"He's awake," Nightshade heard someone saying.
"I wonder if he's had dreams as I had," said Starflower.
Dreamcloud cleared his throat several times.
"Nothing. There is liquid in my throat."
The gorilla frowned at the food. Grunt, grunt.
"Well I'm sorry it's not to your liking."
Nightshade noticed a quantity of feathers lying about on the ground. He stared at them, briefly wondering what they were doing there.
"Hey look! A skull!" a voice cried.
The hybrid craned his neck to see Melissa marching toward the campsite, a round gray object held aloft in her paw.
"I told you there wasn't any gold!"
"You didn't actually check!" She stomped up to the rat. "Besides, I was looking for diamonds."
"Well, did you find any?"
"Um...maybe?" She reached in her pouch, taking out a crystal the size of a soda can.
"Let me see that."
"I don't think so. If this is worth money, you're not touching it."
"I don't think it's worth money. At least, not much." The rat broke into a coughing fit.
"Yeah. And you'll swipe it and get rich at my expense!"
"Fine. Scratch it with your sword."
"And ruin a perfectly good diamond?"
"It shouldn't be that easy to scratch a diamond."
Bongo suddenly started making wheezing noises. Templeton shot him a worried glance.
"We must not have the same definition of what a diamond is because they can get scratched."
"Don't come crying to me if it turns out to be quartz!"
"What? Are you a geologist or something?"
"No, but I do know it's generally difficult to find a diamond unless it's industrial."
"Hello! We're in Magic Land! Anything could happen!"
"I still don't think so. That doesn't look very diamond-like."
Melissa sighed, holding it out to him. "If you swipe it, I'm clobbering you."
With a shrug, the rat took it. He picked up a rock, then struck it with the crystal. The crystal broke in half, scattering powder everywhere.
"Hey! You broke it!" She stared at the mess, furrowing her brow.
The rat put a chunk up to his mouth and licked it.
"Are you sure that's safe?"
"Well," Melissa sighed. "I guess we've got something to sprinkle on our food."
"Are you sure? I'd hate to steal something so valuable from you."
"Have a good nap?"
Nightshade stared at the snowy owl for a minute, then said, "No." He sat up.
Melissa was snorting and wiping her nose. He tried to ignore it.
The frog piled wood on the fire, glaring angrily at the flames. "This is a fool mission," he snarled. "The Mudepa could be on the move, and we would never know. They could be in danger. Dying. And by the time we get there, they will be gone."
"Are the Mudepa not strong?" said Starflower.
"The Gaku were strong!" Dreamcloud shouted. "If our clan can be destroyed so easily, the Mudepa are nothing."
Nightshade shuddered with the chills of fever, wrapping his wings around himself for warmth. Even the protective leather armor didn't help. He coughed.
"But what can we do, Dreamcloud?"
"Leave! If we go now, we might save the Mudepa!"
"We don't even know if they need saving. For all we know, they could be suffering from the disease, and following the map could be the best thing for them!" The owl sneezed.
Dreamcloud fell silent, his expression sullen as he cooked the meat on the end of a broken pickaxe.
"What is this doing here?" said Melissa.
Nightshade turned and saw her standing over the chest. He shrugged.
"Hey, rat! Did your big buddy bring this chest over here?"
The ape grunted something.
"He says no. But it's nothing to complain about."
"I know. It's just weird, that's all."
"Quaro does what he wishes," said Amo.
"Oh! So you and your feathery boyfriend moved it."
"No." The snowy owl reddened. "He's...not my boyfriend either."
The mink just laughed. She leaned over the chest, examining the latch. "Well, it's still locked, so everything should be in there." She sat down on the lid, watching the frog and chick owl preparing the food.
Nightshade noticed the snowy female approaching the fire with something square and heavy in her paws. She set it down next to the firewood.
"What's that?" Starflower asked.
"It's...I think it's a plate from a cart."
"What are you doing with that?"
"We can eat off it instead of the ground."
"But it's dirty."
"So's the ground." With a shrug, she ran her feathers over the surface a few times. "Better?"
"I suppose. But you left some feathers behind."
"Are you molting?"
Amo shook her head. "I don't usually molt until late February...and not this much." She frowned.
Ten minutes later, Dreamcloud finished cooking the meat, placing it next to the cooling roasted mushrooms and odd miniature gourds.
