees. After all, he had set his bait on the ground, and he expected company to come calling soon. He was actually surprised that it was taking this long to get some attention, but he was willing to wait it out and see if his hunch was correct. He looked over at Pound, who was still sleeping cozily with the robe draped over his face, and then he looked down at the empty can of beans that he had propped against the base of the tree. Crush scanned all around the forest for movement, but there was none. They were alone, and content as he was with the anticipation of the coming meeting, he rested his head back into the fibers of the hammock and waited.
He did not have to wait for long. Before an hour had passed, he heard the sounds of the tramping of heavy footsteps and the crunching of dried leaves coming through the underbrush of the forest, and he sat up in the hammock and watched the can of beans for movement. Though the sounds appeared to get closer, he could not see where the movements were originating. Patiently, he waited as he hunched forward in the hammock, prepared to pounce, and he sniffed the air for clues.
“Ah, there it is,” Crush said to himself with satisfaction. He watched with great pleasure as the sound of the footsteps ceased and the can of beans rolled away from the tree, seemingly of its own free will. Then like magic, the can raised up into the air on its own and ambled back into the underbrush to disappear into the forest. Crush watched and listened for the direction that the can traveled, and he saw it appear one last time at the top of the hill before it vanished over the other side of the high ground. He noted the trees at the top of the hill and marked the spot in his mind.
Crush laid back in his hammock, and he waited for Pound to wake up from his long night’s sleep. After coming so far and through so much, he did not have the heart to ruin the valuable rest that his partner was getting. He knew the direction now, and he could follow the tracks, and that was enough to get them going the right way. Hopefully they would not be eaten for just stopping by to visit. It was acceptable to eat with guests, but it was not acceptable to eat the guests, and he hoped their host had better manners than the first creature that they came across when they arrived.
When Pound awoke, the sun was streaming through the trees, and he wondered what had awakened him. Then he heard the fast, loud, and melodious rhythm of the song that wafted over the morning air. The owl that he and Crush had followed the previous evening had flown away some time during the night, and the tiny birds that hunted for bugs were out and about searching for breakfast.
“Song birds!” he grumbled to himself. When he slapped his hands over his ears and rolled over on his side to block the sounds and sunlight, Pound almost rolled out of the hammock. He dropped his hands back to his sides and grabbed the vines of the hammock in the nick of time. The hammock rolled, and his feet swung down toward the ground while his hands gripped the strong vines that spanned the two trees. Pound dangled by his hands from the vines like a pair of old shoes from a power line.
“Aren’t you a sight this morning? Wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” Crush croaked from the other hammock. “With you hanging there, anybody walking down below can see up your robe, you know,” he commented and carefully stirred around in his own hammock.
“Funny, real funny!” Pound yelled. “Are you going to help a flying nun or not?” He then lifted his legs up to grab the vines and regained his composure. He had had enough of the hammock, and he began to make his way to one of the trees.
“It looks like you’ve got everything under control,” Crush remarked, and he extended his claws and grabbed the vines with both hands. He then quickly scaled the vine uphill to the limb of the tree where it wrapped around tightly. In a few short seconds, he was on the trunk of the tree and waiting for Pound to join him. Pound had a much more difficult time of it, and as the angle of the vine increased upward the closer that he got to the tree, he found the vine became more slippery. His weight peeled away the outer coating and exposed the sap within the fibers. He clung to the vine with both hands and both legs, and he wondered how he had ever climbed out there in the first place. If he could speak to the trees now, he would scream at them for help. But instead, rather than panic, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the vines. He asked the vines to wrap around the limb and lift him up, but the vines did not respond to his call. He concentrated harder, and he finally heard a distant plant’s voice beckon back to him. He recognized it as a flower which bloomed in the underbrush of the forest.
“That’s helpful,” he swore to himself, and he cried out again to Crush. “Dude! I really do need some help here!” Crush bent down to his knees on the thick limb, and he pulled up on the vine to no avail. There was not enough slack in the hammock to get Pound close enough to the limb for him to reach down and pull him up, and Pound could not get a firm enough grip on the slippery vines to climb up any higher. His partner was stuck thirty feet up above the ground with no way to get down. The vines that held the hammock to the two trees across the span were at least fifty feet long. He examined the length of the vines and the distance to the ground, and this gave him an idea.
“Can you climb back to the hammock?” Crush asked him, and Pound tried to move downhill, but his hands were too slick from the sap to get a proper hold. He managed to slide down a few feet closer to the hammock, and when he was as far as he could get, Pound stopped and looked back up at Crush.
“That’s it, buddy. I can’t go any further,” he explained to the cat-man.
“Can you turn around? You know, get your head going the other direction?” Crush asked, and Pound tried to swivel around but with no success.
“Nope. Why?” he asked, and he wished he had known the answer to his question before Crush extended his claws. The cat-man swiped across the vines repeatedly with his sharp fingertips until the fibers snapped in two.
“Oh, crap!” Pound felt his weight fall away, and he held on tight as he swung upside down toward the limb on the other side of the span. His head was traveling toward the ground, and he released the vines and rolled into a human ball that struck the bushes beneath the oak trees. Crush hurriedly climbed down the tree where he was perched, and he ran across the coals of the doused campfire to the bushes where Pound had wrecked in a heap. The robe had not been pierced, and he did not see any blood splattered. Hopefully, the angelic robe had protected him from harm, but he stood over him and waited to see if he was breathing. Pound opened his eyes, and he spit leaves out of his mouth as he rolled over from his back onto his front side. He got to his hands and knees, and then he stood to his feet and brushed off the dirt, sticks, and leaves from his robe.
“Remind me to never go camping with you again,” he told Crush, and he moved all of his muscles to see where he was hurt. To his surprise, he was only bruised on his backside. “You could have warned me at least.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Crush said and chuckled to himself. Pound sighed and shook his head.
“Now that I’m down, where are we headed?”
