Part 3: Chapter 3Sorry about the wait on this chapter.
All seven of them helped out, picking up Lighter and gently carrying him back to the Yado Inn in town through the heavy rain. There wasn't much more patching that needed to be done on him, but he could receive better attention in the village than out in the woods. Flint and Fuel took the opportunity to get looked at as well.
"You're all patched up now." Tessie smiled as she placed the finishing touches on Flint's gauze, wrapping it securely around his left ankle. He and Fuel weren't actually that beat up - his left shoulder was a little bruised from knocking down doors and breaking wooden beams, and his left ankle was twisted from all his running, but other than that, he was a picture of good health. Fuel had taken some light burns to the face, but it was nothing a week wouldn't fix.
"It's a good thing you two only suffered light injuries," remarked Thomas, before turning back to Lighter. He was lying on the only bed in the room, tired out from putting up with his pain, but he was having trouble falling asleep.
"Flint, please try and get some rest. Your ankle will do better the less weight you put on it."
Flint stood up from his chair, feeling his ankle rub against the tight binds of his gauze. It stung a little, but he strong; he could still run with the best of them. But Tessie was still right; it was late, he had a rough day, and he was just getting to bed when the whole scenario happened. And he'd still have to get up bright and early, because Hinawa and the kids were coming back tomorrow.
He adjusted his hat on his head and nodded his thanks to Tessie, who smiled and nodded back. With no limp at all in his walk, he left the Inn, already craving the warmth of his bed. "Flint," called Lighter, just as he took his first steps away. Flint turned back to Lighter. "Did you see anything else in the fire besides those weird bugs?"
"Like what?" he replied.
"I'm talking about some…" Lighter paused a bit, trying to find the words to describe it. "Suspicious people with pig-like masks on."
"Something like that."
"We did see a guy like that, yeah," offered Thomas, answering for Flint more clearly. "He had some kind of weird box with him, and when it opened, it let out more of those freaky fire-bugs."
"And you, Flint!" he shouted, getting himself riled up. "You…wound up pitch-black too!"
"Dad, calm down," said Fuel, gripping his father by the shoulder lightly. "Get some rest before you hurt yourself some more."
Lighter turned to his son at his side. "Oh yeah! They turned you pitch-black, too, Fuel! Well, you'll see!" He began to rise from his bed, fighting against his son pushing down on him by the shoulders. "I'll teach them to mess with my forest! My village!"
"Dad, you really need to stop," Fuel continued, pressing harder. Lighter was about to get out of bed, when he felt a pain in his chest, and reluctantly lied back down. It was a vulnerable time for Lighter; he was forced to admit that, for now, he was just full of hot air.
With Lighter done with his boasting, Flint left the room, off towards his home once more. Just as he left the building, he stood under the awning of the front door for a moment, letting the sound of the rain fill his ears.
Off in the distance was a tall man in a plaid shirt and overalls with a beanie hat, running up to the Inn as quickly as he could. He kept both his arms over his head and he slouched as he ran, trying to keep the water from his face.
"Perfect timing!" he shouted over the rain. "I heard you were taking a rest here." Rather than cut to the chase right away, he tried softening the conversation with some chatter. "Mighty heavy rain, isn't it?" Flint only grunted in response, nodding once. Isaac kept swaying on his feet, trying to keep himself dry. "Think I'll join you under the awning."
Once the rain stopped beating down on Isaac, he removed his arms from the top of his head. He quickly rubbed his hands together, blowing in between them once or twice, trying to warm the feeling back into his digits. "So, uh, Flint," he began. There was something on his mind, but he wasn't comfortable with starting his topic right away. "Have you, um…heard from Hinawa and the kids?"
"Not yet," Flint said quickly and gruffly. Flint was a quiet guy, but talking about his family was a sure-fire way to at least get a word out of him.
Isaac took a long pause before continuing. He was being very careful to map out his words and Flint's possible reactions, and with the way Flint hardly ever seemed to emote, he was being difficult for Isaac to judge. "I see," he finally said. "Actually, I was in the mountains earlier, picking mushrooms, before the fire started."
