It was just after sunrise and Maia was already hitting the water in a kayak. Officially, she was going out to place the buoys down the river to act as a boundary line for the camp’s boating activities to keep the campers from going too far downstream. Unofficially, she’d left an hour early so she could drop the buoys early and then have an hour to check out of the ghost town downstream. Last night it took time to calm down, but there were simply too many questions to leave the “issue” idle. Said issue being about meter and a half tall and covered in feathers. Maia didn’t know much about it, but she had figured out a few things. Namely while it was a large animal and she was coming prepared with bear spray and the stun light again just in case, it didn’t seem aggressive or predatory. If it could keep pace with her on a bicycle then it would have ambushed her instantly instead of calmly approaching while making no effort to hide. It certainly wouldn’t have stepped out in the direction she was facing if it was trying to attack, as she remembered from a documentary that even a serially man-eating tiger would rarely be bold enough to rush a human head-on, attacking from behind almost exclusively.
So for however big or odd looking it was, she could take solace in it seeming more curious than anything else. Might explain why in the tiny bits of notes her father wrote about the creature, he never made note of any danger. He obviously had to have seen it more than once to make that detailed of a sketch. But confidence that it was relatively safe aside, she had another reason for rushing out early without telling anyone of her plan.
Maia dropped the last buoy in the water and paddled further downstream, seeing the fringes of the ghost town emerging from the woods a few hundred meters ahead.
-Dad’s last work was studying that bird. If I retrace his steps, might get a better idea what exactly he was doing right before he disappeared.-
Maia struggled, absentmindedly touching at her collar to feel for a necklace that wasn’t there anymore and frowning.
-Probably lost it rushing back to camp last night… And if I blow the whistle I’ll lose any chance the bird-thing can give me too…-
A slow groan snapped Maia out of her dour mood and she whirled around, almost smacking the moving mass in the tarp behind her with the oar. But after a moment of hearing the incoherent mumbling, she rolled her eyes upon recognizing who it was. Maia reached back as the boat coasted to shore, pulling the tarp back to reveal a stretching Sunflower.
“Thought the boat seemed a tad heavy,” Maia muttered.
Sunflower just cracked her neck and fingers, getting up from a small set of life jackets she’d set up as pillows under the tarp. “Aaaah goodness, sorry about racking out. You just row so smoothly I dozed off. Gimme a break, it’s early!”
“And you’re in the boat to begin with, why exactly?”
“To help you out of course! Saw you up early and loading the floaties so I came to help... Well, least I meant to. Sorry!” Sunflower snickered awkwardly while putting her palms up and at her sides.
“You wanted to help with labor?” Maia muttered with a bit of incredulousness in her tone, raising an eyebrow and pursing her lips. Sunflower snorted while she put her hands at her hips.
“Camp rule MaiMai, no one goes off alone. Besides Sandal can handle the campers for a bit if any of the tykes get rowdy….-” she paused, looking over Maia’s shoulder at the miner village turned ghost town now coming up upon them.
“... Um, why are you steering us onto the set of a slasher movie?”
Maia went quiet as the boat was beached, trying to think her options through. The choice to say she was here to look for a dropped locket was tempting, so tempting she had to grapple with it to avoid blurting that exact thing out. But, she managed to stop herself short. Shoving others away was exactly the thing she did three years ago while choking under the leash of depression. Secrecy was going to be needed, but in some cases honesty was as well.
-Besides, better than if Sunflower bumped into it and shrieked loud enough to blow its ears out.-
“Okay, remember how I went on a bike ride yesterday?”
Sunflower nodded and Maia continued, “Well I… found something here. I think it might be some kind of big bird.”
Sunflower raised her brow skeptically, “Like an ostrich or elmo?”
“You mean emu? Well, kinda. Looks like an emu crossed with a big owl or something. I found a picture of it in my dad’s notes. Here,” Maia muttered, pulling the book from her backpack and handing it to Sunflower while tapping at the bookmark leading to the sketch of “Eno”. Upon turning to the page, Sunflower cooed adorably like she was looking at a puppy, putting a hand on her cheek.
“Awwww, it looks adorable! Weird tail, but... pretty cute! Where is the little peeper?”, Sunflower chirped as she eagerly looked around the ghost town. At the word “little” however, Maia pursed her lips and rubbed at the back of her head.
“Eehehee uuum, ‘bout that,-” she chuckled, hopping out of the boat and onto shore, offering Sunflower a hand up to get her out too before the both of them started towards the town. “It’s uuum- ‘bout yea big at the hip I think?”
Maia held out her free hand to her upper chest level, just below her collar; indicating a height just shy of one and a half meters or around five feet.
Sunflower’s eyes widened and her lips flattened against each other. She took one look between the sketch, Maia’s indicated hip height, and the ghost town before rapidly beginning to shake her head while turning around and walking back towards the boat. “Aaaah nooooooo! Nope nope nope nope nope nope! No way we got a bird cage big enough for that thing, nope!”
Maia grimaced and ran after her friend, taking Sunflower by the wrist and stopping her; “Sunny please!”
The urgency in Maia’s tone instantly stopped the Orange in her footsteps, having not heard her best friend’s voice like that in three years. Maia took a deep breath in and shrugged, “Listen. It’s not dangerous, I promise. And, I brought some defensive stuff just in case!”
