Chapter Ten

Away from the road there had been some undergrowth, but now the omnipresent arboreal canopy had choked it into dry, scraggly branches. Here the forest was even darker and more menacing, and it didn’t help that the setting sun stretched the shadows of the gnarled and twisted branches into sinister shapes, making the forest progressively darker. Everyone knew that their chances of finding their way back to the road were diminishing along with the light, and no one knew just how big this forest was.

Zipper and Foxglove developed a system by which she flew out to the limits of her echolocation, and Zipper flew as far as he dared while still being able to hear or see her. Even with such an expanded search pattern, they could not find the road. As Monty had worried, they were well and truly lost.

“Now let’s not panic mates,” said Monty, “I think we were headed east before we left the road. So all we have to do is put the sunset at our backs, and we’ll be fine.”

“Where’s the sunset?” Dale asked.

“Well, it’s right over . . . er, it’s um . . .” Monty turned around in a circle, trying to figure out which way the sun was setting. It was difficult to tell through the trees. Dale rolled his eyes. For a moment, Monterey considered sending Zipper up to find out which way the sunset was, but Zipper was still tired from looking for the road.

“What if we just go in the same direction the shadows are pointing?” Chip said.

“Good thinking Chip,” said Monty. Again, he looked around. Shadow had already covered most of the forest floor. “This way, I think.” Monty headed off in the direction he had indicated, checking surreptitiously to make sure the others were following. They were. At this point, he knew that it didn’t really matter which direction they were moving in, so long as they were moving. They would come to something eventually, the road, the sea, the edge of the forest, or the Citadel.

With the scrubby dried out remains of the underbrush scratching them and snatching at their clothes it was pretty rough going, and after only an hour they had to stop to rest. This part of the forest looked very much like the part they had left, except it was much darker. The sun had gone down, leaving behind only streaks of orange in the clouds. The clouds also brought sounds of distant thunder.

“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” Dale asked tiredly.

“Sure,” said Monty, “we’re going east.”

“Why?” Dale asked.

Monty paused before answering. “Because we’ve got to go somewhere mate. Won’t do us much good to just sit around.”

“Arrgh,” said Dale in exasperation, flopping back into a patch of moss.

“Now c’mon Dale me lad, buck up! It could be worse after all.” The first raindrop struck Monty squarely on the nose, putting an embarrassing cap on his pep talk. Within seconds, the forest was filled with the patter of rain on leaves. “Nice touch,” Monty admitted. “Well, it’s only a little shower.” Lightning crashed nearby with a bang that felt like it drove everyone’s ears six feet into their skull.

“Maybe we should get under shelter until this passes!” Chip yelled.

“What?” said Dale.

“What?” said Chip.

“Huh?” said Monterey Jack.

Chip shook his head and waved for the others to follow him towards a jumble of large rocks that looked as though it might afford some shelter. The Rangers and Foxglove took refuge under a large overhanging rock that had just enough room for all of them to get out of the rain. Chip wrung out his hat, and Dale wrung out his shirt, bumping into Foxglove in the process, which caused them both a little embarrassment.

“Too-ra-loo,” Monty exclaimed, “I ain’t seen a downpour like that since I got caught in a monsoon in Malaysia!” He took of his hat and wrung it out, then rubbed the water out of his eyes. When he opened his eyes again, he was in the hospital waiting room.

Monty froze, looking about. It was the hospital where they had taken Dale and Zipper. At first he thought that it must be another vision, but then the familiarity of the surroundings worked on him, especially since he felt like he’d just woken up. Was all that just a weird dream? Monty tried to remember what had happened since they’d taken Dale and Zipper to the hospital, but it wouldn’t come to him. He looked around for his friends, but they weren’t there.

“Monterey Jack?” said a pretty nurse. Monty was deep in thought, so she had to repeat herself twice before he realized his name was being called.

“Er, that’s me luv,” he said, a little uncertainly.

“The doctor will see you now,” said the nurse, who sat back down at her desk.