Nightshade heard a horrible loud retching sound. He turned just in time to see Bongo tossing his cookies. The ape let out a string of grumbling noises.
"I don't know, Bongo! Why did you throw up on yourself?"
"Ungh ungh oop umble!"
"We're not exactly close to water, Bongo!"
"Oople google bumba numble!"
"Well maybe that will teach you to take baths more often! I don't know!"
Disgusted, Nightshade looked away, preferring to glance at Melissa instead. He thought the mink seemed troubled about something. She had a worried look on her face and she kept glancing at him, then at Amo and someone else, then back at him again. When he stared back with an expression of confusion, she looked away, pretending to stare at a rock.
Amo said a prayer and they ate. Nightshade found the meat to taste like beef jerky mixed with liver. He took that and the mushrooms with salt, then tried one of the pods, which had a flavor like bread and sauerkraut. They didn't have any water, so Dreamcloud resorted to mashing various plants and draining their juices into a gourd, and that's what they drank.
Nightshade roared. It was a spontaneous outburst, almost like he'd somehow contracted Tourettes, only it sounded like a Hurut.
The others stared at him. He just shrugged.
Once they finished eating, Dreamcloud stood up, gesturing to Starflower in sign language. The chick owl got to his feet and the two walked away from the campsite.
"What are they doing?" said Melissa.
"I don't know." But, as they marched a few yards away, Nightshade's ears picked up their conversation.
"Let us leave here and seek the Mudepa," said Dreamcloud. "The others can find out on their own what sort of idiot quest this is once they get to where they're going."
"I...don't know, Dreamcloud. They have become my friends. And the female...I feel I am finally with my own kind!"
"You will find others. We are seeking the greater good, Starflower. The Gaku must live again. It cannot die with us."
The Gaku walked further.
Nightshade felt hot, sweaty. It felt uncomfortably warm, but nobody else seemed to be complaining.
"I don't know, Dreamcloud. This disease could spread even to the Mudepa. I think we can help them the best by finding these Kapacuda and bringing some to the tribe."
"Bah! The Mudepa are not as helpless as you think. The will doubtless have cures for this disease, ones far better than those pathetic plants."
"If that's so, Dreamcloud, they don't need our help! We can go visit them anytime!"
"Yes, but how will we find them! They are not ones to leave trails!"
"In that case, maybe they're too smart for maps, and we won't be able to find them anyway."
"Their plan is no better!" Dreamcloud shouted. "What makes you so certain that that plant will have any use curing anything! For all we know, it could be nothing more than a stew herb, or something to sprinkle on maize bread! This quest is a pointless Toji hunt!" He sighed. "I'm sorely tempted to leave you here and seek out the Mudepa on my own."
"You wouldn't! You can't!"
"You are all that is left of our tribe. That is why I ask you to come with me, to seek out the Mudepa. Leave them to find their Kapacuda. We don't even know if that map is reliable. What if it's all just a story? But the Mudepa...we can ask them to join us, to rebuild our once great tribe, and destroy those cursed Huruts once and for all!" He broke into a coughing fit.
"You sound like you're sick, Dreamcloud."
"It is nothing. I ask you again, will you come with me?"
"I...what about Shade?"
"The demon can take care of himself. You saw how he can use sorcery for his own protection. He and the others can find that weed on their own."
Starflower stared at the frog, then turned to face the campsite. "I can't do it, Dreamcloud. These animals are my friends. I feel like they're part of our tribe. I can't just leave them like this. Perhaps we can convince them that finding the Kapacuda isn't going to do anything?"
The frog shook his head. "They would not understand. It is like playing the Rakoheq for a Naugha." He sighed and said nothing else.
"What are they doing?" said Melissa.
"Not sure. Maybe re-establishing their tribal pecking order?"
Amo pointed her beak at the sky, eyeballing the sun. "I hope they get done soon."
"What do you care? You're an owl!"
"I'm just worried about my friends back at home. The longer we dally, the worse things could get."
"Now that you mention it, I've got a few managers that are probably cheesed off about my attendance right now..."
Starflower slowly strolled back to the campsite. Dreamcloud just stood there.
"Let's go," the chick owl said.
Amo lifted the board, tilting it at various angles as she squinted at the markings. She pointed to the northeast. "That way."