Sunflower turned her head back and pouted, “Why couldn’t you go hunting after something, you know, smaller?”
“After seeing it I… I have know more about it.”
“Why not get your mom? She could call park service and they could look in on it. Heck, Sandal’s parents are rangers, they might know something.”
Maia’s expression and eyes began to slump downwards, “The last thing my father did three years ago was him discovering and drawing it. If I can find it, maybe I’ll get a hint as to why he-....…”
She stopped short, but the moment Sunflower’s mind processed the word’s implications and the sight of her friend beginning to resemble how she looked three years ago in a hospital bed, Maia found herself getting yanked into bear hug by a pair of skinny arms with her face getting buried into a mass of orange perfume-scented hair. Sunflower might not have been a geek like her two closest friends, truth be told her toys growing up were less Jurassic Park and more Barbie, but she’d sat through enough movies to know what happened when some weird animal got discovered by some group who’d want to study it; usually in a place of convenience to the humans and not the critter or monster. She held the bear hug until Maia started flailing her hands for breath.
After catching the wind in her lungs, Maia looked back up to see Sunflower pulling the can of bear spray from her bag and smirking.
“Just a precaution, best-friend swear-” she quipped while nodding her head towards the can she was holding daintily with her pinkie finger outstretched, “-let’s find this tweetie!”
Eno stood up from the improvised nest and hissed, stretching out from his rest by extending his tail and arms in a way that spread the fan of feathers and short wings mounted on them respectively. The night was relatively peaceful after “they” were dealt with. Drowning was a hopeful, but sadly unlikely outcome given the river wasn’t very deep and only a dozen or so meters wide at its largest span. More likely they’d been flushed far downstream before catching a shallow area or paddling to shore. It was a good thing he knew of this place and the Smelled-Familiar human ran to the human nesting grounds, or else they could have gotten either of them. They didn’t like daytime when the humans were mostly out and they didn’t like human grounds or buildings like he was in now or what humans stayed at during the night. So barring an incident like last night, threat wasn’t too dire.
Still, probably should keep safe and forage more in day time even if bright lights took a lot of time to adjust to. Finding out where They had ended up would be useful as well.
Eno squawked, walking through the general good store until a distant sound stole his attention. The avian pitched his head up and sniffed at the breeze coming through a half opened window, catching a familiar scent which was confirmed upon peeking out.
Smelled-Familiar human was back and with a-... Eno sniffed again, puzzling as he sensed two different things. His eyes told him there was another human but his nose told him it was a walking pile of orange fruit. When he saw the device Smelled-Familiar was holding however, Eno chirped in surprise and made himself scarce.
Gentle Heart hid her inner confusion and concern as she stood before the campers gathered in the mess hall for breakfast, Sandalwood thankfully managing to solo-man the entire food line at impressive speed that first made her worry he’d fling the scrambled eggs across the hall in his haste. Taking in a deep breath, she tapped at the microphone mounted on the center of the stage at the back of the hall to call attention.
“Alright campers! We’re still on schedule for our boat rides in an hour, we’re just in a momentary holding pattern. So to help out, I’ve called over someone to talk to you more about our camp’s theme!” she quipped, nodding to the curtains off to the side of the stage.
Sandalwood, having just managed to flip a pair of flapjacks literally over his head and onto a camper’s plate, stole a glance over his shoulder and was soon raising his brow at the sight of a young woman stepping out onto the stage. She was definitely older than him and the other counselors, but much younger than Mrs. Heart. Eyeballing it he’d guestimate her to be around the early to mid twenties range. Light teal skin with blue hair that was mostly middle blue with a baby blue streak, indigo eyes, hair styled back into a bun save for one wavy bang; and wearing tanned boots, a set of khaki pants, a plaid long sleeve shirt, and a tan vest. Give her a pith helmet or wide brim hat with a whip and she’d look right at home in a Daring Do story.
Flashing a pleasant smile, the newcomer waved to the campers and took the mic from Gentle Heart; whom seemed to mouth the words “Thank you” with no small amount of urgency. Snickering, she nodded.
“Saaaaaalu-tations campers! My name is Petunia Paleo… No relation to Paleo Search- And I’m a Paleontologist, that means I’m one of the people who digs up dinosaurs and studies them!” She yelped with a smirk, pulling out something from her pocket. After a glance and mentally rereading the curriculum Mrs. Heart gave him, Sandalwood realized what she was holding up was an eight inch long, sickle shaped, pointed claw. Evidently from all the “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” she was getting, the more Dino loving campers or at least ones who’d seen a Jurassic Park movie came to the same realization. Mrs. Gentle Heart walked over to Sandalwood just after he finished serving the last camper, Pip, whom eagerly ran up to the front row to get a better look at the claw.
“This is a claw from Dromaeosaurus, the namesake of the family we often call ‘raptors’. A wolf sized, feathered predatory dinosaur with one of these claws on the innermost toes.”
One of the children, a brown skinned young boy Gentle Heart knew as Button Mash, groaned and slapped his forehead, “Aaaah feathers? Like a six foot turkey? That’s dumb.”
Petunia chuckled, shaking her head, “Would you say the same for a big eagle or scary vulture? Because that’s what they would have looked like in life. If you saw a ‘raptor’ or many other types of predatory dinosaurs in life, you’d probably think you were looking at a big hawk. And just as dangerous of predators to be sure.”