“Oh. Thanks,” Monty got up to go, but was uncertain which way to go. “Um--” he began, approaching the nurse.

“Down the hall, third door on the left,” said the nurse, pointing without looking up.

“Right,” said Monty. He went to what seemed like the right hall, and pointed down it, an inquiring look on his face. Again, the nurse nodded and pointed without looking up. She took up a pencil and filled in a series of boxes on her crossword.

Monty went down the hall, his mind racing. It’s about Zipper, he fretted, something’s happened to Zipper. He’d caught the fly years ago on his adventures trying to swipe some of his food, but the little would-be thief’s spirit impressed him, and they’d become traveling companions and best friends since then. As he arrived at the door, he chased the thoughts from his mind, removed his hat and knocked with some trepidation.

“Come in,” said a creaky old voice within. Monterey pushed open the door. “Mister Jack, please, have a seat,” said the doctor kindly, looking at an open folder on his desk. Monty sat in one of the overstuffed chairs and leaned forward. “I’m afraid I have a spot of bad news for you,” the doctor said, setting aside the folder and removing his glasses.

Monty’s heart sank. I knew it, something bad has happened to Zipper.

“We’ve gotten the results of your tests back and . . .”

My tests?” said Monty with surprise.

“Yes, the tests you underwent three days ago, remember?”

“Well, frankly I . . .”

“Of course,” said the doctor kindly, “I imagine with your schedule as busy as it is, you can hardly remember what you had for breakfast, eh?” The doctor smiled, but a perplexed Monterey Jack didn’t return it, so he went on. “Ahem. As I was saying, we’ve received the results of your tests, and I’ve a bit of bad news for you.” The doctor tapped the folder on his desk. “According to your tests, you’re lactose intolerant.”

“Lactose intolerant?” Monty echoed. He hadn’t heard the term before.

“It’s not uncommon, particularly among mice your age. But that’s the source of your discomfort.”

“My discomfort?” Monty asked again.

“Yes,” said the doctor after a pause. “It shouldn’t bother you anymore so long as you make a few simple changes to your diet.”

“My diet?” Monterey asked.

“That’s starting to get irritating,” the doctor said.

“Sorry,” said Monty.

The doctor took a deep breath. “A few simple changes to your diet, and you’ll be right as rain. All you have to do is cut out the dairy products. No more milk, no more butter, no more cream in your coffee, and . . . no more cheese.”

The last three words fell on Monty’s ears like a sentence handed down from a judge. If he had turned to dust and been blown away by a gust of wind, it would hardly have had a worse effect on him. “No more ch-ch-ch-chee . . .”

“I told you before that was getting irritating,” the doctor reminded him.

“Sorry,” said Monty weakly.

“That’s all,” said the doctor. “Just a few simple changes to your diet, and you’ll be fine in no time. You can make payment arrangements with the receptionist on your way out.” Turning to a tube set in the wall, he yelled, “Next patient please!”

Monterey wandered out of the doctor’s office and into the parking lot. No more cheese? It was inconceivable. An ambulance pulling in to the human hospital nearly ran him over, but he hardly noticed it. The only thing he noticed was the one thought echoing in his head over and over, No more cheese?

Monterey Jack was a mouse with style, a mouse with class, a mouse who enjoyed the company of good friends and the finer things life had to offer him. Cheese was definitely one of the finer things. Since the first time he could remember tasting cheese, he found he would do anything to have it. It was, simply, the greatest pleasure in a life he led as he pleased. He had become a connoisseur, able to identify different cheeses by appearance, taste and scent. He knew what the best cheeses were and where to get them. He could identify the origin of each cheese, and even how old it was. His life was spent in pursuit of rare and exotic cheese, at least until he had joined up with the Rescue Rangers. And what was it the doctor had said, about this lactose thing being common in mice his age? Just what was that about? Did this mean he was finally . . . getting old? If he was too old to enjoy cheese anymore, then was he too old to old to go adventuring? If he was too old to enjoy che ese, and too old to go adventuring, then he had to be too old to go on . . .

