A/N: Warning for some violence
The small group pressed into the darkened wood, the sounds of Home and its still-ringing alarm bells soon being swallowed by the night. Lyryma itself was far from silent – crickets chirped amidst the rustle of wind in the high trees and the scuttling of small animals. In the distance, if they listened closely, they could hear more ominous sounds – the crack of branches crushed beneath the weight of something heavy, a low whistling growl caused by something decidedly inhuman.
“This is a bad idea,” Roman warned the others. “There’s a reason they say you shouldn’t travel this forest at night.”
“And what do you propose we do?” Evelyne asked with a sneer thrown over her shoulder. “Head back to Home and ask us if they’ll spare a room for the night?”
“No, we should find a place to wait out the night and hope nothing finds us before the sun rises,” Roman answered.
“If we do that, the oanai will find us,” Evelyne snapped.
As if on cue, a the clear call of a hunting horn cut through the forest. Roman cringed.
“Quit arguing and move faster,” Leandros said.
Even at a quicker pace, it was slow going. The dense foliage rose out of the darkness to block their way, cutting their faces and clothing. Leandros and Eftychia, at the front of the group, had the worst of it.
“This doesn’t seem so dangerous,” Ivor said, after a while. “Just annoying.”
“Have you ever been here before today?” Roman asked.
“Then stop talking and listen to someone who used to live here.”
This time, it was Thea who looked over her shoulder at Roman, her eyes bright in the faint moonlight shining down through the trees. “You used to live here? Why?” she asked, then wrinkled her nose. “Sorry if that’s a rude question. I just mean, why not…I don’t know, literally anywhere else?”
“Lyryma is a good place to hide,” Roman answered simply.
They traveled west, guided only by an old compass Ivor had brought with him. Surprisingly, they didn’t hear the oanai’s horns again; perhaps Home decided it wasn’t worth it to chase them, or perhaps it was their newfound fear of the things in the forest that stopped them.
Roman rubbed his chest, frowning. It felt tight. It felt like a string was tied to his ribcage, trying to tug him back, deeper into the forest. The further they traveled, the more insistent it grew, the call vibrating through his chest until he felt almost sick with it.
The others didn’t seem to notice, walking far ahead of him and chatting as they went.
To Roman, it seemed as if the forest watched his every move. It was the same twisted, niggling presence that tormented him in his dreams, or when his darkness took over. It was both a part of him and apart from him, hovering over his shoulder, whispering in his ear to just let go.
He slowed to a stop. The feeling grew stronger.
“It must be poisonous! Just look at its colors!” Eftychia said from up ahead, snapping him out of it. The shadows around him receded, that strange call of the forest dimming to a low hum.
He looked up to see a large, insect-like creature flying above him on wings like a dragonfly’s. It was shaped more like a centipede, with just as many legs, and it moved through the air like a snake through water.
“Poisonous?” Thea squeaked, trying to keep as much distance between the insect and herself as possible, hiding behind Leandros to do so.
“It’s only poisonous if you eat it, Thea,” Roman said. “Do you plan on eating it?”
“As if!” Thea said. She watched the insect go and shuddered. “I hate bugs.”
“We’ll run into more before we’re out of here,” Evelyne said, passing under the creature without even looking at it.
In time, they came across a fallen tree, the bulk of its trunk too wide to easily climb over. They had to break course to move around it, climbing up, over, and through gnarled roots draped with moss and ivy. Its wood had begun to rot, one of the thick roots creaking a warning under Thea’s weight.
Leandros, who’d already finished the climb, helped her, catching her by the waist while she held his shoulders and setting her back on solid ground. Once they were all past the unexpected obstruction, they paused long enough to catch their breaths— and to hear the faint gurgle of a stream running over rocks.
They came upon the stream – bigger and deeper than expected – before long, finding that it cut directly across their path.
“I don’t remember this from the way in,” Ivor said, sharing a look with Evelyne.
“That’s because it veers east just north of here,” Roman said. “You probably managed to go around it. If any oanai are following us, they’ll be expecting us to go around, too. I say we just cut through.”
He surveyed the length of the bank that was visible to him and then wandered upstream to where it was at its narrowest and the water its shallowest. He was able to hop from rock to rock for a distance; where that was no longer possible, he waded easily through the warm waters.
Watching and seeing that the water never got higher than Roman’s knees, the others reluctantly followed. Eftychia splashed Ivor, who didn’t so much as blink, and Thea clutched her skirts to herself, trying to keep the hem from getting wet.