She pulled out a rolled up note card from the aforementioned pocket to show a recreation of the species by an artist and showed it around.
“New counselor?” Sandalwood muttered, leaning towards Mrs. Heart whom shook her head.
“No, just someone who’s staying here from Baltimare. She’s doing research in the badlands for her thesis, that dig I mentioned yesterday is a side project… By the way, have Maia or Sunflower come back yet?”
Sandalwood wiped his hands off on a towel and glanced over at his watch, counting fingers for a moment to reaffirm span before puzzling his lips at the realization; “They’re not due back for another thirty minutes buuuut they did leave ‘bout an hour early Missus H. Should be back by now.”
Gentle Heart again had to take in a deep breath and hold it to avoid fretting. Putting her fingers together, she sighed a tad coarsely; “Sandal, would you mind checking the docks before going on break? Current gets strong at this time and might speed their journey back from whatever is holding them up. I shall ask Petunia if she can help me busy the campers should something come up.”
Sandalwood saluted, flicking a few of his dreadlocks back, “You got it Missus H!”
As Gentle Heart went over to Petunia, who was passing an ammonite around, Sandalwood wrapped up his apron and headed for the docks.
“So you think you heard Big Bird in there?”, Sunflower muttered while leaning over to peek through the general store’s busted window while maintaining her distance.
Despite having the nerve to keep to her promises, the Orange wasn’t soon to take her hand off the bear spray can. Bird or not this place looked like a creepshow and she wasn’t taking chances on something jumping out and doing worse than shouting “Boo!”.
Maia was a touch more adventurous, reaching up and slowly opening the creaking front door after a turn of the knob; “Keep close. If we end up surprising each other after splitting up I don’t want either of us using the panic buttons.”
“Because pepper spray does not taste like pepper and I don’t want to get flashed.”
They looked around the dark but not unseeable interior to confirm safety before stepping inside. The inside of the store was still in some measure of disarray, with what looked like spilled white paint on the ground that was freshly dried and a lot of dust coating some shelves and floor space. However, what puzzled Maia was the fact that the interior looked different from when she saw it yesterday. The fallen aisle and cupboard that half-covered the window she looked in from yesterday wasn’t doing so anymore. When she and Sunflower looked in from the outside it looked like it had fallen over and under the window, but now standing in the interior she could see it was actually pushed back onto its feet and sitting up straight.
“Hey, check this out-”, Sunflower muttered, earning Maia’s attention. The Orange pulled out her cell phone, for once not grumbling about the horrific signal of the isle and instead flicking on a flashlight app. When she did so, she shone the beam of illumination on the door and floor, “See that? The knob and some of the floor has no dust, but the door itself and some of the surrounding floorspace does. Someone used it recently. Know that from having to clean my sisters room growing up. You sure there’s not like some woods-hobo living here?”
“I heard two footsteps but not any voices, just the bird. Why you ask?”, Maia puzzled, trying to think up a scenario of her possibly missing someone or misidentifying who was making the footsteps she heard last night.
Sunflower shrugged, “Just saying, never heard of a bird knowing to use the front door; let alone a knob.”
Maia pursed her lips and put a finger to them, thinking back to the brief glimpses of what she saw last night. While the sketch her father made of this “Eno” only showed its forelimbs from the sides, thus they were obscured by the short wing feathers mounted on them; she did remember glimpsing hands poking out of the feathers when she surprised it with the stun light. Birds with functional digits were rare, but not unheard of; ostriches and hoatzin even still had spurs or claws on their wings. But fully functional hands with distinct digits? That would be a new one for her.
-It must be extremely distinct. Is that why you kept it secret Dad?-
Eno was doing everything he could to remain absolutely silent, not an easy feat when one was startled, hanging onto something, and unlike a human, couldn’t control their breathing. Smelled-Familiar passed under him with Smells-Like-Fruit following, verbalizing to each other in their human calls. Eno clutched the rafter a bit tighter, digging in his scythe shaped inner-toe claws while trying to both spread himself out to not put his full weight on the beam and use his tail sways to maintain balance to not fall off.
Once he found his balance, the avian’s body locked up like a statue. Akin to how a fawn or owl will remain perfectly still when anxious, he kept himself prone against the rafters and didn’t even move his head to look around in spite of the fact that like some birds he couldn’t move his eyes independently of his head. Instead he only kept his snout tilted down somewhat, transfixed on the light device Smelled-Familiar was holding as an involuntary shake crept up his tail and dislodged a loose feather.
Maia and Sunflower milled about the general store until the latter found pause in something. It was settled on a table with a booth near the front wall, probably a small seating area to read newspaper or enjoy some coffee when the workers were making use of the town. And sitting upon the table was an opened, brown plastic bag with some other packing set to the side and crumbs of food still on the table.
“What’s this? A snack bag?” Sunflower muttered as she held the bag up and tried to read the faded label, “MP3?.. Huh?”
Maia’s brow raised as she recognized the bag more for its coloration and small print writing rather than the label which had been mostly scratched out, “MRE. Meals ready to eat. Military and people living out in the sticks often use them since they don’t go bad for awhile. This store must have stocked them.”