With a start, Monty realized he was on the Harbor Bridge, outside the railing. “Crikey, what am I doing here?”

“That’s just what I was wondering,” Dale said, “would you come back here please?”

A crash of thunder abruptly brought Monty back to the Forest of Visions. The rain was still coming down, and Monty found he was standing on a high branch over the rocks they had taken shelter under. With the very real prospect of falling on them, they didn’t look nearly as inviting as they had from the ground. Monty gulped and carefully inched his way back to the main trunk of the tree, where Dale had followed him. Zipper was hovering nearby.

“You must have had one of those visions too Monty,” Dale said, as he reached the relative safety of the trunk. “What was yours like?”

“Chilling, mate. Definitely chilling.” No more cheese. Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r.

Monty made it down from the tree safely, though the thought of what could have happened sent chills down his spine. Outside their makeshift shelter, the rain continued to pelt the trees.

“The obvious conclusion here is that someone is using these visions to try to stop us,” Gadget said.

“Yeah, but who would come up with such twisted stuff?” Monty asked.

“The Nightmare King,” Chip answered. “It must mean we’re getting close.”

“Not necessarily,” Gadget pointed out. “There could be a lot worse than that to come. We’ll just have to watch each other more closely. In any case, it appears that the most sensible course of action is to keep moving.”

“I agree,” said Monty. “The sooner we get out of this forest, the better.”

“I’m sorry I’m not being more of a help,” said Foxglove.

“Nonsense Foxglove,” said Dale, “you were a big help in the mine.”

“But I can’t even fly in this weather,” Foxglove protested.

“It’s okay Foxglove,” Chip said, “we’ll handle things alright, and I know there’s at least one of us who’s really glad of the company.” Dale blushed, but Chip went on before he could protest. “But for now, I agree with Gadget. The best thing we can do is to keep moving, so let’s go.” Bracing for the rain as best as they could, they abandoned their temporary shelter. They moved slowly through the rain and darkening forest avoiding the trees as best they could because of the obvious peril of lightning strikes.

The rain continued for only a little while longer, and blew over as suddenly as it had blown in. Only the lingering thunder and lightning as left to remind anyone of the storm’s passing. That, and the distinctly hazy air. The forest was difficult to negotiate at night, it would have been very hard to see if not for the nearly full moon. That, however, was high in the western sky and descending. They made it their goal to be clear of this sinister forest before that light, too, was gone.

Thanks to the rain, the forest was now alive with sounds as water dripped from branch to branch. But there were other sounds as well. Monty pointed out that this forest might have residents after all, and that the rain could have driven them from their lairs. Accordingly, since the rain had ended, Zipper and Foxglove took turns making short reconnaissance flights, trying to at least figure out where they were.

Gadget made it her responsibility to keep a close eye on the others, to watch for any signs of odd behavior that might indicate another vision. She scolded herself for having missed Monterey Jack earlier. Monty had slipped away quietly, as opposed to Chip and Dale who had simply run off. She was determined not to let it happen again. If any one of them were lost, it would reduce the effectiveness of their team, plus it would be just awful.

Gadget knew what loss was. She had experienced it twice already, and had spent a great deal of her life since then avoiding such a loss by not getting close to anyone. That was before Monterey Jack had unexpectedly barged his way back into her life, with his new friends Chip and Dale. He was a good friend of her father’s, but to her he was more like a favorite uncle. She hadn’t seen him since he and her father had parted ways at Zanzibar. He had reminded her how good it was to have a family to depend on, and so his new friends had become just like brothers to her. Chip seemed to want more than a sister, however. Dale had competed with him for her attention, but that had changed since Foxglove had entered their circle of friends. But to her they were family. To lose any of them would be . . .