"Did you?" Flint asked, turning to Isaac. His hardened expression visibly lightened at the sound. "How was she?"
"She was fit as a fiddle," Isaac said matter-of-factly. "The kids weren't with her - I just assumed they were still at old man Alec's for the time being. We had a good chat about the weekend and how your kids were doing. They're doing great, by the way," he added, answering Flint's question before he could ask it.
"A few hours later, I was taking a break down by the river," Isaac continued, "I heard a few loud roars off in the distance." Isaac was beginning to become audibly nervous as he spoke, his stutters and pauses lengthening between each word. "It sounded like it was a Drago, so I didn't really pay it any mind at first."
Isaac took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. Flint looked at Isaac, noticing his paling complexion and his overall body language over the story.
"What are you implying, Isaac?" Flint said. Flint was the kind of guy where if he asked you a question like that the way he had, there was no escaping without giving him an answer.
"I…" Isaac was in too deep to start back-peddling now. "I don't mean to imply anything, Flint, but…"
Hinawa, Claus, and Lucas had definitely not returned that day - he was getting ready to pack it in before the fire struck. He was excited for tomorrow because he knew his wife and kids would be back. And they were smart enough to know not to cross the forest while it was on fire. So they…they still had to be at Alec's house, on the fringe.
But now Isaac was getting Flint paranoid. They were due back a few hours ago, but he thought their lateness was just because the kids were giving Hinawa a hard time about leaving. And that thing about Dragos - Dragos were kind to humans. They wouldn't have touched his family, right?
Any thought of his wife and kids being in any sort of danger began to make Flint's skin crawl. Before he started thinking drastic thoughts, he rushed back to his house as quickly as he could. He didn't know what to find or what to do, but anything to take his mind off what Isaac was suggesting.
At his home was faithful Boney, standing at the opening to his doghouse, greeting his master loyally once Flint made his way up the hill. But sitting at the front door to the house was a sleeping pigeon - a familiar pigeon, with a note tied around its leg with a small wire. It was one of Alec's carrier pigeons, and the note must have been from Hinawa. The weight on his mind was lifted: the birds went pretty fast, so Hinawa must have sent it recently.
Eagerly but gently enough to not hurt the bird (rudely waking it in the process), he picked it up and quickly undid the tie around its leg, releasing the note. He unfurled it and read the contents to himself hastily, wanting to hear the news from his wife. The first thing he found was Hinawa's signature at the bottom; just to make sure it was from her.
My father seems sad to say goodbye to his grandchildren after seeing them for the first time in so long, but we should be home by this evening.
I had forgotten how nice and refreshing the mountain air is. You always smell like sheep back in Tazmily Village, so I really wish you could have been here to take in this air. The next time we visit, let's ask one of the neighbors to take care of the sheep so we can all come up here as a family.
Claus, Lucas and I were always thinking about you. When we get home this evening, I'll start cooking some of your favorite omelets right away.
With love, your dearest Hinawa
Flint read the letter once, then twice more, before taking it inside. Hinawa wrote that they'd be back in the evening, early enough for supper - it was nearly midnight now…
Once the cold of the rain began to get to him, he took the letter inside, to reread a few times more. He had lost track of how many times, and of the hour, when Isaac and Fuel allowed themselves into his house. Since there was no crime in Tazmily, a person walking into another person's house uninvited wasn't unusual. Once he realized he had company, he quickly folded the letter up and placed it into his pants pocket.
"They're still not back?" Isaac asked, looking around the house for any sign of them. "With all this rain, they could catch cold."
"Yeah," Flint replied, which was unusual - he normally just grunted or nodded to a statement like that.
"I'll go find them!" Fuel offered, already bounding on the spot.
"It's getting late. We probably should look for them." He turned to Fuel. "Let's get the over villagers to help, too. The fire is under control thanks to the rain, so it ought to be safe."
