Book 2 – Milliscent Awakens
At the junction in the trail, Milliscent turned to face the two boys. "This is Sundor Forest, or what's left of it."
A gentle slope rose up to the east. Splintered logs, left over from the wasteful logging practices of the original inhabitants, lay about like pick-up-sticks from some titans' game, charred by past grass fires. Rotted stumps poked up between tall grass, and wildflowers in pinks and pale blues carpeted the ground. There were a few stunted trees, but no living wood grew over six feet tall. On the hill's summit was the crumbling outer wall of a castle with two octagonal towers.
Cisco craned his neck and stood on tiptoe, "Is that it?" He started hopping from one foot to the other.
"Yes," said Milli. "Well, part of it, the keep..."
"Tally ho!" Cisco shouted then started sprinting up the hill, zigzagging around debris partly hidden in the tall grass.
"Wait! You can't get in that way. We need to circle around." She pointed southeast.
Cisco continued to run toward the castle.
"You're going the hard way," she called after him. Blast! If he didn't want a tour, he shouldn't have asked for one. She watched for a few seconds before turning to Tedd. "Is he always like this?"
He smiled and shrugged. "Pretty much, he usually gets his way. Can he get hurt, running around up there by himself?"
"Well..." said Milli, pausing to think. "Probably not, but he might fall off a cliff, or if he manages to get inside he could become trapped." Cram! My shift has only just started and already I may lose visitor.
Tedd sighed. "I guess we should follow him." He started up the hill.
Milli scampered after him, then walked by his side.
After a few dozen yards, he dropped to his knees, examining something on the ground. "Hey, check this."
Milli stopped. "Oh. What did you find?"
"Not sure, looks like a big fish scale." He held something out to her. It was dark, not quite two inches long, about an inch wide, and an eighth-inch thick. It had a slight curve and one end was rounded while the other tapered to a point.
Milli squatted next to Tedd, took the object, and sniffed it. She started wiping dirt off the two sides. "Oh pretty! This side sparkles and seems to be made of green glass, but the other side is metal. It's in layers." She licked it, noting the bland taste; then she bit it. Examining the object, she noticed her teeth failed to leave a mark. "Is very hard."
Tedd searched the ground and found another one of the odd fish scales, but when he looked up, she was so close they almost locked lips. "I umm, uhh..." His face began to redden and he scooted back.
Oh cram, he's scared of me. "Tedd, are you okay?"
"Umm, err... yea. I... I... I'm okay," he stammered.
She giggled. That was close; we almost bumped lips! I've never bumped lips with anyone before. She licked the end of her nose. "I don't make you nervous, do I?"
"Yes. No! I mean..." Worry flickered across his face. "It's just that you're so..." He backed up a few more inches. "I'm sorry. I'm just no good at this." He dropped his gaze to the ground.
What the heck's wrong with him? Is it me? I don't think he likes me. "Tedd," Milli's voice was soft, "you seem like a nice guy. I'm not going to spray you or anything. You know that, right?"
"Yea, I know." Tedd sighed then looked down at his hands. "Oh, I found another one." He opened his hand to reveal a dirty fish scale. He started polishing it on his pant leg. After a few seconds, he inspected the object. "I see what you mean, it's glass. Green glass on metal." His voice sounded a little shaky and he kept his eyes fixed on the odd artifact in his hand. "Who would make something like this and why?"
"You've never seen these before?"
"No," said Milli. "Dougie and Lene have been building in Sundor Forest over the last few weeks. I bet they added them, the longer grass and the wildflowers are new, and they did a lot of work inside the castle."
Tedd ran his finger along the edge of the object. "Check this, the metal part wraps around the edge of the glass." He turned his piece over. "The back of mine is half rusted." He picked at it with his thumbnail, and dime-sized pieces of rust flaked off. "The rust goes deep. How old do you think it is?"
"Don't know... oh wait! I'll bet it's from the old battle. This hillside used to be a battleground."
"A battleground, when was that?"
"When the tiger army attacked the castle, but I'm not sure when that happened. A hundred years ago, I think. Maybe more." Milli scanned the ground. "Are there only these two?"