With a grunt, Bongo picked up the chest and waddled ahead in that direction. Nightshade and the others picked up their possessions and followed, except for Dreamcloud, who remained in an angry sulk.
They crossed the dry, cracked soil, marching past the broken mining carts and corroded implements.
Nightshade looked back and saw the frog following at a distance, webbed hand pressed against his forehead as if he had a headache.
The ground rose in steps, spreading shelves of rock pitted with cracks where scraggly weeds grew. A well-like structure had been set up on one of the shelves, but it had been designed to lift salt out of the depths. No water could be seen.
The shelves turned to boulders which they had to climb to traverse, until they flattened out again.
They came to a grade leading up a hill surrounded with pine trees. The ground was mostly needles and pathetic little plants, the soil being rather loose. He could see something like a cliff or a mountain peak between the trees. The gorilla reeked. He tried to avoid walking next to it if at all possible.
The hill became steeper and steeper, and they came to a series of boulders, which they had to navigate by squeezing between or climbing around on steps.
Past that was a shelf, and a rock wall.
"Are we still following the map?" Melissa asked.
"It says to go northeast from the mines. It was right about them being there, so..."
"It's just I didn't think I'd need climbing equipment for this."
Bongo stared at the rock face, looked up, then looked at the chest. The next moment, he was hefting it up like he were about to play shot-put.
"No." Nightshade growled. "Don't you dare." He'd since put the vial inside the chest, and was unsure how it and other things would do under that circumstance.
"We can air lift it," said Amo.
Starflower shot her an annoyed glance, then nodded.
"Great," said Melissa, scratching herself. "Did I brush poison ivy or get bitten by something?"
Bongo set down the chest.
"Which way do we take it?" said Starflower.
The snowy owl consulted the map, then pointed at an outcrop. "Somewhere in that area."
Starflower sighed, picking up one end of the chest. Amo grabbed the other, and they took off in the air.
Everything went black.
"What are you doing!" Melissa cried.
Nightshade looked around in bewilderment. He was at the edge of a cliff looking over a wooded hillside, his feet resting in a pile of fallen pine needles. He could see the mountain, and presumably the rock wall, about twenty yards behind him.
"I..." He rubbed his head. "I don't know. How did I get here?"
"You walked for part of the time, then flew for awhile. When anyone asked you where you were going, you didn't say anything. You just kept going."
The mink took a deep breath. "I didn't want to say anything, but...something happened to me this morning, and it was just like this."
She sighed, looking worried. "I was in the mine. You know, just looking around. And then, suddenly I'm down in some cave with all the skeletons and salt crystals. I didn't know how I got there. It was lucky I could even find my way out."
She came closer. "I should think this is cool, but I don't. This is not punk. I...I'm scared. Hold me."
"On terrain like this, I'm not sure that's the safest option," Nightshade said. "But if you need a teddy bear that much, fine."
They weren't that close to the edge. Ignoring the comment, she threw her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. He reluctantly returned the embrace. Melissa let out a couple short sobs, then became silent, just standing there, staring over his back. After a few awkward moments, she stepped back.
"I guess we should go."
The hybrid nodded.
They returned to the rock face.
"He's okay!" Melissa shouted. "We're okay!"
Templeton nodded, waving back to her. He shouted for them to climb up, though the hybrid found it very faint. Sound didn't travel very well around there.
Melissa smiled at Nightshade. "Care to carry me up?"
Nightshade gave an impatient sigh, with a hint of growling underneath it. "Even if I were strong enough for a passenger, I would only help. There's no excuse for laziness, and I don't carry living dead weight."
"Gee, thanks, Romeo." She shook her head in annoyance, sighed, and faced the rock. The wall wasn't that sheer, so she had no trouble traversing the first six feet.
Satisfied that she was in no danger of falling, the hybrid flapped to the top, to a wide spreading shelf looking out over an immense forested valley framed with mountain ranges. The view was picture perfect, but the air was thin.
"It's about time!" said Dreamcloud.
The rat peered at him with curiosity, whiskers twitching. "What was that all about?"
Starflower stared at the hybrid. "Did you go on a dream quest?"
Nightshade didn't respond.
The frog smugly crossed his arms. "See? Even he thinks this mission is foolishness. He's seeking guidance in dreams."
Nightshade shook his head in protest.
"We waste time," said Dreamcloud. "Unless Shade wishes to share his plans, we need to be going. I want this over with."