“Last night, I laid out bait to see what I could catch, and the bait was taken this morning before you woke up,” Crush explained, and a look of worry came across Pound’s face. “We’re okay though. I had a suspicion that I may have been here before, and I think I know who took the bait.”
“It wasn’t that monster that we met across the lake, was it?”
“No, but if I’m right, it’s someone that could be just as dangerous,” Crush continued with a grim frown. “Keep your robe on, and let’s get moving. He left tracks in the forest when he took the bait, and I watched him go over the hill. He doesn’t have more than an hour’s lead on us, so we had better get moving.”
“You should tell me what we’re going up against,” Pound recommended, and Crush whispered into his ear for fear of being overheard. Pound’s eyebrows arched, and his eyes opened wide when Crush described their quarry to him.
“It’s never just a simple matter of taking an address and finding the home of a quaint happy person on the map,” Pound complained to no one in general. “No, we get assignments where we have to use mystical portals with no maps or compasses to get in the neighborhood, and then we have to bait invisible man-eating creatures with trash to get them to show up.”
“That’s why they pay us the big bucks,” Crush reminded him, and Pound sighed again.
“I could use a raise. And not in a hammock.”
For the next couple of hours, the heroes tracked the remnants of their quarry through the forest underbrush, over steep hills, and through muddy valleys until they reached a clearing with a cold, clear stream in one of the valleys. Pound followed his partner through the thickets surrounding the clearing, and Crush stopped suddenly and held back his hand to stop him going any farther. Crush crouched down under the shade of a bush, and he pulled Pound down with him so that they would not be seen. The cat-man held a finger to his lips to indicate silence, and Pound nodded that he understood. Crush then stood up slightly on his tiptoes from the crouching position to see over the bushes, and a voice echoed between the trees and rocky hills of the valley. The voice was of a lady, and she was singing a song as she knelt next to a stream which meandered through the base of the valley. The more Crush and Pound listened to the happy song, the more they recognized the tone. It belonged to Sherry Lance. She was washing her hair in the cold water of the stream, and she was alone. Crush motioned for Pound to follow him, and they marched along the streamside to within twenty feet of the lady.
“Hello,” Crush announced, and the lady was so startled that she lost her balance on her knees and fell onto her side on the bank. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you, Sherry.” She crawled back away from them on her hands and feet, and she shook her head in disagreement.
“No! No one else is supposed to know who I am,” she countered, and she ran up a rocky trail to get away from them. Crush and Pound took off after her, and they were easily able to keep up with her as they watched her long, wet hair disappear over the hillside as it swung back and forth from her head like a pendulum.
“She didn’t recognize us!” Pound yelled out.
“No, she didn’t. It must be these robes!” Crush agreed excitedly. “They’re disguising us from everyone!” When they topped the hill, a mighty roar boomed at them, and a giant black bear blocked their path. It stood on its hind legs with its front paws reaching out overhead and snarled at them with its long, sharp teeth bared. They were both surprised, for this was the demon-swallowing bear of legend. Crush tripped and tumbled forward at the feet of the Bear, and Pound fell backward onto the rocks to rest on his bruised behind. Spit flew from the Bear’s mouth and dripped onto Crush’s shoe, and he backed up on his hands and feet like a crab to get away from the creature.
“Hey, don’t you recognize Figgus and Branchus from Stratus?” Crush asked the scary beast, and the Bear leaned forward and landed on its four paws only inches from Crush’s feet. The Bear stretched its neck out and sniffed Crush’s robes with its big wet nose.
“All I smell is digested beans,” the Bear said as it continued to sniff his shoes. “I know Figgus and Branchus quite well, and neither of you are them. You know how I know?”
Crush shook his head, no. His eyes bulged so large, they almost popped out of the sockets.
“They don’t like beans, the methane doesn’t mix well with the heavenly fire. Gives them propulsion at the worst possible time. If you were real friends to me like they are, you would have left something for me in the bottom of the can last night. You licked it completely clean before I could get to it.” Sherry’s head popped up from behind the Bear, and she watched as the two men squirmed at the animal’s feet.
“You’re right. Where are my manners,” Crush admitted nervously, and he looked down at the ground as if he might suddenly find them there. It was obvious that he was afraid of the bear, and why shouldn’t he be? “We have met once before though. I ended up in this forest by accident, and I was followed by a magical creature that was trying to kill me. You were the Bear that saved my life. Remember?” The Bear sniffed him over, and its nose stopped over the lump on his chest where the amulet rested beneath his robe. The Bear then opened its mouth wide and roared in Crush’s face, and Crush crouched and his cat ears bent down low.
“All I smell, over the odor of methane, is evil,” the bear declared, and a bead of sweat rolled down the short fur on Crush’s forehead.
“You’re smelling the amulet that was sent with me by my employer,” Crush explained. “He said that he wanted me to wear it, that’s all.” The Bear sensed that Crush was telling the truth, but that did not make him any less menacing. Then Sherry touched the back of the Bear’s head and gently stroked its fur.
“Please don’t hurt them. They seem familiar to me,” Sherry said in a calm soothing voice. Crush was at the Bear’s immediate mercy, but Pound remained several feet away and watched the events unfold nervously. To hold Crush to the ground, the bear placed one paw on the slack in his robe, and he turned his head to observe Pound with his full black eyes.
“I haven’t had a nice campfire meal in a while, so nothing would please me more than a belly full of beans,” the Bear said and licked his mouth. “But you two would give me heartburn,” he declared, lifted his paw from Crush’s robe, and backed away a few feet to give him some distance. The animal brooded and was no less frightening, but Crush was thankful for the breathing space. Sherry stepped into the gap and offered Crush her hand. He grabbed it, and she helped him to his feet. Pound stood up cautiously as well and kept a safe distance from the Bear, who lingered behind her. There was some hesitation, and Crush fingered the necklace for a few seconds, thinking about whether he was doing the right thing or not. There was an inner turmoil showing on his face, and Crush swallowed a big gulp of air. Then he pulled out the amulet from beneath his robes, and he let it fall to his chest for everyone to see.