“Well that thing must have eaten it all recently, stray breeze could have blown this thing around. Nothing but-... Hey wait a minute,”, she quipped, giving Maia a perplexed look. “If this bird thing was living here and maybe ate this bag, why is all the plastic wrapping inside undone? Animals shred these things when they open them, like that raccoon that got into our sandwich bags at Brownie camp.”
“...Huh! That’s true,” Maia said as she was handed the MRE bag by Sunflower. Sure enough, instead of being ripped or bitten open, it had been opened along the seam with none of the internal wrapping torn open significantly. Whoever opened it knew to avoid the plastic, not something common in animals.
“Any chance it’s just a hobo?”
“This far out in the middle of nowhere and on an island?” Maia grunted with a bit of snark. Sunflower just shrugged.
“Just saying, don’t know many bird brains who do that.”
Another ten minutes of searching and while Maia was looking over some curiously stocked shelves missing dust, suggesting someone had been putting things on them recently, Sunflower called out from across the shop.
“H-Hey, I dunno critters like you do buuut-”, Sunflower grimaced as she pointed to a bed mattress that had been dragged behind the check-out counter. Maia walked over as her friend finished her sentence, “-that doesn’t look something a hobo would do.”
No, no it didn’t. The foam mattress was torn open and covered in ripped-out chunks of other foam and stuffing from some assorted pillows that lay off in a corner. It looked like a bed aisle had been turned inside-out and roughly placed in a circle. And within the stuffing and foam were several loose feathers. Some were long and stringy, like what one might see on an emu, and were a mottled green hue with some browns. Others were short, curly, and extremely fluffy like a chick’s down with a grayed hue. And poking out of the rim of the nest was a longer, more developed specimen shaped like what one would typically think of for a feather, quilled with a fan of filaments on either side and sporting a rusty red coloring. Maia’s eyes widened as she knelt down and picked up the last feather, Sunflower apprehensively picking up two of the other kinds with a slightly uneasy expression. The former remembered the glimpses she got of it in the stun light. A body largely covered in foresty hues with a lighter underbelly, and red accents across parts of the back, head, and limbs. She couldn’t recall the exact colors, the flash of the light drowned them out then, but she could see them now.
“This isn’t a squatter… This is its nest,” she muttered, eyes wide with awe.
Sunflower’s mouth was wide for a different reason when she eyeballed the size of the nest and feathers, “We’re gonna need a much… much bigger bird cage…. Sooo, where is it?”
“I don’t know,-” Maia muttered with a widening smile, “-but it’s definitely been here recently. See? Feathers and nest still feel warm. Birds are warm-blooded like mammals.”
Sunflower was about to remark about the tears she saw on the mattress and pillows, which looked an awful lot like tooth and claw marks. It reminded her of when her dog went to town on one of her plushies and tore Mr. Fluffles asunder, only magnitudes bigger. But she held that retort up when she reached out and pulled something stuck in the fabric of one pillow case. It was about the same size as the last section of her thumb in both width and length, but ended in a sharp point that was flanked on both sides by raised, upwards pointing serrations of noticeable size.
“Thaaaat looks like a… tooth… Are you sure this is a bird and something didn’t just have a chicken dinner in its pillow fort?”, Sunflower quipped while grimacing and passing the tooth over to Maia.
Maia couldn’t argue, it did look a lot like some kind of tooth but not any she was familiar with. It looked fresh, with only some wear and tear on the crown. But the base of it was completely worn away with no sign of roots. She and Sunflower stood up and puzzled over it, holding it up to the window to get some more light without the glare of Sunflower’s phone.
“It looks like it’s just the crown, root is all gone. Like it was shed and fell out like baby teeth do.”
Sunflower laughed awkwardly and shook her head, “Haha noooo! No way is that a baby tooth. I don't want it to be a baby tooth! Don’t some kinds of critters keep losing teeth like that and just grow more?”
Maia shrugged, “Well there’s sharks but, this is on land. Alligators?”
Sunflower could only puzzle with a flabbergasted expression on her face as she turned around, pointing her hand out to wave it across the general goods store, “Soooo a hobo who eats MP3s is bunking out with a big green bird whom hates pillows and may or may not have had an alligator over for dinner?”
Maia pouted. No way could that sort of scenario sound remotely possible. She was about to say something when a raspy, clicking sound called out from above them.
Both young women looked up, instantly calling out in surprise when they spotted a pair of eyes looking down at them from the rafters that begot a huge body. Maia and Sunflower reacted as any person would upon suddenly finding themselves in an enclosed space with a large animal that seemed to come out of nowhere, try and break the land-speed record as they sprinted for and out the door.
A few moments earlier
Eno watched the two humans mill about the store and for the most part made good on staying quiet. He didn’t even complain when they went through his food and got near his nest. In truth he wanted to hop down and greet them. Scary flash stick aside, Smelled-Familiar seemed nice and Smells-Like-Fruit had a very pleasant scent to her. Neither of them brought anything else to fear so it seemed pretty safe. Last human he knew was interesting too!
That said however, he was young and impulsive. When the humans were looking at one of his teeth that fell out while making his nest, spurring another curiosity as to why they or the last one seemed to like what was worthless so much, Smells-Like-Fruit turned around to wave her arm around and stepped her dirty shoe on his bed!
