When the orinians left Home, only three days after they arrived, it was without pomp or circumstance. They left at dawn, while Home still slept. Mist hung low over the city, so thick that they couldn’t see the trees of the forest surrounding the strange valley, could barely see ten feet in front of them. Only Mani and Apa were there to see them off, gladly loading the group— mostly Leihlani— down with bags of provisions.
While Leihlani bid her parents goodbye, Maebhe stared blankly at the wall of stairs leading up, out of the city. Her feet still hurt. The thought of climbing all those stairs and then walking all day made them hurt worse in anticipation.
“I could fly you up,” Drys offered, sidling up to her. They flared their wings a little, drawing Maebhe’s attention. “My wings are doing much better already.”
“Am I that obvious?” Maebhe asked.
“I saw you hit that water. I imagine you’re feeling pretty sore.”
Maebhe considered Drys. They said faeries were never nice just to be nice; they always expected something in return. A trade. And Drys had already been very nice to her. She looked back up at the stairs and weighed her options, finally deciding that whatever Drys wanted in return was worth it. “Alright, then.”
Drys grinned and scooped Maebhe into their arms, laughing at her indignant squeak. They gave her only a moment to adjust before taking off.
“That’s just not fair,” Kieran said, scowling after them.
“Don’t suppose you’ll carry me up?” Íde asked.
“Íde, I love you, but I don’t think I can even carry myself up.”
“Romance is dead,” Íde sighed, cutting off with an oomph as Leihlani scooped up the two orinians and slung them over her shoulder.
“Allow me,” Leihlani said over Kieran and Íde’s complaints. She only set them down when they reached the top, where Maebhe was already out of Drys’ arms and covering her mouth to hide a laugh.
“Don’t,” Kieran warned her.
“Maebhe! It’s not funny!”
“We should be going,” Leihlani said, staring off into the trees, cutting Maebhe’s laughter short. “We have a long journey ahead of us, and I want to get further from the forest’s heart before nightfall.”
The small group walked all day, taking breaks only when they had to— when the orinians needed rest, that is. Drys seemed able to go on forever, and to Leihlani, their pace was no doubt a leisurely stroll. At night, after the orinians and Drys ate and Leihlani returned from scrounging up her own meal, the orinians set up their bedrolls at the base of a tree with weeping branches, small lights almost like stars at the end of each bough. They fell asleep to the sounds of the forest, some familiar, some new and terrifying, while Leihlani and Drys took turns keeping watch.
Lyryma was dangerous, after all, and many predators lurked in its shadows. The further they got from Home, the more dangerous it was.
In the morning, they packed their things while still half-asleep and pressed deeper into the forest. It wasn’t as frightening as any of them had imagined— Lyryma was lively and bright during the day, and none of the orinians had ever seen so many colors in one place. Red and orange flowers grew on the trees, the occasional petal falling like a leaf in autumn. The tall plants lining their path were wonderful blends of blues, purples, greens. The trees’ trunks— so thick that if all three of them joined hands, they wouldn’t be able to close their arms around one— were covered in creeping vines.
Even the shortest trees grew taller than Unity’s clock tower, and their collective canopy was so thick it completely blocked out the sky. Despite this, the forest was bright with light. Small flowers on the creeping vines glowed like the suns. The flowers’ lights surrounded the group from every direction, blinding them with the beauty of it.
Maebhe and Kieran alternated asking questions. “How do you tell time here?” Kieran asked.
“We don’t need to,” Leihlani said. “We only come out this far to hunt, and for that, we only need to know morning, evening, night.”
“That being said,” Drys interjected. “There are ways to tell. The flowers point east in the morning, west in the evening. It’s noon now, you see?”
Drys cupped one of the glowing flowers in their long fingers, Maebhe leaning forward to smell it, sneezing after one whiff. Drys laughed at her.
“Oh, that’s awful,” she said.
“You’re smelling pure sunlight. It’s not going to smell pleasant.”
“How does it work?” Maebhe asked.
“Magic,” Leihlani answered, simply.
Maebhe should have known not to expect a better answer. Everything in the forest was magic, according to Leihlani. The group tried to keep walking, but slowed when Leihlani didn’t follow.
“I think,” she began slowly, all ears swiveled in one direction, “We should hide.”
Leihlani picked Maebhe up, cutting off her question, and left the others to follow as she strode to a nearby fern. Leihlani pushed aside the wall of tall stalks and set Maebhe right at the plant’s center, then continuing to hold the stalks aside while Kieran, Íde, and Drys climbed in. This was the third time this had happened on the journey so far— Leihlani heard some approaching threat and made them hide. It never came to anything.
When they were all safely hidden, Leihlani perched outside of the plant’s tall stalks and crouched low, listening.
Maebhe elbowed Kieran. “Gross! What’s that smell?”
Kieran elbowed back, harder. “Fuck off! It’s not me!”
“It’s the plant,” Leihlani’s voice drifted in. “I didn’t want whatever’s coming to smell you. You have very strong scents.”
“She means you,” Kieran said to Maebhe.
“Oh, will you two be serious?” Íde asked, trying to hide her smile. Drys laughed, too, none of them worried that this alarm would be anything but false.
Soon, though, the orinians’ sharp ears picked up the sounds of the approaching creature as well. It started with the birds screeching as they left their perches, fleeing the danger. Then came the even thudding of the creature’s feet hitting the ground, accompanied by the rustle of plants and the cracking of branches as a large body moved through the brush.
