For a moment, Keiko was absolutely still. Her black button eyes were wide and fixed on the point where her sister had vanished. A night breeze blew in, ruffling her tan fur before it vanished without a trace.
Then Keiko broke the moment of silence and her thoughts began whirring in panic. Had her sister gone mad? Her mother had always warned them never to dwell too deep into the forest, and never to even go into the forest at night. That wasn't the extent of the warning about the dark place, however. All of the rats' friends had always told stories about unsuspecting children that had wandered foolishly into the darkness. None of them ever returned, all the stories went. There were all kinds of rumors about lurking monsters and hideous beasts, things that dwelled in there and ate bad little children for supper. These were stories that were well known, and the rats had grown up hearing them, as had all of the other animals of the valley.
Even though Marzipan could be stubborn, she wouldn't head into the forest without a good reason for it. That's when it struck her. Of course! She overheard me talking to Bal about the "best berries in the world!" She's gone looking for them! Keiko hastily turned toward the tree trunk where her home was and frowned. Should she run back and get her mother? No! There's no time to waste! With that thought firmly in her mind, Keiko suddenly took off and followed in her sister's footsteps.
As she passed underneath the thick trunk and branches of the forest, all of the light from the stars and moon were suppressed. The forest was thick, and the tree trunks were like great walls that blocked out the comforting sounds of the crickets and swallowed up all the moonlight. Using sight was out of the question. Keiko placed her nose to the dirt ground and picked up Marzipan's scent easily. She couldn't have gone that far away yet, and it shouldn't be much of a hassle to catch up to her. With a steady pace and a careful nose, Keiko ducked under roots and fallen branches that she detected as she ran. Her paws made the leaves underneath her feet crinkle and small twigs snap. Every damp leaf that she stepped on made her jump as the cold and slimy object pressed up against her paw. The cold air blew against her face, and the silence was eerie but Keiko pressed on. Occasionally, she would stop and listen to see if she could hear her sister running ahead, but only the chirping of the crickets could be heard. Dark thoughts began to float through the rat's mind, thoughts about various fates that could befall her sister at night. It was difficult to shake them off and focus on the task at hand.
A noise just to the left to the little rat's ear made her halt abruptly. Something was moving, not too far from where she stood, making the leaves rustle. Instantly, Keiko felt herself flatten into the ground, her tiny heart racing in fear. Whatever it was sounded large and was breathing loudly. Moments crept by and Keiko was afraid to twitch a whisker or…whatever it was would hear her. Perhaps it already had, for the other creature wasn't moving either, but Keiko could still hear its steady breathing. Every second was agony as the tiny rat winced, just waited for a howl or snarl or even jaws to close around her. She could swear her heart was beating loud enough for the other being to hear and she most likely had already given away her position.
Keiko was shocked when the silence was broken, not by herself unable to contain a squeal of fright, but by the invisible presence just a little ways away from the small rat. "There's no need to hide, little rat. I know you're there." Too frightened to speak or move, Keiko stayed where she was, silent.
"Come on, kid, I'm not going to hurt you," continued the sly, laid back voice. "I saw another rat run by just a moment ago, heading a bit due south, if you're looking for her." The voice paused, and Keiko still didn't answer. She didn't trust the tone in the creature's voice. It sounded frightening conversational. "Generally in that direction." On the word 'that', the creature gave the rodent a push with its large paw, and the sudden action was too much for the rat.
She was off like a shot, stumbling on the ground in her haste and her eyes wide. Her tiny heart was pounding at a furious speed and she felt each paw tremble as she lifted it from the ground. One could be surprised how fast one little rat could run. Fear had enveloped her mind and she ran like a crazed being as she wished for any type of hiding spot to conceal herself in. Alas, it was much too dark to make out any type of concealing knothole or bush and everything in the forest smelled exactly the same. Keiko only stopped when she was too breathless to keep running and she was aware for the first time that she wasn't being followed.
Cautiously, she peered into the darkness, trying to pierce the thick, unrelenting void, yet her eyes yielded nothing. After waiting a moment to make sure she was absolutely safe, Keiko managed to shake off the incident. Whatever it was hadn't followed her, and she had more important things to worry about now. That creature could have gotten to Marzipan already and…the tan rat shuddered to think about it. She then realized that if this was the case, the last thing she would have ever said to her sister was a screaming reprimand. The rat hung her head in shame and began to feel tears sting the corners of her eyes. Hastily, she shoved them back. Now isn't the time for tears…I have to think.
Suddenly, the rustling of leaves broke Keiko's line of concentration and instantly she tensed getting ready to shoot off again in case the sound persisted. Then with another snapping sound, Keiko's round ears picked up a faint "Ow!" and she immediately recognized the voice.
