Far beyond Gallontea’s walls, three orinians, a faerie, and a marionite emerged from the opening of a sewer pipe onto the shore of a lagoon. The lagoon’s peaceful waters reflected back the image of an overcast sky, the reflection shattering when it began to rain.
“I’d only just dried,” Maebhe whined.
The group left their borrowed boots with Ivey and said their goodbyes, the four escapees trudging up the hill while Ivey returned to the sewer. At the top of the hill, Maebhe blinked owlishly, eyes still readjusting after being in darkness for so long. Before them were the wild plains that surrounded Gallontea and the red sky, illuminated by a single dusk-soaked sun, the other having set hours ago.
To the south loomed Lyryma Forest, its silhouette cutting up into the horizon. Gallontea stood in the In the opposite direction, the spired peak of Unity’s clock tower peeking above the city’s shadow.
“I didn’t realize we’d gotten so far,” Maebhe said. Her curls clung to her head, rain-damp, and made her look smaller.
“We have a long way to go yet,” Drys said. “We need to make it to Lyryma by nightfall if we’re to reach Home tomorrow.”
They pushed through the tall stalks of grass to the road, which was fortunately empty for the time of evening. They followed it south until it forked in two directions: one led east, following the coast to Adriat and several other Unity cities, and the other west, inland, toward the Alfheim province. There was no road through Lyryma, and for good reason.
“We’ll camp here for the night, off the road. It might be smart to keep watches,” Kieran said.
They set up their bedrolls — courtesy of Roman’s wallet — out of sight of the road, at the edge of Lyryma. It stopped raining shortly after, and they kept watch through the night without incident. In the morning, they packed up their things and prepared to enter the wood.
“I don’t know about this,” Íde said. She slung her bag over her shoulder without looking, her eyes on the shifting shadows of the forest.
“I’m with Íde,” Maebhe said.
“It’s just a forest,” Kieran said, his eyes not leaving the trees. “The same as any forest. Drys, tell them they’re being ridiculous.”
“They’re not. They’re right to fear Lyryma.”
“Wonderful,” Íde muttered.
Maebhe thought about the stories she’d been told growing up— stories about orinians vanishing in the forest, about monsters the size of houses and dark magics that seized your soul and changed you into something unrecognizable.
“Well, we’ve got to get going at some point,” Kieran said, then straightened his shoulders and marched into the forest. The others watched him go.
“Are you going after him, then?” Maebhe asked Íde. “Because I won’t if you won’t.”
“He’s your brother.”
“And your fiance.”
Kieran passed through the initial wall of trees into shadow, then turned and waved his arms at the group. “Look!” he called. “I’m in the forest and nothing bad happened!”
Íde rolled her eyes, but Maebhe smirked. “Want to see something funny?”
Drys answered with an enthusiastic “yes!” at the same time Íde said, “If you’re going to do what I fear you’re going to do, no.”
One yes was enough for Maebhe. She pointed at Kieran, face twisting into a mask of horror, and screamed, “Kieran! Behind you!”
Kieran moved faster than Maebhe thought him capable, whirling so frantically that he slipped and landed flat on his tail. Maebhe doubled over laughing, and Drys joined in, even Íde fighting not to smile. When he realized he’d been tricked, Kieran picked himself up and brushed the dirt off his pants. Maebhe could hear him cursing from here.
“I hate you all. You—,” he called, cutting off when something dragged him deeper into the forest, out of sight.
Íde was sprinting toward the forest before Maebhe even processed what had happened, but then she took off after Íde, Drys at her heels. She passed Íde, her longer legs carrying her faster, and scrambled to stop mid-stride when Kieran jumped out from behind a tree with a cry of “Hyah!”
She had only enough time to scream before colliding with him. He fell, she tripped over him, and they both landed face-first in the mud.
“You ass!” Maebhe shrieked. She tackled Kieran, easily catching him in a headlock while he laughed too hard to defend himself. She shoved him down into the mud, ignoring his muffled protests, and only released him when Íde ran up. Íde whacked him on the arm, tail simultaneously whipping out to snap against his thigh.
“You!” she hissed, “What have I told you about including me in your pranks?”
“Not to do it,” Maebhe said smugly, still sitting in the mud.
“Don’t you dare,” Íde told her, Kieran yelling, “You started this, Maebhe!”
“Oh, I think I like you all,” Drys said, delighted.
