Late that same evening, far beyond Gallontea’s walls, three orinians, a faerie, and a marionite emerged from a wide sewer pipe onto the shore of a small lagoon. The lagoon’s surface gave a broken reflection of an overcast sky, a reflection that shattered when it suddenly began to rain.
“I’d only just dried,” Maebhe whined.
The group left their boots with Ivey and said their goodbyes, then the four escapees began trudging up the hill while Ivey returned to the sewer. Maebhe looked around owlishly, eyes still readjusting to color and light after being back in darkness for so long. Greeting them at the top of the hill was the green of the wild plains that surrounded Gallontea, the tall stalks tamed only by a dirt road cutting down the middle, and the red sky, illuminated by one dusk-soaked sun, the other having set hours ago.
To the south loomed Lyryma Forest, its silhouette cutting into the horizon. In the opposite direction was Gallontea, 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, fortunately empty, for that time of evening. They followed it south until it forked in two directions, one leading east, following the coast to Adriat and several other Unity cities, and the other west, inland, toward the tamer woods surrounding Lyryma and, further on, 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 did, setting up their bedrolls out of sight of the road, at the edge of Lyryma. It fortunately had stopped raining, and they kept watch through the night without incident. In the morning, they packed up their things and prepared to enter the forest.
“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 agree with Íde,” Maebhe said, earning a surprised look from Íde.
“It’s just a forest,” Kieran said, his eyes not leaving the trees, either. “Drys, tell them they’re being ridiculous.”
“They’re not. They’re right to fear Lyryma.”
“Wonderful,” Maebhe muttered. She thought about the stories she’d grown up being told— stories about orinians disappearing into the forest, never to return, stories about monsters the size of houses and dark magics that crept into your soul and took you apart from the inside out.
“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?” Íde asked Maebhe. “Because I won’t if you won’t.”
“He’s your fiance.”
“And your brother.”
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 snickered. “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, then 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 all the curses passing his lips from here.
“I hate you all. You—,” he called, cutting off when something dragged him deeper into the forest, out of sight.
“Kieran!” 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 quickly, her longer legs carrying her faster, and scrambled to try 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 her twin. He fell, she tripped over him, and they both landed face-first in the mud.
Maebhe recovered before Kieran and tackled him, easily catching him in a headlock. He was laughing 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 chirped, still sitting in the mud.
“Don’t,” Íde told her, Kieran yelling, “You started this!”
“I like you all,” Drys said, delighted.
Maebhe used her sleeve to try 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. “You 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 forest, the more the trees’ canopies blocked the suns’ light, the more the damp, humid air made their clothes cling to their skin. Somehow, Lyryma’s climate was different than Gallontea’s, just north of it andOrean’s, south of it. It didn’t make sense. This forest was impossible.
Drys was the only one who didn’t seem concerned by the strange weather in the forest. They sighed and stretched their wings, the paths between the massive trees wide enough to fit the golden appendages. What little spots of sunslight trickled down to them caught on the depths of their feathers, and Maebhe watched, entranced.
“It’s good to be back here,” Drys said, “It’ll be better to be back in Home.”
“What is Home, exactly?” Kieran asked. “And how long until we get there?”
“You could call it a city, but it’s more than that. There are fae and oanai all over this forest, in small tribes, scattered. There are fae and oanai in other parts of the world, too, but Home is the place we all came from and the place we all return to, eventually. Everyone is welcome there—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 looked back at her, smiling at her fascination. “Oh, yes. If I may offer a bit of advice: if it’s not on their terms, they don’t like hearing news of the outside world. Keep what you know to yourself unless you are asked.”
Maebhe nodded solemnly.
The group passed into silence again, the orinians busy taking in the sights of the forest. When Maebhe’s gaze inevitably trailed to Drys again, to the bruises on their wrists, the few spots of missing feathers on their wings, she asked “What did you do to get locked up?” So much had been going on that the question hadn’t occurred to her sooner.
Kieran elbowed her. “Don’t be rude,” he hissed.
“Like you haven’t already asked,” Maebhe hissed back.
“I killed a Unity representative,” Drys said.
“No. I only flew over the Island. Unity thought I was stealing secrets.”
“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 killed a Unity representative?”
Maebhe opened her mouth to respond, but then her eyes widened. “Drys!” She gasped, just as Drys ran into a tree.
Drys took a dazed step back, turning to look at the tree trunk in surprise. None of them had noticed it there seconds before, but there it stood. The tree trunk—the crooked, furry tree trunk—moved. It moved several feet back, a cloven hoof bigger than Drys’ head silent as it struck the ground. The matching trunk beside it moved as well.
With growing horror, Maebhe realized 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 jumped back, accidentally treading on Maebhe’s foot. The creature stood up straight at the noise, what little it had by way of eyebrows drawing together. They all stared at each other, Drys backed into Maebhe, the creature with its hand on its chest, offended, and Íde and Kieran watching with open mouths.
“Hello,” Maebhe squeaked.
“Hello,” the creature echoed, voice softer than Maebhe expected. “I heard your screams and came to investigate.”
“Uh,” Maebhe said. “Sorry. We didn’t realize anyone could hear us.”
“Leihlani!” Drys snapped, finally recovering from their surprise. The feathers on their wings puffed indignantly. “You scared me!”
