The little people came out from hiding. They had their feast, with plenty of stories, songs, and good cheer, but it did not seem like the great celebration they planned. Lincoln explained as he read from the database. The world of the Olmec people was being all but destroyed by a disease more ruinous than the bubonic plague.
Katie and Lockhart sat beside the fire and whispered little to each other. Lincoln and Alexis sat near them and said nothing that evening. Decker stayed on watch, despite the promise of the little people, that they would keep their eyes and ears open for intruders. Elder Stow kept watch with his portable scanner, and set it to put up an impenetrable particle screen as soon as his scanner picked up human life forms headed in their direction. Only Sukki and Boston clapped and danced with the little ones in the night before everyone had to get some sleep.
In the morning, all the little ones turned out to shout good-bye and good luck. Many reminded them to stay between the fields of corn. Katie waved, and Lockhart confided to her, “If Lincoln or Decker start singing about follow the yellow corn road, I’m going to hit them.” Boston heard with her good elf ears, and hummed through the morning, but she did manage to keep her mouth from singing the words.
Since he could not ride out on the flank, Decker took the point. Often enough, he rode back to Lockhart and Katie at the front of the group to double-check his take on turns in the road where the corn became less evident.
Lincoln and Alexis took the center, and appeared to take up Lockhart and Katie’s idea of whispering to each other every now and then. Boston and Sukki straggled in the rear, with Elder Stow acting as rear guard. He only looked up every now and then, and generally only when a deer or other large animal could be seen or heard out among the corn rows. For the most part, he kept his eyes glued to his scanner. It acted as their main version of an early warning system. Boston, with her elf senses, could tell when humans came near. Katie, with her elect intuition, could sense when something or someone got near that might pose a danger to the group. Still, the scanner could plot one to several miles distance on a grid, and track whatever might be in the area.
Lunch became a somber affair. They had plenty of food, gifts from the little people for their journey; but no one felt much like talking until Lincoln broke the ice.
“This journey seems spooky for a change.”
Decker and Lockhart laughed at the “for a change” comment, but Alexis responded kindly. “It does feel a bit like a funeral procession.”
Elder Stow nodded. “Good thing we have not come across any villages.”
“Especially ones full of dead bodies,” Alexis agreed, and people paused to think about it.
“That necromancer sounds creepy,” Boston said. “Maybe, in that village, the dead bodies will be walking around.”
“I don’t like that idea,” Sukki said, and shivered.
“I prefer not to think about that possibility,” Lincoln commiserated.
“So, explain something,” Lockhart wanted to change the subject. “If this disease has been rampaging around the countryside for five years, who has been around to plant these cornfields?”
Katie spoke up. “I assume Maya has kept the corn growing in season. I imagine she is spread rather thin, trying to hold things together.”
“Maya said, only half of the human population will die,” Elder Stow said.
“Over half,” Lincoln corrected him.
“Still,” Elder Stow continued. “The other half has to be around somewhere.”
Alexis shook her head. “Probably got infected and sick, even if they did not die from the disease. We have no way of knowing what shape they may be in. They might not be able to plant, and Maya might be keeping them alive by growing the corn for them.”
Decker offered a thought. “Probably ran away to escape being eaten by the diseased half.”
“Stop,” Sukki raised her voice, looked down at her lap and shut her eyes. Elder Stow took her hand.
“There, there…” He gave it his fatherly best. “We will be all right.”
“I know just how you feel,” Boston, the empathic elf looked at her with exceptionally big eyes.
An hour down the road, they came across a crow that hopped back and forth on the road, and apparently, had been doing so for some time, since they saw a clear, visible line indent in the road. Decker stopped to watch, and when the others came up behind him, they all watched.
“What is it doing?” Sukki asked.
“Ask him,” Decker said with a grin.
The crow stopped and faced the travelers. Then it spoke. “I’m pacing, trying to decide which way to go. I found this great path through the wilderness. I have been turned into a crow, in case you didn’t notice. I need help, only I can’t go both ways.”
Boston pushed up front. “We’re going to the Emerald City to see the wizard—the wizardess of Oz. Maybe she could help.”
“City of Jade,” Lincoln corrected her.
“Still green,” Boston said, and gave her best elf grin to Lockhart, who rolled his eyes.
“Why don’t you fly there?” Katie wondered.
“I guess you better come with us,” Lockhart decided, with a hard look at Boston.
The crow thought about it before Alexis interrupted with a question. “How did you get turned into a crow?”
“It was the monkey god,” the crow said. “He said I was immune to his disease and that was not allowed. He changed me, probably thinking I would be eaten by a predator soon enough. I found this path first thing in the morning.”
“You survived so far,” Katie praised the bird.
“I had some immature corn last night,” the crow said. “It was okay. But then this morning, all my pacing dug up a couple of worms. I found that disgusting, but they tasted pretty good…”
“Here,” Alexis said. “You can ride in Misty’s mane.”
“Your very big animal?”
“My horse, yes. Misty won’t mind as long as you hold his hair and not scratch him with your claws.” She started to get down to pick up the crow, but he flew up to settle on Misty Gray’s neck, so Alexis kept her seat. The horse nodded twice, to shift the bird to a more comfortable spot. Then they rode, and the crow said his name was something like Wexalottle, or it sounded like that. It seemed hard to pronounce with a bird beak and tongue. They settled for calling him Mister Crow.
Another hour down the road, and Elder Stow’s scanner started making that annoying alarm sound. “People coming,” he shouted from the rear. Boston and Katie both looked in that direction, like they sensed the people, and sensed they were hostile. Lockhart directed everyone to the opposite side of the road, and Mister Crow returned from overhead, once Elder Stow turned off the alarm.
“I see them,” Mister Crow said. “They are running straight at us.”
“I have them on the grid,” Elder Stow added. “They will arrive any minute. No time to put up a screen to halt their progress.”
“Arm up,” Decker yelled as he arrived from the point and got down from his horse. It was not Decker’s place to say that, but Lockhart was not going to argue with that assessment. Seconds later, faces appeared in the corn rows. Clearly, they were diseased faces. Seconds after that, guns began to fire, and in only a minute, ten bodies stretched across the road. Less than a minute later, Alexis cried out.
“They are children.” She wept. The eldest looked maybe fifteen. Everyone but Decker and Lockhart found some tears. Lockhart, the former policeman, remained stoic. Major Decker remained a marine.
Mister Crow returned from overhead. He got angry. “Why have the gods permitted this?”
“Probably why Maya couldn’t leave the city long enough to bring us there the easy way,” Boston suggested, and Sukki and Katie agreed.
“Keep moving,” Lockhart interjected. “Walk ‘em.” He moved them out of the area as quickly as possible. Lincoln did what he could to comfort Alexis. Mister Crow sat on Alexis’ saddle and cawed a couple of times. Sukki, Boston, and Elder Stow followed along behind, heads lowered like people in mourning.
As the sun began to set, the travelers came upon a forest. The road left the corn fields and moved in among the trees. They had not been warned about the change in their surroundings, but clearly the road went among the trees for some distance.
“I think we still need to stay to the road,” Lockhart said. People agreed, and settled down to eat something before bed. “Regular watch,” Lockhart insisted. That put Alexis and Lincoln up first, from six to nine in the evening. Katie, her elect senses stretched into the wilderness, and Lockhart with his police instincts got the nine to midnight shift. Decker, the marine, and Elder Stow with his scanner took the wee hours, which left Sukki and Boston with her elf senses in the early morning, to watch the sun come up.
Following the yellow corn road isn’t so easy, and there are infected people in the way.