CHAPTER 11 - The Path to Liwa
“Get it away from me,” screamed Streak. “Get it off!”
Ziro’s blood froze as he jolted awake in a hurry. His sleep had been light, plagued with nightmares of a one-footed owl and a red-eyed shadow chasing him through the woods. He shook his head and sat up, half expecting to come face to face with some kind of horrendous creature invading their camp. Instead, under morning’s first light, he saw Streak, running around the smouldering campfire being pestered by a furry white moth, with bright orange eyes. The fluttering creature kept following him around as he scurried about, colliding into his head.
“Get a grip, kid,” said Magenta as she woke to the chaos. “It’s only a moth.”
“Yeah, but it’s bugging me,” Streak complained. “Make it stop! I hate moths.”
“Really? I think she kinda likes you,” Ziro chuckled.
“Demo, help...please!” Streak begged, realizing Magenta and Ziro were enjoying his predicament far too much.
“No can do, buddy,” Demo said. “Who am I to get in the way of love? You’ll have to figure this out on your own.”
“Not funny, guys,” Streak frowned and swung his paw spasticly overhead, shewing the critter away temporarily.
Ziro glanced around camp and realized someone was missing.
“Anyone know where Nighshade is?”
“He said something about investigating the tracks,” Streak answered as he dodged another diving attack from the airborne pest.
“Tracks, what tracks?”
“The ones your so-called demon left behind.”
Ziro’s ears turned up. So, he hadn’t imagined it after all. There really was something watching them from the woods last night. Even the thought of the mysterious creature made the fur on his neck stand on end.
“Leave me alone, will ya!” Streak shouted as he pummelled the diving moth with a stick. The stick tore through the moth’s wings causing the hapless creature to spiral out of control. It landed in the fire pit with a squeal. In a matter of seconds, the creature exploded into a small fireball sending a black plume of smoke into the sky. Streak was horrified. “She...she exploded.”
“Wow, real smooth Streak,” Magenta said. Streak was speechless.
Demo walked over to where Streak stood and nudged him playfully in the arm, “You know, you could have found a nicer way ta break up with your girlfriend. Poof! I guess that’s what they really mean when they say like a moth to the flame.”
Streak dropped his stick and backed away from the fire, too horrified to watch the remnants of the moth burn.
“I didn’t really mean to kill her...I...I just wanted her to go away,” he said somewhat sadly.
Magenta shook her head in disbelief. “Oh come on, get over it...” she griped. “You want to be an Elite and you can’t even stomach killing a mindless insect?”
“I didn’t think she would land in the fire, that’s all,” Streak said, eyeing the charred remains of the moth that had once pestered him.
Having seen enough, Ziro shouldered his weapon and headed into the forest in search of the tracks. He patted Streak on the shoulder as he passed by. Not far beyond the edge of the campsite, Ziro found Nightshade standing amidst a small patch of maple trees. The trees were blackened and shriveled in the midst of a forest of otherwise healthy specimens.
“What happened here?” Ziro asked as he approached.
Nightshade bent low and examined the curious tracks that riddled the ground with a thousand circular holes. There were so many of them, it looked as if someone had tried to make Swiss cheese out of the forest floor.
“It’s curious, Commander,” Nightshade observed. “I’ve cross referenced these tracks against every creature in our database and they don’t match anything we have on file.”
“You think they’re from that creature I saw last night,” Ziro explained.
“If you can call it a creature,” Nightshade said mysteriously, clawing his whiskers. “It’s strange, these tracks are so perfect - so precisely circular. It’s almost as if...” Nightshade left his thought hang unfinished.
“As if what?” Ziro pressed.
“Nothing. Tracking new creatures isn’t our MO. I’ll take a few pictures for future reference, but we’re a long way from Liwa yet, and we’re going to need to keep moving if we’re going to make it by afternoon.”
The two mice headed back to camp where everyone enjoyed a quick breakfast of nuts and berries. Well, everyone that is except Demo who was more interested in gobbling up the processed canned grubs he had brought along in his pack. For most mice, Grubs-In-A-Can were a last resort meal rationed to squads deployed in harsh terrains with little natural resources to draw from. Demo was different, he would live off the stuff if it were possible.
They broke camp and the squad plotted their path to Liwa. They marched through the deep woods in a single file line. Nightshade took point guard and Demo brought up the rear in his XR suit. The forest was lush with tall plant life, a tangled web of vines and tree roots. Hours passed slowly, as they pushed their way through the ever thickening underbrush listening to the sounds of the forest.