Maebhe used her sleeve to wipe the mud off her face and glared at Kieran. As dignified as he could manage, half-covered in mud himself, Kieran said, “Don’t look at me like that. I got you into the forest, didn’t I?”
“You…” Maebhe said, “Bastard.”
He was right, though. They were in Lyryma. Maebhe looked around. It looked and felt like any other forest, just magnified in scale. She couldn’t see the tops of the trees, but the roots twisting and crawling over the ground were almost as wide as she was. There was no sense of impending doom, no dark mysteries, no magic. Maybe the stories were just stories.
Once Maebhe and Kieran had collected themselves, the group pressed on. The deeper they traveled into the wood, the more the trees’ canopies blocked the suns’ light, the more the damp, humid air made their clothes cling to their skin. The climate was somehow entirely different from Gallontea’s north of it and Orean’s south of it. It didn’t make sense. This wood was impossible.
Only Drys didn’t seem concerned by the strange weather. They sighed contentedly and stretched their wings, the paths between the massive trees wider than the span of the golden appendages. What little spots of sunslight trickled down caught on and danced across their feathers. Maebhe watched, entranced.
“It’s good to be back,” Drys said, “It’ll be better to be back in Home.”
“What is Home, exactly?” Kieran asked. “And how long until we’re there?”
“I suppose you’d call it a city, but it’s more than that. There are fae and oanai all over this forest in small, scattered clans, but Home is the place we all came from and the place we return to, eventually. Everyone is welcome in Home—especially those who aren’t welcome with Unity,” they said. “At this rate, we’ll arrive before sunsset.”
“Oanai,” Maebhe breathed. “We’ll see oanai?”
Drys smiled at her fascination. “Oh, yes. Have you not already? I know they used to visit Orean on occasion, but oh, I can’t remember if that was two, twenty, or two-hundred years ago.”
“You don’t remember?” Maebhe asked. For the first time, it struck Maebhe that Drys might be older than they looked. She’d only ever been around orinians; she’d forgotten how strange and diverse this world was. “I’ve never seen an oanai in Orean.”
“A word of advice about them, then. The oanai of Home are the oldest creatures alive today, even older than this wood. They’re very deliberate creatures and they appreciate being shown respect,” Drys said. “They also hate hearing about the outside world, especially when it’s not on their terms, so I wouldn’t mention this Unity business.”
Maebhe nodded solemnly.
As they walked, she craned her neck to look up at the trees, thinking on Drys’ words. She’d always known, academically, that the nympherai species lived longer than others, but this really put it into perspective. She couldn’t imagine anything being older than these trees.
Her gaze dropped to Drys again, then lower, to the bruises on their wrists, the few spots of missing feathers on their wings. “What did you do to get locked up?” she asked. So much had been happening that the question hadn’t occurred to her sooner.
Kieran elbowed her. “Don’t be rude.”
“Like you haven’t already asked,” Maebhe hissed, elbowing him back.
“I killed a Unity representative,” Drys said.
“Really?” Kieran asked, eyes widening.
Drys scoffed. “No. I flew too near the Island. Unity thought I was stealing secrets and sent a dragon after me.”
“Oh,” Maebhe said.
Drys turned to face her, walking backwards in order to do so. “You sound disappointed,” they teased. “Would you rather I’d really killed someone?”
Maebhe opened her mouth to respond, but then her eyes widened. “Drys!” She cried as Drys backed right into a tree.
Drys took a dazed step forward, turning to look at the tree trunk in surprise. None of them had noticed it there seconds before. As they watched, the tree trunk—the crooked, furry tree trunk—moved. It shifted back, a cloven hoof bigger than Drys’ head striking the ground with a soft thud. The matching trunk beside it moved back as well.
With growing horror, Maebhe lifted her gaze. They weren’t tree trunks at all— they were legs.
Drys looked up at the same moment the owner of the legs bent to examine him, a flat, alien face ending up only inches from their own. Drys yelped and fell back into Maebhe, accidentally trodding on her foot. The creature straightened at the noise, what little it had by way of eyebrows drawing together. They all stared at each other, Maebhe supporting Drys, the creature with its hand on its chest in an affronted gesture, and Íde and Kieran watching with open mouths.
“What—,” Maebhe squeaked, “That is, who— um. Hello.”
“Hello,” the creature echoed, voice softer than Maebhe expected. “Who are you?”
