They took them all, put them all in a prison camp, and only I and my friend can save them!
| The cycle of war began with the rains of Spring, and the ditches were filled with water topped with yellow-red fungus, and the wriggling larva grew in these pools of creation, and the mosquitoes emerged to join the flies and the swirling gnats that filled the mouth and nostrils, and I carried a squirt gun in one hand and a spray bottle in the other, and my friend, Lita, carried a super soaker as we fought the endless waves of insects until the green Spring faded into Summer where swirling clouds of dust flew across the Desert Field until they were lost among the trees of the Forest World, and we fought the legions marching between giant trees, and across our tiny world, they fell in endless waves before our laser guns, and the trees became tinged with color as Fall began, and like a flame the color would slowly grow until the trees were engulfed, and the world was on fire, and the dead would rise from beneath the thin veil of rotting leaves until we sealed them back beneath the earth in the deep graveyard-mud, and the veil was covered by the falling snow of Winter, and our noses were filled with its dry scent as we traveled through icy portals, crowned with Christmas lights, to other worlds where we saved their kaleidoscope cities from the oncoming night, and the rains came and melted the snow, and it began again. And I was at the center of it all; I was the protagonist; without me, the world would crumble into ruin.
Lita Foster, who I mentioned earlier, was my Lieutenant; don't listen to her if she tries to tell you different; she doesn't imagine anything right. On a warm day in late summer, we were the directors of an animal rescue; all the stuffed animals around the room were our rescuees. We didn't just rescue dogs and cats, but snakes, and tigers, and alligators--and even bunnies. Before we could solve the problem of the bunnies eating all the rest, we were shooed outside by my parents as they said old people things like, "in my day we played outside uphill both ways in the snow," and "Cabel Price," (that's my name,) "don't you talk back to us." So, we opened the wooden door to our lair: the deep, dark, and cold cave, and the door vanished behind us. There was a large cave mouth in front where the Limestone River began and a small door in the back. Bike-shaped stalactites hung from the wall, and water dripped down from their handlebars onto the floor. It smelled more like stagnant water pooling on cement than the musty, rocky smell of a cave, but we had to take what we were given.
"Sound the alarm!" Lita yelled.
Foolish! I should have been more vigilant. I ran over to the wooden fort in the corner; it had a strong scent of sawdust and plywood. I climbed the ladder feeling the flimsy boards that made up its rungs, and I reached the top and grabbed a laser rifle and spun around taking aim at the intruders. One had Lita's hands behind her back and the other two were advancing with swords drawn. They were too close; what if I hit her? Before I could do anything, Lita tore her hand free, and in one smooth motion, grabbed the knife on her belt and stabbed behind her. I heard the solid--thunk!--as it made contact. The enemy fell backwards and let go as the others raised their swords above their heads and charged. She dodged both and stabbed one in the back, and I killed the other with a red blast of plasma.
"How did they find us?" I asked
"I don't know."
"I hope they didn't alert any others."
"We better suit up quickly."
Lita climbed up. I grabbed a laser pistol for a secondary weapon, and I put it in the waistband of my shorts. Lita only grabbed a laser rifle; she had her trusty knife for backup. And I grabbed the binoculars.
"Ready Lieutenant?" I asked.
"How many times do I have to tell you I am not your Lieutenant; I am the Princess of the Legions of Darkness."
"But you're my Lieutenant, and we command the Legions of Light."
"You command the Light and I the Darkness. Thus, we meet as equals."
"But you can't be."
"Princesses don't fight in wars."
"You can't just say the opposite."
There was no reasoning with some people, so I said, "We need to make a plan," to change the subject.
"Who are we fighting?"
"Because they're The Enemy."
"We need a reason to fight."
"They... they took the animals, and they're keeping them in the Forest World."
"We must save them!"
"I think we should lead our legions down upon their camp and destroy it in a blaze of glory!"