“Is this what you were worried about?” he asked the Bear, and it lowered its nose to the ground and snarled at him with clenched jaws. Drool collected around its yellow teeth and dripped out on the ground.
“I don’t know who you are, but you are really testing my resolve,” the Bear seethed.
“I am an old friend of Sherry’s,” Crush explained. He then pulled Sherry closer to him and stepped between her and the Bear. He reached into his robe and pulled out another full can of beans, and he offered it to the Bear. “I was thinking that maybe you would be up for a trade. This fresh can of beans for Sherry. Straight up.” The eye inside of the amulet swirled in a circle and then fixated on the Bear. The Bear sniffed the ground and then raised its nose up into the air, as if it were smelling the can to see if the contents were really inside. The can was not open, and Crush set it on the ground and started to back away, making sure to keep Sherry behind him. The Bear hovered around the can of beans, and it turned all of its attention to getting into the can. They all kept backing away from the Bear, and when it had turned its rear around, Crush grabbed Sherry’s hand and started running. Sherry seemed a bit confused, and she tried to pull against him to slow him down.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“You’re coming with us,” Crush explained hurriedly. “We don’t have much time. When he finds out that can is empty, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
“Oh,” she said, and she started running with him again. “Okay, I’ll come with you, but where are you taking me?”
“To earth,” Pound said. But he said it a little too loudly, and the Bear overheard him and snapped its head around. The Bear then stood on its hind legs and lifted its paws in the air. To describe it the way they saw it: the Bear was a black goliath. An earth-shaking roar came out of its huge, angry mouth, and they all ran that much faster.
“Great! You couldn’t just be subtle, could you?!” Crush shouted at his partner. Pound grabbed Sherry’s hand (she had let go when the Bear roared), and he pulled her with him as they ran down the hill to get away from the Bear.
“I was being subtle!” Pound answered when he caught up to Crush.
“If we make it back alive, remind me to kill you!” Crush said as he jumped over a bush. The Bear had topped the hill and was only a few steps behind them as they raced down the other side.
“I know he sounds ferocious, but he’s really just a big teddy bear,” Sherry said, sounding almost as innocent as a child. If she really believed that were true, then Pound wondered why she was still running with them. Apparently, she had reason to feel differently about the Bear, but was afraid to voice her opinion. Sometimes that was the case when the victim began to empathize with the captor. She kept running though, just not quite fast enough to keep up. Whenever she slowed down, Pound pulled her through the forest at full speed.
“He’s not always so gentle,” Crush said to her. He did not have the time to stop and explain what he had witnessed the Bear do before to one of its enemies. Nor did he have the breath. They were running full out to get away from the Bear, and he needed his lung power just to breathe. He came to a narrow valley, and he leaped over a stream with one jump. Pound was running as hard as he could and was barely keeping up with Crush. When he reached the stream, he jumped from stone to stone and nearly pulled Sherry’s arm out of her shoulder socket to get her across. In the meantime, the Bear was a speeding mass of fur and fat, and it stumbled down the hill and rolled into a tree where it stopped and dizzily shook its head. It was just a temporary setback for the Bear, but it gave Crush, Pound, and Sherry the time that they needed to climb up the next hill and disappear over the ridge and out of the Bear’s sight.
“Exactly how do you plan to get across the lake and then past the other creature with the huge snout!!” Pound shouted at Crush as they hurdled downhill and over the smaller bushes. There was no fear of talking too loud and exposing themselves at this point; the damage was already done.
“I haven’t gotten that far yet! I’m still thinking about the beans!” Crush yelled as he passed between two large oaks.
“Your mind is on food?!! How can you possibly be thinking about food at a time like this?!!!”
“It’s hard to plan when you’re hungry!” Crush said as he dipped between two trees.
“There’s a very large, man-eating Bear chasing us! He’s hungry, too!! We need a plan!” Pound yelled back at him. At that very moment, they broke out of the woods and came out onto the shore of the lake.
“Can you swim?” Crush asked Sherry quickly, and she nodded.
“Well, sure. I can swim quite well,” she admitted but backed away from the water.
“We’re not doing that again, are we? I just dried out!” Pound remarked, but Crush was already knee deep in the lake. He turned and saw the Bear in the woods galloping full speed down the hill. There was not much time left to make a decision, and Sherry seemed reluctant to get near the water.
“There’s another way around the bend,” Sherry pointed down the shore line. “The shore wraps around there and surrounds the lake, joining the land together at the perimeter.” Crush wasted no time getting out of the muddy water and taking her hand. They trusted her judgment, and they bolted out across the rocky shore. Pound followed at their heels, watching his back for the Bear. When they made the turn at the bend of the lake, the Bear shot out of the woods and onto the shore. It sniffed the air and caught their scent to follow them alongside the shore. They kept their lead on the Bear, and even extended it by a few yards. In a short while, they rounded the lake, and the body of water was between them and the Bear. That did stop the big burly monster from trying to get Sherry back. The Bear continued to chase them around the perimeter. For the moment, the Bear was out of their sight, and they had reached the forest on the other side of the lake. Crush stopped at the edge of the forest, and he held out his arm for Pound to stop, too. The cat-man did not like the looks of the woods on this side.
“Something tells me that we’ve reached the extent of the Bear’s territory,” the cat-man said as he paced back and forth in front of the trees. He let go of Sherry’s hand, and he kept careful watch all around him for any signs of movement. Sherry seemed to be unphased by any of the events, almost as if there were something different about her beneath the surface. When Pound finally got the chance, he caught up to her and stood beside her. Since they had reunited that morning, he had not had much time to think about her actually being alive. Now that he was next to her, the urge to talk to her, to find out how she was doing, was very strong, though he knew that the angelic robes would not allow her to recognize him. The robes were doing their job in concealing their true identities, and for the time being, it was better to keep things that way.
