Chapter 10 - FIRST ENCOUNTER
Night swallowed the mice before they were ready. Ziro managed to kindle a fire before the coolness of the dark became too unbearable, but without shelter or his blaster to protect them they were easy prey in a wild world. Magenta was asleep. The temporary dressing he had applied to her shoulder wound seemed to hold the wound well enough, but the sooner Nightshade arrived the better. He was no medic, but he was the only one on the team with medical training before joining the Elite Academy.
“Come on, Shade. Get here,” Ziro sighed, nervously eyeing his wrist communicator.
Already it had been two hours since he last spoke to the other mice. He wanted desperately to contact them again, but they had agreed that silence would be in their favor under the circumstances. The last thing he needed was to attract more attention.
Time passed slowly. Ziro turned Magenta’s knife over in his paws, it’s blade catching the light of the fire and flashing across his face with each turn. It was an impressive weapon - something between a large dagger and a small sword, he couldn’t decide which. The pointed tip curved back to its spine which evened out halfway to the handle. The belly of the blade swooped down to a line of jagged teeth. Here, just above the handle, centered on one side of the blade something caught his eye. It was a mark – a symbol etched in the steel. What was it…a flower? Ziro paused for a moment and fingered the symbol. Magenta hadn’t struck him as the flowery type of girl. The thought of it made him chuckle.
“So, you do have a softer side,” Ziro said as he eyed Magenta sleeping soundly across the fire from him. For the first time he allowed himself to wonder if she might someday trust him enough to stick with the team after this mission was over. As quickly as he thought it, he dismissed it. She was just a hired gun. Always would be. Who was he kidding?
Click. Click-whir, click-click.
A sudden sound rattled in the forest behind him. Ziro nearly jumped out of his fur and spun quickly around with the dagger-sword raised in defense. Nothing was there – at least nothing he could see.
Click. Click-whir, click-click.
There it was again. Ziro’s heart raced wildly at the sound. Whoever, or whatever it was, it was nearby.
“Demo, is that you?” he called out in a somewhat shaky voice.
There was no response, only a shifting in the bushes and the sound repeated again. Either his squad was playing tricks on him or there was something out there. Ziro moved to the opposite side of the fire where Magenta slept in hopes of giving protection
“Shade, Streak…come on guys it’s not funny.”
A long, silence followed before the sound returned. This time Ziro spotted a a silhouette take form out of the deeper darkness - a pitch-black thing slightly taller than he was, with a spine of thorns jutting out from its hunched back. The fire cracked and that was when Ziro spotted them…a pair of slivered eyes, glowing red were staring back. This time, it made a different clicking noise that sounded like some form of Morse code.
“Mm…Mm…Magenta,” he stuttered, nudging her with his foot and keeping her knife raised to fend off the threat. She didn’t move. “Magenta…wake up…we have company!”
The creature in the forest blinked and seemed to eye Ziro’s weapon. It began to quiver angrily and released a loud, primal hissing sound, which seemed strangely like the grinding of metal on metal. This was like no creature Ziro had ever heard. It was too dark to tell exactly what it was, but whatever it was, it wasn’t natural.
It was almost funny, actually. Here he was, having just cut off the foot of one of the largest predators of the sky he’d ever seen. Ziro had thought himself pretty unshakable. But somehow, this...this thing was different. The eyes looking back at him showed no emotion, no fear. There was something wrong about it all. It was almost as if it had come from another world entirely. A demon.
A cold breeze blew up Ziro’s back. His arm trembled as he stared at the red-eyed creature, which bobbed in the darkness behind the bushes timing its first strike. It was waiting for something, but what. All at once, there was movement to his right and Ziro spun around anticipating a second creature to attack.
“Wake up Magenta! Now!” Ziro yelled, no longer bothering to keep quiet. She roused and spotted Ziro’s defensive stance.
All at once, the red-eyed creature vanished into the darkness with a rush of clicking sounds. The bushes beside Ziro rustled to life. What emerged from the forest was completely unexpected.
“Ziro? Is that you?” the figure said as it stepped into the ring of firelight. It was Streak and he looked shocked to see his commander’s face so full of fright. “Hey Chief, I thought we’d never find you. What’s wrong with…”
Ziro didn’t have time to welcome his friend. He knew they were in danger. He spun around and pointed his weapon back to where the creature once prowled. Nothing was there.
“Quick, Streak. Point your weapon over there. It can’t have got far,” Ziro commanded.
Confused, Streak obeyed orders.
“What exactly are we looking for, Chief?” Streak asked when nothing showed up in his field of vision.
“I…I dunno exactly. A creature of some kind. A demo,” Ziro explained.
“A what?” Magenta asked, looking as lost as Streak was. She began to wonder if Ziro had lost his mind.
“I swear,” Ziro tried to convince them. “There was something in the bushes over there. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before…and it was watching me…”
Streak targeted his blaster on the spot Ziro had motioned to and started toward it, but Ziro held him back. “Hold up, Streak…not until we have backup. It could be a…”
“I know…I know…a trap,” Streak said, remembering his failure in the simulation room. He had no intentions of getting himself killed first out here. He eyed his commander and called to the others on his wrist communicator.
“Hey guys, quick, I found them,” Streak said, “and I’m not sure, but Ziro thinks we’re being watched. Could be trouble.”
By the time Demo and Nightshade caught up with Streak enough time had passed that Ziro was starting to realize the creature had disappeared. Demo returned Ziro and Magenta’s blasters to them, which they had discovered on their search for the lost mice. Fully armed, the team patrolled the perimeter of the campsite to secure their space, but no trace of any creature was found. Not even a footprint. They all agreed that it would be better to search in the daylight and focused instead on settling in for the night.
Nightshade redressed Magenta’s wound, applying some local herbs he had gathered along the way. The aloe would help speed the healing process.
“I’ve done what I can,” he deducted, “but we should probably contact the Colonel and get her out of here.”
“No!” Magenta said forcefully, “I’m not leaving. Not like this.”
“But you’re hurt,” Ziro said.
“It will heal, and I can still shoot without my left shoulder,” she explained. “Besides, it’s only a recon mission anyway.”
Ziro glanced at Nightshade who gave him a look that seemed to say, it’s your call.
“Fine,” Ziro agreed, “but if it gets any worse we’re sending you back. Agreed?”
“Fine, let’s all get some sleep. We have a long trek ahead of us tomorrow if we’re going to make it to Liwa.”
Everyone agreed and did their best to get comfortable around the perimeter of the fire. Demo exited his XR suit and took first shift on night watch. The rest of the squad spread out and lay down in a circle around the fire, but Ziro couldn’t sleep. He kept listening for the noise. There was something about the creature in the dark that had frightened him to his very core. He couldn’t put a claw on it, but there was something horribly wrong about it all. Something unnatural.
With his paws folded behind his neck he gazed into the night sky as a cloud passed overhead revealing the sliver of a moon behind it. Ziro’s couldn’t take his eyes off of the moon, imagining it were one of the red eyes in the forest watching him with vicious intentions as he slept. Eventually, he did fall into a dark, restless sleep full of nightmares he hoped he’d never dream again