Gadget came to an abrupt halt, looking up. She had been lost in thought and now she had lost track of the others. She looked around the forest, with its eerie darkness and dripping noises, and suddenly felt rather alone, not to mention very foolish. She turned in a full circle, berating herself for not paying closer attention, and attempted to find some sign of the others. Near the end of her circle, she caught a glint of light on metal, so she headed that way. “Monty, Chip, Dale, wait up guys,” she called, running towards the gleam she had seen. Pushing her way through a wall of thick bushes, she discovered that it wasn’t them after all, but the remains of an aircraft that had crashed a long time ago. The airframe was very badly crumpled, but there was enough left for her to make out its original lines. With a shock, she realized that the aircraft was a scale model of the Spirit of St. Louis. The very plane her father had been flying when he . . .

With a hard swallow, she went closer to investigate the wreckage. Most of the frames were collapsed, and the wings and tail lay in their own crumpled heaps near the wreck. When it had struck, it had struck hard. Surface vegetation had long ago obscured the gouge in the earth it had made upon impact and was slowly working at covering up the wreck itself. Gadget took a deep breath, then tentatively, almost timidly, reached out and touched it. The smooth metal was hard and cold to the touch. Water from the recent rain was pooled in collapsed sections of the fuselage. After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed aside the vegetation that obscured the cockpit. It was empty, but there beneath the windscreen, in a familiar elegant script, was the pilot’s name.

Geegaw Hackwrench.

Gadget felt as though time had stopped. Her mind had simply ceased processing information. The sights, sounds and smells of the forest, even the trees themselves, faded away except for those two words. She didn’t know how long she had been there when the tap on her shoulder started her out of her reverie.

“Hello princess,” said a familiar voice she hadn’t heard in years.

Gadget turned and came face to mustachioed face with her father. “Daddy?” she whispered.

“Who’d you expect?” Geegaw asked. He was dressed in the flight jacket, cap and scarf she so vividly remembered from her favorite picture of him, the one that adorned her dresser back home. Gadget reached for her father, but he backed away a step. “Don’t,” he said.

“Why?” Gadget asked, confused.

“You can’t,” her father explained.

“Why are you here?”

“To talk to you. I see you’ve noticed the condition of my plane.” Gadget nodded, trying to swallow although her throat was quite dry. “Can you imagine my condition?”

Gadget shuddered at the thought of the horrific, fatal injuries anyone inside the aircraft would have sustained when it hit. She knew that the plane had no mechanism for escape; that had been the primary reason she’d modified the Screaming Eagle with ejection seats. “Are you . . . a ghost?” The question seemed natural enough, even though she didn’t really believe in ghosts.

“I have a question for you, my smart little girl,” said Geegaw. “Who was it exactly that did the maintenance on the plane’s flight control systems before I left?”

“Well I did of course,” Gadget answered automatically. When her interest in machinery began to develop, her father had nurtured it by teaching her about aircraft maintenance, eventually putting her in charge of keeping the planes in top condition.

“And did it occur to you, perhaps that might have had something to do with this?” her father asked, indicating the wrecked airplane with a wave.

It had. Gadget’s eyes went wide with fear. When her father didn’t return, she’d replayed the pre-flight maintenance she’d done on his plane over and over again in her mind, trying to remember if she might have made an error or misjudgment, and where. In the years that followed, she had been unable to find a single thing she might have done wrong. Yet the suspicion that she was, in some way, responsible for her father’s death nagged her relentlessly.

“I lost control of the elevators. An actuator failed.”

“No,” Gadget whispered.

“The plane went into a spin. I didn’t have a chance.” Geegaw now began to advance on Gadget, who backed away in fear.

“It can’t be.”

“I didn’t have a chance, and it’s all your fault, you and your infernal, incessant tinkering!”

“It’s not true!” Gadget cried, backing into the tail of the aircraft. She was essentially cornered before the frightening apparition of her angry father.

“You failed me,” Geegaw spat accusingly. “I wish I had had a son instead of a daughter!”

The last struck Gadget worse than any physical blow, she could not believe what she was hearing. She refused to believe it. But a part of her, where her doubts lived, seemed to accept it, even embrace it. Her heart, however, told her a different story. Squeezing her eyes shut against her tears, she listened to its voice, and repeated the words herself. “You’re not my father,” she whispered.

“Eh? How dare you--”

“You’re NOT my father!” Gadget yelled.