Templeton let out a roar like a Hurut. He cupped his paws over his mouth, his eyes wide in shock.
"Well," said Amo. "Let's go." She led Nightshade and the others across the shelf.
Melissa paused to put her paws on her knees and take several deep breaths.
"You're going to hyperventilate," said Templeton.
She shook her head. "Are we any closer?"
"It says it's straight ahead. I think after that we should be there."
Nightshade broke into a coughing fit so bad that he wondered if he'd contracted TB.
"And not a moment too soon, I guess."
They came to an edge of the shelf. Nightshade could see a vast field of yellow stretching out below, framed by the greens of grasses and pine trees, with a wide river feeding through it from a waterfall.
"Dreamcloud! Is that Kapacuda down there?"
The frog leaned over the cliff, staring at it. "I...cannot tell. I must examine the leaves." He found a foothold, climbing down to a shelf below.
Their trip down was just as slow as the one they took to go up. There weren't many places for feet and hands. Dreamcloud had sticky frog hands, Nightshade and the owls could fly (even Bongo was skilled at brachiation), but Templeton and Melissa had a bit of trouble with the gaps being too large or the steps being too low. They had to be assisted by the winged individuals, and Melissa kept having coughing fits which caused her to lose her grip.
At last they reached the ground, in the middle of another wooded area. The group traveled through brush, pushing aside pine branches as they made their way toward their destination. A yard down, they came across a group of small sized reptilian creatures with head fins and rigid dinosaur tails. The feline ears on their heads turned quizzically as Nightshade's group approached. As they came closer, the creatures darted off into the brush.
The woodland opened up into a green meadow, the yellow plants teasing them from the distance.
Nightshade felt cold again. The sun beat upon him with its warm rays, and he had the armor, but it didn't seem to be enough. He kept walking, wrapping his wings about himself tightly.
They soon arrived at the yellow plants. They were like flowers with long, red, tongue-like stems, with bumpy seed growths all around the petals. Dreamcloud plucked one of them, staring at the leaves. He removed a petal, chewing it. "These are Kapacuda, for whatever they're worth." He commenced plucking them.
"Everyone, start gathering," said Amo.
The others gave their assent and the harvesting began.
About halfway through with a bundle, Melissa set it down. "I'm going into the woods. I'll be right back."
Templeton looked at her like she was crazy. "Why do you need to go back there?"
"I gotta go, okay!"
She ran off into the woods.
"Is that an airplane?" Templeton asked.
Nightshade furrowed his brow. "Airplane?" He walked over to where the rat was standing, looking out across the field. Sure enough, a gray, cigar shaped object with a fin stood out amidst the plants.
"Whatcha doing?" said a female voice. "Planning to open a shop?"
Hearing the strange voice, the hybrid turned around. He was shocked to see a squat little opossum in a robe standing there.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Kara. I live here. What are you doing?"
"My friends are sick. They need this Kapacuda to cure them."
"What are they ailing from?"
"I...don't know. They turn green. They get really sick."
"It's not going to work."
"What? How do you know? You don't even know what they're ailing from!"
"I can see you're molting, your friend has the shivers, and someone was coughing nonstop while I was picking berries. There are few diseases that literally turn you green, and I know for a fact that Kapacuda doesn't cure any of them. I tried it."
Nightshade cleared his throat, trying to clear up his breathing.
"I don't believe you."
"Go ahead and try it. I lost a husband to the disease. He turned into some kind of beast and tried to attack me before running off to the mountains."
Amo put a paw on her hip. "Then why did someone make a map of this place?"
She handed the opossum the board.
The opossum studied it carefully, then gave it back. "That's my uncle's house."
Amo dropped her bundle. "Now what do we do?"
"I don't know."
A long, awkward silence.
"Is that your airplane?"
"What's an airplane?"
Templeton pointed to the gray object.
"That's my house!"
"Does it fly?"
"Um, no. Why would it do that?"
The rat looked at her like she was insane.
Nightshade approached the oppossum. "Do you have any idea, anything at all, that might cure the disease that took your husband?"
"No," she said with a look of mild irritation. "As I said before, he ran off. He was clearly out of his mind, and he still was in a horrible condition. I tried to stop him, but he was too strong and fast for me. I lost him in the dark."