The only one didn’t follow was Evelyne. She stopped halfway across the stream and unclipped her sword and pistol from her belt, handing them to Ivor without explanation. Then, she waded downstream, stopping only when the water hit her waist.
“Ms. Corscia?” Eresh asked.
“Give me just a minute,” Evelyne said, her gentle voice drifting to them over the stream’s bubbling like a distant song. “The mud is starting to dry, and it itches. We won’t have a chance to bathe until we reach Illyon, so at least let me get it out of my hair.”
She bent to rinse her long hair in the water, its bright red appearing almost black in the darkness. Roman settled on the bank to wait for her to finish, Leandros sitting beside him.
“I might have to join her,” Eresh said. “It will be some time until we can bathe properly, won’t it? Oh, but do I really want to walk through this forest dripping wet?”
Before he could take a single step toward the stream, though, Roman caught him by the leg of his trousers. “Don’t move. Don’t even speak,” he said. Raising his voice to be heard over the stream, he called, “Evelyne, get down!”
To her credit, Evelyne obeyed immediately, sinking into the water until only the top half of her head was visible.
“They’re attracted to sound and movement. Don’t let them touch you,” Roman said.
Before anyone could ask what he meant, the first of “them” appeared. They would have looked like the drifting seeds of a scattered dandelion, had they not been the size of a human hand and glowing faintly. There were only a few, to start, but they kept coming and kept coming until there were dozens floated through the air, illuminating the forest around them.
Slowly, curiously, Ivor reached up toward one. He touched it with just the tip of his littlest finger; a spark flared and Ivor gasped in pain, his arm falling to his side like a dead weight. The strange pores around them instantly changed course, swiveling toward Ivor— and by proxy, the rest of the group seated on the bank.
Evelyne shut her eyes. Everyone else watched, frozen, while the pores drifted closer. Just before they collided with the group, a low whistle picked up. It was Eresh, whistling lowly, an unusual vibrato running an undercurrent through the tune.
Somehow, instead of being drawn to it, the spores changed course. They drifted over the stream, Evelyne dipping a little lower as they passed over her, and into the forest. Eresh continued whistling until the spores were out of sight, and only then did the group let out a collective sigh of relief.
“There, see? I’m not entirely useless,” Eresh said, all too smugly.
“No one said you were,” Leandros assured him. “Especially not now.”
“How did you do that?” Roman asked.
“It’s a dryad’s song,” Eresh said. “A parlor trick, really. We have some little control over nature – you know, simple things like getting a plant to quit drooping. I thought that if those things were plant based, I might be able to move them.”
“I’m glad you were,” Roman said, pushing to his feet. “I was stuck for hours in a pollen storm like that, once.”
“And you pushed this one toward Home, Eresh!” Eftychia said, patting Eresh’s mud-caked shoulder. “Good job! If anyone really was after us, they’ll have some trouble following, now!”
“What about my arm?” Ivor asked. He tried moving it, but it still hung limply at his side.
“I told you not to let them touch you,” Roman snapped. “I wouldn’t have said that for nothing.”
Ivor sighed. “Yes, yes, I’ll be sure to listen next time. But my arm – is it stuck like this?”
“It’ll wear off in a few hours.”
Evelyne joined them on the bank, squeezing the excess water out of her hair and shirt as she went. “If we run into one more ridiculous thing in this Atiuh-damned forest,” she muttered, snatching her sword and pistol from Ivor’s good hand, “I’m going to be very upset.”
Roman grinned, the expression frightening in the darkness. “Prepare to be upset, then.”
Roman was right.
By the time the next bit of trouble found them, they’d passed through enough of Lyryma that the forest had begun to change around them. Trees were that much smaller, the dense humidity had lightened, and more moonlight had begun to show through sparser canopies. The trouble started as a distant howl, then increased to two. The team quickened their pace, but when the sound came again, it came from much closer behind.
Roman strained to listen, cocking his head to one side. The howls carried a strange, distinct vibrato through the air — it was a sound that belonged to no ordinary animal. Roman couldn’t help but feel he’d heard it before.
His eyes widened and he yelled: “Run!”
Knowing better than to doubt Roman’s knowledge of the forest by now, the others immediately took off running. As a group, they crashed messily through the underbrush, Ivor and Eftychia taking the lead while Roman and Evelyne slowed to bring up the rear.
“Evelyne, do you have extra weapons?” Roman called, breathless. “They made me and Leandros give ours up.”
Evelyne leaped over a tree root as she ran. It was a normal size, at least, not the massive, twisting roots of Lyryma. They neared the edge of the forest, now, and came closer to it every second.