“I’ll show you!” the apparition yelled back, raising a paw as if to strike her. Gadget squeezed her eyes shut against hot tears, and felt something crash into her side, knocking her sprawling to the ground. Something flew by, and then she was picked up and carried bodily. She opened her eyes and found Monterey Jack carrying her.

“Thank me later Gadget-luv, we’re not out of the woods yet!” Gadget looked over his shoulder and saw a large wild cat, presumably right where she had been. The memory of the vision still occupied her thoughts as Monty ran between the roots of a large overgrown tree, taking shelter in the hollows beneath. The snarling wild cat reached after them as Monty dodged it. “We could use some help here mates!”

“Rescue Rangers Away!” Chip and Dale returned, as they raced up the tree. They reached the branches at the same time as Foxglove did and all three began pulling pinecones loose.

“Bombs away!” said Dale. Their aim was straight on; the wild cat found itself being pelted by pinecones. In short order the cat decided he’d had enough, and ran away, perhaps in search of easier prey.

“Are you alright luv?” Monty asked. Gadget looked at him for a moment and burst into tears. “There, there, let it all out. That must have been some vision.”

Chip appeared at the roots. “Is she okay Monty?”

“She’ll be fine. She’s just had a nasty scare, that’s all.”

“Thanks Monty,” Gadget said.

“Thank Foxglove. If it weren’t for her we might not have found you in time. Alright now?” Gadget nodded, and walked out from under the tree ahead of Monty.

Foxglove landed next to Dale. “How was that?”

“Great job Foxglove!” Dale responded.

“Thanks Foxglove,” said Gadget.

“Are you okay?” Chip asked solicitously.

Gadget wiped away her tears and managed a shaky smile. “I will be.”

It took some time, but in the end it was like telling herself she’d had a bad dream. She’d had similar dreams before, but never with such intensity. She’d had practice getting over them, but she could tell this one was going to linger. It helped her to concentrate on the task at hand.

The moon was lower now, and their progress was slowed as they tried to pick their way through the undergrowth without getting tripped up. Foxglove’s echolocation was invaluable now, for helping them to avoid serious hazards.

Monty thought he heard something behind them, and turned to look. He stopped to look because in the dim moonlight it seemed to him as though the whole forest floor was moving. Something not quite right here, he thought to himself. The others heard him stop, and also stopped to see what the matter was.

“What’s wrong Monty?” Gadget asked, fearing another vision.

“I’ve got this feeling that we’re being followed,” Monty reported, “but I think me eyes are playin’ tricks on me.”

“If they are, then my ears are playing tricks on me,” Foxglove said. “It sounds like we’re being followed.” She edged closer to Dale for comfort.

“Anyone else see anything odd back there?” Monty asked. Zipper buzzed and flew up to a higher altitude for a look around.

“It’s probably nothing. C’mon, we need to keep moving,” Chip said, turning to go.

Just then lightning left over from the storm flashed briefly, illuminating something. “Hey, something is moving out there!” said Dale.

“Golly, there sure is!” Gadget added.

“Phew, for a moment I thought it was another illusion,” said Monty. Just then Zipper returned from aloft and buzzed a report to him. “A snake! That’s worse than an illusion! C’mon mates, we’d better shift it!” He began to run, all the others following suit except for Foxglove, who took to flight, but kept close to Dale.

Running through the thick growth was tough going, stray branches snagged at them, and twigs and leaves crackled underfoot, which they were sure would attract the snake’s attention. Monty led the way, using his strength to clear the path for his friends.

Foxglove had decided that she didn’t like snakes. In all her life she’d only ever known one snake, and he wasn’t very nice at all. Just that thought alone brought back memories that she’d rather she didn’t have. She risked a glance over her shoulder, just in case. There was a snake chasing them all right, she could clearly see his eyes and mouth full of cruel fangs, the tongue flicking in and out, tracking their scent, but that wasn’t the half of it. Just then, lightning flashed, illuminating the all-too-familiar silhouette of a cleaning woman, brandishing a brush like a magic wand.