“You seem to be friends with the Bear. Is that right?” he asked, and Sherry looked at him with a quaint smile and bright eyes.
“Yes, he is my friend,” she replied as they walked along the shore. A roar like thunder sounded behind them in the distance, and they all turned to watch as the Bear appeared to reach an invisible border that he could not pass. He stood on his hind legs and reached for the sky with his front paws as if waving for them to return, and Pound shook his head.
“No way, buddy. I don’t care what lies ahead, we are not going back,” Pound said with a return wave of his hand.
“He means no harm to those whom he deems righteous,” Sherry defended.
“You don’t even know who we are, and yet you’re leaving him behind,” Pound replied, and Crush agreed.
“I was due for a change of station,” she said as she stared ashamedly at the ground ahead of her. “I am not as righteous as I should be,” she admitted, but she stayed with them regardless as the Bear vanished in the distance with only the echoes of his beckoning roar sounding over the lake. Pound suddenly felt regret for putting her on the spot about leaving the Bear, and he thought quickly of changing the subject.
“Listen, when we were out here earlier, a huge creature lurked in the shadows of the forest, and it almost made dinner out of us,” Pound said as he cast his eyes warily around the nearby woods.
“Yeah, everything here tries to eat us,” Crush said jokingly to Sherry. “You’re not going to try that, are you?” Sherry cut her eyes to Pound.
“To eat you? No, I would not try,” she said with a devious grin, and Pound felt relieved that the tension between the two was broken at last.
Crush thought about her answer, and while he was truly happy that they had found her after so much searching, he was not reassured by how she answered.
Two hours later, they had come to the base of the same tree where they had arrived after entering the “Bear Ward”. There was no sign of the mysterious and evil creature that had chased them into the trees at the start, and they were thankful for that much. Crush searched the immediate area for the invisible door, and after their earlier experience with worms, he made sure not to touch the bark of any of the trees.
“Do you see the door anywhere?” Crush whispered to Pound.
“No,” Pound said with irritation. “When we get back to Baltimore, I’m going to pluck Revalus’ feathers for this!”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to get us lost. In the end, we did find Sherry, and that’s what counts,” Crush said.
“You’re a boar,” Sherry said oddly out of the blue.
“What?” Pound replied as if caught completely off guard by the comment.
“That’s a nice thing to say, after all that we’ve been through,” Crush told her, and he noticed that Sherry was not looking at either of them. She was looking out into the woods. Crush and Pound followed her gaze to a large dark shape that stood between two trees. At first glance, the object appeared to be a stone with blades of grass growing out of the top and sides. The more that they looked at it, the more the blades of grass appeared to move, though there was no wind cutting through the woods. There were two unique white spikes which protruded upward at the bottom center of the object, but otherwise, it was too dark to make out any physical details. Then suddenly, two white dots appeared, one behind each of the white spikes, and Crush understood. Sherry had not been talking about them when she said “boar”; she had been talking about the creature who had tried to eat them the previous day. The same creature was here and staring at them from the forest floor.
“Crush! Where is the door?!” Pound asked urgently, and Crush started stumbling around the area like a blind man with his hands out in front of him and feeling the empty space of the woods desperately for an opening. The beast stood up from the ground on all fours, and it snorted and lowered its head. Then it scratched the ground with one front hoof, and the creature ran at them from the shadows. The creature was on them in seconds, and they were so stunned that they all froze in place as the tusks gleamed in its open mouth. Pound prayed one last quick prayer before the massive wild hog could bowl over him, and he closed his eyes as he waited for the end to come. No man can predict his own death, but in his wildest dreams, he would never have imagined that he would have been killed by a giant talking boar. The boar was so close that they could see the red lines of its bloodshot eyes when it was suddenly turned aside. Dirt and mud flew as the boar rolled over with a large ball of black fuzz covering its belly. The fuzz raised its head and roared, and then ripped at the boar with its claws. It was the Bear!
Crush immediately snapped out of it, and he started feeling around again for the invisible door. When his hand finally disappeared in midair, he shouted to Pound and Sherry that he had found it. Crush went first, followed by Sherry, and then Pound.
The Bear and the boar battled intensely with fur flying everywhere, and the Bear managed to get on top of the enemy’s back with his front claws on either side of the boar’s head. As the boar reared up on its hind legs and squealed with anger, the Bear saw Crush, Pound, and Sherry vanish into the air, and he quickly let go of the enraged creature’s head and dismounted.
“You’re not supposed to be in my den, Bear!” the angry hog screamed and spit a mouthful of slobber on the ground. The Bear ignored the boar’s protests and ran after them without answering, and the boar scratched the ground with his hooves as he prepared to dash after him. The Bear then galloped away from the boar at full speed and headed for the invisible door. The boar never even got the chance to chase the Bear, because when the Bear passed between the two oak trees, he vanished through the invisible doorway, too. With drool dripping from his tusks, the boar threw his nose into the air and snorted. “And stay out!!” He then circled the ground twice where he had been sitting comfortably before in the shade and plopped down on his belly with a grunt. “I was looking forward to eating a bear claw.”
When Crush and Pound entered the white space through the “Bear Ward” door, they each grabbed Sherry by the hand, and they pulled her as they ran toward nothing in particular. The horizon was clear in every direction, and they hoped they would find their way out of this place and back to earth before anyone could follow them. It was no surprise to them when they heard the roar of the Bear coming from the doorway, and they hurriedly looked for a way out. Miraculously, Captain Noggin appeared before them, and they skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Figgus and Branchus, you know that you’re not supposed to transport others through here,” Noggin said as he took notice of Sherry. “Rules are rules,” he continued and started to reach out a hand for her. With the Bear close behind, they could ill afford to wait for an inspection, and Crush grabbed her and darted sideways into the “Eye Ward”. Pound stood there alone with an empty expression and looked at Captain Noggin in the quiet of white space. The Bear then roared again as it drew near, and for lack of any better choice, Pound darted into the “Eye Ward” with his companions.