“Oh, ah…we’re…” Maebhe stammered.
Drys finally recovered from their surprise and pushed away from Maebhe, the feathers on their wings puffing indignantly. “Leihlani, don’t do that! You startled me!”
The creature’s face scrunched up as she bared her teeth at Drys. It took Maebhe a moment realize she was smiling. “I hardly recognized you, Drys; you’ve been gone so long.”
Drys huffed. “Don’t be sarcastic, Leihlani, it doesn’t suit you. I haven’t been gone two months.”
Leihlani must be oanai, Maebhe realized. She’d never even seen photographs of oanai, so she hadn’t known what to expect. She shivered.
When Unity formed at the end of the Great War, some parts of the world had refused to join. Drained from the war, they’d retreated into solitude to nurse their wounds. Orean was one, Lyryma another. Prior to this mess with Alfheim, Unity had at least tolerated Orean, worked with them when they needed to. Because of Orean’s access to resources in the mountains, Unity felt it was necessary to at least maintain a civil relationship.
Unity didn’t extend the oanai and fae the same courtesy. The oanai were seen as lesser creatures, like the dragons were before the Great War. Standing before one now, Maebhe didn’t know how anyone could think that.
Leihlani was covered in shaggy fur, brown dappled with white spots. Her legs were shaped like a goat’s, making her seem unbalanced, like she was leaning forward even when standing upright. Her face reminded Maebhe of a deer without a snout, her wide forehead blending into a flat nose. There was something innocent in the twitch of her nose and the way her eyelashes, which were longer than Maebhe’s entire hand, fluttered.
Even as Leihlani met Maebhe’s gaze, two of her ears swiveled away from the group, picking up something in the forest that the orinians couldn’t hear. Her ears were similar in shape to the orinians’, almost like a cow’s, but she had three on each side, weighed down by a collection of small earrings. Her ears were accompanied by a pair of twisting horns atop her head.
When Leihlani looked at Maebhe, Maebhe felt it in her bones. Maebhe had had her fill of unnerving stares lately, first with Roman’s and now Leihlani’s. Leihlani’s was different from Roman’s, though. Leihlani’s eyes didn’t know things like Roman’s did. Roman’s stare made Maebhe feel like she was in a room where everything was on fire, but she wanted to be there. The door was unlocked and she refused to leave.
Leihlani’s gaze was only similar in that it saw you, saw through you, and made you feel—if only for a moment—like you mattered in the grand plot of the world.
“You two…know each other?” Íde asked Drys.
“Leihlani is a friend from Home,” Drys said.
“Are you bringing them there?” Leihlani asked Drys. “Why?”
“Just a stop on the way to Orean. They need to get through the forest quickly, so I’m guiding them,” Drys said. At Leihlani’s inquisitive head tilt, they provided, “I’m repaying a debt.”
Leihlani nodded. “You trust them?”
“Enough for them to see the way to Home?” Drys asked. “They’re orinians, Leihlani. Unity hates them almost as much as they do us. They won’t harm Home.”
Leihlani nodded, turned, and began picking her way slowly through the trees. Drys didn’t hesitate to follow, but the orinians did, all staring after Leihlani in awe.
“Orean is a long journey,” Leihlani said without looking back at them. “A week, if there are no complications.”
“Complications?” Kieran asked, finally hurrying to follow.
“The forest is dangerous, especially for little ones. Even more dangerous than usual, as of late. Drys will be able to get you through the forest safely, but safety does require caution. That caution may slow you down.” Leihlani glanced down at the orinians. “What are your names?”
“I’m Maebhe,” Maebhe supplied. “This is my brother Kieran and his fiancé Íde.”
“I’m Leihlani,” Leihlani said, her voice like the wind through the ancient trees. When she ducked out of the way of a tree branch, a bird flew out of it and perched on her shoulder, remaining there as Leihlani kept walking. Leihlani’s ears twitched when the bird chirped, but she didn’t otherwise react. “What do your tattoos mean?” she asked.
Maebhe subconsciously reached up to touch her birthmarks.
“They’re not tattoos,” Kieran answered. “We’re born with these.”
“Oh,” Leihlani said. She peered down at them. “Other humans put images on themselves, do they not?”
“Yes. Some orinians do too, in addition to their birthmarks. Or to cover them,” Íde said softly, staring at the scratch-like markings on her own hand. While the others were turned away, Kieran took her hand and kissed it.