Evelyne spared Roman an exasperated glance. “None for you,” she snapped.
Evelyne huffed. “Ask Ivor. Leandros can have my pistol, but I only have one sword.”
Roman cupped his hands over his mouth and called Ivor’s name. It was drowned out by another howl, though, this one coming from the distant forest, somewhere to Roman’s left. Roman cursed under his breath and ground to a stop. Close as they were to the forest’s edge, it wasn’t close enough. “We can’t outrun them! We have to fight!”
Evelyne slowed as well, tossing her pistol case to Leandros and drawing her sword. “What are we dealing with?” she asked Roman.
“If I’m right…big cats,” Roman said. “Of a kind, anyway.”
He looked around the small clearing they’d ended up in, less than ideal terrain for a fight. Dense foliage cast shadows on all sides, making it hard to see anyone — or anything — the might come at them. Roman’s gaze caught on a tangle of roots at the edge of the clearing. They’d grown to twist up and over each other, forming a small burrow between themselves and the ground.
Leandros noticed the burrow as well, saying, “Thea, Eresh, go hide under there. Don’t come out until we give the word.”
Thea nodded, grabbed Eresh’s wrist, and dragged him to the tangle of roots. They had to crawl on their elbows to fit in the burrow, but it kept them out of the way.
“Ivor,” Roman said, his call again clashing with a nearby howl. This one seemed to come from just outside the circle of moonlight that shone on their clearing. “Give me a sword.”
“I need them both.”
“You only have one working arm! You shouldn’t even be fighting with us!”
Around them, the howling stopped. The team shared wary looks, and Ivor hurriedly passed one of his swords to Roman. “You can have one,” he said, “But I’m more than capable of fighting one-handed. Don’t worry about me.”
“Wasn’t about to,” Roman said, testing the grip of the unfamiliar blade. Beyond the clearing, he could make out the glint of golden eyes, of dark shapes circling, watching.
A growl came from Roman’s right. Before he could even turn his head, there was a flurry of movement and a large mass shot past him. Evelyne sliced at it, but fast as she was, it dodged and redirected, barreling toward her. It knocked her to the ground, her sword falling from her grasp.
“Watch out for the fangs!” Roman called. “They’re venomous!”
“Would’ve been nice to know sooner,” Evelyne grunted, struggling to keep the creature’s sharp teeth away from her face.
Before Roman could move to help, another dark shape prowled out of the bushes. This one was content to only circle the group, waiting for an opening. In the darkness, Roman could only make out a catlike form — nearly as large as a horse — with too many limbs. Roman raised his sword, daring it to charge.
With Eftychia’s help by way of a swift kick, Evelyne managed to throw the first creature off her even as a third entered the clearing. Evelyne stood, holding her arm close as if she’d injured it.
Roman’s heart sank. He had never seen so many of these cats in one place, and definitely never this close to the edge of the forest. Was it fear of monsters like that red dragon that brought them out this far?
All at once, the cats pounced and the clearing erupted into chaos. Evelyne leaped out of the way as the cat she’d just thrown off charged at her while Eftychia barely managed to avoid another’s claws. The orinian swiped back at it with a large knife, landing a thin slice to one of its front legs. The creature snarled and nipped at Ivor instead, catching and tearing the leg of his trousers when he didn’t dodge in time. Behind Roman, Leandros readied his pistol and fired a shot, narrowly missing the cat attacking Ivor.
“Damn,” he hissed. “I’d hoped the sound might spook them.”
It was enough to make them temporarily back off, at least. The cats all resumed their circling, this time keeping a cautious distance from the group of humans.
“They’re so fast,” Eftychia said, her delicate features pulled into a hard expression.
While the five of them watched the circling creatures, at the other end of the clearing, Eresh screamed. A fifth cat stood on the roots Thea and Eresh hid under. Thea had procured a stick from somewhere and was poking at it through the roots in an attempt to push it away, but it didn’t seem to be doing much. Evelyne took a step toward them as if to help, but Roman caught her by the wrist, stopping her.
“Don’t break the circle.”
Evelyne tore her hand free. “Don’t touch me!”
On her other side, Leandros took aim. This time, his shot found its mark. The bullet struck the creature, making it fall from its precarious perch atop the roots. It snarled as it righted itself, and the four other cats lunged.