“Oh my, I wish they hadn’t done that,” Noggin said, and he turned to look at the charging Bear that stormed his way. When the Bear stopped in front of the “Eye Ward” sign, Noggin reached out a hand to rest on the Bear’s mighty shoulder. “There have been enough rules broken today, my friend. You may not follow them,” he declared, stepped between the doorway and the Bear, and crossed his arms.
“I don’t need to follow,” the Bear replied and stood up on his hind legs. The beast towered over Captain Noggin, but Noggin kept his post. Then the Bear reached into his fur with a claw as if he were digging into a deep pocket, and he pulled something out in a closed fist. He opened it, and a small creature about the size of a hummingbird buzzed out, flew around Captain Noggin, and scooted through the “Eye Ward” door. Disgusted, Captain Noggin threw his hands up in surrender. The Bear then turned and went back to his own door and stopped.
“It was just a badgerfly,” the Bear told Noggin before he disappeared into the passageway.
“What is a badgerfly, I wonder?” Captain Noggin said to himself and walked back to his desk.
The cold air seeped through the gap between the stone and the wall at the opening of the tunnel. Deep inside the cave, the fire that had burned all night was reduced to lukewarm coals, and the inside of the cave was empty. The night before had been wrought with anger and destruction on the mountainside, and Lord Felino arrived early that morning to reassure the visitors that there was nothing to fear from him. They would be safe in his domain as long as they chose to remain in the guest home which he had prepared for them in the cave, but when he had arrived at sunrise, he had found a hole large enough for a human to crawl through to the outside and escape. He rolled the stone away and checked inside only to confirm his fears.
“I should have been more careful,” Felino told himself as he kicked the coals of the fire and seethed in fury. It very well could have been his own fault that the stone had moved the previous night. He had been highly agitated, and when he was upset, he tended to shake things up a bit. With all of the commotion, he must have scared his guests, and who could blame them for wanting to leave? “They cannot go far in this weather,” he reassured himself, and he stormed up the tunnel where Pueblo was waiting at the entrance. The big cat was relaxed on the cold stone floor and grooming his fur with his tongue when Felino stomped the ground next to the animal. “Get up! You need to track our guests today.” He leaned down and scratched the lion’s head gently to let him know that he was not angry with him. “Find them, and bring them back!” he commanded, and Pueblo stood up and stretched his legs and yawned. When he was sufficiently stretched, the big cat turned and trotted out of the safety of the overhang and into the falling snow. Felino followed him out to the edge of the overhang, and he watched the lion follow the tracks made in the snow by the visitors. They would not get far in this storm, and it would only be a matter of time before they were brought back to the cave safe and sound, minus a little frostbite and cat bite. The next time he locked them up, he would make sure that the stone would not move unless absolutely necessary.
Seth led the way like a mountain goat around the narrow ledges of the mountainside, and Dr. Tatum and Steven had their fair share of trouble trying to follow him without falling to their death in the rocks below. They were at least seven thousand feet above sea level, and breathing the thin air made the climb that much more difficult. They had gone at least five miles from the cave that night, and they needed to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Lord Felino before the early morning visit to the cave by their captor. They had watched the mountains tremble with the rumbling outside during the night, and the stone that locked them away had moved from its resting spot at the cave entrance. There was just enough room in the gap for each of them to slip through to the outdoors, and they knew that they may never get another chance to escape like that again. One by one, they slipped out of the cave and into the snow in the cold winter’s night. The leather coats that Lord Felino had supplied them kept them warm, and they had wrapped leather around their feet and shoes to protect them from the moisture in the freezing weather. Still, the snow was soft and deep, and their feet crunched through twelve inches or more with each step. The act of hiking helped to keep their body temperatures up in the whipping winds, but sweat from the effort was building up on their skin beneath their coats, evaporating from their pores and cooling their bodies when they stopped for breaks.
When Seth looked back at the winding ledge where they had trudged for miles, he was amazed that they had been as successful at traveling in the snowstorm as they were. Their journey had carried them through the deserted village at the base of Lord Felino’s domain, and when their curiosity overcame them, they had stopped to look inside one of the teepees. They had gasped at what they had found, and they wished they had not trespassed inside. Seth remembered the look of the human bones stacked in the corner of the tent, broken and separated at the joints, none held together to form a skeleton. They quickly discerned the fate of the village, and they wasted no time hiking the narrow path through to the other side. Then when he looked ahead at where they were going, his heart sank into his stomach. There was nothing but mountains and snow for as far as he could see, and if they were going to live, they would somehow have to hike through the entirety of it all to find civilization somewhere on the other side. He knew that they were headed in the right direction toward the California coast by following the stars that he had witnessed in the sky between passing cloud banks on the previous night. Still, a long journey lay ahead of them, and he was uncertain at the outcome. In a manner, he felt the way that the cross country settlers must have felt when they crossed the entire country to mine for gold in 1849. Some had died, but others had survived the journey, and Seth hoped that one day he would be able to proclaim the same thing about Dr. Tatum and himself. That they had hiked the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter and had survived to tell about it. Quite a tale it would be.
The steam from his breath heated the tip of his nose with a light mist, and then the mist froze on his nose. He looked out across the many miles of ridges and valleys, and he thought that there might be a chance the tale would never be told. As a trained digger of artifacts himself, Seth believed that if they left a large enough trail behind, some young explorer with a thesis to publish would tackle the task of evaluating their demise. The title could read, “Tale of Desperation in the Sierra Nevadas”. Or more likely, it would read, “Inferior Homo Sapiens Leave Warm Cave and Die.” The voice of reason should have been heeded.