"A better plan would be to deploy our Legions into No Man' Land as a distraction, and we can sneak past and take the World Tree. From there, we have a good vantage point to gather intelligence."
"I like my plan better," I said petulantly.
"My Legions our going to No Man's Land."
"Just don't complain when your plan fails."
"Let's go," she commanded.
We left the cave into the bright sunlight of the afternoon, and we put our backs against the outside wall.
"Release the Legions," I said.
And we watched as the Legions of Light and Dark spread out over No Man's Land like the coming wave of a flood sweeping away enemy fortifications like loose dirt, and pouring down into the trenches, and filling them with the sounds of fighting. We squinted through the sunlight and saw the bursts of red, green, and purple bolts of pure energy flying back and forth, and the towers of fire, as spaceships flew over and dropped their bombs. One of their spaceships, shaped like brick, was hit by one of mine, circular, with mandibles in the front like an insect, and the brick fell to the ground and exploded with a giant mushroom cloud engulfing the enemies.
"Come on," Lita said
She had run along the edge of the cave towards a thick maple tree, and I followed along after her. In the distance, the World Tree reached up with its many thin fingers to the smoke-filled heavens.
We both squatted down with our backs against the maple. Another ship fell, and the explosion rent the earth, and the air was filled with unbearable heat and choking ashes as small debris rained down over our heads, and the smell of burning filled our nostrils. We waited tensely for the smoke to clear. The World Tree loomed up before us untouched in the burning sky.
"All clear," I whispered after a few seconds.
I looked over, but Lita was already halfway to the next maple. I hurried after her, and we both reached it at the same time.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Moving towards the World Tree," she said matter-of-factly.
"We're supposed to be a team!"
"Okay, you go first, and I will cover you."
"You go first, and I'll cover you."
"I said it first."
Suddenly, we were surrounded by our enemies with their guns raised. They all fired at once, and the plasma arced towards us. But by some miracle, every single beam missed and I stood up with my back against the tree, and I could feel its grooved bark, and I thought this was the end, but I saw Lita lift her gun with a scowl congealing on her face, and I lifted my gun and smiled. And we stood there firing upon the enemies until there were none left, and it was quiet, momentarily, before the sounds of the battlefield crept back in.
"Cover me," I said.
She nodded and held her gun ready, "Go!"
I ran out. There wasn't any cover now until I reached the World Tree. The midday sun shone down on the close-cropped grass that made up the flat yard until it fell away into a groove that widened until it became a valley between two hills, and the Ditch River flowed through it with boiling, muddy waters, and further in the distance, the great trees of the Forest World filled up the horizon. The World Tree loomed up in front of me with four large trunks reaching up with willowy fingers adorned with golden leaves. And there were three enemy barricades between me and it.
I hurtled forward dodging plasma and shooting anything that moved; any enemy I missed, Lita hit with a well-aimed shot. Then I was over the first barricade, two more to go, and then I was past the second, only one more left, and I was at the third, and then it was over, and the enemies who weren't dead were running towards the Desert Field, and I stood before the World Tree--triumphant.
"LOOK OUT!" Lita screamed.
I spun around and saw the enemy too late as he pulled the trigger, and the purple beam flew towards me. I ducked, and my feet flew out from under me as I slipped on the loose shale, and I plunged towards the ground, and in slow motion, I watched as the purple energy fly over me where my head had been moments before, and I hit the ground hard and started sliding towards the cliff until plunging both hands into the ground and leaving two long grooves behind, I slid to a halt at the edge, and a few pieces of shale slide over and fall into the mist below.
I lay on my belly coughing, and through the swirling dust, I had disturbed, I saw the gun pointed at me, and then the cold eyes behind the sights and the finger on the trigger, and I closed my eyes, and I heard a--thunk!--and a scream, and when I opened my eyes, I was still alive. The curtain of dust parted, and Lita was revealed standing over the enemy with her knife.
"They almost had you there," she said.
"Just help me up."