"Just two. I found them right here." He swept his hand in a circle to indicate the area. "A mystery. Cisco likes mysteries, and ancient battles."
They looked up, toward the castle. Cisco had worked his way north, along the base of the wall and was standing on a fallen block below a damaged area. Leaning against the wall, he was looking straight up and seemed oblivious to his surroundings.
"He'll want to see this," said Tedd.
"We can take him one," suggested Milli. "Dougie said it's okay to pick things up. Generally, if something can be picked up or consumed it has some way of regenerating itself. Taking one should be fine, but we should leave the other as a seed for the software." She handed him her fish scale.
"Thanks, this one's good," said Tedd, dropping the rusty one and standing up.
"Yea sure. Let's go." Milli stood and started up the hill, but she kept her eye on the ground.
After a dozen yards, she stopped and dropped to her knees. "Whoa, look at this!"
"Huh?" Tedd snapped his attention back to Milli just in time to keep from tripping over her.
"More fish scales, but these are laid out in a pattern. Green side up."
Tedd leaned over her, his hands on his knees for balance. "Wow it does look like fish skin when they're laid out that way. How many do you think, about twenty?" He was quite close, almost touching her.
"Yea, at least." As Milli turned toward him, Tedd took a step back.
"Umm, sorry." He fidgeted a bit and avoided looking at her.
She studied him for a moment. Why does he keep doing that? He crowds in when he thinks I cannot see, then he moves away when I turn to look at him. "Tedd, do you feel okay?"
"Yea, I'm..." He let out a sigh. "Sorry, I guess I'm just nervous."
Nervous? She thought for a moment. "You're a fox. Is that it, foxes are nervous?" But why does he keep crowding me?
He gave her a weak smile before he turned his attention back to the patch of green scales on the ground. "What do you think holds them together? Let's see." He started to reach down.
"Oh no! Don't disturb them. If it's an artifact from the battle, it'll be very old." She bent down, her nose almost touching the ground and her tail up in the air. She took a few long, deep sniffs.
"Well?" asked Tedd. He started to move close to her again.
Milli sat upright. "Nothing. Earth, mold, some of those nasty beetles."
"But did you see anything?"
"No. I didn't see anything either."
"Try to pick it up. I bet you'll see something then."
"Let's get Cisco first. You said he'd like this, right? If this is over a hundred years old, it'll fall apart if we try to pick it up." Milli turned to look at the castle wall. "What's he doing? Wiping his feet on the stonework?"
Tedd looked up, laughed and stood up straight. "He's climbing."
"Oh? He's not making much progress. He only seems to be able to get one of his feet off the ground at a time."
"That's because he's Cisco." Tedd shrugged. "He has no talent for climbing. None." He started grinning. "When you're Cisco, every day is a high gravity day. I suspect he'll want me to do that."
Milli stood up. "Should we get him? We can bring him back to see this."
"Sure, let me find something to flag this spot." He started looking around.
"Don't bother," she said. "I've logged it."
"I'm a bot."
"Ahh... What does that have to do with anything?"
"I know where things are," she said. "That is if I can see it, I can know its coordinates to the nearest centimeter. I usually ignore this information, but I've logged this." She glanced down at the green scales on the ground.
"Ya know," said Milli, "I'll bet there'll be more stuff from the battle the closer we get to the castle wall. Maybe we'll find a broken sword or an old battle axe."
"Sure, let's go." She started up the hill toward Cisco, her eyes darting back and forth, watching the ground.
Tedd walked by her side a few seconds before speaking. "So, what do you think it is?"
"What we found, do you think it's part of a robot fish?"
She glanced over at him. "What a silly idea. You don't need a machine-fish. If you want a special type of fish, just make a fish. That's what The Creation Workshop is for." She shook her head. "And besides, what would a fish be doing on this hillside?"
"The Creation Workshop?"
"A place here in SkunkWks."
"Ah yes," said Tedd.
They walked on in silence, Milli watching the ground.