By mid day the team had made it as far as Haven Falls, a cascading series of waterfalls and pools spread out over the long sloping terrain which led up the mountains of Engedi. Early spring runoff had filled the falls and pools to capacity making for a dazzling display. The heat of the day was at its peak and the mist from the falls was a welcome relief. It was here they broke for lunch and a short rest. Nightshade redressed Magenta’s wound which seemed to be healing better than expected. Demo took a moment to explore the manual for his XR suit while Streak took the opportunity to brush up on his target practice.
A grove of bulbous blue mushrooms skirted the landscape around the ponds. Streak raised his blaster and took aim at one of the larger mushrooms fifty tails from where he stood. He fired and missed. Twice more he shot, and twice more he failed.
“Crumbs,” Streak griped, lowering his blaster and eyeing the mushroom he’d been trying to hit. He ran his claws through is hair and let out a long sigh. He raised the weapon again and fired off a dozen or more haphazard shots in a row before one finally connected. The mushroom exploded in a puff of blue flame. Streak smiled at the sight. “That was awesome,” Streak said proudly to himself.
Magenta took notice of the young mouse and felt compelled to step in.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she said bluntly, walking up behind him.
“Whatever, I hit my target didn’t I?”
“Maybe, but after fifteen shots you’re bound to hit something. If you want to be Elite you need to work on your accuracy. One shot. One kill.”
Streak fought the urge to argue with her. He knew she was right. Accuracy had never been his strong suit. He was more of a broad stroke kind of guy.
“Here, let me show you,” Magenta explained, motioning for Streak to raise his blaster. He half-heartedly followed her direction shouldering it against his chest as he normally would.
“Don’t fire!” Magenta commanded, “Are you on target?”
Streak nodded. Magenta nudged the end of the weapon with her fist, bobbing it off target again.
“How about now?”
“No! You messed up my shot,” Streak whined.
“You never had a shot. You need to work on your approach, kid. Your stance is sloppy, you’re too aggressive and you’re holding it wrong. No wonder you’re constantly missing.”
“Well, how do you expect me to hold it?” Streak asked.
“Gently, like...uh...how can I put this. Like you would hold a doe.”
Streak was suddenly very unsure of himself. The truth was, he’d never actually had a girlfriend yet - a fact he wasn’t about to let the rest of the team know about. He already got enough ribbing for being the youngest team member. Magenta saw the concern on his face.
“You do know how to hold a girl, right?” Magenta asked.
“Yeah sure,” Streak answered. His voice cracked a bit as he tried to pretend he knew what she meant. “I’m just having a little trouble...you know...interpreting that into how I should hold my blaster.”
Magenta groaned, took hold of Streak’s support arm and eased his elbow under the blaster, helping him into position. She winced a little, but fought through the pain in her shoulder. If there was any hope for this kid to become a sharp shooter, she’d have to teach him the basics. In truth, it would probably be easier to train a slug to do it.
“Keep your support arm strong. Then, with this paw hold her firmly, but gently. Don’t grip her like you want to choke the poor thing. Just lean her back into your shoulder.”
Streak followed her lead and hoped his ears weren’t as red as he felt they were. Magenta walked him through her checklist with precision and patience.
“Align your sights,” she said, backing away. “Don’t jerk the trigger, you squeeze it...gently. Now, take the shot.”
Streak fired again. Another miss.
“Crumbs,” he muttered for a second time.
“You rushed it,” Magenta said. “Take your time, and go easy on that trigger.” Streak dropped his weapon in frustration.
“I can’t,” he complained. “It’s just not my style.”
“Then make it your style,” Magenta said firmly, staring him straight in the eye. “Nobody is going to hold your hand in battle. You’re a soldier. Soldiers make tough shots. Miss once and somebody you know dies. Don’t like it, don’t sign up for the job.”
Streak watched as she stormed away. He picked up his blaster and eyed the cluster of mushrooms in the distance with disdain. He wanted to believe he could make the shot, but it seemed as unobtainable as Magenta herself. The question was, would he give up or keep trying.
“Everything okay?” Ziro asked, as he approached Streak. “Magenta seemed pretty upset.”
Streak blew it off with a long sigh. “Our first fight. I’m pretty sure she likes me.” Ziro shook his head in disbelief, “You’re insane, you know that? Do you know what happened to the last guy she went out with?”
Streak’s eyes widened. “What?”
“No, it was an actual question. Nobody’s seen him since. I was just wondering if you’d heard anything...”
Streak turned his gaze back to Magenta. She was sharpening her knife on a rock. “You mean she...”
