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Camping equipment collapsed in dangerous heaps all around me as I dug through the hidden stash for my black camera bag. My gear had been spirited away into a nearby cave as to not attract attention to the compound.

Eddie watched through the opening as I pulled at the now larger than life backpack, catching a view of what I was looking for. I clawed my way through the denim and noisy polyester, grabbing the strap attached to my prize.

The camera bag was lodged between the backpack and the stone wall, too heavy for me to push or pull out of the way. That’s where Eddie came in. I yanked the wide strap through the crevice attempting to get it as close to the opening of the cave as possible.

“Eddie,” I yelled. “Can you still see me here?”

“Yes,” the Border collie replied. “I can see the strap too.”

“Good, because I want you to grab it and pull.”

The dog took care squeezing his head into the hole, making sure he didn’t bite into me instead. I placed the strap between his teeth. With a pat as a signal he bit down.

“Got it?”

Eddie replied with a low growl and an assured nod.

I grabbed a hold of his collar and climbed on his neck. The dog heaved with a firm tug.

At first the bag did not want to move, preferring to stay stuck. A couple of more determined pulls freed the black case, allowing us to exit the cavern.

Eddie opened his mouth, dropping the bag. Without looking at the dog I scurried off towards the dangling zipper, hooking my hand into the ring. As the zipper opened, a sturdy push tipped the bag onto its side. The flap opened and the item I was desperately searching for tilted out of its lined case.

Justin, Brutus and Jinnai braced themselves against the heavy, wide-lens attachment to get it out of the case. I was busy unhooking the regular lens already attached to my camera. The latch released and the lens popped off the metal frame.

I waved the three rats into position. As they held the contraption in place I fitted the joints into the lens frame. With a simple push and twist, I heard the tell-tale snap. The lens was securely fastened.

“Okay, Eddie. I need you to lift it again.” I held up the neck strap for the dog to grab.

Justin brushed himself off as he watched me shorten the strap to avoid having the camera drag on the ground.

“I can’t believe how heavy that one part is,” he replied. “When we first found your camera, it wasn’t nearly as heavy as it must be now.”

“That’s why I needed Eddie to help us,” I answered still adjusting the strap. “This lens is for long distance. I was hoping that maybe I would get some good pics of a bear or something. That way I could use this thing instead of risking getting to close.”

Jinnai turned to the direction of the still distant yet still too close for comfort camp. “They may not be bears but they’re still just as dangerous.”

“Except those don’t need provoking,” Justin added.

With the strap short enough, I gave Eddie the signal to lift the camera. Although it was well off the ground, the camera still dangled too close for my liking. One good whack on a stone would shatter the lens. I cursed myself for not packing the lens-cap thinking I wouldn’t need it since I had the storage bag.

” I can’t get the strap shorter than it already is,” I told the Border Collie. “I need you to be as careful as possible with it. Try not to bang into anything, okay?”

Eddie let out a short whuff, sending the camera bobbing precariously. I tightened my fists. There was no way that camera was going to survive the trip back to the main compound.

“Wait, maybe Brutus can help.”

The hulking dark rat was gesturing to Justin in a fashion reminiscent of sign language. Justin nodded patting him on the shoulder then turned to me.

“Brutus is the only one here who’s strong enough to hold that camera. If he can get on Eddie’s back, he can pull the strap higher and keep the camera off the ground.”

I was somewhat apprehensive remembering Eddie and Brutus’ first encounter. The dog didn’t seem to share my concern and neither did Brutus.

Understanding what was needed, Eddie lowered his head, the lens giving a slight tap as it lowered to the ground. Brutus jumped over, giving the dog a firm pat on the muzzle.

With a fistful of white fur, he hoisted himself onto the dog’s broad neck, digging his claws into the nylon. Leaning over he grabbed the strap. The camera began a slow climb until it rested on the dog’s neck.

Felling comfortable enough, Eddie rose to his feet. The camera still dangled but was well off the ground. The trek would remain slow going however. Eddie had to watch his step regardless as to not send Brutus and the camera tumbling.

The three of us followed beside the dog, careful to not end up underfoot. The walk was quiet as no one had anything to say. Instead we all took the moment to gather our thoughts and plans. My mind was racing with scenarios.

I reminded myself that these were poachers, ruthless men who had neither rhyme nor reason to their plans. They would trap their own family members if they could make a buck off of their hides.

I shuddered as I thought back to that day, the day I thought was going to be my last.

The Stone had saved my life but those poor rangers were not so fortunate. I wondered what had happened to them. My chest felt tight with stress. I was beginning to suffer from tunnel vision until I felt a gentle hand on my arm.