No, it can’t be! Foxglove’s heart leapt into her throat, beating about a mile a minute. It seemed as though the woman was pointing the brush right at her! Panic seized Foxglove, filling her head with one thought, escape! She beat her wings faster, gaining both speed and altitude, but leaving her friends behind.

Gadget watched Foxglove fly up into the trees distractedly, observing to no-one in particular, “Well of course, that’s the best way for her to get away, she’ll be safe up there, I mean, safer than she would be . . .”

“Shut it and run Gadget!” Monty advised her. Looking ahead, Monty spied something he thought might be helpful. “Head for that hole, we’ll lose it in there!” He changed course towards the opening in the ground he’d seen, hoping it wasn’t an illusion.

It wasn’t an illusion, the cave led about a foot underground . . . and changed abruptly into a nearly vertical drop. Monty stopped short, and the others crashed into him, nearly sending him over the edge.

“It’s a dead end!” Gadget observed.

“Yeah,” Dale added, looking nervously at the cave entrance, “real dead!”

Zipper buzzed urgently at them, gesturing towards a corner of the cave. His eyesight had adjusted faster, and he had spotted the stairs before anyone else. “Good work Zipper!” Monty cried, making a beeline for the crumbling stone steps. Chip and Dale cast a gaunt look at the steps, but a glance back at the snake sufficed to convince them to follow Monterey. The stairs circled around the outside of the shaft like a large spiral staircase, and looked to be very old. Once or twice as they descended, a stone broke loose and tumbled away down the shaft. They never heard any of them hit the bottom.

The steps ended on a wide ledge well below the surface. It was very nearly pitch black this far down. There didn’t seem to be any more steps past the ledge. Gadget looked up and gasped, pointing . . . the snake had reached the top of the shaft; its head was visible as a shadow far above them, cast by the lightning outside.

“Sshhh!” Chip hissed, “Everybody quiet, don’t make a sound!” The friends grouped together for mutual support, as they watched the darkness above them. It was hard to see anything, but the next flash of lightning revealed that the snake had come in farther; its head was now visible near the steps. Its tongue flicked in and out, trying to pick up their scent. The snake dislodged a small rock shower that nearly fell on them, forcing them to move deeper into the shadows. When next the lightning illuminated the cave, the snake’s head was coming down the shaft, and looked as if it was coming right at them.

“It sees us!” Gadget hissed. Of all the ways she could think of to go, winding up as some reptile’s meal was probably her very last choice. Her eyes had acclimated to the darkness, and she could see the shape of the snake’s head as it descended towards them. She stared at it as though mesmerized, unable to watch, yet also unable to turn away. Chip put a paw on hers to comfort her, though he hardly felt comfortable himself. Gadget squeezed his paw so tightly that it hurt. Dale had a hold of Chip’s jacket, and dared not even breathe.

Monty resolutely detached himself and advanced out onto the ledge baring his fists, quite prepared to sacrifice himself in defense of his friends. No snake was going to take them without a fight! Zipper likewise stood by his lifelong friend.

The lightning flashed again, and the snake was lunging at them, its mouth wide open. “Look out mates!” Monty yelled, and crashed into them in a full bore flying tackle, bearing them out of the path of the reptile’s jaws . . . In spite of herself, Gadget screamed in fear.

Foxglove perched on a branch far overhead, and watched in mortal dread as the snake’s tail disappeared down the hole where her friends had taken refuge. There was no sign of the terrifying vision she had been fleeing from; it had been an illusion. She had flown away, thinking only of herself, and now her friends were trapped and certain to die, especially . . .

Her sensitive hearing picked up Gadget’s scream.

“Gadget!” There was nothing she could do now. “Dale . . . oh no . . . no,” she sobbed, and slumped down onto the branch, feeling light-headed and drained. The tears came freely, unbidden, their hot saltiness stinging her cheeks. She drew a deep shuddering breath and rocked back, flinging her grief at the dark, uncaring trees. “Da-a-a-a-ale!!!!!”

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