"Okay," agreed Fuel. "I'll go tell my dad, then." And he was off, Isaac following slowly behind. Flint didn't like this whole thing - not that the villagers were willing to help out, but that they even had to do anything at all. They should have been back by now…
Collecting himself, he left the house, on his way to the square to join in the efforts to find his family. The rain was still pouring hard, his boots tromping heavily through the mud, but before he could go very far, Boney started barking loudly.
"You want to come with, boy?" Flint asked, running his hand through Boney's fur as he spoke. Boney wagged his tail and barked some more, answering his question positively. "Alright, buddy," Flint said, "let's go find Mom and the kids." Boney was a smart, well-behaved dog, and knew not to run off chasing critters or barking when he didn't need to. He didn't even need a leash.
The village square was bone quiet; not a soul in sight. Except for a very excited Thomas, running around in circles like a chicken with its head missing, his horn ringing and roaring the whole time.
Two of the neighborhood kids were talking nervously among themselves about the missing family, in the shelter of the decorative arch hanging high above them.
Matt was just a little bit farther north, gazing out into the drenched fields of grass. He turned around at the sound of Flint's heavy footfalls tromping through the grass, with Boney galloping dutifully behind.
"Flint," he said, hiccupping once. "Everyone has gone to the Prayer Sanctuary. They're just waiting for you to get there before they can figure out their next move."
And without another word, he was off, jogging lopsidedly in the totally opposite direction. He must have been drunk out of his gourd.
It was a quick run from the village square back to the sanctuary. The rain was really coming down hard, and he and Boney were soaked through to the bone. The edges of his hat began to cave very slightly with the water it was damming up over its top, and his boots were so wet they were beginning to leak through to his socks. Standing at the entrance to the sanctuary was not 'everyone' as Matt had promised, but instead just unshaven Jonel and old man Wess.
"Oh, there you are, Flint," Jonel began once Flint was within speaking distance.
"You've been blessed with kind friends," he mumbled, turning away from Flint. "That must be true happiness, in one sense." Jonel's words were not unkind, but his tone was…disdainful. And before Jonel could say anything more, he turned and began walking briskly into Sunshine Forest, leaving him and Boney with Wess.
"You're not helping?" Flint asked, not meanly, but inquisitively.
"It seems no one is aware of just how strong I really am," he sighed, shrugging his shoulders. "But when you need me - and you will," he winked, "I'll be here." He turned sideways, allowing Flint passage. "Go find your family, Flint." And with a readjustment of his hat, Flint left Wess, off to join the village.
It was only a few long strides into the woods when he began to hear loud bellows for Hinawa, Claus and Lucas from the others. Some of them complained about the hour and shivered at the cold of the rain, but they all soldiered on - Flint and Hinawa had contributed no more to the tiny community than anyone else, but in a village where everybody knew everybody, a missing person was a devastating loss. And the boys were only kids, no less.
The fire had been doused thanks to the rain, so most of the danger had passed. But with the fire gone, the forest's wildlife began to reclaim what was theirs, coming out of their hiding spots in droves. In particular, the fire seemed to change the Yammonsters somehow, making them larger and more physically imposing.
Tons of poisonous snakes, too. Isaac and his antidotes were common necessities when hiking through the forests. Hinawa and the kids each always brought spares.
They weren't very bright, at least.
Villagers were scarce in the comparatively large forest, but they were all putting in the effort to find Flint's family. They stuck to the trails, calling out their names occasionally, figuring there wasn't much place else for them to hide to. They all silently hoped that they were still at Alec's, since the only other alternative was in the forest, during the fire.
The path to Alec's was blocked off earlier by flames too intense to pass by, although that peculiar man in the uniform was able to sprint through it without too much trouble. Flint sprinted forward; the man in the uniform had released bugs that could spit fire, so him taking the path towards his father-in-law's house was a bad thing. The people's hopes weren't wavered, though: Hinawa had a good head on her shoulders. She would have known what to do in a crisis like that. Optimism was high with the group, but with Flint, his hopes were the highest.
He kept running forward, keeping his eye out for anything the others might have missed. A piece of cloth, or a shoe, or something, to tell him that his wife and kids were nearby.
