It only made sense for Eagle Eyes to go first. Still, it made Shadow Walker uneasy in some way he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — define. It was true enough that Eagle Eyes could spot a trail from farther away than — anyone Shadow Walker could think of. But this trail…! It was just as easy to follow as the first one laid down by The People Who Steal Children. Shadow Walker, and the rest of the party had excused the obviousness of the first trail as being due to the difficulty of trying to hide horse tracks, but this time, the foursome they were tracking were all on foot.
Shadow Walker had been worried about waiting a day before beginning their tracking, but he was grateful that he had had that last day — and night — with Many Paths. He began to cast his mind back to those delicious moments…
Ahead of him, Shadow Walker saw Eagle Eyes put up her hand and crouch down. Shadow Walker dropped to his hands and knees and silently crawled up behind her. Then, she stood up and turned around.
“Look at these tracks, Shadow.”
Shadow Walker felt annoyed. First, she acted like there was danger. Now, she’s just talking out loud. But mainly, he realized, he was annoyed because she broke his pleasant revelry. He followed her pointing figure though.
“What is going on, Eagle Eyes?”
Eagle Eyes shook her head. “I’m not sure. The only thing … it reminds me of … one time, Stone Chipper smoked some Jimsonweed and … after awhile, he staggered about talking nonsense. I haven’t seen any Jimsonweed along this path. Did you happen to notice any?”
“No, but … that’s a handprint. What…?” They followed the tracks down a steep hill. At the bottom, they found one of the Z-Lotz who had visited them lying face down on the ground, motionless. Shadow Walker knelt down and felt the neck. Cool, but not stone cold. Pulseless. He flipped the body over. Eagle Eyes and Shadow Walker both stared. The face was covered with red sores.
Eagle Eyes pointed to a dry creek bed at the bottom of the hill. Shadow Walker nodded and they each took one leg and pulled the body to the bottom of the hill. In silence, they looked at each other. At last, Shadow Walker said, “What happened to his face?”
Eagle Eyes answered, “I have no idea. But it isn’t just his face. Look at his ankles and hands.”
Shadow Walker put down the two large rocks he had brought and he knelt down and explored the body more carefully. “You’re right Eagle Eyes. These red spots are everywhere. Is that what killed him? Was he poisoned?”
Eagle Eyes shook her head slowly. “I don’t have any idea.” After a pause she added, “I can’t think of anything even in a story that’s like this. Should we go back and tell the others?”
Shadow Walker imagined that. They could make it back by nightfall, but then, the three they were still trailing would be two more days ahead. It was important information but… “Eagle Eyes, I think it takes too much time. And, we don’t really know anything. Not for sure. We don’t know what happened to him. What is there to tell that is a known truth?”
Eagle Eyes stared down at the body of a man she didn’t know, but still — the body of a man who was alive two days ago, now motionless. “Maybe we should search him for other clues as to what caused his death.”
“Like what? What are we looking for, Eagle Eyes?”
She slowly began to take the clothes off the man. “Come to think of it, these clothes might come in handy. We look like Veritas. Hopefully, we won’t be seen, but if we are seen, people will tend to ignore us if we look like Z-Lotz.”
“Right. If only we could sound like them.” Eagle Eyes chuckled. “These will do for you. I will stay unseen.”
After they had been piling rocks on the naked body for long enough that their arms began to tire, Eagle Eyes said, “I wonder whether they would have done the same if they came upon one of us dead upon the trail.”
“I don’t really know. I don’t really know any Z-Lotz. The closest to it is NUT-PI and he may well be the worst. It seems as though the Z-Lotz, just like the Cupiditas choose the worst among them as leader.”
Eagle Eyes mused, “It’s hard to imagine how they can be very effective at anything.”
“And yet, you described a very large — many large buildings — and they have the killing sticks. So… and those things with the marks. And, they trained horses.”
Eagle Eyes thought about that for awhile. As they put the finishing touches on the burial cairn, she mused, “We learned how to train horses too. And I think the training was at the ROI. Why didn’t these visitors come on horses? Why would they have horses and yet not travel a fair distance on foot instead?”
They finished respecting the dead man. Even if they seemed to be enemies and even if these four lied about several things during the gift exchange, both Eagle Eyes and Shadow Walker felt right to dishonor the dead. They thanked the animals and plants they used for food. Could they do less for a human cousin? After, they walked on in silence for a time along a broad path through the tall grass.
