“Something bad is coming.” Callie said, all of a sudden.
Everyone’s head perked up.
It was now several hours since they had left Murgent. The morning sun had risen. Breakfast had been enjoyed by all. Jon had relieved Mike of the wheel some time ago; Callie sat beside him in the front seats. All around them, the woods grew thick and close; but till now had shown only minimal signs of life. Callie’s words broke the comfortable silence into which they had all relaxed.
“Is this a Conjuura thing?” Mike asked, “Or one of those ‘woman’s intuition’ things?”
“I don’t know, I just work here.” Callie replied.
“Is it something behind us? Ahead of us?” Edward asked, “From the woods maybe?”
He glanced nervously out of his window.
“Beats the hell out of me.” Callie said, “It’s just a vague feeling; a sense of unease.”
“Should I go faster?” Jon asked.
“What part of ‘I don’t know’ are you people having a problem with?”
“I’ll go faster.” Jon said, and stepped on the gas.
“There is a way to find out.” Edward said.
“How?” Mike asked.
“YOU, Mike. You’re the Ma’jai. You can use your wizbang powers to scope things out.”
“My wizbang powers haven’t quite checked in yet.”
“That’s not entirely true.” Callie said, “Last night you were able to astral project, or whatever the hell they call it. Maybe you should try that now. See if you can see anything up ahead of us.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sort of happened on its own.” Mike said, “I wouldn’t even know where or how to begin.”
“If you are a Ma’jai, it should come naturally, no?” Jon asked, “Just rattle around in your noggin a bit, and see what pops out.”
“Alright, I’ll give it a shot.” Mike said.
Mike spent the next several minutes trying to recreate his out-of-body experience. He closed his eyes, relaxed, and tried to find that place within himself that already knew how to accomplish that feat.
After some searching, he found at last the outer edges of that mysterious place that had always been there, hidden away. Once found, it was only a matter of mastering the controls.
Mike detached himself from his body, and floated up through the roof of the station wagon; keeping pace with it as he ascended. Looking down, he realized that, if he tried hard enough, he could see through the wagon’s roof at Callie, Jon, Edward, and his own body. Knowledge of this ability came to him as easy as in a dream; as if he had always known, and was now merely remembering.
He flew above the tree-tops, and the exhilaration was incredible. The trees were glowing bright green with what Sparo had told him was called the Voss Vedu’un. The same power he had drawn on to rekindle his strength, during his tussle with Sparo in the basement of the Sarrgoset Hotel.
The trees graciously gave of their bounty to him, but he had to stop himself from taking all that was offered; he had a task to perform.
He pulled ahead of the wagon, and looked through the trees, until he saw a sight that sent him flying back to the wagon in a headlong rush.
He dropped back down into his body like a lead weight.
His eyes flew open, and he yelled: “JON, STOP THE WAGON!”
Jon slammed the brakes as a large log, with branches still sticking out of it, landed in front of the station wagon. They stopped short of hitting the log, but were all jolted by the sudden stop. Had they not stopped when they did, the log might have crushed the passenger compartment.
“What the hell?!” said Jon.
“Reverse, Jon!” cried Mike, “Back up!”
But he was too late, and another log fell behind them, trapping them.
“Lock the doors!” Mike yelled.
“I don’t think that’s going to help.” said Jon, pointing at what had thrown the logs.
Two seven-foot tall hairy men, broad of shoulders and wide of body, walked out of the woods and slouched toward the wagon. They were dressed in sewn-together tattered rags that served as pants, girded with ropes.
“Are those…Ridlaks?” Edward asked.
“Yes,” said Mike, “But they’re not alone.”
From behind the Ridlaks came forth a horde of wild men of more human size. They were dressed in a fashion similar to the Ridlaks, and were about as hairy. They moved quickly to surround the wagon.
“Azzamats?” Callie asked.
“Worse,” said Jon, “Frellam.”
The first Ridlak reached the wagon, and bashed down on the wagon’s hood, again and again. It then peeled off the hood like the skin off a grape, threw it aside, and began to work on the wagon’s innards.
Callie turned her back on the destruction.
“What do we do, Mike?” she shouted over the din.
Before Mike could answer, the other Ridlak reached the back of the wagon, and smashed in the back window. A rain of shattered glass filled the back cargo area. The giant tore off the back door hatch, with a grunt.