Roman dodged claws, danced out of the way of another cat, and somehow ended up fighting back-to-back with Evelyne, their careful circle broken. He couldn’t see how the others fared, but their odds worried him. These were shaari, some of the fiercest predators in Lyryma. Just one would be hard to kill, especially tired as they all were, and they faced five. They couldn’t possibly win.
Ahead of him, one of the cats watched him with large, luminous eyes, its pupils wide in the darkness. Someone behind him let out a pained grunt — Roman knew without looking that it was Leandros — and a cat snarled. Roman felt cold. He couldn’t do this: couldn’t die here like this, watching his teammates — watching Leandros — die with him.
He gasped. Something shifted within him, an uneasy churning. The strange sensation he’d felt earlier — the feeling of being watched, of something calling him back into the forest — increased tenfold as he began to transform. It started with his eyes and his hands. His vision sharpened, the way it always did when he lost control. He could see each individual hair on the cat’s coat, could see through the shadows as if it were broad daylight.
Then, something unexpected happened. The cat hissed, its ears flattening to its head. It backed away from Roman and made a soft, placating chuffing noise before disappearing into the forest, the other cats following with their tails between their legs.
“What the fuck?” Ivor asked breathlessly.
Roman blinked, his vision returning to normal. Did they leave because of him?
He turned to take in the rest of the group, finding them all in various states of disarray. Ivor’s clothing was torn, Evelyne had a shallow cut all down the length of her arm, and Leandros was on the ground, looking disgruntled but unharmed.
“Is everyone alright?” Roman asked.
Evelyne shrugged and glanced over her injuries. Leandros nodded, and Eftychia turned to help him up, saying, “This is just like Gallontea, Lion Cub!” before skipping over to help Thea and Eresh wiggle out of their burrow.
“It didn’t bite you, did it?” Roman asked Evelyne.
“It’s just a scratch,” Evelyne said, voice flat.
“Why did they run?” Leandros asked.
“Who knows!” Roman said, a little too quickly. It earned him curious looks from the others. “Let’s just get moving before they come back.”
“That, I can agree with,” Ivor said.
Dusting themselves off and putting away their weapons, they set off again. They’d only walked a few minutes, though, before Evelyne stopped with a groan, her hand flying to the wound on her arm. Her breathing was labored, her expression twisted in pain.
“Evelyne,” Roman said slowly. He eyed Evelyne’s arm, where she hid the bulk of the wound behind her hand. What he could see of her arm was flushed red. “Let me see.”
“It’s fine,” Evelyne snapped.
“It’s not. It bit you, didn’t it?”
“Oh!’ Thea gasped, covering her mouth with a hand. “Oh no. Roman, there’s a cure, isn’t there? An antidote, or— or something?”
“You think if there is, that I have it with me now?” Roman asked, a little testily. “I can’t do anything if she doesn’t even let me see.”
“Evelyne…” Thea said while the others watched the exchange with grim expressions.
“Oh, come! Please let him see! He might be able to help!” Eftychia pleaded.
With a sigh, Evelyne lowered her hand. Thea gasped again and Roman winced sympathetically. Where there had only been a long but shallow cut before, Evelyne’s lean arm had now swollen to twice its size, the cut itself raised and an angry red. “It’s not…it didn’t bite me. One of the teeth just grazed my arm,” she said.
Waiting first for Evelyne’s permission, Roman lifted her arm to study the wound more closely. Evelyne watched him with wide, wary eyes, reminding Roman of a young girl he’d met on Unity Island a long time ago. He sighed. “You’re lucky. If it had actually bitten you, it definitely would’ve been too late. With a cut this shallow, the venom hasn’t had a chance to spread far.”
“You can help her?” Eftychia asked, bouncing on her heels. Evelyne said nothing, just watched Roman with the same wary expression.
“Don’t get your hopes up. Her chances would be better if she’d told me right away,” Roman said. “Eftychia, I need you to find a plant for me. I think I saw some growing about fifty yards back. It has a rosette of oval-shaped leaves and long, pointed green flowers growing from the base. Take Ivor with you in case you run into trouble. Bring me as many leaves as you can.”
Eftychia nodded and darted away while Roman turned to Evelyne. “Sit. Keep the wound below your heart. The rest of you, keep watch. We can’t risk anything sneaking up on us.”
Roman knelt beside Evelyne and studied the wound again. The swelling was an ugly thing, bulbous and uneven. Compared to that, the cut itself seemed like nothing.
“Why are you doing this?” Evelyne asked, her voice quiet enough that only the two of them could hear. “If you just let me die, you’ll spare us both from me having to kill you later.”
