The hohoa’s puzzling riddle beat in Waihona’s mind as the three hiked further into the patterned forest, the sun trailing overhead and the trees falling away for wide-open spaces. Waihona, Azolla and Evan’s footsteps were heavy and slow and their alertness diminished. Using her magical umbrella as a walking stick, Azolla pulled herself forward while Evan sat, legs spread, on the mobile tinted shield.
Distracted by their fatigue, they hadn’t noticed the vast darkness inching towards them. It wasn’t until Waihona’s feet met the dry, fractured earth, its pulses no longer strong and vibrant, that he finally took in his new surroundings. Trees that were once sharply patterned with intricate designs were now faded. Their bare branches, contorted into frightening forms, loomed over the travelers. The whole area lay draped in a black film, darkening and draining all life.
Stopping short, Waihona asked, “Where are we?”
“We’ve passed the border. We’re now in the death forest,” said the lead mo‘o, as she stood alone in front.
Puzzled, Waihona looked around to find the other two mo‘o positioned in back on either side of them. Azolla’s shield had curved further around them so as to continue deflecting the mo‘o’s spell.
“What are those?” Azolla asked, tilting her head upwards and pointing at a tree branch where silver, stone-like flowers with sharp, pointed petals grew. “They look like . . . lehua flowers, but not.”
“They were . . . once. After death took over, they turned into strangers,” said the lead mo‘o.
“Oh.” Azolla retracted her hand and stepped away from the altered black tree.
“The stream is up ahead,” said the lead mo‘o, motioning her head.
Within the next few feet, they all stood at the edge of a wide, slow flowing stream, the upper half thick as molasses and black as night and the lower as clear and fresh as rain water. Right where the two met, the black molasses oozed and consumed the water.
Waihona squatted down. “Is this what Auntie wanted me to see?”
At his side, the lead mo‘o nodded.
“Where did it come from?”
“We don’t know. One day we were swimming, and this thick sliver of black just glided past us. We didn’t know or feel what it was, but we knew it didn’t belong in the stream so we tried to remove it. We gathered around it and meant to lift it out of the water, but it wouldn’t budge. Our powers couldn’t touch it. The stream moved, but the black stayed.”
“Is it in all the streams?” Waihona asked.
All three mo‘o nodded.
“Only up until this point,” the lead mo‘o clarified, sweeping her hand up the line of black sludge. “But, it’ll only be a matter of time before it takes over and kills the whole forest. Look at what it’s done already.” She opened her arms to the crippled trees and broken branches. “No one likes to come here.”
“How fast does it move?”
“Not very, as you can see.” She gestured. “In fact, we sat here from full moon to full moon, watching and it only moved about a foot.”
“But,” the mo‘o to his left interrupted, “I think . . . it’s waiting for something.”
“What?” Evan asked, slipping off the shield. “Why do you say that?”
The mo‘o shrugged. “It just feels very calculating and intending, like it’s alive.”
“I feel that too,” Waihona breathed. His eyes sailed over the thick black as bubbles popped at its surface.
Azolla squatted next to Waihona. “Me too. Does it react to anything?”
“Not that we know of. Kāne himself has tried moving it—but nothing,” said the lead mo‘o.
“Is it even still water?” Evan asked, wrinkling his nose and crossing his arms.
“If it was, our power would have an affect on it, but it doesn’t,” said the mo‘o to their right. “Or maybe it’s just not ours.”
As Waihona gazed in her direction, contemplating her response, he realized that the three mo‘o formed a perfect triangle around them with Waihona, Azolla and Evan positioned at its center.
“Ours?” Evan asked.
“We can only control what belongs to us or what is in our realm, like the trees, streams, and earth outside of the death border, certain winds and rains of this area and the non-contaminated part of this stream. Anything else and we may need to ask permission,” explained the mo‘o to their right.
“Permission?” Evan said, surprised. “Aren’t you guys like—?”
“Yes.” The right mo‘o nodded, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “But, like us, all these elements are alive, and while we may control them from time to time, it is only through mutual respect and their approval. They too are their own entity.”
“So, what about Kāne? He should be able to control any form of water, right?” Waihona asked.
“So we thought,” said the lead mo‘o, drawing their attention back to the front.
“Hmmm,” Azolla said. “I wonder.” She reached her umbrella toward the black— the shield folding up to make way—and struck hard. The green electric current that had once shocked Waihona and Evan fired and crackled across the surface.
The black responded with nothing more then hiccupping bubbles as it continued to ooze forward.
“What’d you think that would do?” Evan asked.
“I don’t know.” Azolla jutted her bottom lip. “Maybe stop it from moving at least.”
Waihona tilted his head sideways, staring intently at the black. He reached out to touch it. As soon as his fingers grazed the surface, a gurgle rippled through the air and, as though he had set off an alarm, a series of sharp shrills broke through sound barriers all around them.
Waihona, Azolla, and Evan immediately cupped their ears.
“I thought you said it didn’t react to anything!” Waihona yelled.
“It didn’t,” the lead mo‘o yelled back.
All three mo‘o immediately turned outward to face the unknown source of shrills while Waihona, Azolla, and Evan quickly stood up and backed away from the stream. As they withdrew, the sound followed them, increasing in intensity. Waihona gasped as he noticed thin tree-like creatures surrounding them. They were only half the size of the taller, altered black trees, but their appearance was just as menacing.
The most haunting aspect of their appearance was the fact that these trees had large mouths—no eyes, no nose—just a gaping maw that remained open to reveal jagged wooden teeth.
“What are those?” shouted Azolla through the high-pitched sound that continued to assail their ears. She gripped the handle of her umbrella.
“Close the shield!” The lead mo‘o cried.
Azolla did as she was told and sealed the shield while Waihona, Evan and Azolla, all facing different directions, bent their knees and widened their stance.
A tree creature reached up with a branch-arm to pluck a stone flower from one of the altered stationary trees. The creature snarled and flung the weapon through the air. A sharp crack was heard above the howling din as the flower pierced the shield. Immediately, a thick, black substance enveloped the shield, dissolving it.
“Now what do we do?” Evan shot Waihona a look.
Waihona kicked off his shoes and flexed his hands. “Get ready.”
Until Next Time . . .
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