“CALLIE GET DOWN!” Jon cried.
Callie turned to see the front-side Ridlak take a swing at the windshield. Jon pushed Callie down to the floor of the wagon and hunkered down over her as the Ridlak’s arm and fist crashed through and showered them with broken glass.
Meanwhile, the Ridlak at the back walked over to Edward’s door, and punched through the glass. Mike pulled Edward to him as the Ridlak grabbed the door with both hands and pulled it off its hinges. It tossed the door aside, reached in, and grabbed Edward’s legs.
Edward held on tight to Mike, as the Ridlak tried to drag him out.
“MIKE!” he shouted in panic, “DON’T LET IT GET ME!!”
Mike tried to hold on to him, but the creature pulled hard and yanked Edward out. Mike went after him, but once out of the wagon, a Frellam grabbed him. Jon and Callie were likewise forced out by the Frellam. The Ridlak with Edward had him hanging upside down by the legs, and started to swing him around. It smiled with malice as Edward screamed and yelled; until the other Ridlak came over and gave him an open-handed whack on the back of the head. It dropped Edward and snarled at the other.
“Fatta ozga, Gridumpidu!” it growled, “Krada nootch gra nalanan!”
“Ovudo ozga bujog, Grogguch.” the other replied.
Edward got up and started to run over towards Mike and the others, but one of the Frellam grabbed him and cuffed him on the side of the head hard enough to knock him out.
“HEY!” Mike yelled, and tried to run to him. As he started to do so, he saw from the corner of his eye, Jon and Callie falling to the ground. He understood what was about to happen a second before he felt the blow to the back of his head.
Then came darkness.
Mike awoke to the sensation of being carried.
He was strung over the shoulder of one of the Frellam; his face irritated by it’s coarse back-hair (not to mention it’s awful stench).
He turned his head, and saw Callie, Jon, and Edward also being carried over Frellam shoulders. He couldn’t tell if any of them were awake yet.
There was no telling how long he had been out, but he could at least find out where they were being taken.
Mike closed his eyes, and concentrated on detaching himself from his body. The act came easier this time; Mike willed himself up beyond the treetops, and looked down.
There were about thirty Frellam in the group, plus the two Ridlaks, who followed at the rear. Most of the other Frellam carried sacks of animals big and small that they must have caught hunting. They had carried Mike’s group deep into the woods.
They now approached a clearing with a large encampment of primitive huts. There were more Frellam there: females, children, and those males left behind to guard them.
At the center of the encampment was a huge black cauldron. It looked like a communal area. Many bones were scattered around its perimeter; from small stick bones, to thick and substantial bones.
A meal had been had here, and recently.
Nearby was a deep rectangular pit, with a wooden house door set into it. The door was locked with an iron latch.
Mike looked through the door at two forlorn figures, trapped inside. Curious, Mike willed himself down into the pit to get a better look at them, as they were of a race he had never seen before, except in books.
Treehoppers! Mike thought, in wonder, Bufaaru, they call themselves. What are they doing here? They only live in the vast Ferren Forest, where the trees are HUGE.
The two Bufaaru in the pit were male and female; the female lay with her head on the male’s chest, and the two were holding hands. Their prehensile tails were intertwined. They were about five feet tall, they were furry, like monkeys; but their faces were hairless and human-like.
The two looked up at Mike, and gasped.
They can see me! Mike thought, until light filled the pit, and he realized that they were reacting to the opening of the wooden door; perhaps fearing that their time was up.
But it wasn’t; not yet.
The Frellam that had captured Mike and the others had reached the hole, and had opened the door to deposit their new catch.
Mike turned towards the opening, in time to see his own body tossed down, through, and past himself. When his body landed, Mike felt himself jerked back into it. He opened his eyes and got up, only to have Jon fall on him, followed by Callie, Edward, and several sacks worth of dead animals. The Frellam then shut and locked the door, leaving them in darkness.
The others had already regained consciousness, and now they fumbled around blindly in the dark (except for Mike, who could see in the dark, but was at the present moment pinned at the bottom of the pile).
“OWW! GET OFF!”
“My HAIR! Someone’s caught my HAIR!”
“Oh, is that what that is?”
