Chikchiks and snatchers and spoats, oh my!
Missed days seven and eight… I need to start catching up if I’m going to shoot for 50K by the end of the month, but I figure if I can just write every day I’ll be pretty happy. Today, more forest.
As they moved deeper into the forest, Tony started to feel strange. The first part of the survey had been reassuringly normal. Although all of them were disappointed at the lack of new discoveries, it wasn’t surprising. This was one of the closest sectors to the Settlement, one of the first and most frequently surveyed areas on the whole planet, excepting only the caves and immediate surroundings which were well hunted, gathered, and cultivated.
“What do you think they were doing out here?” asked Sephilla. “Do you remember anything?”
Tony shook his head. “It’s all fuzzy.” It wasn’t just his memory that was feeling fuzzy either. The further they went into the forest, the more a strange sensation grew, making his nerves feel overcharged with electricity. He almost expected it to start sparking from his body to the ground and vegetation in visible arcs. It was messing with his focus, dragging his attention away from the task at hand and sending his imagination on weird flights of fancy.
He thought momentarily that he should warn his companions, give up and turn back. Before he could form the words, though, his attention was caught by the sensation of movement above. He held up a hand while he stared up into the canopy, trying to see what he had felt so clearly.
The others spread out, looking up and around for threats. Each readied a weapon – Sephilla carried a spear that she generally used as a walking stick, while Cavish indulged in one of the settlement’s few firearms, an old shotgun designed to take the sort of improvised ammunition and home-made powder that a colony cut off from resupply could provide for themselves. Lily strung her bow in one smooth motion and nocked an arrow, crouching a little as she peered around for a target.
Tony let his own weapon, a long-handled ax that had seen more use in construction or deconstruction than defense, hang undisturbed in its sheath on his back. Instead, he held himself still, trying to understand what that strange, electric sensation was trying to tell him. There was something above. Something watching. It didn’t feel inimical, or hungry, or even territorial, but its attention was definitely on them. On him.
“Show yourself!” he shouted.
A cluster of birds burst from their cover and fled through the trees, and a chikchik scolded from a nearby branch, but from the unknown watcher, there was nothing.
Abruptly, the sense of presence disappeared. He couldn’t tell which direction it had gone, or even if it had really gone. The sense of it was just no longer there. The hairs along his arm caught his eye as they relaxed back against his skin, goosebumps receding.
He shook his head in frustration. “Sorry. Seeing things, I guess.”
Sephilla raised an eyebrow and eyed the trees around them again. “Maybe,” she said. “But we proceed with weapons ready.”
They started moving again, and Tony let Cavish take the lead while he unhitched his ax. The tether hung loosely between them, where it didn’t impede either man’s movement, but would allow one to keep hold of the other long enough to save them if they fell afoul of a snatcher, or one of Verdant’s other carnivorous plant-forms. The tether was long enough that most of the forest’s dangers would only hit one of them.
Sephilla and Lily paralleled their course a few meters away, and all of them kept their eyes peeled for both dangers and clues.
They were making their way toward the Monument Tree, a massive multi-trunked organism about a half day’s hike in. It was larger by orders of magnitude than anything they had found in the other surveyed sectors, impressive enough that groups often made trips just to see it. Always in groups, but perhaps with less caution than anyplace else in the forest.
The northwest sector, all the way to the Monument Tree, was often hunted, with organized expeditions to gather its plantform edibles in their seasons. It was almost – almost – domesticated, at least by Verdant standards. Even so, the four of them proceeded cautiously. Whatever the Governor and her Earthcorp goons had been up to in the forest, none of them expected it to be good for their colony.
Tony kept finding his mind wandering, even though he thought he should be worried about their silent watcher. The forest around him felt alive, in a way he couldn’t remember ever feeling before. Each individual tree seemed to have its own glowing sense of identity, not to his eyes but to some part of his mind that wanted to interpret the sensation visually. Beneath his feet, networks of roots and fungi channeled through the earth, showing him where small animals had died in the recent past by the increased saprophytic activity.
In the underbrush and through the branches of the trees, he felt living animals darting away, or freezing to watch the passing humans. Veering from Cavish’s trail to investigate one such feeling, he poked his ax tentatively into a patch of brambles where his feelings insisted there was something human-sized.
A startled bleat rang out, and suddenly he was face to face with a spoat, its goatlike eyes wide and threatening.
Tony jerked back with a shout, raising arms to protect his face. The spoat spit, its saliva spreading out in a sticky web that ensnared both his arms. He jerked them apart, but not fast enough to separate them fully before the spit stiffened, tying them together. He shouted again, this time raising his arms to menace the spoat, trying to appear bigger than it and unintimidated by its natural defense.
With another bleat, the spoat leaped away, dashing through the forest to find some safer place to feed.
“All right?” Cavish called, waiting where he had stopped.
Tony gave a disgusted snort. “I’m tangled. Want to come cut my arms loose?”
Sephilla and Lily paused while Cavish cut through the web with Tony’s ax. Tony used strips of papery bark torn from the nearest tree to push the loose ends around each sleeve, leaving the bark adhered to his arms in order to keep from sticking to anything else, then they all started moving forward again.
Tony still made note of what his strange extra sense was telling him, but didn’t disturb any more of the animals hiding while they passed. The spoat had been exactly where his sense told him it was, and that was enough to indicate it was more than just imagination or hallucination. For the moment, at least, nothing he could sense appeared to be stalking them.