The journey after that passed in silence, as Leihlani wasn’t particularly talkative and the others were struggling just to keep up with her long strides. Almost the entire day had been spent walking before they finally reached the hidden city of Home. When they finally saw it, they forgot their aching feet and their sore limbs. They forgot their stress and fear and aching feet and felt only wonder.
They’d expected a towering city like Orean or Gallontea. Instead, Home was built down into a steep valley; the trees cut off abruptly at the valley’s edge, where the grassy forest floor changed to a muddy downhill slope. Layers of mist hung over the city, but they could still make out the size of Home, how massive it was. Bigger than Gallontea, bigger than Orean. Bigger than both cities combined.
“How many oanai live here?” Íde asked, voice stained with awe as she stared out at the sea of clay brick buildings.
“Only six thousand or so.”
“That’s all? But the city is so—,”
“Most of these buildings have been empty since the Great War. Our population still hasn’t recovered,” Leihlani explained.
Íde bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
Leihlani shrugged. “I wasn’t alive to see it.”
The city fit snugly in its nook, as colorful and lively as the forest rooted around it. The buildings were covered in the moss and vines of hundreds of years of growth, spotted with bright flowers. The city streets, more forest floor than paved road, were so far below where the little group stood that the few oanai walking them looked like insects. Melodies drifted up to them from the streets below, calling them down.
“Try not to listen,” Leihlani said, leading them around the crater toward a stone staircase leading down into the city. As far as any of them could tell, it was the only accessible entrance. It was also, they noticed with dread, oanai-sized. Each step would be a jump for them.
“I’ll wait for you all at the bottom,” Drys said, shooting the orinians an unsympathetic smile before spreading their wings and taking off.
The rest of the group started the slow journey down, Leihlani waiting patiently for the orinians with each step. Halfway down, the staircase split in two, twisting around a stone statute that stood taller than Leihlani. It depicted a woman in an elegant, draping gown, a thousand small flames etched into her skin. Her stone gaze seemed to settle directly on Maebhe. Maebhe eyed the flames on the woman’s skin, the marble vines crawling up her dress, and guessed, “Ellaes?”
“Yes,” Leihlani said approvingly. “As Atuos is the patron Guardian for your species, Ellaes is ours. She created this forest in the aftermath of the Great War to keep us safe from anyone who’d wish us harm.”
Maebhe eyed the statue as they passed. There was something soothing about it.
When they reached the forest floor, Drys rejoined them. “Orinians in Home,” they said, a smile in their eyes, “It must be the end times. You’re all so terrified of these woods, I would have thought it’d have to uproot and come to you before any of you saw the inside of it.”
“Don’t tease. I’m sure it took courage to come here, with the stories the outside world tells,” Leihlani said. “Will you go ahead tell Mani and Apa we’re coming to see them?”
Drys bowed and fanned their wings, then took off with a rush of air that made all three orinians step back.
“They like you,” Leihlani said when they were gone. “You’re lucky. If a faerie dislikes you, there’s no recovering from that. And if they’re neutral toward you, that is even worse. Who is their debt to?”
“A friend of ours. He rescued Drys from…well. Nevermind,” Maebhe said, remembering Drys’ warning not to talk about it.
Leihlani shot Maebhe a quizzical look but didn’t ask. She led them into the heart of the city, through winding streets and past houses made more from plants than brick. Home was wholly untouched by industrialization. There were no lanterns, no factories, no cobbled streets or carriages. Through the trees surrounding the city, clear sky shone with without a hint of smog.
“Are they your parents?” Íde asked. “Mani and Apa?”
“They’re the leaders of this quadrant. Mani and Apa are their names, not endearments.”
“But yes, they also happen to be my parents,” Leihlani said, smiling down at Íde.
They turned another corner and found a small crowd gathered in a grassy, open field. Drys stood between two oanai even larger than Leihlani, one with Leihlani’s red fur, the other with the same twisting horns. Leihlani inclined her head respectfully as they reached the group. The orinians, unsure of how to respond, stayed half-hidden behind her.
“Hello, little ones,” one of the oanai said, bending to examine them. “Drys was just telling us of your arrival. Welcome to Lyryma.”
“Thank you,” Maebhe tried to say, though not much sound came out.
“I hear you’re in a hurry to get home; I hope nothing is wrong?”
Seeing Drys’ expression tighten, she said, “Nothing at all. We just miss Orean.”