The activity was beginning to pick up as the forest met the canyon, with more and more villagers populating the thicket the farther in he went. By this point, he was closer to Alec's than to Tazmily, so it made sense to concentrate their efforts farther north than usual.
Their reports still weren't very encouraging, though.
Up ahead was where the path branched into two: the eastern path went straight into the fringes, bee-lining a traveler right into Alec's house after a few minutes of leisurely walking. The west went up some mountains, before the path suddenly dead-ended just a short bit from the fork. A group of villagers had begun to crowd around the eastern path, stopped by a pair of fallen trees that were too dangerous to climb over and two wide in the bottleneck path to go around.
Bronson was among the small group of villagers remaining, his hand stroking his chin in thought over how they were going to get around this. "I can't believe my eyes," he said, turning to Flint when he heard him run up to his group. "Just look at this, Flint. These huge trees were snapped in two."
At a first glance, anyone would have thought that they were toppled by the fire, or maybe from some unlucky strikes of lightning. But Bronson had put it correctly - they were snapped in two.
"We're trying to figure out who could have done this," Bateau, a mathematician, said. "There's one thing for sure, though; whatever did this wasn't a human."
Bronson stepped forward, looking over the trees and their many branches and their thick trunks. "What do we do now?" he hummed, looking both of them over again and again. "They have the path completely blocked. We gotta move them somehow."
"Actually, Hinawa and the kids might still be stuck out there," piqued in Jackie. He was a devout artist, believing anything was a canvas - a view most certainly not limited to his purple hair. "Because the trees are in the way, right? So, if they're not over here, they gotta be over there."
Flint and Bronson both considered Jackie's thoughts. It was a logical assumption, at least.
"Then we should split into a few groups," said Bateau. "Jackie, Tessie and I will go this way. We'll try and find some other way around, maybe through the mountains or something."
"Good plan," agreed Bronson. "Flint and I will pull a little muscle with these trees." With nothing further to add, the group split into two. Just as Flint was going to examine the debris more closely, he heard someone calling for their attention down the trail towards Tazmily.
"Lighter, what the hell, man." Although it was no surprise to see Lighter up and carrying that four-by-four plank of wood like a walking stick, Bronson still couldn't help but smile. "This is probably a new record for you and all, but are you sure you're in good enough shape to be out here?"
Lighter seemed to take some personal offense to the comment. "I'm always in good enough shape," he huffed. "Don't treat me like some injured clod!" He thrust the end of his plank of wood into the earth to emphasize his strength. "Isaac, Bronson and I will handle the trees," he began, already taking charge. Typical Lighter. "You got a wife to rescue, Flint. Go with Bateau and find another way around."
"This way is-" Flint began, before Lighter cut him off.
"This will take time, Flint, which we're running out of." Flint's expression did not change, though Lighter was putting a lot of effort into his finality of the scenario. "Go with the others." Flint could have argued - the way he and Lighter fought all the time, it was almost a reflex - but he conceded this time. After adjusting his hat to vent the water pooling over its edges, he and Boney began west, catching up with Bateau and his workers.
The ground was torn up pretty bad, and numerous trees were torn down the same way as the first two. It looked as though a Drago had gone rampaging through the woods here, but Drago weren't usually found in the forests, and Drago were very passive creatures. What could have made one go on such a rampage like that?
Just at the end of the path, before the ground gave way to the mountain, Bateau and Jonel were surveying their options. The only obvious thing left for them to do was to scale the mountain and find a way down from the other side, but the first step was being a little disagreeable.
Where Bateau was thoroughly searching the area for any sign of a path or means to go up, Jonel was too busy marveling at the side of the mountain itself; specifically, two enormous craters notched into its edges. "You see those?" he pointed, speaking to Flint. "It's just a guess, but I'd say a Drago made it's way up from here.
"You see those claw marks? They just gotta be from a Drago. Those were its toes. Those big holes were from its feet." He paused a bit, trying to soak in his own information. "But why would a Drago claw at stuff like this, enough to put gashes into the rock, even? They're usually such peaceful creatures. Something must have spooked it good."