The creature’s face scrunched up as she bared her teeth at Drys. It took Maebhe a moment realize she was smiling. “I didn’t recognize you, Drys; you’ve been gone so long.”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Leihlani, it doesn’t suit you. I haven’t been gone two months.”
Maebhe had never met an oanai in person before, had never even seen photographs. She didn’t know a single person in Orean who had. Back when Unity formed, some parts of the world had refused to join it. Orean was one, Home another. Prior to this mess with Alfheim, Unity had at least tolerated Orean, worked with them when they had 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 before the Great War. It was still common practice to kill an oanai on sight, or at least try. Maebhe thought they’d all but gone extinct; apparently, they were merely hiding in Lyryma.
Leihlani was nothing like Maebhe expected. She was covered in shaggy fur, brown dappled with white spots. Her legs were shaped like a goat’s, making her posture seem unbalanced, like she was leaning forward even when standing upright, and 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 they stared at each other, two of Leihlani’s ears swiveled away from Maebhe, focusing on something in the forest that the orinians couldn’t hear. They were similar in shape to the orinians’, almost like a cow’s, but she had three on each side, weighed down by a number 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. At least Leihlani’s was different from Roman’s. 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. Leihlani’s eyes didn’t know things like Roman’s did.
“You two know each other?” Íde asked Drys.
“We grew up together,” Drys said.
“Are you bringing them to Home?” 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. She turned and picked her way slowly among the trees; Drys shrugged at the group before following. The orinians hesitated a moment longer, all still staring at Leihlani in awe.
“Orean is a long journey,” Leihlani said. “A week, if there are no complications.”
“Complications?” Kieran asked.
“The forest is dangerous, especially for little ones. Even more dangerous than usual, as of late. We 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. This is my brother Kieran, and his fiancé Íde.”
“It’s very nice to make your acquaintance.” When Leihlani 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?”
Maebhe subconsciously reached up to touch her dirin.
“They’re not tattoos,” Kieran answered. “We’re born like this.”
“Oh,” Leihlani said. She peered down at them, leaning forward more than usual, and the bird flew away. “We have marks like yours, but we give them to ourselves. They describe us.” She pointed to the markings inked into her shoulder. “Daughter, sister, hunter.”
“I like yours much better,” 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 to keep up with her long strides. Almost the entire day had been spent walking before Home was finally in sight. When they finally saw it, they forgot their aching feet and their sore limbs. They forgot their stress and their fear and felt only wonder.
They’d been expecting a towering city like Orean or Gallontea. Instead, Home was built into a deep crater; the trees cut off abruptly at the crater’s edge, where the grassy forest floor changed to a muddy downhill slope. Layers of mist hung above the city, but they could still make out the shapes of Home, how massive it was. Bigger than Gallontea, bigger than Orean. Bigger than both cities combined.
“How many oanai are there?” Íde asked, voice stained with awe as she stared out at the hundreds of thousands of clay brick buildings built into the crater.
“Roughly five thousand.”
“But the city is so—,”
“Most of these buildings have been empty since the Great War. Our population still hasn’t recovered.”
“Oh,” Íde breathed. “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, luring them down.
“Try not to listen,” Leihlani said, leading them around the crater toward a stone staircase that led 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 a smug look before spreading their wings and taking off.
The orinians started the slow journey down the stairs, Leihlani waiting patiently the whole way. Halfway down, the staircase split in two directions, twisting around a stone statute that stood taller than Leihlani. It depicted a woman in an elegant, draping gown, a thousand 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 made this forest for us in the aftermath of the Great War so that we could be safe from Unity and anyone wishing us harm.”
Maebhe turned to stare at the statue as they passed. When they finally reached the forest floor, Drys rejoined them, graceful and smug. “Orinians in Home,” they said, a smile in their eyes, “It must be the end of times. You’re all so terrified of these woods, I would have thought it would have to uproot and come to you before any of you saw the inside of it.”
“Don’t tease; it took a lot of courage for them to come here,” Leihlani said. “Will you go tell Mani and Apa we’re coming to see them?”
Drys bowed and fanned his wings, then took off with a rush of air that made all three orinians step back.
“He likes you,” Leihlani said when he was gone. “You’re lucky. If a faerie dislikes you, there’s no recovering from that. If they’re neutral toward you, that is 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 led them straight into the heart of the city, through winding streets and past houses that were made more from plants than brick. The city was untouched by industrialization. There were no lanterns, no factories, no cobbled streets or carriages.
“Are they your parents?” Íde asked. “Mani and Apa?”
“They’re the chieftains 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 saw 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, copied the movement.
“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 that 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 they 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 tryto enjoy it. Kieran, dance with me.” She held her slender hand out, pulling Kieran to his feet when he took it. Kieran let Íde drag him away.
“I’m coming for you, next!” Íde called back to Maebhe.
“No, she’s probably not!” called Kieran.
“I’ll just sit here alone, then,” Maebhe grumbled to herself.
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 just 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 is so private.”
“You could not intrude here. You’re orinians; you’re one of 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. “There’s a reason why 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. “I overheard what Drys said to you this morning, about not sharing what you know. 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 stand by 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. Drys had tied together a chain of pink flowers, closing it in a circle. “What—,”
“It’s a crown. You wear it on your head. Here.” Drys took it back and placed it atop her head.
Maebhe couldn’t help but laugh, adjusting the flower crown. “You made this 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-vee.”
It may have been the wine, but Maebhe found herself agreeing.