“This is the stupidest thing we could have done!” Steven said from his place in the rear of the march. His leather coat was covered in a thick layer of snow, and he was shivering. “We’ll never make it! You even said it yourself in the cave,” he told Dr. Tatum who was three steps ahead of him. To her credit, Dr. Tatum did not argue with the STUN agent; she simply kept following Seth and marching around the edges of the mountains. She had effectively learned to tune out the outbursts from the third member of their small party, though the colder that she felt from the bitterness of the weather, the more difficult it had become to do. Unable to take any more of his verbal abuse, she whipped around and held her fist angrily in the air.
“Will you please shut up!” she gritted her teeth in a loud whisper. “If for no other reason than to prevent an avalanche, be quiet!” They had listened to him complain for the last mile of the march, and the negativity was grating on both of their nerves. Dr. Tatum spun back around and stomped up the narrow hill behind Seth, and she flexed her fists open and closed in a nervous bout of annoyance.
“Perhaps the thesis would be titled, ‘Murder at Seven Thousand Feet’,” Seth thought to himself as he marched ahead in the snow. He saw a rocky outcropping ahead, and he decided to take a break under the shelter to rest his weary leg muscles from the relentless climbing. Steven dragged himself in next and shook the snow from his coat onto the dirt floor while Dr. Tatum stood outside in the weather, keeping a careful watch on the trail behind them. Seth rubbed his hands together to produce friction and heat, and then he placed his fingers over his mouth to catch the warm exhalations from his lungs. He had not appreciated just how cold his hands had gotten until he realized that he could not feel his fingertips. Their situation was dire at best, and he did not know how they could continue without using the magic of the charm that Dr. Tatum wore around her neck.
“The charm is what got us into this mess,” she had explained to him earlier. “If we use its magic recklessly again, there will be consequences that neither of us can predict.”
“I can predict the consequences of not using it,” Seth had replied, and she knew exactly what he meant when she saw the unending miles of white wilderness that was laid out before her. Dr. Tatum acknowledged his concerns with a quiet nod of her head. Still, she refused to get out the charm and practice the incantations unless it was a life or death situation. Now that Steven was antagonizing her with every step, Seth was very sure that Dr. Tatum would stubbornly leave the magic alone until they needed to hide from Felino and the mountain lions. The wind picked up suddenly, and Dr. Tatum stepped down shivering into the hollow with them. Seth reached out to her, and he hugged her close in his arms to share his own warmth with her. Feeling awkward, Steven looked away and moved further from them to give them space. Dr. Tatum smiled quaintly, and when she had recovered from the cold chills and goose bumps, she gently removed his arms from around her and slipped away to be alone at the outer edge of the stone covering. She was still in hearing distance, and Steven used it to his advantage.
“I didn’t know you two were love birds,” Steven commented smugly. “I should have figured as much.”
“Love birds? Seth and I are both single and have a mutual respect for one another. That’s all,” Dr. Tatum snapped back. “I can’t say the same for you.”
“Yeah, I agree. You need to earn my respect,” Steven replied with his arms crossed. “If you had the least amount of respect for yourself or either of us, you would use the charm to get us from one shelter to the next without freezing to death.” Dr. Tatum listened to his complaint, and with her fingers freezing, she had to admit that he made a good suggestion. It was true that the weather, temperature, and humidity had not bothered them while they were under the magic’s spell. In fact, if they held hands together in a line, their hands might warm up, and they could potentially walk in a straight line out from one mountain ledge to another, saving hours or days of hiking in the severe weather.
“Don’t let it go to your head, but you may be right that we will have to use the charm to escape eventually. The danger involved could be more treacherous than facing Lord Felino and his three mountain lions though,” she explained. “Tell me, what do you think would happen if we just walked out into empty space with the charm and one of us lost the hand hold on the others? We have seen it before, Steven, when your partner fell from the airplane, remember?” she reminded him. Steven bristled at the critique, and his eyes narrowed with the flare of his temper.
“I remember what happened quite clearly,” Steven noted with a pointed finger. “I lost a friend because of it. But I still say we should try to put some extra distance between us and Felino before the sun sets this evening.” Seth decided to play the voice of reason between the two debaters, and he spoke up before another word could be uttered by either Dr. Tatum or Steven.
“Let’s suppose for the sake of more argument that we used the charm to walk across to another mountainside,” he proposed as he walked out into the snow and looked around at the mountains. “There,” he said and pointed to a dark spot that surely symbolized a cave on an adjacent mountainside. “There is a hollow with only a narrow ledge to lead into it. If we were in that hole, there would be hardly any way for anyone to get to us easily. We could spend the night there without fear of an ambush during the night. It would just be using the magic once to get us across.” Dr. Tatum considered his suggestion broodingly, and she crossed her arms as she thought.
“It would mean risking our lives to get across. One or all of us could die trying,” Dr. Tatum pointed out. Seth was undeterred, and he was thankful that Steven kept his mouth shut while he discussed the matter reasonably with her.
“It wasn’t just the wind and weather making that noise last night. I heard that monster outside of the cave, and I know that we don’t stand a chance against it without some kind of advantage,” Seth reasoned, and Dr. Tatum listened politely and did not interrupt. “We have put some distance between ourselves and Felino, but if we stay right here in this shelter tonight, the lions will follow our footsteps and find us, and I shudder to think about the outcome.”
“The outcome would be a Dr. Tatum housecoat, I would imagine,” Steven interrupted, and he felt the gift of the soft leather coat which Felino had presented to him between his fingertips as if to make his case. “We passed through the village down below the cave where he held us, and we never saw any living signs of inhabitants, only bones. Who is to say that Felino and his lions didn’t kill all of the people in the village, hmm?” It was a bold claim, for there was no living proof that Lord Felino had done anything wrong except confine them to the cave when he felt it necessary. It was also hard to ignore the way the human bones had been stacked in a pile in the teepee. Not very different from the way a dog might pile up his favorite bones in his doghouse.