Roman hesitated. If it had been any of the other Enforcers, he knew he wouldn’t have gone to this trouble. If they’d died, he would’ve considered it one less thing to worry about. When he didn’t say anything, Evelyne continued. “I will kill you. Leandros, too. Those are my orders. You know I can’t disobey.”
“I know,” Roman said, keeping his eyes lowered, focused on the wound. He smiled. “That sounds like a problem for the Roman and Evelyne of the future.”
Evelyne scowled. “If you had any sense, you’d let me die.”
“I have no sense, then,” Roman said. Louder, to the rest of the group, he asked, “Does anyone have anything I can use as a bandage?”
Leandros shook his head. Thea looked down at her skirt and sighed. “I think I do. Nobody look.”
Roman, Leandros, and Eresh turned away, but Evelyne frowned. “You don’t have to—,” she began, but Thea had already lifted the corner of her skirt and was tearing a long strip out of it, revealing the edge of lacy bloomers underneath. Evelyne whipped her head in the opposite direction, a blush rising to her cheeks.
“Don’t let your heart rate get too high,” Roman said with a smirk. “It’ll spread the poison.”
Eftychia and Ivor returned before she could inflict any sort of bodily harm on him, their hands full of round, veiny leaves.
“Here you are,” Eftychia said, dumping the leaves in Roman’s lap. “Is our dear grizzly’s situation terribly dire?”
“I told you not to call me that,” Evelyne grumbled.
Instead of answering Eftychia, Roman stuffed one of the leaves in his mouth and began to chew. The rest of the team, circled around him and Evelyne now, stared. Then, Roman leaned down and sat the chewed-up leaf on Evelyne’s arm. She screeched and jerked, trying to pull away, but Roman held her arm still.
“Don’t complain,” he told her. “This will help.”
Evelyne wrinkled her nose and looked away.
“What is it?” Eftychia asked, crouching beside them and resting her chin in her hands. “Some magic Lyryma plant?”
Roman snorted. “Hardly. It’s a common weed, grows all over the continent. But since this one grew in Lyryma, it should be more potent. It’ll isolate the venom and draw it out of the wound.”
“Oh,” Eftychia said, eyes wide. “Interesting.”
Roman shoved a leaf at her. “Instead of talking, help. We have to cover the entire cut.”
Eftychia picked the leaf up delicately between two fingers and eyed it a moment before putting it in her mouth. Within a few minutes, they had the wound covered and already, the swelling had begun to go down.
“Thea,” Roman said, holding his hand out for the makeshift bandage strip. He packed the leaves carefully into the wound and tied the bandage around them, keeping them in place.
“Is that all? That’ll help her?” Leandros asked. When Roman nodded, he said, “Can we keep going, or do we need to wait for it to start working?”
“We can keep going, but someone will need to carry Evelyne. Physical exertion will make the venom spread, and right now, we need to give our little antidote a chance to work,” Roman said. To Evelyne, he added, “I’m guessing you don’t want me to do it?”
“I’d rather kill myself by walking,” Evelyne confirmed.
“I’ll do it!” Thea volunteered, hardly giving anyone else a chance to do so. Not that they would have — Evelyne was lean and barely over five feet, easy to carry, but being so close to her when she was already in a foul mood was something they had the good sense to avoid. Evelyne looked mortified as Thea helped her up, then hoisted her onto her back, barely seeming to strain under the weight.
Mercifully, the rest of the journey was quiet. When they finally emerged from the forest in the early hours of the morning, they found the road they’d been traveling on empty as far as they could see in either direction.
“I told the team to move on without us. I figured we’d want to be as far from Home as possible,” Evelyne said, mumbling into Thea’s shoulder. “We’ll have to hurry to catch up. Can I walk yet?”
Now free of the forest, the temporary camaraderie that had sprouted between Roman, Leandros, and the Enforcers faded. Roman could feel the distance between them grow, and he let it. The Enforcers weren’t allies. Thinking of them as such would only end in pain.
Roman waved a hand. “The poultice has probably done its trick. You can put her down, Thea.”
Thea pouted at Roman but put Evelyne down. As they started down the hard-packed road, they kept quiet for the most part, too tired to speak. Eventually, though, it was Eftychia that broke the silence. “Mr. Hallisey, do you know what those creatures we faced are called?”
Roman blinked. “Shaari. Why?”
“That’ll be your new nickname!” she said. “Shaari. It’s perfect!”
Leandros laughed. It was a soft, warm sound, and Roman decided he didn’t even need an explanation, so long as it made Leandros smile like that.