Chapter 20 (or, “The Rabbit Hunt”)
Erika woke up to the sound of raindrops against her tent’s plastic roof.
It hadn’t yet rained in their new Digital Merge world, but Erika had figured there would be a first time for everything. Sure enough, at some point during the night, the skies had become filled with red colored clouds and had burst forth...thankfully with actual rain. The rain had even made what should have been dry ground in her tent area a bit damp, which had made sleep hard if not impossible.
She finally sat up in bed and looked over at the other sleeping bag. Kyara was sleeping peacefully next to Kuchi, oblivious to the rain that was falling all around her. Erika bit her tongue and tried not to worry. There was no reason to worry when her best friend was asleep like this. She couldn’t even voice her concerns at the moment, but it was all but official: She had lost Kyara.
The girl was supposed to be Erika’s best friend...supposed being the key word in that sentence. They had been inseparable for years, going through each school year together. But ever since they had arrived in this strange world, she had been hanging out with Nathan more and more and paying attention to Erika less and less. Nathan wasn’t totally to blame -- Erika had saving the world to think about -- but there was a disproportionate amount of time being spent without her best friend while she pondered on this world she had to save.
She still didn’t understand it. She was supposed to save the world. But from what? She knew it involved finding all of her cards in this world. And so far, she hadn’t done a bad job of that. In addition to the onibi and the salamanga, she had located two of Storm’s cards: a Rocky (the original rock, as Rhiannon had said time and time again) and a Ray of Light spirit card.
She still had a long way to go and not a lot of time to do it in. But she was confident she could somehow pull this off. But if Kyara wasn’t there to help her, then who would?
She turned and noticed Joliar, still sleeping and snoring in her baseball cap. The yellow rabbit was still curled up, lost in slumber, and Erika couldn’t help but smile. Even though Kyara was being boy crazy, she did still have Joliar, and in a way she normally didn’t. She had always imagined him sleeping in her hat, and had even told him about such things when he had simply been a navigator.
But now...Joliar was so much more. He was her best friend. Never mind that he was a fuzzy rabbit who could sit on her head and sleep in her hat. Even with those differences, Joliar still understood her. Erika didn’t know if that was because he had been created by her or if he had developed his own algorithm, or even if he had become almost human in a way...but it was still something she cherished.
She reached over and touched him on his head. He looked too peaceful when he was asleep. It was too bad he wasn’t like this when he was awake. Sometimes she wished -- especially now -- that she hadn’t programmed him to be so loud.
She turned toward the voice’s source. Isabel had stuck her head in, checking in on her. “We’re about to get ready and move again. Are you ready to go?”
“Not exactly.” Erika looked over at Joliar and Kyara. “Both of them are still sleeping.”
“Oh, dios mio. Give me some room. I’ll wake them up.” Isabel did not look pleased. It must have been later than Erika had thought; she didn’t have a way of checking the time. Erika took this to mean that she needed to move out of the way -- and fast.
“Okay,” she said, crawling around Isabel and out of the tent, not bothering to shut the flaps behind her.
It was still raining, though thankfully not as hard as when Erika had woken up. The rain had subsided a bit. Still, Erika’s hair was wet in a matter of seconds, and she found herself wondering why she had exited the tent only to be caught in the rain. The trees weren’t helping much, only blocking a portion of the precipitation. Where was her hat when she needed it? Oh, right, Joliar was still sleeping in it for the moment.
Erika looked across the clearing they had set up camp in and saw Tamasine poking his head out of his own tent. He waved at her, hand cupped down to get her attention. She pointed at herself. “Me? In the mens’ tent?”
“Sure, why not? Nathan’s awake anyway. You’re not going to get in trouble.”
“Well, okay…if you say so.” Erika dashed across the grassy clearing, under the shade of rain, and ducked as Tamasine held open the flap for her. She sat inside their dry tent. Nathan was awake, but he was more interested in packing up his sleeping bag than in the girl who had just came in.
Tamasine sat on his sleeping bag, bright red in color. “What were you doing outside your tent?”
“Isabel was going to wake --” Erika had no sooner started talking than she heard Isabel explode across the way, yelling at Joliar and Kyara to rise and shine. Some of it was in another language -- maybe Isabel’s mother tongue? Permeating Isabel’s ranting were screams she recognized from her friends.
“That,” she said with a smile.
Tamasine laughed. “That sounds like Isabel,” he said. “All business. She’s got her own projects she needs to work on, and she’s apparently really good at it. But she also is helping us with this. It’s our first time trying to save a world.”
“Then you probably have just as much on your shoulders as I do right now,” Erika commented. She ran her hands through her drenched hair. “I still don’t know exactly how to save this world.”
“As long as we work together, I think we’ll be fine. Isabel can always send a distress signal to QWERTY headquarters, and Sarah -- our boss -- can send in reinforcements.”
“Oh?” Erika hadn’t heard this part before. “So I shouldn’t worry?”
Tamasine gave her a smile. “Of course not. We have everything under control.”
Erika was about to feel safe in those words, trusting in Tamasine’s smile, until she heard Kyara across the way, screaming for her life.
With seconds, she was outside the tent again, Tamasine forgotten. In times of trouble, she had always been there for Kyara...even now, when things were unsure between them. She had just enough time to flashback to the first day of school years ago when they had met, how the senior jock had tripped Kyara and how Erika had given him a stern talking to.
But Kyara wasn’t being harassed by an upperclassmen when Erika got out of the tent. The tall, dark monster in the clearing was thin as a stick, thorns all along its arms and legs. Its head was a huge red rose, no eyes or facial features; yet Erika could still tell it was looking straight at her.
“The Roses card,” she muttered, for every rose had its thorns, and the Roses was not a particularly nice villain card. If placed on the field during normal play, it could seriously slow your heroes down and keep them from getting to a problem. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
Kyara was trapped under the Roses’ huge flat feet (always a weird trait of the card, Erika had thought, though it made more sense now in real life). Erika watched as her best friend struggled for breath, considering which card she should use against the Roses. With her deck being primarily made of fire, any hero should be able to just burn the Roses to a crisp --
Erika froze. She knew that voice. When she looked closer, she could see Joliar in the Roses’ grasp, struggling to break free from the thorns. She couldn’t just fire off now -- she had to be extra careful. Joliar could get hurt...and she didn’t know what would happen. Normally navigators could only be hurt by viruses, but this wasn’t normal life. Now what? Should she use one of Storm’s cards in the interim?
“You better do something, girl,” the Roses card said out of its nonexistent mouth, “or else your friends will pay.”
“Leave her alone!” Erika watched as a rock sailed in from who knew where and hit the Roses card smack on its blossom. She turned just enough to see Nathan standing in a defensive position, another rock in his hand. Erika got the feeling that maybe Kyara wasn’t as lost as she had figured before, not if she had Nathan protecting her like this. It was dangerous, and for someone who wasn’t a Digital Merge player to get involved…
She smiled inside. Kyara had finally gotten what she wanted.