“Based on the lack of evidence, we can’t say that anything bad is going to happen to us if Felino finds us here tonight. In fact, one of the lions may have helped Seth recover from his injuries,” Dr. Tatum explained.
“Injuries that the lion gave me,” Seth contended, and Dr. Tatum uncrossed her arms as she admitted a level of defeat in her argument. She looked across the gulf which separated the two mountains, and she seemed to measure the distance across in her head.
“That cave?” she said as she pointed her hand in the direction of the adjacent mountaintop.
“Yes, that cave,” Seth agreed and held his hand out to her, and she took it. He then reached his other hand back to Steven, and they were joined in one chain of hope.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Dr. Tatum muttered under her breath as she pulled the charm out from beneath her coat and gripped it tightly in her hand. As the snow fell steadily on the mountainside, the three agents disappeared, leaving only their footprints heading into the shallow outcropping of rocks for Felino to find.
Halfway across the distance from one mountainside to another, Dr. Tatum stopped and looked down into the ravine that wound its way through the valley below. The distance to the bottom of the valley was too great for her, and she felt the sudden lift in her stomach that only came to her with the fear of heights.
“What’s wrong? Why are we stopping?” Steven asked behind her, but she did not answer. She had had enough of the pessimism in his questions and observations, and she took another step forward to try to end the conversation before it got started. She squeezed Seth’s hand tight to let him know that she was fine, and he kept on moving behind her as if nothing had happened.
“We’re almost there,” Seth encouraged her, and the short line of people steadily walked across the sky. If anyone could have seen them from the ground, they would have mistaken them for angels who could defy gravity. But Seth and Dr. Tatum knew better. They were only three regular humans who were freezing cold, starving to death, and desperate to escape captivity.
They had moved about a hundred feet closer to the other side when they noticed that the hollow in the side of the mountain was not at the same level as they were. In fact, the cave was about thirty feet below the space they occupied now. Seth noticed the discrepancy in height first, and he thought that when they got to the other side, they may have to make a dangerous choice between climbing down the steep embankment manually or taking a chance with the charm’s magic by letting go of it and dropping straight down thirty feet. In his mind, neither choice was a good option, but there would be no way that they could survive the night outside in the elements. They needed the convenience and safety of the shelter, and they knew no other way to move down vertically without letting go of the charm. The closer that they moved to their destination, the more apparent it became that the difference in height was a real problem.
“Doc, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it . . .” Seth started.
“Yeah, I see it,” Dr. Tatum replied.
“We’re too high in the air to get where we need to be,” Steven commented. “Figures,” he added with a huff.
“We’ll have to try to get lower like we did from the plane,” Dr. Tatum said as she ignored Steven’s comments.
“I hope you don’t plan on letting go of the charm so that we fall again. That’s a poor choice, if you ask me,” Steven said, even though they had not yet got around to asking for his opinion. Dr. Tatum stopped moving in midair, and she turned around to look at both of them.
“If you have a better idea, then I am open to suggestions,” she said and waited for an answer. Seth was troublingly quiet, as if he would have liked to come up with a solution, but none came to his mind. Steven was the one who spoke up instead.
“You see those trees growing out of the mountainside,” he said and pointed at the short evergreen trees that jutted out of the side of the mountain. Seth and Dr. Tatum looked and found where he was pointing, and they nodded agreeably. “Now, you see how the trees continue from there all the way down alongside the cave. If we can walk over to the trees, I can grab the limbs with my free hand and pull us down together in a line. It will take some time and effort, but I think we can do it.” Seth and Dr. Tatum looked at each other for other ideas, and neither seemed to signal to each other that Steven’s idea was ill-conceived.
“That sounds like a plan to me,” Seth replied.
“I agree,” Dr. Tatum said.
“Good, then let’s finish this sky walk. I’m starting to get dizzy from the heights,” Steven told them. When they started walking this time, Steven made larger steps as he passed Seth and pulled him forward so that they all walked side-by-side. Their pace quickened, and soon they had reached the trees on the mountainside. Steven reached out with his free hand and tugged the branches of the tree toward himself, and the branches refused to move while his own body pulled closer to the tree. This motion of his body had the effect that they intended. Steven pulled Seth and Dr. Tatum with him as he climbed down the tree. When he reached the bottom, he ran out of limbs to pull, and he grabbed onto a rock that jutted out of the mountain. Steven flexed his biceps and fingertips, and he moved closer to the mountainside. Rock after rock, he climbed down until he reached the top of the next tree which he descended in the same manner as before. He went in this way until they had reached the last tree which stood fifteen feet horizontally outward from the cave entrance. The plan had worked quite well, but they needed to go sideways to finally reach their destination. Steven then reached out and grabbed a rock to pull toward the cave. When he did, he accidentally released Seth’s hand, and gravity immediately affected his body. The STUN agent’s body dragged downward, and he hung by one hand on the cliff side. He tried to reach up with his other hand to get a better hold, but there was nowhere for his other fingertips to gain purchase.
Desperate to help him, Seth leaned down on his hands and knees, but he still could not reach Steven from where they were in space. He then inched closer to the cliff wall and used his free hand to pull his body downward. That seemed to do the job of moving them nearer to Steven, but he was still out of reach. It would take several swipes of his arm to get them where they could reach him, and Steven’s fingertips were slipping from the stone. If they were not careful, they would inadvertently push themselves down onto his head or shoulders, and Steven would fall from the extra load. Additionally, Steven could not see them since they were under the spell of the charm’s magic, and he would not even know how to reach out to them when they were near.
Despite the danger of the outcome, there was no time to waste. Seth briskly swiped his free hand along the rock wall twice and bumped Steven’s head in the process. Steven’s delicate hold on the rock slipped away, and he started to fall. Seth took one last reach at Steven with his free hand and caught the middle finger of the STUN agent’s hand in his grip, and he held tightly on the digit. The eager attempt had succeeded, and instead of being invisible, Steven was able to see the other two members of the small party again.