“We may never know,” Ziro replied, trying his hardest to sound mysterious. Then, before Streak caught on that he was only joking, Ziro called out to his team. “Ears up, mice, let’s move out! Shade, what’s our ETA for Liwa?”
Nightshade did the math in his head, “Judging from our distance and taking into account the difficulty of the terrain, if my calculations are correct we’ll be there in three hours time.”
“Okay then,” Ziro commanded, “on the other side of these falls we go into full recon mode. It’s silence from here on out. Got it everyone?”
“Before we do, Chief,” Demo said, “I’d like everyone to know that I’ve found our future squad name. Kinda hit me all at once, like...a bolt of lightning!”
Streak groaned, “It is better than your last one, right?” Demo scowled and punched Streak playfully in the arm.
“Let’s hear it,” Ziro said.
“The Boom Shrooms,” Demo announced proudly, bellowing it out for the whole forest to hear. The team didn’t respond. “So, what do you guys think. I can see the emblem already. An angry mushroom...on fire!”
“Like I said,” Ziro replied flatly, “Silence from here on out!”
Demo knew a brush off when he heard one. Another of his brilliant names had crashed and burned. “Oh, okay...I see how it is. For the record, I haven’t heard any of you guys coming up with amazing names or anything. I will name this squad, even if it’s the last thing I do.”
“At the rate you’re going, it will be,” Magenta said.
Hopping from stone to stone, the team crossed Haven Falls and entered the final stretch of untamed forest that separated them from Liwa. As usual, Nightshade took the lead, scouting the area ahead and silently signaling for the others to follow when the coast was clear. He was something to watch, if you could manage to keep your eye on him, that is. He moved like he was part of the terrain, effortlessly gliding through the forest, flattening himself against trees and disappearing completely when necessary. A ghost in the forest. Even Magenta was impressed by his moves, though she’d never admit it.
After awhile, evidence of Liwan life began to appear all around them. The first thing Nightshade noticed was the woodland paths became broader and more easily trodden - a sure sign of increased foot traffic. There were even the occasional paw prints in the dirt, broken twigs and the like as well. But the real giveaway was in the trees.
“What’s with the buckets,” Streak asked in a whisper, pointing to one of the hundreds of weather worn buckets that hung from the trees. From where the squad now stood they could see hundreds of the pails dangling off the sides of the tree trunks. Crude wood ramps had been constructed to wrap around the tree trunks in an escalating spiral to reach the buckets at higher elevations. A reddish liquid spilled over the rim of one nearby buckets, oozing and dripping to the ground and forming a sticky puddle.
“Sap harvest,” Ziro replied, eyeing the gooey substance. “We’re close.”
Up ahead, Nightshade reached a berm overlooking a clearing in the middle of a small meadow and stopped dead in his tracks. A cluster of wooden huts were gathered in the center of the meadow alongside a river where a paddle-wheel squeaked in rhythm with the flowing water. Just outside the town, a dozen massive barrels, some as large as a house, were gathered together along side a wooden platform. It was Liwa, but instead of the buzzing hive of activity it should have been this time of year - it was lifeless.
“Where is everyone,” Nightshade muttered to himself.
He motioned for the rest of the team to join him. Moments later they all stood together behind the berm and scanned the area for any movement. Ziro noted the concern on Nightshade’s face.
“It’s a ghost town,” Streak noted. “Are they all on vacation or something?”
“Not likely,” Nightshade explained. “This is peak sapping season, and from the looks of some of those buckets back there, they are falling behind.”
“Maybe they’re just harvesting in another part of the forest,” Ziro wondered.
“Even so,” Nightshade reasoned. “there should be plenty of activity in the village as well. Usually the does stay back with their pups to jar the day’s harvest as it comes in.”
“What do we do now?” Streak wondered.
“This is recon,” Magenta explained. “We wait...and watch.”
“For how long?”
“As long as it takes,” Magenta stated.
Streak didn’t look too happy about the prospect of sitting around all day watching sap drip. He could hardly keep his feet from twitching as it was. He was built for speed, not scouting.
“Well, looks like we’ll be here for awhile,” Demo said, kicking his legs up onto the dashboard of his suit and reclining back with his neck in his paws. “Might as well make the best of it. Wake me up if anything happens,” he said yawning and staring up at the spring clouds passing by.
As it turned out, it wasn’t long before something did happen. Unseen by the squad, high in the treetops overhead, a gathering of mice, young and old alike, lay hidden from sight. They were covered from head to tail in moss covered ponchos, waiting and watching for the intruders to come.
That’s when the humming began.