From atop a fallen block at the base of the castle wall, Cisco shouted down to them, "Hey amigos, I've almost conquered this castle while you two slowpokes took your time."
Tedd shouted back, "What stopped you?" Grinning, he ran up the hill to join his friend.
"This wall, it's impossible to climb." Cisco smiled to himself, knowing his friend couldn't ignore a challenge.
Tedd jumped up on the block next to Cisco and looked up. The face of the wall was angled back about six degrees. "Wow, pretty steep. Still, the way these blocks are cut, I'll bet a Foxx could get up there." He ran his fingertips over the surface of the stone. "Impossible, you say?"
"Impossible," said Cisco. He glanced down at the shoes on Tedd's feet. "Not even a Foxx could get up there. Not even with zapatos de baile on his feet." He started grinning. Now I've got you! Let's see you walk away from this.
Tedd studied the face of the wall while wiping his hands on his shirt. "The start does look a little..." He placed both hands, fingers pointing down, on a sloped ledge, then pressed down, lifting both feet off the block and gaining almost ten inches. "...challenging. But with the right..." He swung his left leg straight out to the side, high, and hooked a slight bulge with his heel; then slap, pull, kick and he gained another three feet. "...technique and some skill, one should be able..." He reached up with his right hand, slotting the fingertips in the shallow groove between blocks and pull, lean, kick, slap, pull and he was almost seven feet above the block he'd started on. "...to get up this wall." Tedd glanced down at his friend. "Ya know, I offered to teach you how to do this."
Cisco squinted up at Tedd. "Uhh. I guess I'm just not into death." That's your job.
Tedd laughed. "Ya gotta know your limits." His left thumb found a shallow pocket in the stone near the edge of a block. He used a light pinch-grip to gain a tenuous hold, leaned away from the wall and looked up, his right arm dangling at his side. "Speaking of death, how high until the first real holds at the broken part, another twenty-five feet? Looks dicey without pro. I'd have to be motivated. What exactly am I supposed to do when I get to the top?"
"Ahh. Must I think for you?" asked Francisco, slipping back into his role as the Squire, his voice taking on a haughty tone. "Throw down a rope so I may ascend."
Tedd hopped backwards, releasing his grip and landing cat-like, on the block next to Francisco. He straightened up and looked his friend in the eye. "What rope?"
"The rope you'll find inside the castle, of course. Be a brave lad now, and get back up there."
"I don't think so."
"My game. My rules." Squire stood facing Tedd, his fists on his hips, his elbows sticking out to the sides.
Tedd shook his head. "If there is a rope... and you want to trust your life to a rope that's how old? Some of the artifacts we found suggest that organic things have rotted away."
"Artifacts?" Cisco blinked; his role as the Squire forgotten. "Show me!"
"Yea, check this." Tedd dug the fish scale out of his pocket and handed it to his friend.
"So what is it?" Cisco asked, examining the object.
"It seems to be a fish scale, probably from some gigantic robotic fish."
Cisco narrowed his eyes at Tedd. "That's loco, Zorro. What would a fish be doing on this hillside?" He turned his attention back to the artifact. "It's cloisonné, glass baked onto a metal surface." He rubbed the metal edge with his thumb then examined the face, turning the artifact so the light caught it at different angles and projected a spray of green sparkles on the stone behind him. "There's a pattern engraved in the surface of the metal under this enamel, like the veins of a leaf. It's not supposed to be a fish scale, I'll bet it's supposed to be a leaf. This is a beautiful example of..."
Milliscent screamed, "Come quick! See what I found!"
Both boys spun around. Milli was down on all fours at the edge of a burned out log, some sixty feet away, her nose to the ground and her tail in the air. She jumped up and over the log, and dropped down on the other side. Only her tail was visible.
Her head popped up. "Remains!" she was excited, her voice higher pitched than usual. "A skeleton. Someone is here!" She ducked back down behind the log.
Cisco and Tedd leaped off the block and sprinted toward Milli.
"Un esqueleto!" shouted Cisco.
"You found someone?" asked Tedd.