Eno’s red headcrest instinctively flexed up and he rapidly rattled his jaw up and down while emitting a throaty series of clicks from his syrinx, the voice box organ found in birds, “Raaakaka raaakakakaka!”
He didn’t mean for them to try to have a shouting contest with him, humans are always so loud! Eno winced and tried to cover his ears, losing his balance and falling off the rafters and onto his nest.
“So why look at alligators and birds so much if they don’t look much like dinosaurs?”, Rumble muttered, looking up at the stand-in counselor.
“Due to the animal dying and leaving an impression of what was on the outside, we know many types of dinosaurs had feathers, scute-like scales, or some mixture of the two. In fact between the parental care, some species having armored scutes and others having plumage, skeletal builds, and other traits with corresponding behaviors; that the closest thing we have to look at for dinosaurs are their descendants, the birds, and their cousins, the crocodilians. The crocodilians had a common ancestor with them in the Triassic so they share features like caring for young and advanced brains, and birds are living dinosaurs starting in the Jurassic that retained their ancestral traits like warm bloodedness and feathers. Even today in regards to internal organs and DNA, birds and crocodilians are closer to each other than any other type of animal. Dinosaurs were no different.”, Petunia Paleo noted as she sat at the center of the campers.
“What sort of things might a dino do that are like a bird?” Apple Crumble, an orange skinned girl with short green hair, piped, looking up from a seashell she’d uncovered.
“Many things really, given bird behaviors probably started in dinosaurs. One that is almost assured given crocodilians do it too is manipulation of their surroundings while collecting objects. Gators and crocs build burrows and nests out of specific types of dirt and foliage. Birds, likewise, also build nests or even homes to their liking with the same stuff.”
They’d moved out of the mess hall and into a large patch of land just outside the camp, where a layer of sandstone partially covered by dirt and loose sediment lay. After passing around a large supply of toothbrushes, as the paleontologist didn’t quite think them ready for picks and etchers just yet, she’d been guiding them through some excavation steps to get out some fossils. Nothing large, despite the children’s excitement, mostly just some shells, fossilized leaves, and a few shark or fish teeth. In the meantime she’d be taking and giving questions to the eager kids. That took a momentary pause when she looked up to see Sandalwood and Gentle Heart at the boathouse with the former looking out over the river with a set of binoculars.
Curious, Petunia tapped Apple Crumble on the shoulder.
“Excuse me for a moment, I just need to see to something. You seem pretty smart with your questions. How’s about you keep an eye on things for a minute until I get back? I’ll let you and anyone helping you look at a new fossil I’ve found here when I return if you do,” Petunia said with a smile that widened when she could literally see stars in the young girl’s eyes.
“Really!? Ma’am yes ma’am!” the girl piped with a salute, earning an annoying groan from the boy beside her named Rumble. Petunia Paleo chuckled as she got up and walked over to the boathouse.
“Oh, hello Petunia. Children behaving I hope?” Gentle Heart muttered as she stole a glance at the fossil pit across camp.
“Quite well, quite well. What seems to be going on here? I thought there was supposed to be a kayak ride today.”
“Well that seems to still be on hold, Maia and Sunflower aren’t back yet-”
Gentle Heart was interrupted by Sandalwood piping in after he adjusted the binoculars, “I see ‘em!... Ah crap.”
In an instant Gentle Heart went from sighing in relief to instantly fretting again as she shot a hand out for the binoculars. Sandalwood grimaced as he handed them over to her. Gentle Heart let her eyes adjust and focus on the bright red kayak. A minute later and Sandalwood, having hopped into the shallows, caught the empty boat as it drifted into him without a single soul on board.
“Nooot good.” he muttered under his breath, dragging the kayak by its line back towards shore.
Petunia and Gentle Heart helped him drag it ashore, the latter saying the question on everyone’s mind; “Where are the girls?”
Sandalwood surveyed the kayak interior, noting how it was largely dry and there was a decent size shore stone placed in the center. He picked up the stone, testing at its weight.
“Too dry to have capsized and spilled them out. This rock means they probably tried to beach it. Current likely, it probably was too strong as it kicked up a notch and dragged it offshore,” he said, handing the weightstone over to Petunia Paleo before looking over at Gentle Heart, “Why’d they do that?”
Gentle Heart shrugged, shaking her head and swatting her palm at the air, “Not a clue, Maia is never one to run late and there’s nothing downstream but-”
Petunia talked over her, tapping her hand against the rock, “The ghost town and badlands. This is from the first. I recognize the rock type.”
Sandalwood tilted his head, “You been here before Misses P?”
Petunia Paleo shrugged, waving it off with a tiny bit of coyness in her tone, “Geology background and I saw the map of the region. Settlements tend be near certain rock types and smoothness shows it was near a river.”
Gentle Heart sighed, tapping at her chin, “Well, least that means they’re on land; just a ways away. Sandalwood, can you take a bike down the river path and find them? They’re probably walking their way here.”
Sandalwood nodded, rubbing at the back of his head, “Sure thing Missus H, just might take a bit given the river path is all muddy right now.”
“Take the west path.”
Sandalwood raised an eyebrow and looked over at Petunia Paleo as she got out a small map showing the region. She put her finger on the path leading out the other side of the camp that looped around, “Take it and then turn towards the river, there’s a game trail just after you pass this hill. Go down it and you’ll avoid the muddy low area entirely.”