She put out her hand, and I grabbed it and pulled myself up.
"Let's just never mention this again," I said.
And behind her, I saw the enemy, lift his gun, and pull the trigger, and he took one rattling last breath and died. I sprang forward and tackled her. The bolt grazed her shoulder as we fell heavily to the ground. But I lost hold of her as we slid toward the edge, and sliding on my belly, I tried to grasp her outstretched hand, but the ground was moving faster and faster, and it carried her over the cliff. I leapt forward and slid on my side all the way to the edge and I looked down with my heart in my throat. She was there hanging on a ledge with one hand; her other hand hung uselessly at her side.
"Don't let go!"
And I tried to grab her arm and pull her up. But my hands were slick with sweat, and her arm was slick with blood.
She looked up with lines of strain painted across her forehead and said, "Go on."
"Don't you dare let go!"
Her fingers started to slip off the ledge.
"You must save the animals," and she let go, and her arm slipped through my hands.
I watched as she fell and was swallowed up by the mist.
Walking away from the cliff was like playing tug-of-war against everyone at school; it was giving up hope; it was giving up on Lita. But I couldn't let her die for nothing, so I hurried over to the World Tree and climbed up the first trunk. I climbed up until the ground was far away, and the trunk was almost horizontal, and I could sit comfortable and peer down at the clouds like sheep grazing in the grass below, but their wool was grey and lit by the wavering light of the fires. I pulled out the binoculars, and I looked down on the battle. It raged on in a bloody stalemate. Out of desperations, I searched the ravine and at the miniature river that ran through it looking for any sign of Lita, but there was nothing, and I couldn't get the image out of my head of her limp body dragged through the turbulent waters until they spilled into the Ocean River far beyond the outskirts of the Forest World.
I tore the binoculars away and looked towards my destination: the prison camp. It lay on the side of the hill with camouflage tents arranged in neat rows and army men marching back and forth between them. I followed the slope down to the Ditch River. I had to cross it somehow. I scanned along the bank as far as I could see, and to the right of the camp, there was a line of pines growing on a gradual slope leading down to the river, and there was a wooden dam spanning it. That was my way across! There was a path winding its way between the Tropical Orchard and the cliff from here to there. I hesitated: the way would be perilous; there was little cover; if I was caught out in the open by a patrol, I wouldn't have a chance. But the day was waning fast, and I couldn't let Lita down, so I climbed down and made my way along the cliff.
On my right, the Tropical Orchard stood with its endless lines of trees stretching off into the distance. They were full of green leaves bare until Fall of their cornucopia of fruits and nuts. The cliff fell away, on the left, with a gentle slope of grass, swaying in the breeze, until it was lost in the mist below. The path continued straight for a long time until I came to a sharp turn. As I approached it, I heard the patrol marching down the path just beyond the bend. Any moment they would reach it, and they would see me. I looked around for any cover. The trees in the Orchard were too thin to hide behind and too neatly lined, so that everything was visible between their wide corridors, and on the left, the cliff was sheer. There footsteps were getting louder and louder. Right as I saw the flashes of movement through the trees, I looked over the cliff and jumped.
Five soldiers wandered along the path glancing around. One of them walked over to the cliff edge as if he had heard something--my fingers hung on a hidden ledge a few feet beneath him; my knuckles were white from the strain. Before my strength could betray me, he wandered back toward the others, and they disappeared in the direction of the World Tree. I climbed back up from the hidden ledge. I had no time to think about what would have happened if I hadn't seen it at the last instance. I pulled out the laser pistol and inched forward. I saw the sentry hidden up in the pines before he saw me, and with a quick blast, I dispatched him, and I climbed and slid down the slope until I reached the fractal bank of the Ditch River.