Milli's head popped up again, and she jumped up and over, then dropped down on the near side of the log. "Look, bones! And they're inside a tube made of those scales." She pointed to something on the ground, at the edge of the log.
The boys skidded to a stop before the log.
Cisco dropped to his knees next to Milli. "Mysteries of the past! Umm, are these arm bones or leg bones?"
Milli put her face down next to the edge of the log. "It's the arm, I think." She took a few deep sniffs. "Earth, wood, mold, insects... a hint of something, perhaps leather. They've been here a long time." And something cinnamony... centipedes!
"But where's the hand?" asked Cisco. "I see only the ends of the bones, and I'll bet that tube is actually a sleeve."
Tedd dropped to the ground on the other side of Milli. "Maybe the hand was eaten by scavengers."
"Yes, see the tiny gnaw marks," she said. "Rodents sometimes chew on old bones."
"Ha! Bet you didn't know that," Tedd said to Cisco.
Cisco glared at Tedd for a moment, before saying, "Maybe it was too obvious for comment." He turned his attention back to the sleeve with its bones. "This is scale mail, or in this case, leaf mail."
"What kind of mail?" Milli asked.
"Leaf mail," said Cisco. "A type of medieval armor, between chain mail and plate armor in weight, flexibility, and effectiveness. Your leaf is actually a fragment of a suit of leaf mail armor." He held the leaf Tedd had given him, out to Milli. "See, it's obviously man-made, forged of carbon steel and protected by a layer of green cloisonné. Imagine a whole suit made of these. That would be tight!"
"Is there anything you do not know?" asked Tedd. "You should be on that game show."
"Ha! My knowledge is narrow, but deep. I'd be inferiores on that show, unless they happened to do my categories that day."
Milli smiled. Interesting. They seem to be both friends and rivals. She took the artifact from Cisco's open hand. "So then, this is not a scale, but a leaf?"
"Look through the glass while you twist it back and forth in the light," he said. "You can see the veins of a leaf engraved in the surface of the steel."
Milli studied the artifact in her paw. "Ah, I see what you mean. It is a leaf." She handed it back to Cisco, brushing his hand with her paw. At least he is not afraid of me, and he's smart. She smiled at him.
Tedd had gone back to examining the ends of the bones. He pinched a bone between his thumb and forefinger then pinched his own wrist. "A giant. There's a giant trapped under this log."
"Really? A giant?" Milli glanced at the bones. Dougie's said nothing of giants in SkunkWks.
"I don't think so," said Cisco. "You're just a skinny little zorro chico. How can you compare your bone structure to that of a professional warrior?"
Tedd shrugged. "Maybe, but check the difference in size. These bones are massive by comparison. Besides, you told me people were smaller in olden days. Even by today's standards, these are the bones of a giant."
Milli whispered, "A giant."
"Un gigante," said Cisco. He stared at the bones while pinching his own wrist.
"Trapped under this log," added Tedd.
Milli became excited. "Let's dig him out! Come on. Help me move this." She unlooped her tote bag from over her shoulder and tossed it aside. Then she dropped down, put her shoulder to the log, and attempted to push it downhill. The log rocked a little.
Tedd scrambled forward, next to Milli and put his shoulder against the log. They both started pushing, but the log started to rotate rather than roll.
"No, stop!" said Milli. "It might damage the giant. Let's try to roll it over and down the hill." She pointed to the other end of the log. "Cisco, you push from down there."
Cisco stood for a moment before he ambled down to the end of the log. "This looks too big to move without equipment." He stood with his hands on his hips.
"It'll be okay," said Milli. "What's not burned away has rotted. Is not as heavy as it looks. We can do this."
"She's right," Tedd said. "She was able to rock the log all by herself."
Cisco looked the log up and down, clapped his hands together, and said, "The mysteries of the past await! Milli, you move more to the middle." He waited until she moved, before he dropped down next to the log and put his shoulder against it. "Are we ready?"
"Yea," and, "Sure," sounded two voices.
The three amateur archeologists pushed together. The log rocked, the uphill side lifting several inches off the ground, but it seemed stuck.