It pounced at them! It jumped down from the rafters and tried to pounce on them! Sunflower sprinted out of the ghost town alongside Maia, the two gripping each other’s arms to alternatively tow the other along. She could only thank blind luck the creature’s aim was off and it hit the pillow fort instead of them!
Sunflower and Maia blitzed out of the store and across the ghost town, coming to a skidding halt at the river shore when a sobering revelation made itself known.
“Wh-WHERE’S THE BOAT?!” Sunflower barked, throwing her arms out towards the now empty shore. Sure enough the sand and rocks on the shore had slide marks on them, but there wasn’t a sign of their kayak.
Maia pointed to the now audibly churning river, noting how much stronger the water’s flow seemed now than before, “This river is temperamental. Current must have hyped up and tugged it off shore while we were inside!”
The echoes of the door to the general good store opening sounded off behind them. Sunflower quickly drew the bear spray, though it was doubtful her shaking it like a can of hairspray would have increased its effectiveness. There was the distant pitter-patter of footfalls on the other side of the buildings, gradually moving closer and closer while staying under cover like it didn’t want to be seen.
Maia and Sunflower didn’t wait for it to get close, instead the former pointed ahead at the bike trail and gave her best friend a tug to start moving; “Okay, slowly now… To that path, it leads back to camp... Do... not.. run.”
Sunflower spoke through heavy breaths, “Are you crazy? That goes right past the building it’s behind! And why not run? You wanna be brunch?!”
“Sssh ssshhh! If we shout more or run we might excite it. S-So, quietly… and… caaarefully, follow me.”
Maia bit her lip, hand on her stun light as she began to slowly side step her way towards the building the thing was hiding behind with Sunflower close behind and the bear spray on a hair trigger. As they cautiously stepped around the building to get near the path, the worker cabin being less than four meters away, they heard the footsteps again. But rather than rushing out or coming towards them, this time it was heading away. It was circling the building again as they passed it, but rather than trying to flank to ambush them or do a sneak attack; it was keeping the building between them and itself at all times. For some rare glimpses, Maia thought she saw a pair of eyes looking at them through an opened door way or window. She saw them for sure, peering out from behind a set of blinds as they stepped backwards onto the trail, their owner making no attempt to follow them.
They got out of the borders of the ghost town and down to the bike trail, Maia looking back while Sunflower looked forward. After five minutes of walking, they finally let out a sigh of relief.
“That? That is not something I’m doing again. Your bird just tried to kill us!” Sunflower growled, though more from stress than anger at Maia.
Maia paused from her contemplation before she could speak. Out of the corner of her eye, Maia had spotted something in Sunflower’s hair and she pulled it out much to her friend’s confusion. It was a feather. A fully formed, thin feather that was chiefly stripes of pale and rusty red. And unlike the ones they’d found in the bedding, none of its fans were frayed. That meant it was very fresh. The realization caused her eyes to widen.
“One of its feathers! It was above us for awhile if this could fall into your hair...” she muttered.
Sunflower’s face scrunched up in mild confusion, “Stalking us more? Great! Juuuust great!”
“Sunny, why would it wait so long to pounce and then give its position away by calling out before it did? Predators don’t do that.”
Before Sunflower could retort, a set of leaves and pine needles audibly crunched off to their side upon the trail behind them. Sunflower and Maia looked over and saw a pair of large eyes looking back at them. The creature was back, about ten meters back down the trail and poking its head out from behind a tree. They could see it very clearly now as aside from its body and most of its shoulder being covered by the pine tree trunk, it was otherwise standing in a sunbeam sifting down from between the trees. The primary coloration was a mottled green with some browns, likely good camouflage for a forest. The underbelly was a more grayed hue and seemed, for lack of better terms, fluffier than the rest of its body with the same fluff going up the neck and curling partially around the shoulders. The longest feathers seemed to be on the arms and back of the head, resembling short wings and a woodpecker-like head crest with broad plumage. Said areas had a rusty red hue on the fringes, the same coloration being sported on parts of the face to give it an almost raccoon-mask of scarlet encircling its eyes. Hanging down from the body one could see a set of three fingered hands inside the wings with the palms facing inward. There was something dangling from one hand that was glinting in the sunlight but it was too far away to distinguish. It tilted its head at the humans, clicking its lower jaw up and down in mumbled chattering before squawking a familiar vocalization.
Instantly Sunflower and Maia’s hands were on the bear spray and stun light and just as quickly, Eno ducked back behind the tree and stayed there. The girls paused, expecting the creature to dart off but it didn’t.
“Somethings up, it knows we know it’s there and it's not moving,” Maia whispered.
“Yeah, and it knows we’re here so why isn’t it running at us instead of playing peek-a-boo?”, Sunflower retorted, shaking the bear spray again.
Eno poked his head out from behind the tree again while holding out one arm. The shiny object from earlier was still dangling from a finger and he almost seemed to wave it at them. Maia’s hand twitched and the stun light was tilted upwards like she was about to use it. Instantly Eno ducked back behind the tree and Maia paused. After a few moments it repeated the same action as before, head tilted downwards towards the object Maia was holding onto. Maia’s mind thought back to the night prior.