"Marzipan!" she cried out into the darkness. Her voice was swallowed up in the silence, and the rustling sound in front of the tan rat stopped abruptly. Frustrated, Keiko ran toward where she heard her sister's voice. She could hear her sister taking off in front of her, marking an easy trail with all the noise she was making. "Marzipan! Come back!" Her sister didn't respond and merely kept running. Keiko could imagine the anger and fury on Marzi's face as she ran, and the tan rat winced in the darkness.
Quite abruptly, Keiko could hear Marzipan halt in front of her, silencing her trail of snapping twigs. She scurried forward, hoping that she would be able to finally catch up with her sister, but something made her stop as well.
There was a break in the treetops, one that allowed a single beam of moonlight to bath the forest bottom in an eerie light. However, the moonlight was only shining on one area, the same area that Keiko's gaze was caught. A small mound rose up from the dead leaves, untouched by tree branches. Sitting proudly on the grassy mound was a single bush. Each branch was covered in the juiciest, fat and purple berries the small rat had ever seen. She and her sister were struck dumb as they gazed at the sight with restrained hunger.
Marzipan was the first one to move. She trotted forward, seemingly ignoring Keiko. Her black button eyes were focused on the fat purple berries, and her gait was unrelenting in its pace. Keiko managed to snap out of her trance, realizing Marzi's beliefs. "Are you crazy? Don't believe that stupid stuck up rabbit!" She began to run forward, her eyes narrowed with resolve. Marzipan didn't look back as she hurried up the grassy hill, her movements looking watery in the dim moonlight. Keiko began to hurry up the mound as well, and tension gripped her heart. "Those aren't the best berries in the world! He was lying!"
Marzipan had reached the top of the mound and was now close enough to grab one of the tempting berries. Her nose twitched as she savored the mouthwatering aromas. "These smell like the best berries in the world," she grumbled down at her sister unemotionally. Her eyes were glowing eerily with the moonlight, causing Keiko to break out into a full run. She had to stop her sister somehow! She knew there was something wrong with this bush. "Remember this morning? That bush of berries we were gathering for breakfast? Those berries smelled fine but they tasted awful!" Keiko wasn't sure if her sister heard her, but she did pause for a moment, her paw only a hairsbreadth away from her purple prize.
Out of nowhere it seemed, Keiko saw something sail toward Marzipan out of the corner of her eye. In an instant, the blur had rammed into her sister's side, causing both of them to go tumbling backwards. Keiko squeaked as her sister rolled down the mound with the dark furry shadow on top of her. Squinting in the moonlight, the tan rat tried to determine what was on top of her sister as she ran forward, ready to sink her teeth into the attacker. Marzipan struggled for a moment, then managed to grab the little creature by its throat and pin it to the ground with her paw. As Keiko hurried over, a few feeble rays of moonlight illuminated the features of the tiny assailant.
Keiko was immediately able to identify the creature as a shrew. Its long nose was snuffling around wildly and the little creature was struggling wildly to right itself. Marzipan realized what it was as well, and lifted her paw in disgust.
"What was that for?" she asked suspiciously. The shrew twisted off its back and glared at the two rats with its black, beady eyes. Short gray fur covered its small body, and Keiko also noticed that the newcomer had a long hairless tail, similar to her own.
"I just saved your life and this is the thanks I get…no respect at all…none…no respect…respect…none…no…saved your life…no respect…." The shrew continued to rant on, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Keiko and Marzipan exchanged glances. This creature seemed rather…eccentric to say the least.
Keiko managed to get a hold of herself as she realized the enormity of the shrew was implying. "What do you mean?"
This question merely launched the shrew into another fit of babblings. "I did…I did…saved your life…you almost died…heh heh…saved your life…good thing have died…heh…heh…You could have died but I saved your life…hee hee…" His voice was shrill, and his laughs were eerie. Keiko shuddered as she glanced around the small forest clearing. She didn't like this one bit.
"Come on Marzipan, let's get out of here," the tan rat whispered as she trembled. Marzipan, however, was staring hard at the shrew, an odd expression reflected in her face.
"The berries…heh heh…hee hee…the berries…were poisoned…hee hee HEE HEE!"
Simultaneously, the rat sisters gasped. They knew perfectly well, of course, that the shrew might be lying, or even insane, but what he said made sense. What's more, it seemed to confirm the fear that had been lurking in Keiko's heart.
By now the creature cackling in fits of hysterias, and he was doubled over with crazed peels of laughter. Marzipan turned her gaze to the purple berries waiting patiently and so alluringly on the bush before lowering her gaze in shame. Keiko looked over at her sister and felt a pang at her heart, wishing that they had never gotten into their argument at all. But now was not the time to reflect on such things.
Keiko turned to head back in the direction that she had first came from when a startling realization struck her. She didn't know which way she had come from. As her rapid heart skipped a beat, the tan rat turned to her sister, her wide eyes saying everything. Marzipan's wide eyes said everything too. They were lost.