"Let's rock it," Cisco said. "If we push then relax, the log will roll back. We can catch it with a timed push as it rebounds. Give a mighty push when I say.... Now, let it back."
As the three relaxed, the log rolled back then bounced forward again.
"Now push!" shouted Cisco.
The log rocked forward further than the first time, but not far enough.
"Again!" said Cisco. "Let it roll back, and then a big push. On my word... Okay, let it roll. Now push. PUSH!"
The log rocked backward, forward, teetered on its edge, tipped downhill, and landed on its flattened, burned-out side, sticking to the hillside in that position.
Milli was in an awkward position; she caught a glimpse of something dark where the log had lain and made a leap to avoid falling in it. She ended up wildly out of balance and falling toward the dirty side of the log, now facing the sky. An orange flash and movement on the log caught her eye. Centipedes! She made a grab for the fast moving arthropods and ended up on her stomach, sprawled over the log, her tail in the air. She popped a pair of two-inch long centipedes in her mouth before rolling off the log and landing on her butt, plucking up a third centipede as it dashed for the shadows. Oh! My tail.
"Sweet Maria!" Cisco was staring at her, his mouth open.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Want to try one?" she asked, holding her paw toward him. Gripped between her fingers, the centipede thrashed around. "Is good. Kinda cinnamony." She grimaced. Cram! I think I've bent my tail.
"No! Err, umm. No thank you. Are you okay?"
"I think I bruised..." She glanced toward Tedd and saw a mass of dirty, green leaf mail armor where the log had been. "Wow! Look at the size of that!" The forgotten centipede wiggled free of her grip and made its escape as she scampered to the side of the uncovered treasure, kneeling across from Tedd.
"O caramba!" said Cisco, and he sank to his knees at Milli's left side.
Whoever it was lay exposed, face down, flattened and pressed into the soft earth. He wore a long tunic and pants of leaf mail armor, glazed with green glass. The back of his broad helmet was visible. His face pressed into the soil.
"He's rockin' huge! Check the width of those shoulders," said Tedd. "Gotta be three feet wide, and he's at least seven feet tall!"
Milli brushed her fingertips over the surface of the leaf mail, wiping away a layer of moldy earth and decayed wood. The rich aroma of soil and wood fungus caused her nostrils to twitch. "Maybe he was squished wide by the log."
"Maybe," said Cisco, "but check the size of the helmet. That was not squished."
She took the helmet in her paws, pulling it free of the soft earth. As she lifted it, the neck bones separated from the skull, still trapped inside. When she rotated the helmet to an upright position, the skull dropped out and landed face down in the loose soil.
Cisco reached for the helmet. "More green cloisonné. Bella!"
Milli passed the helmet to Cisco as her eyes locked on the back of the skull lying in the dirt. "That... is not human." At over nine inches wide, it was much too broad to be a human skull. Carefully, she picked it up and turned it around. The sight of the teeth startled her. My God! They are huge. The canines are as long as my index finger.
Tedd whistled and scooted around to Milli's right side.
Cisco gasped, "An alien! The castle was attacked by aliens."
The face had a short muzzle. The incisors in front were small, but the two canine teeth were just over three inches long. As Milli stared into the face of the skull, icy fingers ran down her spine, from her head to her tail. A tiger. She started shaking and the skull began to feel very heavy. She lowered it until it rested on her knees. My God, it's huge! She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
Milli heard Cisco's voice, but his words were a senseless buzzing in her ears and the world seemed to be moving in slow motion. The skull in her lap held her attention. I had no idea tigers were so damn huge. And those teeth... We would be easy prey. She could not take her eyes from those teeth.
"...don't think so, dude," it was Tedd. "Jason keeps lots of lizards and stuff and none of them have teeth anything like that."
A lizard? thought Milli. It's not a lizard. She shook her head to clear the fog, then spoke, "Is a cat." Her voice cracked.
Cisco turned toward her. "Qué?"