“It walks on four legs,” Leihlani said, crouching lower, “And has three hearts. Two possibilities, then: one is harmless, and the other almost certainly means our deaths.”
Maebhe and Kieran exchanged worried looks. All they could see was the inside of the fern, but they heard the creature. It was close, now. Silence stretched on for what felt like forever. After what felt like ages, Leihlani’s voice came in a whisper. “It’s alright. Come out, if you want to see.”
Maebhe crept out of the fern first, followed by Kieran and Íde. All three of them froze at the sight of the creature before them. It was a great, shaggy thing nearly twice Leihlani’s height, probably the size of a tree in any normal forest. The orinians didn’t even come up to its knobby knees. It was shaped like a deer, only with different proportions— bigger hooves, a broader breastbone, and more antlers—two whole sets.
It might have been brown, but it was difficult to tell under the moss and vines that grew over its back. It swiveled its long neck to sniff in their direction, revealing a third eye on its forehead, watching for predators from above.
“What is that?” Ide asked.
“Haven’t you ever seen an elk?” Leihlani asked. “This one’s young yet. They’re usually bigger.”
“Bigger?” Maebhe repeated, not recognizing the high pitch of her own voice.
The creature lazily swiveled its head toward the group again, blinking at them. Suddenly, it tensed, ears flattening against its head as it stared off into the forest.
“Get down!” Leihlani yelled, just seconds before the elk leapt over their heads, racing into the forest with long strides that made the ground shake. Something else moved among the trees. All frozen in place, they watched for it, trying to catch a glimpse. It barely made any sound; Maebhe’s own beating heart was louder. But with the elk now gone, they could hear it: a jerking, uneven slither through the underbrush.
“It has no heartbeat,” Leihlani whispered.
Maebhe covered her nose – it wasn’t the plant, this time. There was a new scent. Something smelled like death.
There, between two branches— the tip of a wing. Then, low to the ground— a feather-tipped tail. Whatever it was seemed to be circling them. A long snout came out of the darkness, baring sharp teeth blackened with decay. Next was a slit-pupiled pair of glowing crimson eyes, followed by a long neck and scaly body. It was a dragon, larger than any of them had ever seen.
Across its breastbone was a wide, gaping wound. Where bone and fleshy muscle should have been visible beneath, there was instead a strange, glowing sort of magma, swirling across the surface and keeping the dragon from bleeding out.
Its scales were red.
“H-hello,” Maebhe stammered. “How do you do?”
The dragon opened its mouth. It looked like it was smiling, at first, but as it slowly opened its jaw wider and wider, they could see the glow of fire building at the back of its throat. Maebhe had forgotten this about the stories of the red dragons: it was said they could breathe fire.
“Drys!” Leihlani yelled.
Before Maebhe realized what was happening, Drys was sweeping her into their arms and taking off. Leihlani scooped Kieran and Íde up and dove out of the way seconds before a great jet of fire burst from the dragon’s maw. Maebhe could feel the heat of it as Drys carried her up and away.
The fire died out, and for a brief moment, there was silence before the tree the dragon hit began to creak a low protest. Maebhe looked down to see a wash of fire everywhere, scorching the ground and climbing up the vines of the trees. The dragon was looking right at them and it began to open its mouth again.
“Fly south! We’ll find you!” Leihlani shouted from somewhere among the flames.
“No!,” Maebhe cried, but Drys didn’t listen. They changed their direction middair and swept south, narrowly avoiding another jet of fire launched at them by the dragon. Maebhe could only hide her face in Drys’ shoulder and hold on tight as they wove through the trees.
It seemed like hours before Drys finally slowed, dipping lower and lower until they came to a stumbling stop. She knew it couldn’t have been that long, but neither fire nor dragon were anywhere to be seen, and they were alone.
“I can’t believe you just left them!” Maebhe yelled, moving as far from Drys in the small clearing as possible. She couldn’t breathe; her stomach had been tying into tighter and tighter knots the whole flight, and now her legs could no longer support her. She sank to the ground. Had Kieran made it out?
Drys blinked. “Leihlani told me to.”
“What if they needed our help?!”
“I needed my help, too. You can’t fault me for having a sense of self-preservation.”
“Yes, I can! And if they don’t make it out – because of your cowardice – I’ll kill you!” Maebhe turned to face pointedly away from Drys, hiding her face behind her hands.
“Oh, don’t be dramatic. With its size and wings, that creature won’t be able to travel very quickly in such a dense forest. Leihlani could outrun it easily.”
“What about the fire?” Maebhe asked without lowering her hands, her voice muffled.
“It’s been a damp summer. That fire won’t make it far. You know, Maebhe Cairn, I just saved your life. Some might say you now owe me.”
Maebhe gritted her teeth and went back to ignoring them. This was how the others found them, emerging from the woods just half an hour later, looking tired and beaten down. Leihlani walked with a limp and the smell of singed hair followed her.
Maebhe jumped up as soon as she saw them, throwing her arms around Kieran and Ide. “I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“Yeah, thanks for just leaving us like that,” Kieran said, the teasing half-hearted. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, thanks to Drys. What was that thing?”
“You saw it as well as the rest of us.”
“It was a red dragon,” Maebhe said. “But they’re supposed to be extinct! And this one, why did it smell like it had been dead for years?”
The group shared a dark look, then Leihlani said, “We should keep going. Get as far from that creature as possible.”
For once, not one of them complained.