CHAPTER 9: Nothing Personal
Magenta couldn’t scream to save her life. Snatched from above by the piercing talons embedded in her shoulder it was all she could do to breathe and even that wasn’t going so well. Her immediate reaction was to try and wrestle herself free from the iron grip of her captor, but it was a futile effort. A talon’s grip is a one way trip.
The world was a blur of movement as they soared silently over the earth, over the horrified squad, and along the banks of the stream. Magenta quickly lost her bearings and fought the urge to pass out.
“Sleep, little one,” a soothing, almost whispery voice called from above. “Your struggle here is nearly over. Rest in me, for I am night.”
Magenta forced herself to stay awake in spite of what the voice said. She shook her head and glanced up at the underbelly of her attacker - soft white feathers, speckled with brown stripes, covered its chest. At first, there was no head to be seen, but all at once a pair of enormous luminous orbs rotated into view where the creature’s neck should have been. Magenta gasped at the sight of them - a she-owl. The unblinking gaze of the owl lulled Magenta into a kind of stupor. Centered between and below the awesome yellow eyes, a black beak, sharpened to a point, spoke in hushed tones.
“My name is Kee-ow,” she said. “and I can assure you my intentions are pure. You will die mercifully. Nothing personal.”
“I’ll...pass,” Magenta gasped, straining heavily with each word.
“My, you are a spirited one, I’ll give you that, but I will kill you just the same. Rest and enjoy your final flight.”
Magenta wanted to spit in the owl’s face, but a fierce sensation spread through her left arm, burning like invisible fire where the talons had caught her. Gathering her senses, she reached for her blaster which was still slung over her impaled shoulder. She managed to work it free, but in her weakened state the handle slipped through her grip. She cursed under her breath as her last hope of fighting back dropped to the distant floor.
“Still yourself,” the owl commanded in a slightly annoyed voice. “The night is upon us and you are tired and weak.” Magenta wasn’t listening. Never before had she felt so helpless as she did now. Time was working against her. She needed to act quickly before her wits abandoned her.
“Think, Maggy, think!” Magenta muttered to herself. Suddenly, it came to her. She’d fight talons with talons. Taking aim with her grappling claw she fired it into the wooded brush below. The razor sharp claws tangled in a tree and caught hold of a branch near the edge of the woods. Seconds later, the silk line went taunt, jolting the owl to a halt mid-air.
“What magic is this?” Kee-ow hissed savagely at the unexpected turn of events. She couldn’t see the transparent line that anchored her to the forest. Kee-ow strained to free herself from the tethered line, but only managed to thrash about wildly in the sky. Magenta was no better for it. Caught between the talons of the bird and the trees below, each time the bird yanked on the line it put a new strain on Magenta as well.
“Release me...,”Magenta strained to speak. “And I will...release...you.”
“I will do nothing of the sort,” the great owl seethed. It was the first sign of emotion she had shown. “There is none who can best me for I am the queen of the sky. Keeper of the night. And I will get what is mine!”
In a fit of desperate rage, the owl dove toward the treeline and swooped back toward the sky in hopes of breaking free of her invisible chains. The line slackened as they lowered, and tightened as they climbed. Magenta closed her eyes in preparation of the inevitable tug that would, in all likelihood, severe her arm from the talons and drop her to her death. It never came.
When she opened her eyes she saw they had indeed come free from the tree limb. The line was dangling freely now.
“You see,” Kee-ow bragged, “even your sorcery has no hold on me. My mercy has grown thin. Your death will not be quick.”
Magenta felt defeated, out of ideas and terribly alone until she looked down and spotted something she hadn’t noticed before. A mouse was clinging to the end of the line.
*********** Ziro couldn’t believe he was doing this - he hated heights. Yet here he hung, hundreds of tails over the rushing ground below. The sight made him sick. He chose to look up instead. Magenta was alive, her eyes wide with shock as if she hadn’t expected anyone to try and save her. Blood ran down her shoulder and across her chest from the talon’s grip. The wound didn’t look good.
He recalled the muffled gasp he had heard when the owl first dug its talons into Magenta. His back had been turned on his way to the stream but he spun around just in time to watch Magenta lifted skyward. He remembered yelling something and, while the rest of the squad dashed out of the pond to suit up for battle, he rushed after the owl in desperate attempt to save Magenta. He wasn’t fast enough, she was gone. He followed after them for as long as he could, but lost his line of sight as they entered the forest. Still, driven by instinct he continued to press forward. All he could hope for was a miracle.
He had just given up hope of ever seeing her again when a commotion in the air drew his gaze skyward once more. The owl screeched and hissed wildly as it floundered about in circles overhead. It was almost as if something were holding it in place, keeping it from stealing Magenta away. It was the miracle he had hoped for.