“AHH! Who hit me with their elbow?”
“What is that SMELL?!”
“The stench of death, I believe.”
At last they unpiled themselves, and felt around their new prison.
“Why does everyone we meet want to lock us up?!” Callie lamented.
“It must be our sparkling personalities.” Edward replied.
“Is everybody okay?” Mike asked, “Considering the Concussion-Fest we’ve all just gone through…”
“I come for the head trauma, I stay for the service.” Jon said.
“I’m okay.” Edward said.
“Me too.” Callie said, “I could do without the luxurious aroma of dead things. Any chance of a good breeze?”
“No chance of that.” Jon said, testing the door’s give by pushing up on it with his hands, “The door’s shut tight. I think they must have put something heavy on it.”
“No, there’s a metal latch thingy.” Mike said.
“By the way, we’re not alone.”
“What?” Callie asked.
“There are two Bufaaru in here with us.”
“Treehoppers?” Jon asked, “Here?”
“Yeah. Gimme a minute and I’ll go see what’s up.”
“Last time I checked, you don’t speak ‘Jingo’, or whatever the heck the name of their language is.” Callie said.
“I think it’s ‘Jargo’.” Mike replied.
“Actually, it’s ‘Jogo’.” the male Bufaaru said, “But we can speak Thrist as well. Our race learned it long ago, in order to trade and barter with the Thrist. My name is Tullamigannan, and with me is my companion, Bellaillazuu.”
“Just call us Tullam and Bell.” the female said, in a delicate voice, “Bufaaru family names are always so needlessly long. Anyway, we were captured by the Frellam just as you were; but there were ten of us.”
“What happened to---” Edward started to ask, but stopped when Mike gave him a gentle nudge, “Oh…sorry.”
“Yes,” Tullam said, his voice sad, “They saved us for later. In case the hunters came back a little low.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Mike said, “What are Bufaaru doing in these here woods?”
“I could ask the same of you.” Bell replied.
“Granted, but isn’t your race situated predominantly in the Ferren Forest?”
“Yes it is,” Tullam said, “But about nine years ago, the Gistren, the most powerful of the tree-tribes of Ferren, began a war of conquest. Many trees were conquered. Bell and I were leaders of the Sedare tree-tribe. We and our allies fought hard against the Gistren Alliance for nine long years; but in the end…”
“We lost,” Bell said, “And were exiled.”
“Exiled?” Callie asked, “To the ground?”
She remembered reading that, for the Bufaaru, being expelled from the tribal tree, to scrounge a living off the forest floor, was a great humiliation; and tantamount to a death sentence, since the forest floor was full of predators.
“It was worse than that.” Bell said, “They gathered up the surviving heads of the tribes that had allied against them, and exiled us and our families; not just from our trees, but from Ferren itself, on pain of death.”
Bell stopped, and Mike could see a silent tear stream down her face.
Tullam continued for her: “Bell and I led them out of Ferren, enduring many painful losses along the way. These were the closest woods available to us, so we came here; only to discover that a tribe of Frellam from the north had also made their home here.”
“And the Frellam are always hungry.” Bell added.
“So how did you get captured?” Jon asked.
“Like the Frellam, we have to eat too.” Tullam said, “These trees are not as rich in sustenance as those in Ferren; and we’ve had to start hunting for food on the ground. A dangerous proposition, let me tell you. So we instituted a ground-hunting force.”
“It worked well,” Bell said, “Until last night…”
“And now eight of my friends are dead.” Tullam said, shame and grief palpable in his voice, “Food for the wretched Frellam!”
Mike saw Bell take Tullam’s hand, and kiss it.
“So now you’ve heard our sad story,” Bell said, “What is yours? How did you get here?”
“Long story short: we’re running away from one ruthless enemy, toward an even worse one.” Mike said, “It’s complicated.”
“Confusing as well.” Edward added.
“The Frellam somehow knew we were coming.” Mike went on, “They attacked us and destroyed our vehicle.”
“How could they have known you were coming?” Bell asked.
“I don’t know.” Mike replied, “But I can guess.”
“So what do we do now?” Edward asked, “Wait to die?”
“No.” Mike said, “We’re getting out of here. All of us.”
“You have a plan?” asked Callie.
“Nope,” Mike replied, “Something better.”