The touch surprised me, Jinnai smiling at my reaction. I couldn’t help but return his smile, letting out a nervous sigh. His fingers wrapped around my hand, squeezing tightly then relaxing.

I leaned in closer as we walked, giving his hand a squeeze as well. My mind still raced but now there was a comfort to keep me from going totally insane with thought.

Behind us I heard Justin chuckle at the sight before him.

Right above the entrance there was a natural ledge, giving me the idea to rest the camera on it. Eddie and Brutus lowered the heavy thing onto the stone surface, much to the dark rat’s obvious relief. Even though he was strong, he gave a lot of himself and was glad to have it over with. With the camera in position the next phase of our plan went into effect.

Ever since the rats moved to Thorn Valley, it was understood there was the risk that rangers would enter the Valley sooner or later. It was the closest to no people they could get. At the same time they started building their little community they also worked on defenses as well, the most effective being simple camouflage.

I remembered the first time I saw their technique at work. Every entrance and window was covered with a net of leaves, twigs and moss. From a distance, you couldn’t even tell that there was something not quite right with the landscape. Since the rangers’ main concern was illegal campers, noticing there were plants lined up a little too orderly wasn’t high on their priority list.

A couple of rats carrying what looked like a rolled-up carpet came towards us. Twigs and leaves crackled with every movement, everyone being careful not to unroll the net too fast or the camouflage would break and fall off. The distinct odor of moist grass from the square of foliage filled the air. With a synchronized movement they tossed the net over the camera.

“When I first came into the Valley, why didn’t you guys cover everything up?” I asked as I watched the effort before me. “When I found this place everything was left the way it was as if I was never here.”

Justin pulled the netting to even out the sides. He paused for a moment.

“That’s a really good question,” Justin replied, trying to remember what was going through his mind at the time. “I don’t know. All I remember was hearing about you being in the Valley but there wasn’t that sense of urgency that usually accompanies news of humans around.”

He stopped, realizing the moment did come off as completely odd. Snorting, Justin smirked as he searched his memory. “That’s really weird. That was the first time I didn’t call for the usual protective measures against discovery. It was as if it didn’t matter if you found us.”

Even I had to chuckle at this. The one human they didn’t hide themselves from later turns into a rat and joins their little community. I began to wonder if the Stone, this magic, was a lot more involved than I had given it credit for. My only fear was what the Stone still had in store.

Although the camera was well covered, the sunlight reflecting off the wide lens worried me. From this distance the poachers would be able to notice the shine and may encourage them to investigate. I leapt onto the ledge to adjust the net, sticking out leaves to help shade the glass. Hopefully they didn’t notice what reflection did make it through.

Now it was time to get to work. “Justin, Jinnai, I need you guys to come up here and help me with this. You see those rings around the lens cylinder? I’m going to need you to turn them until I say the focus is okay.”

Justin took a place opposite Jinnai who placed his hands on the numbered grooves. I bent under the camouflage net and looked through the window. The circle-halves of the focusing system were totally separated and the background was blurred beyond having any proper shapes. All I could see were blobs of fuzzy color.

Flicking a dial to adjust the lighting sensitivity, a little wand next to the circles moved up until it was centered where I needed it. Then the actual focusing began. Justin and Jinnai slowly turned the dials with each directional command.

At first there was a little confusion with what directions I was talking about. When I said “right” Justin had to push the rings up while Jinnai pulled down. When I said “left”, the opposite had to happen. Luckily it didn’t take long for us to become coordinated.

As if it were teasing me, the focus of the powerful lens began to take shape. The unrecognizable blobs turned into trees, bushes… and movement. My heart pounded as I watched the still small shapes moving through the trees. They were still a way off but I knew exactly what I was looking at.

With one more turn the circle-halves meshed into one and the figures appeared. I gulped as I wiped my eyes. Just the mere sight of the poachers brought back memories I rather would have forgotten entirely.

They were very close, their camp just on the edge of the forest spilling into the grass of the valley.

As I stared through the lens I didn’t realize how lost in myself I had become. All I could do was watch the figures rustling in the distance as visions of past incidents ran through my mind like a stuttering film.


I looked over my shoulder, still stunned. Jinnai had lifted the natural drape and was watching me with apprehension in his voice. “Is everything okay? You got terribly quiet.”

I emerged from the tent-like crevice, my mind a haze. I stood between the two rats, not even looking at them. Instead I stared beyond them, looking at nothing my mind filled with thought and blank like a slate at the same time.

Justin gathered the courage to break the awkward silence. “So, do you see anything? Does the lens work?”

I looked up at him, tears dripping off my whiskers.

“Yes,” I answered with a hoarse croak. “The lens works. It works all too well.”


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