A/N: Warning in this chapter for animal (large predator) death
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.”
He was right— but it wasn’t until they were nearly free of the forest that they ran into the next ridiculous thing. It started as a distant howl, then two. The sounds came from behind, from the stretch of forest they’d already left behind.
Roman stilled to listen, cocking his head to one side. When a howl sounded again, his eyes widened. He uttered one word: “Run!”
At this point, knowing better than to question Roman’s knowledge of Lyryma, the rest of the team took off running. They rushed through the underbrush, Ivor and Eftychia taking the lead and Roman and Evelyne bringing up the rear.
“Do you have extra weapons?” Roman asked Evelyne as they ran. “Leandros and I had to give ours up.”
Evelyne leaped over a tree root. It was smaller, almost normal-sized now that they were almost at the forest’s edge. “None for you,” she eventually snapped.
Evelyne shot him a look, half-annoyed and half-exasperated. “Ask Ivor. Leandros can have my pistol, but I need my sword.”
Roman cupped his hands over his mouth and called, “Ivor!”
It was drowned out by another howl, this one coming from much closer behind them. Roman cursed under his breath and ground to a stop. “We’re not going to outrun them! We’ll have to fight!”
Evelyne stopped as well, tossing her pistol case to Leandros even as she drew her sword. “What are we dealing with?” she asked.
“Big cats,” Roman answered. “Of a kind, anyway.”
Leandros cast his eyes about the small clearing they’d stopped in, spotting a tangle of roots nearby, grown to twist up and over each other. That left a small burrow beneath the oldest roots and the ground.
“Thea, Eresh, go hide among those roots. Don’t come out until we give the word,” Leandros called.
Thea nodded, grabbed Eresh’s hand, and dragged him toward the roots. The two of them had to crawl on their elbows to fit into the burrow, but it kept them safely out of the way.
“Ivor,” Roman ordered, his call again clashing with a nearby howl. “Give me a sword.”
“I need them both,” Ivor said.
“You only have one working arm! You shouldn’t even be joining this fight!”
Around them, the howling had 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.”
“I wasn’t about to,” Roman said, turning to face the forest with the rest of the team. They stood back to back in a tight circle, watching dark shapes and golden eyes move in the forest around them.
A low growl came from Roman’s left. There was a flash of movement in the corner of his vision, then something rocketed past him on his right. Evelyne sliced at it with her sword, but fast as she was, it dodged and barreled toward her, knocking her to the ground.
“Watch out for the fangs!” Roman called. “They’re poisonous!”
Roman couldn’t waste any more time worrying about Evelyne. Another dark shape prowled out of the forest, this one circling him slowly, waiting for an opening. In the darkness, Roman could make out a cat-like form with far too many limbs, nearly the size of a pony. Roman held his sword ready, daring it to charge.
With Eftychia’s help, Evelyne managed to throw the first creature off her, sending it flying toward the second. Evelyne climbed to her feet, holding her arm close as if she’d injured it. Meanwhile, a third and fourth cat entered the clearing.
Roman had never seen so many of them in one place, and definitely never so close to the forest’s edge. Was it fear of the new monsters in the forest that brought them out this far?
The clearing erupted into chaos when the first cat pounced. Eftychia just barely managed to dodge its claws and was far too slow with her counterattack – the cat twisted around her and nipped at Ivor instead, catching and tearing the leg of his trousers. Behind Roman, Leandros readied his pistol and fired a shot, narrowly missing the cat attacking Ivor. It got the creature to back off, at least, the others widening their circle.
“Damn,” Leandros muttered. “I’d hoped the sound might make them run.”
“How are they so fast?” Eftychia asked.
At the edge of the clearing, Thea screamed.
A fifth cat stood on the roots Thea and Eresh hid under, clawing at the wood. Evelyne took a step toward it, but Roman grabbed her by the wrist. “Don’t break the circle! Leandros has this.”
“Get off me!” Evelyne yelled, shaking him free.
This time, Leandros’ shot found its mark. The bullet struck the creature’s torso, making it fall from its perch on the tree roots. Another cat snarled, then three of them lunged at once.
They weren’t going to win this fight. Roman knew it. The shaari were the fiercest predators in Lyryma; just one would be hard to beat, especially tired and injured as they all were, and they were facing four.
He couldn’t spare a glance for how the others were faring. The sounds of fighting continued behind him, but his focus was on the cat ahead. It had stopped several feet away and watched him with its large, luminous eyes, its pupils wide in the darkness. Someone behind him let out a pained cry. Roman knew without looking that it was Leandros.
Roman gasped. He felt a twinge, an uneasy churning in his gut, and then the telltale tension behind his eyes.
It was happening again. He was losing control.
He blinked, and his vision sharpened – the way it always did when his eyes changed. He could make out the individual fur on the cat’s coat, could see through the shadows as if it were broad daylight.
Then, something unexpected happened. The cat in front of him hissed, its ears flattening to its head and its shoulders hunching to make it look smaller. It took several cautious steps away from Roman, made a soft, placating chuffing noise, then turned and ran back into the forest, the other cats following with their tails between their legs.
“What the fuck?” Ivor asked, breathless.
Roman blinked, his vision swiftly returning to normal. Did that happen because of…him?
He turned to look at the rest of the group, finding them all in various states of disarray. Ivor’s clothing was torn, Evelyne had scratches all down her arms, and Leandros was on the ground, looking unharmed but not entirely sure how he got there.
“Is everyone alright?” Roman asked.
Leandros nodded, Evelyne shrugged and glanced over her injuries, and Eftychia skipped over to help Thea and Eresh shuffle their way out of the burrow.
“It didn’t bite you, did it?” Roman asked.
“No,” Evelyne said. “Just scratched.”
“Why did they run?” Leandros asked, climbing to his feet.
“Who knows,” Roman said, a little too quickly. “Let’s just get moving before they come back.”
The rest of the walk was mercifully quiet. When they finally reached the edge of Lyryma, they emerged onto an empty road.
“I told the team to move on without us. Figured we wanted to get as far from Home as possible,” Evelyne explained. “We’ll just have to hurry to catch up.”
With that, she started down the tight-packed path, not waiting for the others to follow. Thea smiled at Roman and Leandros, then jogged after Evelyne until they were walking side by side.
“More walking,” Ivor grumbled. “At least I’m starting to get feeling back in my arm.”
They all followed after Evelyne and Thea, too tired to speak much – except Eftychia, who tapped a finger to her lips and asked, “Mr. Hallisey, what were those creatures called?”
Roman blinked. “Shaari. Why?”
“That’ll be your new nickname!” Eftychia chirped. “Shaari.”
Leandros laughed, a soft, genuine sound, and Roman decided he didn’t even need an explanation, so long as it made Leandros smile like that.