Something ahead of them on the trail screamed, a prolonged, blood-curdling scream. Before the trio could react, another scream followed, louder, shriller, and more heart-stopping than the first. Then the sound of angry voices ensued.
Dragon and Talia remained frozen for several moments, eyes wide and hearts pounding. Then they leaped into action and began to race toward the ruckus. A dozen strides later, their companion, a giant rabbit, hopped in front of them, forcing them to an abrupt halt.
Hopper chuckled. “No need for alarm. I recognize the voices. This is a common occurrence.”
Still chuckling, Hopper led Dragon and Talia toward the source of the sound that had continued and intensified. Seconds later, they rounded a bend in the path and stopped, watching the scene unfold. Talia’s jaw dropped and she turned deathly pale as she saw the field full of giant animals.
“Ooooooooooooooooooooo! Ooooooooooooooooooooo!” A large badger was screaming at the top of its lungs.
“Ooooooooooooooooooooo! Ooooooooooooooooooooo!” A young coyote joined in the cacophony.
“Stop it, Junior! You’re giving me a headache!” The larger coyote next to the howling youngster snapped at him, then glared at the badger. “And you stop it, too, Benny. You’re such a diva.”
“Yeah, Benny!” A spotted fawn lifted her head from the basket of carrots and spoke around a mouthful of food. “Don’t be such a diva! Just stop already!”
Benny didn’t stop. “Ooooooooooooooooooooo! Ooooooooooooooooooooo! Get him off my tail. Get him off my tail!”
The family of foxes started yipping along with Benny’s howling until the coyote silenced them with a hard stare.
The fawn looked over at the large deer. “Dad, get off Benny’s tail, will ya?”
The deer looked down, a confused expression on his face, but he did not move.
A small, two-toned rabbit sighed, looked up at the deer and shook his head, a look of disgust on his furry little face. “Derrick, would you please get off Benny’s tail before he damages our hearing with his infernal caterwauling? You’re always dashing around and never watching where you’re going. You’ve stomped on my paws more times than I can count, so I know it hurts like the dickens. Benny isn’t being histrionic.”
“I’m sorry, Benny. I’m sorry, Twitchy. I’m sorry, everyone.” Derrick the deer finally seemed to understand. He carefully moved his hoof off Benny’s tail, only to place it dangerously close to a large rabbit’s front paw, a rabbit Dragon recognized as Hab’itt. The rabbit jumped back, narrowly avoiding knocking over another rabbit who had been sitting next to him, munching on some carrot greens. “Sorry, Hab’itt.” Derrick hung his head.
“Oops. Sorry, Bracken!” Hab’itt steadied the other rabbit he had bumped into, as he glared at the clumsy deer.
Hopper laughed and moved lazily onto the field. “What a sorry bunch we have here today!”
“Hey, Hopper! Where have you been, you big ox? We got tired of waiting, so we started the picnic without you.” Hab’itt hopped over to greet his brother with an affectionate nose-rub.
“Hey, you little runt! I hope you saved some carrots for me!” Hopper returned his brother’s greeting.
Suddenly, Hab’itt noticed his brother’s companions. “Oh, hello!” He cocked his head and sniffed at Dragon. “I met you while I was on my journey, didn’t I?”
“I don’t think I met you, though.” Hab’itt looked closely at Talia and sniffed at her. “I’m Hab’itt. Are you with the dragon?” He held out a paw to Dragon’s companion.
The woman nodded. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Talia.”
Dragon noted that her companion nodded affably as she shook the rabbit’s paw. Talia had evidentially become much more comfortable around large, talking rabbits since their initial encounter with Hopper, but Dragon saw that the woman nonetheless kept a careful eye on the other animals closing in around them.
“What brings the two of you here?” Hab’itt’s ears moved around like two elongated radar dishes as he spoke.
“They’re looking for a human child, a little girl who’s lost. They thought you may have brought her here, or that she followed you here without your knowledge.” Hopper twitched his nose.
Hab’itt thumped one back foot and gave Dragon a questioning look. “Marisol?”
“Well, I didn’t bring her here, and I didn’t notice her following me.” Hab’itt called to the others, “Anyone see a human child around here?”
There was a lot of head shaking, and more than a few nos.
“How long has she been missing?” Hab’itt turned his attention back to Dragon and Talia.
Dragon frowned. “Her mother has not seen her since before the child followed you to our yard. I am not certain how long ago that is in your world. It was after dark of the day we met you when we tracked you and Marisol to the portal, but it was midday here when we emerged in this world a few moments later.”
Hab’itt nodded. “Yes, we have noticed time proceeds at different rates in different parts of the world.”
“Different parts of the world?” Talia furrowed her brow.
“Oh, that’s right. You weren’t there when I explained it to the dragon.” Hab’itt frowned. “You define world differently than we do. To me and my kind, there is only one world. Wherever there is life, it is part of that one world. You believe the portals connect one world with another world. We believe they connect one part of the singular world with another part.”