-It remembers the stun light!-
“Rawk...,” he squawked in an almost hushed manner, stealing another apprehensive peak at the stun light.
Maia took in a deep breath and pushed the butt of the stun light gently into Sunflower’s hip, “It’s afraid of the stun light after getting blinded by it. Sunny, hold this.”
Sunflower did as asked, but still scrunched her nose and cast a wary eye at her best friend; “MaiMai, what are you doing?”
Eno shook his arm slightly, letting the shiny thing dangling from it glimmer more. Maia sighed and started to cautiously step forward, picking up a thick stick as she slowly advanced, “It’s probably not dangerous, maybe was just startled earlier. I think it’s trying to show me something.”
“M-Maia!” Sunflower pleaded, nearly rushing up to grab and pull her friend back to safety.
Maia quickly put her hand out in a halting motion, turning her head back and slowly nodding to Sunflower; “Sunny. It’s gonna be okay. And if anything happens, you got both so unload on it. Okay?”
Sunflower puzzled, clearly grappling with the thoughts while shooting apprehensive glances at the weird bird-thing and her best friend. Maia bit her lip, giving the Orange a pleading look. Reluctantly, Sunflower gave a relenting nod before whispering, “I’ll be right behind you bestie…”
Maia smiled sweetly before turning back around. Gathering her breath and her courage, she slowly walked forward towards the pine tree with Sunflower two meters behind her with both light and spray at the ready. Maia got five meters away from the tree, leaning over to peek around it slightly before muttering a single word.
Her eyes were met with another pair as the creature poked its head around to look at her. It swayed its neck up and down and back and forth while not taking its eyes off her, giving her a glance over before tilting its head. It started to shrink backwards, spurring Maia to take a leap of faith. She dropped the tree branch that could serve as a makeshift club and held her hands out with the palms facing up to show she wasn’t armed.
She spoke in a calm voice like one would to a frightened or tense dog, knowing it couldn’t understand her but hoping the message of ‘Not a Threat’ would come across, “It’s okay. You can come out now. Sorry we got near your nest. It’s okay.”
Eno blinked a few times, first his visible eyelids and then a partially see-through, horizontal nictitating membrane akin to what a hawk or alligator would have.
He leaned out from behind the tree and after a few moments of glancing at the two humans, stepped out in front of them. Seeing him full on showed the duo that while not enormous, he was pretty big. Maia would guesstimate somewhere in the ballpark of one hundred to one hundred and fifty kilograms, but telling how much of the creature’s lean build was bulk or fluff was hard due to all the feathers. The only bare spots were a few patches on the neck where it looked like it had molted recently along with the fingers and legs from the last fifth down to the foot. The feet and hands gave Maia some pause, for the claws mounted on the three visible digits of each were long, pointed, and recurved to various degrees. The largest were on the innermost toe, being at least a decimeter and a half or six inches long and was partially held off the ground to display its scythe-like shape. The shortest was a small claw mounted on the innermost finger, which bent contrastingly to the other two fingers per each hand and made it look almost like a thumb. Eno slowly moved his right arm outwards and outstretched that hand, showing Maia what was dangling off his thumb.
Maia’s eyes expanded and her jaw dropped slightly. Swaying slightly in a breeze was a gold necklace with a oval shaped locket at the bottom, her locket. And to her growing stagger in amazement, Eno chirped at her almost happily and began to walk forward with his arm outstretched like he was about to hand it to her.
It just started to brush her fingers when a male voice called out from the trail behind them, coming around a bend in the path, “MAIA?! SUNFLOWER?! YOU TWO THERE?!”
Eno quickly stood up and hissed, turning around and bolting away just as Sandalwood came riding around the bend in the path. He skid the heel of his boot across the fallen leaves and dirt to grind to a halt. Letting his bike rest against the tree, he strode up to the two shaking his head and grinning, “Man I have been looking all over for you two!”
Sunflower, eyes spiralling from the stress relief, just slumped into the ensuing bear hug he pulled the two into that lifted both girls off the ground. Maia’s eyes were still transfixed on the route Eno had run off in, still hearing some of the foliage crashing behind him.
“You two okay? Something happen?” Sandalwood muttered with a raised brow.
Sunflower blew a raspberry, scratching at the back of her head in a manner that thankfully did not set the bear spray off; “Wheeeereeee toooo start?”
“Sooo, Spino or T.rex?” Rumble muttered, sitting back and dusting off the shark tooth he’d found in the dig zone.
Apple Crumble rolled her eyes, setting down the bit of coral she’d uncovered down in her bag, “Not every dino question needs to be a fight Rumble.”
“Yes, and you didn’t answer.”
Apple Crumble shrugged, “... T.rex of course. Can’t top those jaws.”
Rumble pouted and narrowed his eyes, “Hey, you remember the documentary we watched on the way here, Spinosaurus weighed up to twice as much. He’d just bowl Rexy over.”
“Yeah, and Rex hunted big game like a tiger would. Spiny was just a fish eater remember? Like a big heron.”
“Or a grizzly bear! And they were forty foot fish with teeth, remember?” Rumble barked, holding up and waving the shark tooth.
“You two seem pretty sharp,-” an adult voice called out as Petunia Paleo squat down beside the pair, “-but you’d probably be a lot smarter if you worked together.”