Sighing irritably, the hybrid absently rubbed his arm, where some of his fur had already molted away. "Then we have wasted two days for nothing." He looked back and forth from Amo to Dreamcloud. "So what do we do next? Get this 'house' running again?"
"What do you mean `again'?" said the opossum.
"I don't think any of us know anything about aircraft mechanics," said Templeton. "Or how to fly one." He squinted at the plane. "From where I'm standing, it doesn't look so hot. At the very least we'd need an industrial size bottle of airplane glue to get that left wing back up."
Nightshade shook his head.
"We should go back to where we came and seek the Mudepa."
Starflower sighed and nodded. "There's nothing for us here. We might as well."
Amo frowned, putting a paw on her hip. "Who's this `uncle' you're referring to?"
"Feeb." She pointed to the northwest. "He's a doctor. He knows a few things about medicine, but when I asked him to help my husband, he kept rambling about ewe's blood. I think he was delirious."
Amo sighed, furrowing her brow. "Does this Kapacuda stuff do anything at all?"
"It cures cuts and bruises, headaches, rheumatism, and eases upset stomachs. That's about all, I should think."
"I guess they're still useful, then."
Templeton shrugged. "Kind of like Flu Buddy."
"You want some tea?" Kara asked. "I can brew you a few pots if you want. There's plenty of this stuff to go around."
"I'm sorry, but Starflower is right," Nightshade said seriously. "We've already lost too much time, with quite literally nothing to show for it. As it stands, it's past time we headed back."
"Good!" said Dreamcloud. "Let us go while there is still daylight!"
Amo shot Nightshade a hard look. "You're just going to leave?"
"There's no cure here. Why do I need to stay?"
"How do you know there isn't a cure here? We haven't spoken to that uncle of hers yet."
"We don't need to. Kara's already told us what her uncle said; there's a cure to be found in sheep's blood. This confirms what Cordero told me about his own blood being viable, when he invaded my dreams last night. So if you don't believe me, feel free to ask him when we get back."
Amo sighed, staring at the Kapacuda. She turned her gaze to Templeton. "You'll come along with me, won't you?"
The rat swallowed. "I...er, that is..." He shuffled his feet. "It's just, it, we just don't have that much to go on at the moment. I mean, I'd like to talk to this uncle guy, but I also want to go home, and make sure my friends get home. So we can't exactly split up. And Nightshade, well, he's the boss. He's not a guy I'd want to get on the bad side of."
"So you're afraid to stand up to him? Is that it?"
"No, I..." he stammered. "I'm just afraid of, of, not getting home."
"I can fly you home. Where do you live?"
"It's not like that. I'm from another world."
"I'm willing to fly across oceans."
"I appreciate the offer. I really do. But you don't understand. Magic was involved. No one can fly us to where we need to go." He sighed and slumped his shoulders. "I just want to go home!"
"Sweetie, you can always have a home with me! You can stay at the Roost for as long as you like. We might even be able to build you a place next to mine. Please, Templeton. Say you'll come with me!"
He swallowed, giving Nightshade a nervous glance. "I...can't you, I dunno, check on this guy and fly back to us with your findings?"
She sighed. "So you're not coming."
"I can't. Really. Like I said, I appreciate the offer, but..."
She glanced at Dreamcloud, then marched up to the chick owl.
"Come with me," she said to him. "I heard you were related to the builders. Maybe you have more family somewhere."
"I cannot leave Dreamcloud. The Gaku tribe is the only family I've ever known." He gestured to Templeton. "The rat is right. You can fly to us with your answer, if you find it."
She eyed Bongo for a second, then looked back at Nightshade with a glare. "Fine. Go then. I'll go seek the answer on my own." She frowned, pointing her beak at the opossum. "Can you please take me to your uncle?"
Kara gave her a grim nod. "Follow me." And she pushed northward through the Kapacuda.
Amo cast Templeton a sidelong glance, then marched on after her.
"Well," said the rat. "As long as we're here, we might as well gather some of this stuff just in case it proves to be useful." He unlocked the chest, cracking open the lid. "Well hello! How did that get in here?" He waved Nightshade over, pointing at the contents.
"I know. I don't know what this stuff is doing here. I distinctly remember being attacked by Huruts and having everything stolen from us."
Nightshade shook his head.