Eagle Eyes pointed to some woods off to their right. Shadow Walker stared off in that direction but he couldn’t see what she was pointing to until they had gone many more paces. Along the topmost branches of a stand of tulip trees, there grew a vine with many trumpet-shaped flowers glowing with pink and gold.
Shadow Walker smiled, “You really earn your name. Those are beautiful.”
“Those flowers are really high up, Shadow Walker.”
Shadow Walker nodded. “Yes. So they are.”
Eagle Eyes grew more excited as they walked. “It occurs to my mind that they did not get that high on their own.”
Shadow Walker said, “What do you mean?”
“Those colorful flowers grow on vines. They vines do not have the strength to grow more than a few inches. Yet we see them so high in the air. They are using the tulip tree. That’s how they get so high.”
Shadow Walker nodded. “I never thought about it before, but I think you’re right.”
On they walked. Shadow Walker stopped suddenly. “Are you saying — are you saying that’s what you think is going on with the Z-Lotz? They are using some — some other — the fruits of some other peoples — in order to have all these things. Maybe they didn’t really develop these killing sticks but stole them from someone else. That would explain how they could — “
Eagle Eyes stopped and stared at Shadow Walker, “No, that’s not what I was saying, but it does make sense. I think you may be right. As Many Paths would say, ‘it’s one possibility.’”
Shadow Walker laughed, “That’s exactly what she’d say. And if that tall tulip tree were to be hit by lightning or die of disease…”
Eagle Eyes nodded, “The vine would fall too. It’s only showing its flowers so high right now because of using the height of the tree. Shh!!” Eagle Eyes dropped down and Shadow Walker did the same. He came up close behind her and whispered in her ear.
“What do you see, Eagle Eyes?” The warm breath felt nice on her neck. Eagle Eyes turned back and whispered into the ears of Shadow Walker.
“Not what I see. What I hear!. Don’t you hear it?”
Shadow Walker put his hands up behind his ears and turned his head until he heard humans talking … or singing … or … what were they saying? He nodded to Eagle Eyes.
They crawled on their bellies very slowly toward the sound, being careful to move only when the wind moved the tall grass. As they drew closer, it became clear that what they were listening to was neither song nor reasoned dialogue. Two people were … talking at the same time but not reacting to each other. They came to the edge of a clearing. Within it, two men — the ones who had recently visited the Center Place of the Veritas — were thrashing about uselessly on the ground.
Shadow Walker and Eagle Eyes looked at each other. They wanted to help, but where was the fourth of their late visitors? They drew very close and hastily made a plan. He would try to help the men and Eagle Eyes would stay hidden in case the fourth Z-Lotz emissary returned in a bad mood.
Shadow Walker reached the nearest man who was barely moving. He also seemed covered in red dots. He tried to communicate using sign language, but the man’s eyes were rolling around in his head and he seemed completely unaware of Shadow Walker’s presence. He said aloud “He is burning with fever.” He said it loudly but seemingly to himself. The other man was in a similar state. He went back into the grass and crawled back to Eagle Eyes.
Still concerned that there was an unaccounted-for Z-Lotz somewhere, he whispered to Eagle Eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with them. They are very hot. And they seem not to have their minds with them. I don’t know of a medicine for them. Should we take them to a creek to cool them off? And they are both covered with those red spots.”
“I have been searching my memories but I haven’t heard of anything like this either. There’s no sign of the last Z-Lotz. Let’s see whether we can find his trail.”
Eagle Eyes stood cautiously and scanned the immediate surroundings. “Let’s at least move them out of the sun and under the shade of that oak.” The two sick men made no real protest as they were dragged to sit up against the shady side of the tree. Eagle Eyes pointed to a thick branch. “Give me a boost. I’ll climb the tree while you check the periphery of the clearing.”
Shadow Walker stood with his back against the tree and knelt down while Eagle Eyes slid her pack and outer layer of clothing off. She put her left foot in his interlocked hands. She put her hands on his shoulders, feeling the corded muscles beneath the odd Z-Lotz tunic. Working as a team, she shifted her weight upwards so that she now towered over him. She reached her hands up farther onto the tree trunk and stepped up onto his shoulders. From there, she could touch the lowest branch, but not reach around it. Shadow Walker looked up and noticed many things, among them that he would have to boost her still farther. He put both hands next to the right side of his neck and instructed her to step on. She put her foot on his two hands and he pushed her up. At last, she hooked her arms over the tree branch and pulled herself up. He nodded, and noticed that he was breathing heavily. He watched Eagle Eyes continue climbing the tree.