That’s when he had spotted Magenta’s silk line glistening in the air; tethering the owl to a tree branch. He scurried up the tree in hopes of reaching Magenta and took hold of the line before thinking twice. What he hadn’t planned on was the line coming loose while he was on it.
The good news, was that the owl seemed to be oblivious to Ziro’s presence. That wouldn’t last long. All hope would vanish if they made it to the owl’s nest. Gritting his teeth, Ziro pulled himself up the line toward the owl’s shimmering talons and Magenta.
“You okay?” he whispered, eyeing the great bird in fear of being discovered. She shook her head.
“Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out. I’m going to get you out of here,” Ziro said. He had no clue exactly how he was going to manage it. He certainly hadn’t planned on being airborne at all. All he knew is that he couldn’t leave Magenta like this. He had to fight back. Better to die falling than to be eaten. He eyed the owls leg and wondered if he had the strength to cut them free.
At that moment, Kee-ow rotated her head back to check if her prey was still alive. To her shock, she discovered a second mouse had joined them. She smiled at the sight.
“What fun,” she said in devilish delight. “A heroic rescue doomed to fail. ”
She lashed her free talon’s out toward Ziro in attempt to grab hold of him as well. He dodged the attack by sliding down the line out of reach of the flashing talons. Kee-ow was impressed. “So, that’s your trick,” she said, noticing the silk line for the first time. “Well, two can play at this game.” She cackled and began to spin, weaving and diving between the treetops in a series of tactical maneuvers designed to shake Ziro off the line. It was a deadly game Ziro couldn’t win for long. If he wanted to survive, he’d have to take the offensive. In the distance, an emerald lake opened in the middle of the forest. It gave him an idea.
“Can you swim?” he shouted up to Magenta.
She could barely manage any response outside of casting a drained glance toward the deadly talon embedded in her shoulder. It was a chance they’d have to take. While Kee-ow wasn’t looking, Ziro scaled the silk line once more and pulled Magenta’s hidden knife out from her boot. He embraced her tightly, gazed into her fading eyes and exchanged a silent promise: Trust me.
She nodded, and clung to him with her one good arm. Ziro raised his knife overhead and targeted the center of the owl’s leg. He’d only get one shot.
Kee-ow felt Ziro moving about on her claws and returned her gaze to the commotion below. “No...” Kee-ow gasped in disbelief as she watched Ziro lower the knife.
“Nothing personal,” Magenta shouted back, as Ziro buried the knife into Kee-ow’s limb. The blade passed through the other side severing the tendons and relaxing the owl’s deathgrip. Kee-ow howled in pain as Ziro twisted the weapon loose leaving only a small part of the limb still attached. Magenta’s shoulder slipped off the talons. Clinging to Ziro, the two tumbled in a free fall toward the sparkling waters below.
Ziro and Magenta hit the water’s surface together, sinking down then back up, spitting and coughing but alive. At least for now. Seconds later, the owl’s severed leg splashed into the water beside them. It’s talons now lifeless and limp, but every bit as sharp as before. Ziro counted his blessings that they hadn’t been impaled once more. As Kee-ow flew away screaming, and her talons sunk to the bottom of the lake, Ziro helped to pull Magenta to shore.
Lying on her back in the sandy bank, Magenta gasped for breath. Ziro used her knife to cut the shoulder of her battle suit free and observe the talon wound directly. He was no doctor, but it looked as if the cut was a clean one. He pulled a first aid kit from his pack and did his best to dress her wounds. There was hope, but they needed help soon. Ziro called Nightshade on his communicator. “I have Magenta! Repeat, I have Magenta. We are on the ground.”
“I have your coordinates and we’re our way, Chief,” Nightshade replied.
“Hurry,” Ziro added, “She’s lost a lot of blood.”
Magenta groaned from in pain and tried to sit up.
“Take it easy, Mags,” he said, trying to calm her. “Help is on the way.”
“I’m such an idiot,” she said, shaking her head and closing her eyes. With the talons no longer clamped in her arm she found it a bit easier to speak. Still, her voice was weak. “I should have been watching my back. I let my guard down and...”
“Don’t worry about it, you did everything you could have.”
“No, I didn’t. I got myself hurt...again. Elites don’t do that. Elites know how to stay alive out here. You should have just left me to die. What were you thinking, anyway?”
Ziro was confused. He had thought she would be grateful for his help.
“I was thinking you were family,” he said, simply.
Magenta didn’t know how to respond to that. Nobody had ever sacrificed themselves for her before. Even Nitro had cut her from the Alpha squad the first time she got hurt in battle - replacing her easily with the next available lieutenant.
“Look,” Ziro said, breaking the silence between them. “Sunlight is fading quick. I’m going to get a fire going. You rest here. The others will be along in the next hour or so.”
Magenta nodded. Ziro turned to go.
“Hey Ziro!” Magenta called out as he started to walk away. He stopped in his tracks and turned to face her. “I... I owe you one."