A/N: Warning in this chapter for animal (large predator) death
The small rescue team 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 told the rest of the group, conversationally. “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, find a place to wait out the night and hope nothing finds us before the sun rises,” Roman answered.
“It doesn’t seem so bad,” Ivor said.
“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. “I mean, why not…I don’t know, literally anywhere else?”
“Lyryma is a good place to hide,” Roman answered, simply.
As they traveled west, guided only by an old compass Ivor had brought with him, Roman felt a tightness in his chest, a string tied to his ribcage tugging him back, deeper into the forest. It made him almost sick with the force of its pull, but the others didn’t seem to notice, walking far ahead of him and chatting as they went.
To Roman, it felt 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. He tried to shake the feeling, but he couldn’t.
“It must be poisonous,” he heard Eftychia say. It pulled him from his thoughts, and he looked up to see a large, insect-like creature flying above him on wings like a dragonfly’s. But it was shaped more like a centipede, with just as many legs, and it moved through the air like a snake through water. “Just look at it’s colors!”
“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. “Otherwise, it’s harmless. 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.
They came across a fallen tree, next, the bulk of its trunk too wide to easily climb over. Instead, they had to break course to move around it, climbing up and over gnarled roots draped with moss and ivy. Its wood had begun to rot, one of the roots creaking a warning under Thea’s weight.
Leandros, who’d already made his way back to solid ground, helped her down. And 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 west 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 wandered upstream to where the bank was at its narrowest and the water its shallowest, jumping from rock to rock where he could and wading through warm waters where he couldn’t. Seeing that the water never got higher than Roman’s knees, the others reluctantly followed, Thea sighing and holding her skirts up as she did.
The only one who didn’t follow was Evelyne. She unclipped her sword and pistol from her belt and tossed them to Ivor before wading directly into the water downstream, where it was deep enough to reach her chest.
“Atuos be blessed, for this,” she said, her gentle voice drifting to them over the stream’s bubbling like a distant song. “If I had to walk with that mud caked all over me for five more steps, I would have killed something.”
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. “The mud is starting to dry and it itches.”
Before he could take a single step back toward the stream, though, Roman caught him by the leg of his trousers and stopped him. “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 did immediately, sinking into the water until only her eyes and nose were 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 of them floating 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. Drawn by the sound and the movement, the strange drifting spores changed course, floating directly toward Ivor – and by proxy, the rest of the group seated on the beach.
Evelyne shut her eyes. The rest of the group tensed, expecting the spores to collide with them, but then a low whistle picked up. It was Eresh, whistling lowly, a strange vibrato running an undercurrent through the tune.
Somehow, instead of being drawn to it, the spores changed course and drifted away, moving faster than before. Eresh continued whistling until the spores were far upstream, the rest of the group holding their breath in anticipation.
“How did you do that?” Roman asked, once they were gone entirely.
“A dryad’s song,” Eresh said. “We have some control over nature – you know, simple things like singing a plant to bloom. 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 by 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, then, 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.”
It wasn’t until they were nearly at the edge of the wood that they ran into the next ridiculous thing. It started in the form of one distant howl, then two – coming from behind, from the treks of forest they’d already left behind. Roman stilled to listen, then uttered one word: “Run!“
At this point, knowing better than to question Roman’s knowledge of Lyryma, the rest of the team didn’t hesitate to obey.They rushed through the underbrush, Ivor and Thea 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 – they were getting smaller the closer the team came to Lyryma’s border. “None for you,” she eventually snapped.
Evelyne shot him a look, half-annoyed and half-exasperated. “Ask Ivor. Leandros can use my pistol, but I need my sword.”
Roman cupped his hands over his mouth and called, “Ivor!” just as another howl came from behind, much closer this time. Cursing under his breath, Roman ground to a stop. “We’re not going to outrun them! We’ll have to fight!”
Beside Roman. Evelyne stopped as well, tossing her pistol case to Leandros even as she drew her sword. 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 in the roots, there. 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 clashing with a nearby howl. “Give me a sword.”
“I need them both,” Ivor said.
“You only have one working arm! What are you doing trying to fight, anyway? You should be with Thea and Eresh!”
Around them, the howling had stopped. The team shared wary looks, and Ivor hurriedly passed one of the swords strapped to his back 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 his left, and then there came a flash of movement in the corner of Roman’s vision as something came rocketing toward him, dashing past him on the right. Evelyne sliced at it with her sword, but it swept out of the way 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 worry on her, though, because another dark shape was prowling 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 slowly to her feet, holding her arm close as if she’d injured it. Meanwhile, a third and fourth cat entered the clearing.
“I’ve never seen so many of them in one place,” Roman breathed. “And definitely never so close to the forest’s edge.”
The clearing erupted into motion as the first cat pounced. Eftychia just barely managed to dodge its claws, and was far too slow with her own attack – the cat twisted around her and nipped at Ivor instead, catching and tearing his trousers. Behind Roman, Leandros readied Evelyne’s pistol and fired a shot, narrowly missing the cat attacking Ivor. It got the creature to back off, at least, the other cats widening their circle.
“Damn,” Leandros muttered. “I thought the sound might make them run.”
“How are they so fast?” Eftychia asked.
Across the clearing, someone screamed, and Roman looked over to see a fifth cat standing on the roots Thea and Eresh were hiding under, clawing at the wood. Evelyne took a step toward it, but Roman grabbed her wrist to stop her. “Don’t break the circle! Leandros?”
“I’ve got it,” Leandros said, already aiming the gun. This time, his shot found its mark, striking the creature and making it fall from its perch on the tree roots.
Another cat snarled, and 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 all of Lyryma; just one would be hard to beat, especially tired and injured as they all were, and they were facing four.
The sounds of fighting continued on behind him, but his focus was on the cat ahead. It had stopped several feet away and was watching him with its large, luminous eyes, its pupils wide in the darkness. There came a pained grunt behind him, the sound definitely coming from Leandros.
Roman resisted the urge to turn and look. But he felt a twinge, a light tug at his heart, and then 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 at him, 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 not entirely sure how he got there.
“Is everyone alright?” Roman asked.
Leandros nodded, Evelyne shrugged. Eftychia hurried over to check her injuries. Thea and Eresh shuffled their way back 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, hoping he didn’t sound too frantic. “Let’s just get moving before they come back.”
As the team moved on, Roman couldn’t help but glance back at the clearing. The shaari only would have ventured out this far if they were hungry, but then that begged the question: what happened to their food source?
Not long after that, they finally reached the edge of Lyryma and emerged onto an empty road. Evelyne nodded down the road, “Let’s go just a little further. I figured we wanted to get as far from Home as possible, so I told the team to move on without us. 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, all too tired to speak – all 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.”
“My what?” Roman stopped walking.
Leandros laughed, a soft, genuine sound, and Roman found he didn’t even need an explanation.