“What were you waiting for?!” Steven exclaimed at Seth. “I could have fallen!” Seth had not expected such an outburst from the man, especially after saving his life, but he took it in stride.
“I was waiting for you to give me the finger, and I wasn’t let down,” Seth replied. “We’re only a few feet away now, so let’s just keep moving, okay?” Steven returned a fierce gaze of ingratitude, but he knew that Seth was correct. The STUN agent lifted the rest of the fingers on the hand that Seth was holding, and Seth managed to get a grip on them without letting go of Steven’s middle finger. When Steven was content that they were connected hand-to-hand in the best manner possible to allow him to tug the others without the risk of losing his own grip on Seth again, he turned his attention back to climbing. With his free hand, he grabbed an icy outcropping of rock and drew them all toward the cave. He did this repetitive motion repeatedly until they were all within reach of the lip of the cave. The cave itself had the side profile of a human mouth with an extreme overbite, and when Steven had climbed onto the lower jaw, he immediately released Seth’s hand and walked into the shadows of the cave. Seth then hooked a foot behind a rock and dragged Dr. Tatum within the confines of the yawning mouth where she released the charm from her grasp and fell three feet to the dirt floor. To break her fall, she rolled to a stop from her feet onto her back where she lay for a moment to relax. The stress of using the magic had made her hold the charm so tightly in her hand that her fingers were locked in a fist, and it was only after opening and closing them several times that the feeling began to return to her fingertips.
“That was not fun,” she whispered to herself as she lay there on the cave floor and watched the movement return to her hand. She did not consider that she was being watched nor overheard.
“You’re telling me,” Steven said as he sat down and slouched in a dark corner of the back wall. “I hope you guys can come up with a better idea the next time. This last one nearly cost me my life.”
“It was you two guys that pushed this idea, and I warned you that using the magic was dangerous,” Dr. Tatum reminded him.
“No more dangerous than being captured again by Lord Felino,” Seth warned them both, and the argument seemed to lose momentum before it had a chance to escalate. He then started rummaging through everything that was in the cavern in search for kindling to build a fire. It seemed like a bad idea to Dr. Tatum, but even she had to admit that they were subject to the weather and freezing again without the use of the magic charm. With some luck, they were able to find several piles of stray leaves that had blown in over the years, and these would make good kindling. Seth then talked Dr. Tatum into using the magic to go out and find firewood while they searched for more kindling, and though she put up a weak argument about it, even she was glad to be protected from the extreme weather by the sorcery. She brought back many branches and dead limbs of the scrub trees and shrubs which grew along the steep outer walls, and they had enough wood for an adequate fire that night. After striking flints together repeatedly, Seth mastered starting a fire, and they all sat around the small blaze with their palms pointed at the warmth of the flames. They were exhausted from the long hike, and they each laid down on the most comfortable place that they could find on the hard, cold rocks.
Steven was the last one to fall asleep. Across the fire, he found himself staring at the ceiling, and he placed his hand on the satellite phone which he kept in the secret pocket that lay hidden in the lining of his suit. Maybe he would not die out here in the wilderness with them.
As the snow continued to fall, Lord Felino carefully turned sideways on the narrow ledge, and with his back against the cliff wall, he scooted across the tracks that had been left behind. Pueblo, Cherokee, and Blackfoot carefully followed behind him in single file, and the path widened as it wound up the hill. They came to a stop at an opening in the rocks, and they examined the inside of the natural shelter for clues. There were footprints outlined with bits of snow, but otherwise the cave was empty. On the outside, there were three sets of footprints that entered the cave from the trail, and many footprints crowded around the front of the cave, yet there were none that led away. Lord Felino stared at the tracks, and he wondered if they had backtracked their steps to fool him, but he did not think so. It was too difficult to cover up the depth of their tracks without making a mess of the snow and creating other evidence to follow in the process. He looked down the cliff in front of him to see if they had foolishly jumped, and he did not see any bodies below. He climbed around so that he could see above the cave, and there were no tracks leading up there and no simple ledges to climb on.
Felino was puzzled by their disappearance, and his big cats were unable to give him any clues either. It was no matter; he would use his own powers to locate them in the wilderness. He held out his open hand in the air, and the circle that was in his palm glowed with a warm light as he scanned the area carefully. He started by directing his energy down the trail where he had come, and there was nothing. He then turned toward the cave which lay in front of him, and there was nothing still. He scanned the rocks leading upward, but there was no sensation or tingling that alerted him to their presence. He held out his hand below, and still nothing. Felino placed his hand behind his neck, and he rubbed away the tension that was building with his fingers.
“Where are they?” he said to himself. The direct light of the sun had passed behind the mountains, and daylight would soon be gone. It was getting late, and if he did not find them soon, he would have to continue again in the morning when the monster inside him was asleep again. He stared out ahead as he thought about the ogre, and he wondered if the creature would find them instead. “I may never know,” he thought, and then he saw something flicker in the corner of his eye. He scanned the picturesque scene in front of him, and nothing unusual stood out at first. Then he saw it. An orange flicker passed from a dark spot in the mountain across from him, and he marveled at the ingenuity. When he saw the flicker for a third time, he was convinced of their location, and he stepped down into the cover of the cave and waved his feline friends inside. They all huddled in the back corner to stay warm, and Lord Felino sat separate from them as he waited for the monster’s return. He hoped that the creature would not find his former guests that night, but he closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable.
What does fate hold for Seth and Dr. Tatum in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada? Who awaits Crush, Pound, and Sherry as they enter the “Eye Ward”? The answers await as the adventure continues in Issue 16, coming in March of 2017!
Christopher D. Carter is an engineer by day, and transforms into a writer and artist by night. He lives with his wife and cats in central North Carolina.