And then I was teetering perilously over the water as it rushed through the wooden logs that made up the dam. It shifted as one of the huge logs tumbled far down into the water. Plunk! And I dodged the muddy water that came flying back up, but I couldn't dodge the smell of sewage, and I gagged. I hurried forward, and I was halfway across when it shifted again; it was going to give way at any moment--and I started running, and I jumped just as the whole structure plunged down into the water. Sploosh! And as my hands scrabbled against the ground on the far bank, the slimy leaves gave way beneath them, and I was sliding down its sheer side until with the water rushing up to meet me, I grabbed a tree root and held on, and I pulled myself up onto the decaying mat of leaves before the root gave way too. And then I lay there for a long while.
The woods were quiet, but my ears buzzed with the ghost of explosions past, and as I lay there, I began to hear yelling coming from the direction of the camp. I pulled out my binoculars, and I saw the enemies moving around the camp like ants whose anthill had been crushed by an unwitting foot, and someone stood out in all the chaos. I shook my head and looked back--and it was Lita standing there, bedraggled, but surprisingly healthy for someone who had recently fallen a great distance. She was in the middle of the camp surrounded and in dire need. There was no time to plan; no time to hesitate. I charged forward--death waited.
"Hold on Lita!" I yelled, "I'm coming to save you!"
I hurtled forward, leaving a trail of dark swaths behind me, as the top layer of leaves clumped under my feet and slid over the wet mat beneath with rasping sounds. I weaved between the trees, and as each enemy rose up before me, I shot them before they knew what was happening. I dodged a tree with smooth bark and long thorns: the enemy always liked to use Honey Locusts as traps. And then I was in the camp shooting everyone in sight and yelling at the top of my lungs. Lita stood so still that I was worried she really was dead.
"Where are the prisoners?" I asked the wounded enemy; the last one alive.
"What prisoners?" he asked.
I shot him in the leg, "Just do yourself a favor and tell me where they are."
He screamed in pain, "I--don't--know--what--you--mean."
"WHAT are YOU doing?" Lita asked.
I looked up. She hadn't moved, but she had gathered herself up, looking down at me, her face red, and she was accidentally pointing her gun at me.
"Saving the day."
I looked around, but didn't see any prison tents. And then I saw the small stone on the ground, and I kneeled with my hands shaking, and I wiped away the leaves and mud from its weathered side. Rainbow glass letters spelled out Milo. I found another stone, and with its own letters spelling Inky. Stones of different sizes littered the hillside.
"No!" I yelled and I shot the enemy dead and continued to shoot him over and over again.
"STOP!" Lita yelled, "There--were--no--PRIS-ON-ERS!"
She used her gun to emphasize each syllable; I noticed it was still pointing at me.
"What are you doing?"
"You lied. There were never any prisoners."
"But here are their graves."
"You want me to believe that the enemy killed all of them, and gave each one a personalized gravestone?"
"Okay, it's just the pet graveyard."
"Then why are we fighting?"
"We have to fight the enemy to keep everyone safe, um, and to--"
"How does this keep us safe?"
"I dislike it just as much as you, but we have no other option."
"No other option!?" she gathered herself up again, and she loomed over me--which was weird because we are the same height. And she continued, "I fell into the abyss, and was carried and buffeted on the raging river, and when I gave up all hope of ever stepping foot on dry land again, the water carried me close to the bank, and I grabbed onto a protruding root with numb hands, and I pulled myself up battered and bruised, and I crawled through miles of mud until I could walk again, and I traveled, alone, far behind enemy lines until I came to the camp, and I talked to our enemies and found out they were our friends, and we could have had peace, but for YOU--YOU came and MURDERED them ALL."
"That's a bit harsh."
"I was wrong to try to find reasons to fight when I should have looked for reasons to stop."
"You're imagining it all wrong!"
"Not even imaginary wars are bloodless--Goodbye!"
"Comeback! You can't just imagine all that."
But she didn't look back as she disappeared beyond the pines, and I was left alone, among the silent stones, in the quiet woods, with the warmth of the sun as it shone down from a clear blue sky.