"A big cat... a tiger. This is one of those tigers who killed many of the men and drove the rest away." She quoted from the familiar story and shivered, her eyes still locked on the teeth. Good God! An army of these monsters... What would it have been like to face down an army of these monsters?
"El tigre!" said Cisco, smiling. "One of nature's grandest predators!"
"Like in the story?" asked Tedd.
Milli nodded. "They say there's a forest in India where the Bengal tiger roams free. People don't go there unless they have to. The tigers in that forest regularly hunt humans, kill and eat them." Bengal tigers. We are getting two Bengal tigers here in SkunkWks. Descendants of this... giant. She managed to tear her gaze away from those awful teeth and found she was looking into Tedd's eyes. "The tiger is one of the few predators which will seek out and hunt men." Her mouth felt dry. "They say tigers are magic, they swallow up the screams of their prey... their victims. No one ever hears the screams of their victims." She started to shake. I feel cold. What's wrong with me?
Tedd's eyes grew big. He turned to the skull Milli held in her lap and stared at the teeth.
Cisco brushed some dirt off the helmet still in his hand. Metal ridges that formed the shapes of overlapping leaves were filled with green glass, fused to the surface of the polished steel. "Fascinating," he mumbled. "Maybe the leaf design is to remind the tigers of their forest home." Turning to the figure on the ground, he noticed something lying across its back, a distorted tube of brown and yellow. It crumbled at his touch and rusty arrowheads poured out. "A quiver. This one was an archer."
Milli's eyes wandered over the skull. She had seen teeth like this before. Tiny incisors in front, narrow gaps, two long sharp canines, and then the premolars with their angled biting surface designed for slicing through sinew and flesh. Fizzy. He has teeth just like this, but in miniature, the teeth of a pure predator. Aloud she said, "We are like mice...."
"Mice?" Tedd asked. His eyes still locked on the teeth.
Cisco spotted something at the tiger's side and scrambled around to see. It was a short-sword, half buried in the dirt. He picked it up. The blade was pitted and stained with rust, but the hilt was in fine condition, made of brass and decorated with green cloisonné. "I am beginning to see...."
"We are like mice, to be peeled and gutted, our bones crushed between rocks." Tears filled her eyes. "Pounded flat, rubbed with spices, and left in the sun to dry. Human jerky," she looked at Tedd, "and fur jerky." Her lip quivered as tears began to flow down her cheeks.
Tedd's mouth opened and closed a few times before he managed to stammer, "I... I don't understand." He took a deep breath and tore his gaze away from the skull to look at Milli. His voice soft, he said, "Milliscent..."
Slipping into his role as the squire, Francisco stood and faced downhill—to the southwest—the helmet in his left hand, the sword in his right. He spoke out to no one in particular, his voice a smooth tenor. "Ahh, can you imagine it? Fierce tigers clad in glittering green leaf mail. Helmets ablaze in the morning sun; banners rippling in the breeze; weapons sharpened and at the ready...."
Milli tried to focus on Tedd, but tears blurred her vision. What's wrong with me?
"Milliscent, are you afraid?" Tedd asked.
Francisco dropped the helmet and swept his free arm up and out to the side, as if encompassing an army only he could see. "They bare their teeth at their enemy; they snarl out a challenge; their orange and black fur shines brightly; their golden eyes seek out whom they may devour...."
My muscles are jelly, I'm cold, and my vision's gone blurry. Is this fear? After a moment, she said, "Yes... I suppose so. You know, I've never felt fear before, never been afraid."
"Never?" asked Tedd. He caught one of her tears on the back of his finger.
"Never," said Milli, "but now..." Dougie said the tigers' scripts are buggy, not ready. One of them is mentally unstable... She lowered her gaze for a moment before looking into Tedd's eyes. "I don't understand why Dougie would bring such creatures into SkunkWks. What is he thinking?"
Francisco's voice rose with excitement, "An army of tigers, as deadly as they are beautiful. The drums of war pound out their rhythm and the army marches forward. Onward to the dance of the battlefield! ONWARD TO DEATH! ONWARD TO VICTORY! Oh, doesn't it make your blood run swiftly?"
<End of chapter 3>