“Well,” the oanai said, doing the same strange teeth-bearing smile Leihlani had attempted earlier, “We will help you forget your homesickness, for tonight.”
That night, Home threw a party for the orinians, complete with music, mist, drinking, and dancing. It was more what the orinians expected of the oanai, given the stories they’d heard: melodies that soothed and entranced, decadent foods, wine that danced on the tongue. None of the orinians were ever able to figure out where the music was coming from, even after Kieran and Maebhe made a game of it. It came from everywhere at once, from above and below, in front and behind. It was complex, ethereal, and unlike anything they’d heard before.
There were dozens of oanai present, spread across the grassy field at the center of Home, and even more fae. Watching the oanai dance was a delight in itself; they twirled and stepped to the music like their strange legs had been made to do it, weaving between each other in patterns too complex for the orinians to follow.
“We’re being rude,” Íde announced, standing. They’d been sitting off to the side for most of the evening, watching but not participating, talking only to those who talked to them first. Maebhe was on her third glass of wine. “They threw this party for us; we must try to enjoy it. Kieran, dance with me.” She held her slender hand out, pulling Kieran to his feet when he took it. He dipped into a showy bow, wobbling a little from the wine, and let Íde drag him away.
“I’m coming for you, next!” Íde called back to Maebhe.
“No, she’s probably not!” Kieran added.
“I’ll just sit here alone, then,” Maebhe grumbled to herself. “Who wants to dance with them anyway?”
She was only alone for a minute. Leihlani came and squatted beside her, balled up so she and Maebhe were on the same level. “You seem upset, little one. Do you not like parties?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t feel like celebrating right now. Thank you for arranging this, though.”
Leihlani nodded like this was the most rational thing she’d ever heard. “The fae did most of it. Our good neighbors seize every opportunity to celebrate, and now they have outsiders to perform for. I’d offer to dance with you, but I’m afraid I’d crush you. I take after Apa when it comes to dancing.”
Maebhe looked over to where Leihlani’s father was twirling and hopping about and giggled. “As funny as that would be, I like living.”
Leihlani laughed, her furry nose wrinkling. She dropped onto the ground fully, spreading her long, hoofed legs out in front of her. “Everyone is very pleased to meet you.”
“Really? I feel like we’re intruding. I mean, you’ve all been very welcoming, but Home feels so private.”
“You could not intrude here. You’re orinians; you’re like us, so you’re welcome. We outsiders must stick together, just as Unity’s people stick together. One day, we may need to come to each other’s aid.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Leihlani frowned, tufty eyebrows jutting out. “Of course.”
Maebhe inched closer to the oanai. Alcohol making her mind tip and twirl, she said, “There’s a reason I don’t feel like dancing. Why we’re in such a hurry to get home. My people may be in trouble.”
Leihlani nodded slowly. “Drys warned you not to tell? My people…they are not very receptive to news of the world outside, but if it needs to be said, little one, tell it.”
Maebhe did. She told Leihlani everything. She told her about the alfar king, Kieran and Íde’s arrest, the war-mongering newspapers, and their escape from Unity. Leihlani remained expressionless throughout.
“I must tell Mani,” Leihlani said when she’d finished, moving to get up.
Maebhe stopped her with a hand on her arm, surprised at the softness of her fur. “Don’t. Let them have this party. Let them have tonight.”
After studying Maebhe for a moment, Leihlani nodded. They fell into silence, Maebhe watching Kieran and Íde dance. They looked so happy. Maebhe wrapped her arms around herself.
“Morning, then. But rest assured, Maebhe Cairn: the oanai will help you.”
Drys chose that moment to join them, sitting on Maebhe’s other side and holding something out to her. Maebhe took it and examined it. They had tied together a chain of pink flowers, closing it in a circle. “What—,”
“It’s a crown. You wear it on your head, like so.” Drys took it back and placed it atop Maebhe’s head.
Maebhe couldn’t help but laugh, adjusting the flower crown. “This if for me? But what about you?”
“I made one for myself, too, of course,” Drys said, pulling out a second crown and placing it on their own head. The golden flowers matched the feathers in their wings. “I would’ve made one for you, Leihlani, dear, but I don’t think there are enough flowers in all of Home.”
Drys smiled at her and said, “Dance with me, May-vuh.”
It may have been the wine, but Maebhe found herself agreeing.