"I guess not everything is in there, but the good stuff is." He shrugged. "Well, anyways, I'd better hurry up and stuff this stuff in the trunk." He grabbed the bundle Amo had discarded, threw it in, then set about pulling more of them out of the ground. Bongo grunted and pulled a few himself, tossing them in with generous quantities of dirt.
Nightshade's ears detected a loud beeping sound coming from the chest, but nothing happened.
With a nod, Dreamcloud turned his back to the mountains, marching south. Nightshade and Starflower followed.
Noting that he was being left behind, the rat slammed the trunk shut and gestured to Bongo, who grudgingly hefted it on a shoulder.
Templeton jogged up to Nightshade, his eyes scanning back and forth across the field. "Where's Melissa?"
Nightshade shrugged. "She said she had to go."
They kept walking, eventually reaching the edge of the forest.
He saw the mink coming out of the woods, hitching up her pants.
"Gross," she muttered, cinching her belt. "And I bet nobody in this place has heard of Pink Bismuth."
They walked on, reaching the side of the cliff they'd come down.
Melissa scratched herself, then stared at the handful of fur in her hand. "No! I'm too young to be balding!" She stared at Nightshade a minute, then sighed.
Bongo approached the rock wall, glared at it a minute, then grunted something to Templeton.
"Bongo, I really don't think throwing it is a good idea. I understand we've lost one of our...carriers, but..."
The ape grunted angrily, dropping the chest on the ground.
Templeton poked Nightshade's side. "Hey, buddy. We've got a problem. Since our lady friend flew off, we're lacking, er, air service, so to speak. Now, Bongo wants to play shot put with it, which might not be good for the frame, and probably its contents. And you can see we can't exactly lug it up a wall like that. I'm not sure you want to leave it behind, so..."
With a grumpy expression, the hybrid grabbed an end of the chest. Starflower grabbed the other, and they flew it to the top of the cliff.
Impatient with the slow progress, Nightshade was picking up the chest again before Starflower had time to catch his breath. Fortunately, it was easier to glide down than it was to fly up. The hybrid flew back up top to supervise, leaving the chick owl panting for breath at the base of the cliff.
He sat down at the edge of the cliff, watching everyone slowly make their way up the handholds, outcroppings, and footholds. He was surprised to see Melissa reach the top of the cliff first. She sat down on the shelf, catching her breath. "It's a good thing I used to climb those rock walls at Caballo's!"
About ten minutes later, Templeton reached the top, watching the gorilla scrambling up the rocks.
Nightshade heard the sound of rocks breaking, then a roar.
He leaned over the edge to see what the rat was looking at. About two yards below him, the gorilla was hanging onto a tiny jutting rock for dear life. Apparently he'd stepped on a rock that had since given way under his weight. He had nothing within arm's length to grab upon, and only the puniest of rocks lay below him. The distance was such that if he fell, it could cause broken bones. He stared up at the rat in terror, immobilized with fear. He shot Nightshade a pleading look.
Nightshade dropped to his belly over the ledge, stretching his arms toward Bongo. "Grab hold, now."
In a panic, the gorilla flailed at the outstretched hand, but he found it not close enough.
With a grunt, the hybrid extended his arm to the point where it could reach no further. Fearing the worst, he drove the claws of his other paw into the ground, bracing himself.
Without warning, the big leathery hand clamped down on his, and his body went scraping forward, chest dangling over the edge. His claws had gouged a long set of furrows in the thin soil, only now stopped by pebbles caught in their path.
He gasped, staring down at the overweight simian in horror.
As the gravel popped up and his small chips broke off his claws, someone grabbed his feet, pulling back. Someone else grabbed his legs, and he felt his chances had improved.
Nightshade heard a loud flapping sound, then saw something like a gray blur zoom around the ape.
The chick owl had positioned himself beneath Bongo's feet, frantically batting his wings as he pushed upwards. His versatile bird feet bent at an angle, their claws digging into tiny cracks and holes in the rock face.
All of a sudden, Nightshade felt the paws that held him slip and his stomach jerked over the edge. His chipped claws sat buried in gravel only a foot or so behind. He considered spreading his wings, but feared it would hit someone in the face and cause them to let go.
The chick owl was tiring. The gorilla's weight caused the hybrid to inch forward once again.
His chest burned with the friction. Even with the vest, it reawakened old injuries.
Whump. He felt a pair of steely hands clamp down on his ankles like a vice, and his body scratched back up on the rocky shelf, with the gorilla in tow.