Flint grunted in thought. "Or madder than a Mad Duck with mud in its wings."
"Maybe, maybe," he agreed. He turned to face Flint. "More likely, actually. I just…have this feeling that something bad is happening to the forest, the people, the animals, and myself, y'know? First a fire, then Hinawa and the kids are missing, and now some rampaging Drago? I don't think it's all a coincidence."
Flint said nothing more; he was reminded of what Isaac had said to him earlier, and he wasn't thrilled with thinking about it.
"Now that you mention it, Jonel," said Bateau, having overheard the conversation. "All the forest critters have been acting weird. Haven't you noticed? Those Yammonsters are usually so timid and passive. I'm getting a lot of real bad vibes here." He immediately tried to take it back, knowing that that might have made Flint feel worse about his situation. "I mean, I mean that in a good way!"
There wasn't much more to this side of the path that Flint could see. He knew he would have been put to better work with the others, moving the trees, so he began to head back, just when Boney started acting peculiarly.
Before Flint could try and guess what was wrong, Boney had raced back to the cliff face and began scratching and clawing at it, barking up its wall.
"What is it, Boney?" Jonel asked. Boney only barked in response. "Flint!" he yelled, "I think Boney found something!"
Flint came rushing up to his dog, bending at the knee once he was close enough to pet. "What is it, boy?" he asked, running his hand through Boney's soaking wet fur. "What did you find?"
Boney simply turned back to the cliff face, looked up, and let out a great big howl, trying to point the human's eyes in his direction. The three of them looked over the mountain, trying to find what Boney had, when Bateau began to point up there as well.
"I don't see it," said Jonel.
"You don't? It's right up there! Caught on that branch near the top! There's a bit of red flapping in the wind, there!"
The three others whirled around in surprise, not expecting Wess to be right behind them. "Old man Wess!" Jonel exclaimed, "what are you doing here? I don't mean to sound offensive or anything, but there's not much a rickety old man can do to help us out here."
Wess began to stare daggers through Jonel. "Rickety?! I may be old, kid, but at least I don't still sleep in a crib!"
Jonel was about to retort, when Flint stopped him. "Help is help, Jonel," he said simply.
Wess looked grateful for the defense, particularly from Flint, whom everybody in the village, himself included, respected. "Thanks, Flint," he said, and began looking over the cliff face. "Don't tell me you guys intend on climbing this cliff, do you?" Flint only nodded; Bronson and Lighter wouldn't have moved the trees yet, so up was the only way left.
"But you know, maybe my son could be put to some use. I don't know if it'll help any, but hey, an extra pair of hands, right?" He smiled wryly. "A pair that's not old and rickety, right?"
Boney perked up his ears and walked briskly to Flint, hearing his name and responding immediately. "Hey boy." Flint bent down again, scratching Boney around the ears and down his neck. "Wess needs you to do something for him. Be a good boy and help him out." Boney, understanding every word, went to Wess, waiting for his instructions.
"Boney," he said, reaching into his back pocket for something, "find my son and bring him here. My son's name is Duster, and this is his scent."
"D-Don't forget that smell, now," he stuttered, trying to get past the powerful stench on Duster's sock. Boney took a few whiffs of the sock himself, and nearly hacked up his own lunch at the smell.
Wess untied the yellow bandana around his neck and put it around Boney's. "Show him this," he said, finishing the knots on the cloth, "and he'll know exactly what's going on." He secured the knot tightly, and stood back up. "Now fetch!" Boney barked twice, understanding his command, and was off.
Boney ran all the way back to Tazmily…
"At long last, it's time to put the thief skills you've studied since you were just a kid to the test." Wess went from talking like an old man without a lot of respect, to a harder teacher without much tolerance for antics. "Show us your Wall Staple technique! On this mountain wall, right now!"
