Chapter 17:

Into the Woods

Fantasy Life

After setting up their camping area, the group divided the work that needed to be done. Rei, Asa, Kei, and Matsume were to gather firewood, Jun and Dallas were to collect water, Yun and Alba were to prep and make meals, and Kaida, Chiyo, and Yami hunted animals and gathered edible plants to use.

"By the way Kaida," Rei began. "Where is Yami? I haven't seen him since we arrived."

"He must have gotten lost. Maybe we could signal him somehow."

"What about a smoke signal?" Rei suggested.

"That's a great idea," Kaida chimed. "But we'll need a lot of wood to make the smoke."

"Leave it to us, Kaida," Kei assured. "Rei and I will gather the wood so the rest of you can focus on your chores."

The group left the cave and split off in different directions. Rei and Kei stayed near the cave, gathering as many sticks and twigs as they could. Jun left for the river with Dallas's help carrying several pales of water. Yun stayed put, preparing for everyone's return. Kaida rode Chiyo along a path in search of edible plants to eat.

Along the path, Kaida saw some mushrooms she knew to be edible. There was a bag strapped to Chiyo where Kaida stored all the mushrooms. She picked as many as she could and began searching for some more. Kaida was taken in by the scenery of the dense forest, how the light came in through the trees was like nothing she'd ever seen. Up on a hill, Kaida spotted a deer and her fawn looking down at them. Chiyo gave a whinny in greeting, and the mother deer nodded in response. The two pranced off further into the woods.

While Kaida continued to look for food, the others were completing their tasks. Asa, Rei, and Kei all were carrying a bundle of wood in their arms and delivered them to the small ditch Matsume had dug up to use as the fire pit.

"You think this is enough?" Rei questioned.

"That should be plenty," Yun commented as he came out from the cave. "I'll get the fire going so we can send up the smoke signal."

Jun came up from the river as Yun got a spark going. He set the water down. "Do you need any help, Yun?"

"No thanks. Why don't you and the others rest while we wait for Kaida to come back?"

"Seriously, how long does it take to gather some plants?"

"Hey! Kaida is trying hard to get some food for us. I'd be grateful if I were you," Rei challenged. Uninterested, Jun turned his back and walked into the cave.

The spark ignited and all the wood in the pit was engulfed in flames. "There we go. Now we just need to monitor the fire so it doesn't get out of control. Hopefully, Yami will see it."

Back in the woods, Kaida had collected a few more plants to make a nutritious meal. As Chiyo and she made their way back to the others, they came across a black bear with a crescent-shaped line across its chest. It was a fully grown bear and was taller than Kaida when standing on its hind legs. Chiyo snorted anxiously.

"Shh! Don't make a sound." The two of them began to slowly back away before the bear noticed them. A few steps back and there was a crack. Kaida looked down at her foot where she had stepped on a branch. The bear looked their way, inching closer and closer. A frightened Chiyo stood tall on her hind legs and kicked the bear in the nose. He let out a roar of pain and began to pursue them. "Run!" Kaida shouted as she sprinted away from the bear. Chiyo galloped close behind her, followed by the angry bear. As they ran Chiyo would occasionally kick her back legs out if she felt the bear had gotten too close.

At the camp, the fire was burning bright and the smoke rose higher and higher. Yun had prepared a pot of water to boil whatever plants Kaida brought back. In the meantime, they snacked on their rations of onigiri and other snacks.

"I wonder what's taking Kaida so long?" Rei wondered.

"You don't think she got lost do you?" Kei asked worriedly.

"I doubt it. Even if she did, then Chiyo would be able to find the way back to us with no problem."

Yun looked up over a hill. "Isn't that her right there?"

Everyone turned to see a figure of a person running followed by a white animal. Yun squinted before saying, "Yep, that's her alright. But why are they running?"

"Exercise?" Rei teased.

"I don't know. It looks like they're running at full speed as if they're trying to get away from something."

After a few moments of watching Chiyo and Kaida run, the bear came up over the hill and was visible to the group. "Wha- What is that?" Kei asked.

"It looks like it's chasing them," Jun commented. "Maybe she pissed it off."

"No time for jokes, Jun!" Yun exclaimed.

They all turned to see the bear make a lunge at Chiyo, just barely grazing her flank. With a quick bucking motion, Chiyo created more space between her and the bear. Kaida saw what happened, wanting to fight the bear but her legs wouldn't stop running.

"Oh no! Matsume, they need our help," Kei shouted. At her frantic words, the kitsune jumped to her feet, snarling. Matsume sprinted towards the bear and tackled it before it could land a strike on Chiyo.

Kaida came to a halt. "Matsume come back!" Chiyo cried out and turned around to challenge the bear who had just flung Matsume down to the floor. Chiyo stomped her hoof before charging the bear. Her horn nicked the bear's neck and blood spilled out but it retaliated by grabbing Chiyo by the neck and pushing her off balance. As Chiyo was trying to regain her footing, the bear was moving toward a paralyzed Kaida. Kaida backed away but tripped and fell backward.

"Kaida! Run!" Rei shouted. "Get out of there!"

The bear reared up and lifted a claw to strike Kaida, till it came to a halt by a roar from above. Everyone looked up to see Yami slam onto the ground just behind Kaida. With another ear-smashing roar, the bear lowered to all fours. As the bear made an effort to retreat, Yami swung his tail and hit the bear, flinging it back into the forest.

Everyone let out a sigh of relief and ran over to check on Kaida, who was nestled under Yami's wing. She never felt so happy to see Yami as she did at that moment.