Both Rumble and Apple Crumble shot each other an almost disgusted look, still at the ages where boys had germs and girls had cooties.
They both pointed at one another, “I can’t work with him, he’s a boy!” “I can’t work with her, she’s a girl!”
Petunia Paleo cracked an eyebrow and snickered, “Can you two agree on anything?”
The children paused and looked at each other, realizing they just agreed. After a bit of childish leering, they shrugged and gave up before looking back up at the adult.
“All things good here with the other kids Ms. Paleo,” Apple Crumble piped as she and Rumble saluted.
Petunia cast a sweet smile and patted them both on the head, “Good job you two. And as promised-”
She reached into her vest’s pocket and pulled out a pale fossil tooth. It was roughly thimble size and pointed, with large, upturned serrations on either side. Both Rumble and Apple Crumble were gawking at it as she let them take a closer look.
“-recent find of mine,” she quipped.
“What kind of animal does this tooth belong to?” Rumble muttered, tilting his head at the oddly shaped fang.
“That’s something I’m here to find out about. In fact, how would you two like to be part of a little research team of mine?”
Both Rumble and Apple Crumble looked up at her with stars in their eyes.
“What do we gotta do?”
Petunia Paleo chuckled kindly and put the tooth away, whispering to the two and offering a handshake to the both of them, “I could use some extra set of eyes and ears, important finds are made all the time on chance. Find anything weird or not covered in the guides I or the camp gave you, come to me alright?”
Two hands were shook, “Right!”
The rest of the day at camp was pretty paint-by-numbers campground shenanigans and conversation, keeping campers out of poison ivy, the kayak rides, showing the kids where the bathroom was, doing headcounts every twenty minutes, etcetera. It was the conversation in the counselor’s cabin that night that was peculiar.
“Sooo, you gals got stuck at the spooky ghost town-”
Sandalwood, standing up and pacing, was interrupted by Sunflower, seated at the table, whom spoke up even while looking down to do her nails; “-like, slasher movie spooky.”
“-...Right. Scooby Doo episode ghost town and you were chased by a… giant.. green and red… bird?” he quipped, shrugging his shoulders as he spun on his heels to about-face and look at the two.
Sunflower tilted her head nonchalantly and held up an index finger, “Green with red face bird, with claws.“
Sandalwood squinted an eye and cocked his head back, “All birds have claws though. It’s like saying all birds have organs.”
“On its hands.. Oh yeah, it had hands by the way... freeeeeaky,” she corrected.
Sandalwood deadpanned, “Oh… Well, think we should like, call up my folks? If some crazy bird got out of a zoo and is running around here it’s probably scared and hungry.”
Maia, leaning back on the all with her arms crossed, shrugged tiredly and rested her cheek on her palm; “It’s not scared or hungry, we know it’s got a home and ate food. And we can’t call this one in Sandal.”
Having been filled in on the way back, especially after he saw the big two toed footprints where Eno had been standing, Sandalwood sighed and took off his hat to tussle his dreadlocks and roll the tension off; “Because of your dad knowing this ‘Eno’ bird right?”
Maia nodded. Sandwood puzzled, glancing over at her again after looking up at the roof, “We sure this thing isn’t dangerous? I mean with the kids around and all.”
Maia shook her head, “Would have attacked me three times by now if it was. It doesn’t seem to see humans as food and we know it eats other things. Didn’t even seem territorial given it didn’t attack us when we went into its house. Then there’s the locket…”
Sandalwood bit his tongue lightly as Maia touched at her own collar like she was trying to hold a lost prized possession, “You sure it didn’t just maybe, you know, pick it up because it was shiny? Some birds do that sorta thing.”
Maia pouted, unsure. She wanted to say no, given it seemed so much like it was trying to hand her the locket back to return it. But thoughts like that were what logic called fantasy. Can’t always tell what’s going through an animal’s head, they usually don’t think like humans. Even something like a toothy grin which might be pleasant to a human was virtually a death threat display to a chimpanzee, and chimps were far closer to a human than any bird would be.
-Just what was Eno trying to do?-
Seeing her best friend pouting and her guy friend confused, Sunflower had enough. She quickly stood up from her nail polish set and turned on her heels, strutting her way towards the TV and the rack of movies, “Alright! That does it! You two need to cheer up, movie time and I’m grabbing a nerd feature!”
Sandalwood instantly grinned, hopping over the chairs to head for the small kitchen, “Good call Sunny, I got the popcorn!”
Maia breathed in and sighed, unable to fight a smile. Amongst the many questions happening right now, a happy distraction was just what she needed. Before she could make her way to the couch to save a pillow before Sunflower constructed them into a mattress for herself however, she was distracted by a pinging sound on the window behind her.
Maia turned around and looked at it just in time to see another pebble ping off the window and bounce off into the darkness. She briefly narrowed her eyes and leered, getting ready to open the window to glimpse which camper was up past curfew and being an annoyance. When she popped open the window however, it wasn’t a camper she glimpsed but a distant pair of familiar eyeshine glinting in the moon’s and camp’s perimeter lights looking back at her from just inside the forest. And sitting on the windowsill was a glint of gold. Her locket soon rested in her palm, the picture of her parents and a younger, more cheerful Maia between them.
Maia felt her lips slowly inch into a tiny smile.