Talia raised an eyebrow but nodded her understanding.
Hab’itt scratched behind an ear with one giant back paw. “Getting back to how long the child’s been missing, I’m not sure if it’s still yesterday back where you came from, or if it’s a week from next Verday.” He laughed, indicating he was just joking.
Hopper frowned and twitched his ears. “This is no joking matter. A mother is frantic over her lost child. If the little girl is, indeed, in this part of the world, we need to find her and return her to her home.”
Hab’itt looked contrite, his ears flat against his neck and back, his eyes downcast. “You’re right. It’s nothing to joke about.” He turned toward Dragon. “You said you tracked both me and Marisol to the portal?”
Dragon nodded. “I could not tell precisely how much time had expired between your passage through the portal and when Marisol went through. If you did not go at the same time, if you did not take her with you, she was just moments behind you.”
“And you picked up her scent again on this side?” Hab’itt scrunched up his face as Dragon again nodded. “If she were that close, I should have seen her. At the very least, I should have heard her.” He wiggled his ears back and forth.
“Well, the old bloodhound there will just have to keep tracking.” Talia pointed to Dragon, who gave her a stern stare as smoke started to drift from her nose.
“We’ll help.” The coyotes and the foxes raced over. “It should be easy to pick up the scent of a human. Let’s just sniff you a bit, so we won’t follow your scent.”
Talia blinked rapidly at the advancing animals and started backing away. “Uh, that won’t be necessary. Not that we don’t appreciate the offer, but I’m sure we can manage on our own.”
“We cannot.” Dragon frowned at Talia.
“But . . . but . . .” Talia stammered.
“What?” The adult coyote fixed her with a steely stare. “You have something against coyotes or foxes?”
“Well, you’re carnivores,” she blurted. “I’m small enough compared to all of you, but Marisol wouldn’t even make one good-sized bite!”
“Ewwwwwwwwwwwww!” The coyote pup, sitting at his father’s side, made a gagging sound. “Carnivores? You think we eat meat? Gross!”
Dragon rounded on Talia, lecturing her. “This is not your world . . . or your part of the one world. Things are different here.” She turned to the animals milling around and shooting annoyed glances at the strangers in their midst. “Forsooth! My companion meant no disrespect. She is just ignorant of your customs and dietary proclivities. Any assistance you can render would be greatly appreciated.”
Talia shuffled her feet and blushed scarlet. “Of course, if you say we need their help, I welcome it. But I thought your sense of smell was sufficient for the task.”
Dragon shook her head. “Under normal circumstances, I would have no trouble tracking Marisol. However, her scent trail goes off in several different directions.”
“How is that possible?” Talia furrowed her brow and raked her hand through her hair.
The young coyote rolled his eyes. “The child you are looking for evidently traipsed around this area, going this way and that, crossing and re-crossing her own trail as she went. She was probably exploring or attempting to remain hidden.” The pup gave Talia a superior look.
The older coyote nodded. “Junior’s right. So, I suggest we divide into two groups, each following the trail in a different direction. Dragon, you are obviously the one with the best sense of smell. You should take the rabbits and the deer with you. Since the badger, the foxes, and my son and I all have exceptional olfaction, we will go in a different direction. We will take the human female with us, as she is known to the little girl and will be able to reassure the child she will be safe.”
“But who is going to reassure me that I will be safe?” Talia muttered under her breath, giving the animals a nervous, sidelong glance.
“We also have great auditory modality,” the pup whispered to Talia with a sharp bark that passed for a laugh.
The reynard walked over to the coyote pup and nudged him. He spoke to the youngster in a loud stage whisper. “Junior! Didn’t your parents teach you not to play with your food?” He gave Talia a wide-mouthed grin.
“Dear, don’t make her nervous!” The vixen frowned at her mate.
Too late! Talia thought, as she edged away from the group. She called to Dragon. “Are you sure I shouldn’t come with you?”
Dragon gave Talia a dismissive wave of her taloned hand and started off, leading her group along the scent trail to the west. The animals in Talia’s group headed off to the northeast.
“Come along, Tidbit . . .er, I mean Talia.” The big coyote sneered at her and started walking slowly and deliberately across the field, nose to the ground. After a few paces, he glanced back over his shoulder at Talia, rooted to the spot. He growled. “Do try to keep up!”
Despite her rubbery legs and pounding heart, once Talia started moving, she had but little trouble sprinting along with the long-legged giants in the pack, until something bolted from the hedgerow. It crashed headlong into her and almost knocked her senseless. She found herself flat on her back on the hard ground, looking up into the slavering maw of a giant mountain lion.
Now what? Is Talia about to meet her end? What happened to all her powers? Will Dragon be able to find Marisol and return her safely to her own home? Be sure to come back next week and see what happens. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.