Rather than charge forward and get right to it as Wess was expecting, Duster hesitated, looking over his expecting audience. "I studied the technique," he said solemnly, "I really did. But this is my first time using it for real, and in front of the others…I just hope this works."
"Alright, that should do it!" he yelled down below. He was glad that the Wall Staple technique worked as well as it had. "Come on up, Flint!"
With an adjustment to his hat, he and Boney began climbing the ladder, heading straight up the wall made out of nothing but oversized staples.
Just as Flint reached the top, amazingly - just as quickly as it had began, the rain began to lighten up. Once he and Boney pulled themselves onto the safety of the ground just at the top of the wall, the rain had been reduced to just a few odd drops from the sky here and there.
He turned back to Flint. "I have a bit of a leg handicap. Been born with a bum knee, and all that. But I can at least help you find a way back down."
"Thanks," grunted Flint, but naturally the first thing he was interested in was the piece of red cloth hanging off the dead tree teetering off the edge.
He didn't know what to think or what to make of it: it wasn't difficult to find a bit of cloth the same colour in Tazmily, but way out here in the middle of Sunshine Forest was a different story. He wanted to believe that it wasn't what it likely was, but all the same, he placed the cloth into his pants pocket, and pushed forward into the mountain, with Duster and Boney following close behind.
Just around the first bend on the flat surface of the mountain, though, they came across a peculiar sight:
It was two more of those weird men in that uniform from just a few hours ago. They had constructed some kind of…platform thing right there in the mountain. One of them was barking some kind of order to the other, which was standing in from of whatever was sitting on the device. Flint couldn't get a clear look at what the thing was from his angle. "Are they human?" asked Duster. They looked human enough…average height, two arms, two legs, a face…
The one barking the orders joined the second in front of the platform for just a second, before going back to where it stood before. "What are they doing?" he wondered aloud, trying to figure out what was sitting on that platform and what they were doing to it. They all approached the two and their device, managing to get close without them noticing, until the first one walked around the device and turned, noticing the three of them behind his cohort.
The second didn't notice right away, until he noticed his cohort's fixed stare behind him. When they both realized they were discovered, they both ran behind it - the first dashed forward, back towards his panel on the side of the device, and fiddled with some of the controls on it before they both started to make some weird noises at the three of them. And suddenly, the thing sitting on the platform was zapped to life in a spectacular display of light and electronics.
The thing began to make a quiet, whirring noise before the whole in the metal-half of its head lit up. And slowly, with a loud assortment of clicks and clangs in its inner workings, it began to stand. The taller it got, the more familiar it began to look - it was, or rather, it used to be a forest caribou. But those people in the uniforms had…changed it. Its entire backside and its right-front leg had been covered in metal, along with half its skull, including the antler. It looked more metal than flesh.
And it was mad.
With it tamed, Flint, Duster and Boney approached the two men in the uniforms, who were understandably shocked and frightened that they had managed to defeat their machine in combat. They didn't want anything to do with the three, so for every step Flint took forward, they would take two back, until they were forced to simply turn around and start sprinting. Knowing that they were responsible for whatever that machine was, and for the forest fire, Flint knew he couldn't let them go. But in their haste, one of them had dropped a notebook of some kind. It was adorned with a pink drawing of a pig's snout on its front, and it was awfully small. Flint picked it up as he ran, intent on flipping through it later.
They were awfully quick for their attire, however, and before Flint could catch up to them, they both had crowded into a very large…thing, which then proceeded to somehow fly into the sky, and in an instant, shot off over the cloudy horizon.
With that out of his hands, he flipped open the cover of the notebook he picked up to its first page. There was writing in it, but it was in massive letters with squiggly lines; like it was written by a child. It was still legible enough, at least.
All the animals around here suck. We need to make 'em cooler.
We'll mix and match this and that to create whole new things no one's ever seen before! I dub it the "Fascinating Chimera Project". Let's reconstruct and modify stuff slowly and steadily.
"What does it say, Flint?" asked Duster.
Flint read the page over, just to make sure he hadn't somehow missed any smaller words between the larger letters. "We should head back," was his only reply.