A second later, the hands slipped and he was skidding forward again.
"Ridiculous fashion statements!" he heard a deep scratchy sounding voice growling. "Why do they think this will protect anything!"
One of Bongo's hands clapped higher on Nightshade's arm. The weight and added force thrust the hybrid's chest back over the edge. A big hand moved to his shoulder, pulling him further over the edge.
The gorilla caught hold of the cliff, and he swung himself back up top.
At last free of the enormous weight, Nightshade went flying back, bowling his friends over in the process.
Bongo cowered in the middle of the plateau, laying low against the rock. He sat gasping for air, seeming to be working himself up to the point of hyperventilation.
Nightshade brushed himself off, still smarting from the rough treatment. "There," he said to the gorilla. "Now we're even. And don't make me do this again."
The gorilla let out a low growl, but it was half-hearted, and he was content to just slouch on the rock and rest.
Melissa, the frog, and Templeton sat on the ground, catching their breath.
Nightshade noticed a stranger standing in front of them, the black horned owl with the crooked beak. It stared at him with a stern expression on its beak, stone silent except for its periodic racking coughs.
Nightshade heard pattering sounds, and Starflower landed on the rock, gasping and panting for breath.
The stranger's eyes narrowed. "I should have let you drop."
With that, the stranger took off.
"Well that was a pleasant fellow," said Templeton.
Everyone else was too tired to comment. For some time, the group lay there panting for air.
The sun had lowered in the sky, changing to a golden orange.
"There will not be many hours of daylight left." Dreamcloud stood up. "We must go."
The others resignedly got to their feet. Bongo, apparently eager to get down to solid soil again, hurried down the opposite side of the cliff.
They all reached bottom without event, the way being less steeply inclined, with slightly easier transitions between levels, and nothing significant breaking away.
Melissa was brushing herself off and catching her breath when Templeton attacked her. He simply let out a gutteral roar, charged, and slammed her fists into her, again and again.
"Templeton!" Melissa shouted. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
The rat just growled and punched her in the stomach and anything he could reach.
"Ow!" she said. "Stop it!"
Nightshade opened his mouth, letting out a high pitched frequency. The vibrations from the sound wave knocked the rat to the ground.
Melissa stepped over Templeton's body. Then, as he roared and tried to get up, she knelt on his stomach, pinning his arms down.
For several tense moments, the rodent struggled, roaring and growling and snapping his teeth, until, after a few minutes of struggling, he appeared to calm down, either due to fatigue or resignation.
He gave her a wild look, hissing and panting in shallow breaths through his teeth.
Melissa leaned closer, a triumphant grin spreading across her muzzle. "Minks are known to eat rodents, you know."
Templeton panted, hissing through his teeth. Then his head flopped back and his whole body fell limp.
He blinked, staring at her. "What am I doing on the ground?"
Melissa climbed off him. "You tried to attack me. `Try' being the operative word. It felt like a baby was punching me."
Nightshade thought she was exaggerating because he'd seen her wincing a few times. He almost thought she'd been wiping tears out of her eyes once or twice.
"Duh!" she said with indignance.
The rat looked heart sick. "I...I'm sorry. I...don't know what got into me."
"It is the bad spirit," said Dreamcloud.
Melissa stared at him. "You mean he's possessed?"
"Yes. Spirits can cause headaches and vomiting and many other things."
"He means it's a disease," said Templeton. "It's like `bad spirit need heap good medicine.' That sort of thing."
"Well!" Templeton said, sitting up. "Unless Mr. Frog wants to do an evil spirit dance, I guess we should get going."
"Refresh my memory. Where are we supposed to be going again?"
"We seek the Mudepa tribe. They live in a village southeast from here."
"More of your kind, huh?" She lowered her eyebrows. "Isn't this like dropping a bunch of cowpox blankets into a reservation?"
"I do not understand," said Dreamcloud.
"We're like Typhoid Toby, aren't we? I mean, what happens if we go down there and the disease spreads and we wipe everybody out?"
"The Mudepa will have a cure," said Dreamcloud.
"Our tribe had a wigwam outside the encampment," said Starflower. "Whenever someone had a bad spirit, they would go there until they were well."
"So who's going to run in and tell them we're there?"
"There are other methods."
"What? Smoke signals?"
"You know of such things?" Dreamcloud smiled. "It seems we are not so different after all."