Shadow Walker sighed and stepped to the edge of the clearing and soon found evidence that all three Z-Lotz had entered the clearing; two of them had been staggering. At last, he found the trail of the remaining Z-Lotz. He stared up at the distant figure of Eagle Eyes. She had climbed up near the crown of the tree and was shading her eyes. He tried to catch her eye, but her attention was elsewhere. They had known each other all their lives and he genuinely liked her as a friend. He had never been so struck by her beauty as he was now. His face reddened slightly and he looked down at the Ring of Empathy and wondered how things were going with Many Paths and She Who Saves Many Lives and Tu-Swift.
He followed the trail of the missing Z-Lotz until he came upon a creek. He could see that the one they tracked had stopped here for a drink but then continued onward back toward the camp — or — what had Cat Eyes called it? A city. Toward the city of the Z-Lotz. Perhaps as Eagle Eyes had suggested, it wasn’t really their city but one that they had found or won over with fighting. Perhaps they would learn more when they arrived at that city.
Shadow Walker went back to the cleaning intending to offer to help Eagle Eyes down, but when he arrived, she was already on the ground. He gestured toward the nearby creek. “He went to the creek and got a drink, but didn’t bring any back for his sick companions. I did though. I didn’t bring any for you, but I think we will need to pass by the creek to follow the trail. And you?”
Eagle Eyes said, “I saw an indentation path in the grass beyond the creek. I don’t think we are far behind him. They must have been slowed down by the illness. I saw something very strange though. In that direction, there is a broad area with no bushes, grass, or trees. It is like a desert. But… not sandy really. I am not sure, but it looks shiny and dead and … disordered … and … evil. I am glad we don’t have to go in that direction.”
As Shadow Walker listened, he managed to get one of the sick men to sip a little water. He went to give water to the other and discovered that he was dead though his body was still hot.
“This one is dead, Eagle Eyes. What shall we do with the other one? We can hardly take him with us. He can’t really care for himself. But I don’t want to stay here and try to heal him because — for one thing, I have no idea how to do that. Or, even what is wrong with him. There is something else. It’s odd but I feel … dirty. I don’t know. It’s weird.”
“No, I don’t think it’s odd. I feel as though … somehow I want to get away from them both. Maybe we should both wash while we are down at the creek. I don’t think we can help this man. We could stay and comfort him and that may be help in a way.”
Shadow Walker nodded. “I’m not sure he really knows that we’re even here. I cannot get him to focus on my sign language and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand my speech. Yet, can we really just leave him here to die on his own?”
Eagle Eyes walked over to the man. She squatted before him and tapped her chest. “Eagle Eyes. I am Eagle Eyes. We are Veritas. You visited.” He said nothing, his eyes were still glazed over. For a moment, he reached his hand toward her and moved his mouth, but no sound emerged. He tilted his head slightly, then he slid sideways as thought to sleep upon the ground. She leaned forward a bit more and put his hand on his neck. She glanced up at Shadow Walker and shook her head.
Eagle Eyes stood and gathered her outer clothes and pack together. “Can we drag these two down by the creek and cover them with nearby stones? Then, I have a feeling, though I cannot explain why, that we should bathe. I’m not sure I want to wear his clothes either. I think you should go back to your own clothes as well.”
“Why not disguise ourselves?”
Eagle Eyes frowned. “I’m not sure. But what came to mind. You know, if your garden starts to have those little white bugs that eat the leaves, it spreads to all of the plants if you don’t wash them off. And, it is the same with the black mold. And that disease that curls the leaves. And, when ALT-R — he — corrupted — POND MUD and then the two of them together seemed to corrupt KAVA-NUT. I don’t want to have those red spots all over me. It feels wrong to wear their clothes. It makes my skin feel itchy.”
Shadow Walker considered. He nodded. “I agree. I already feel — I don’t feel good in these clothes. Let us go bury them in their burial cairns, bathe, and then be on our way. We’ll just have to stay hidden when we get to the village.”
Eagle Eyes nodded, and began walking toward the nearest Z-Lotz. Shadow Walker watched her and found himself looking forward to the prospect of shedding these Z-Lotz clothes and then bathing thoroughly in the creek. Watching Eagle Eyes would not be unpleasant either.