The rat groaned.
"Let us go." The frog marched ahead, across the broad rock shelf.
The gorilla picked up the chest, and the group started off in the direction they'd came, down the large boulders, to the steep grade beneath.
As they entered the forest, a tiny brown chinchilla creature with a jagged tail darted through the scrubby bushes beneath the shedding cedars. A burst of blue light shot from the bushes, and arc lightning shot across the trail. A clump of pine needles caught fire.
Dreamcloud stopped, raising a hand. When nothing else happened, he said, "It was frightened." And he kept walking.
"So," said Melissa. "When are we going to set up camp and cook up these plants?"
"I don't know," said Templeton. "That opossum told us that they didn't work."
She stopped. "What do you mean `they didn't work'!"
The rat shrugged. "She says they're fine for the stomach and for headaches, and maybe cuts. That's about it. She had a husband or something who had the disease, and it didn't work."
She sighed. "Unbelievable." She shool her head. "So now what are we doing?"
"We're trying to find some Indian tribe."
"And how's that going to help us?"
"Yeah. This is great."
Their trek continued, around the scrubby saplings, and around the hill.
Melissa stopped. "You said that stuff works on the stomach, right?"
"That's what she said!"
"Okay, well I've got diarrhea. When are we going to stop?"
"I don't know. In a little while."
"All right. Hand me one of those things. I'll just chew it."
The ape grunted and put the chest down. Templeton opened it, handing her a flower and stalk.
She chewed the petals for a few seconds, then screwed up her face in disgust, spitting them out.
"This is horrible! It tastes...it tastes like...I don't know, old soggy French fries or overripe bananas or something."
Bongo let out a surprised grunt, digging out one of the plants. He munched the top off, chewing it for a couple minutes before swallowing it. He then stuck out his tongue in displeasure. "Oop omble eegle ump!"
"Bongo says it doesn't taste anything remotely close to a banana."
Melissa laughed. "Well how would you describe it?"
"Ump ooger ooble yoo google dumble ump."
"He says he doesn't know, but it doesn't taste like bananas."
She shook her head. "Maybe it'll taste better when it's boiled...and we add something to it for flavor." She put the rest of the plant away.
Templeton closed up the trunk and they rejoined the group.
They came to the weather beaten flat stones outside the mine, traveling past the well, their campsite, to the blackened land beyond.
Fires had reduced the fields to ash and stubble scattered with Zaidnipe carcasses, the trees nothing more than dark skeletons with blistered bark.
They came to the edge of the field, where the dead grass ended and a green meadow started. As they stepped into it, Nightshade's ears perked at the sound of something shuffling in the grass. Not again!
His blood pressure increased, his pulse escalating as memories of the previous day's events came rushing back. Extending his claws, he let out a scream and leapt at the nearest one, spreading his wings.
As he was ripping his claws into the creature's body, he heard a strange squealing war cry.
Templeton had the dagger in his paw, charging at the second Zaidnipe. He ended up burying it in the ground.
The gorilla grunted and casually smashed the bug between its paws.
Nightshade looked around carefully, but didn't find any more of the creatures. Just two, both dead. He stared at Templeton. He could have stabbed her. He swallowed. Why didn't he? Shaking his head, he marched to the river bank.
Dreamcloud hurriedly waded in, while Starflower flew to a large rock in the middle of the water.
Melissa removed her pouch, handing it to Templeton. "Here. Put this in that chest. I don't want to ruin the cel phone."
The rat nodded and put it away.
Melissa shot Nightshade a sidelong glance, then frowned. She shivered, hurrying to the other side, Bongo and Templeton following. Nightshade flew after them.
The sun had turned red, becoming lower in the sky.
"I do not wish to stay here," said Dreamcloud. "We should keep moving."
Dreamcloud led them up the shore, up and through the weeds, passing beneath The Roost.
Black smoke billowed through the brush. The smell of burning wood and fabric lay thick in the air. The hybrid looked up and saw bright tongues of fire licking out from the edges of the structure, orange embers showing between the cracks in the boards.
Nightshade heard a scuttling sound. He turned and saw a koala bear scrambling down a tree at a remarkably un-koala-like speed. Looking exhausted, he loped over to Nightshade, caught his breath, and cried, "Listen! You guys have got to help me! The Huruts set the Roost on fire and we need to get everybody to safety!"