Bayl went ahead of us, the soft lavender glow of the chunk of quartz I’d enchanted spilling out from between the fingers of his upraised left hand. His feet made almost no sound as they compressed the soft, rich loam. His broad back slid to one side, then the other, casting long, monstrous shadows as he ducked and danced around branches strung with rope-like vines and bearded moss.
Guthay was blind here, the moon’s warm, golden light lost in the upper reaches of the forest canopy. Without my magic, even my half-elven eyes would have been useless in such deep gloom.
Enamdis strode by my side, stiff-backed, her strong, beautiful face still set in an expression of mingled anger and worry and the fathomless love I had only ever seen on my mother’s face. Unlike Bayl, she made no attempt at stealth. She seemed almost to take satisfaction in smashing aside any errant branch that crossed her path, tearing down any dangling creeper that sought to entangle her. Young saplings, doomed to a slow death anyway in the murky gloom of the forest floor, died in splintered ruin under her heavy-booted feet.
I had tied my robe up around my hips to stop it from becoming snagged amid the undergrowth, but I still had to scramble to keep up. I had recovered most of my old strength in the days since Bayl had rescued me from the sand devils, but I am not tall even by human standards, let alone long-legged enough to keep pace easily with a mul and a half-giant. Besides, I’ve never had much opportunity to wander through thick forest like this. Vines and branches seemed to claw at me, and my face, arms and legs bled from a dozen shallow but painful cuts. The forest no longer felt quite so majestic, and I was already beginning to curse my earlier moment of foolish romanticism: the sooner my husband’s slaves hacked this awful place into so much lumber, the better!
Bayl halted abruptly, and I nearly stumbled into him. “The birds have stopped,” he whispered.
“Dragon’s balls!” Enamdis swore under her breath.
It was true: the incessant, discordant chorus of chirps and howls and screeches that was the cadence of the Crescent Forest’s sleeping breath had ceased. Even the night wind’s soft rustle in the branches overhead had faded into silence.
It was as though the forest was waiting, expectantly.
“There’s a clearing just ahead, I think,” Bayl said, still keeping his voice low as he set off once more.
The heat of the day had faded hours before, but the sweat that tricked down my back had nothing to do with the temperature. The forest wasn’t just waiting, it was watching us, with a thousand thousand eyes. For all that I knew spirits were mere shadows of life, echoes of the world’s fundamental elements given a rudimentary sentience, laughably weak in the face of true sorcery, that did nothing to stop my growing sense of panic. Here, in the dark, deathly silence of the forest, I could understand why Gulgan savages such as Chanya feared them so. For the spirits did not merely observe with the impassive serenity of an uncaring world. The countless unseen eyes burned with a hatred that stabbed through my heart with a hundred knives of ice-hot steel.
My companions felt the usual fear of the unknown, of unseen terrors in the night, but this was different. This was… personal. The wind no longer whispered through the trees, but the trees themselves whispered all the same. They whispered the name: Defiler.
“I should not have come,” I gasped. The forest’s hatred was a physical thing, a fist crushing the breath from my chest, the thoughts from my skull. I staggered and fell, and the stone-hard roots that made up the forest floor seemed to leap up like a rabid dog to bite at my limbs. I cried out as they scraped the skin from my limbs. My blood smeared across the roots, dark and glistening in the purple light.
Bayl hauled me to my feet. “We’ve found her,” he said. I saw his lips move, his face lit like a spectre by the glowing crystal he held, but all I could hear was the rushing torrent of the spirits’ rage and hatred.
I looked past him. Mei sat, legs folded beneath her, in the centre of the clearing. She was entirely naked, her pale skin and silver-gold hair glowing in the moonlight that shone down through the hole in the forest’s black canopy. She seemed to be asleep, or meditating, her face radiant with silent joy. For a blessed moment, the forest’s oppressive hatred seemed to fade, as though tamed by Mei’s own boundless serenity.
Something stepped into the clearing: a dark shape that might have been a kirre, or a lirr. Its form seemed to blur and change even as I watched. It stalked around the periphery of the clearing, sniffing the air, growling softly deep in its chest. The moonlight did not touch its dark pelt, but its eyes blazed with golden fire.
The beast padded silently towards Mei. I wanted to rush forward, for I was sure it was about to tear her fragile body into bloody shreds, but my limbs would not obey me. Somehow, I knew Bayl and Enamdis, too, were paralysed.
But there was someone else in the clearing: someone I could not see. But Mei smiled up at the newcomer, and the beast halted, bowing its mighty head to the ground as if in deference.
Someone was standing between Mei and the beast. Why couldn’t I see him? No… not ‘him’…
The beast raised its head again. Somehow, I had stumbled into the clearing. The moment of peace had passed, and the forest’s ageless rage poured down upon me once more. The beast roared in the voice of a thunderstorm, its eyes burning into my soul.
I once saw a mob of women in the Palm Court lynch a man they suspected of raping several of their children. They cut the meat from his bones with flint knives, even as he shrieked his innocence and pled for mercy. When they were done, the bloody remains were barely recognisable as human, save for his eyeless head and the tiny, shrivelled morsel of flesh they had pushed into his broken-toothed mouth. The rage I had seen in the eyes of those women, that burning goad that could drive loving mothers to bloody butchery: it was the same, the very same fire, that burned in the eyes of the beast-spirit as it looked upon me. Upon a defiler.
There was no reasoning with such bitter, consuming hatred. No pleading. No possibility of mercy. I knew that I was dead.
Blood roared in my ears, drowning out the forest’s thundering rage. The world spun around me. I fell awkwardly as my legs turned to water. My lotulis clattered on the hard ground, and somehow I was half-sprawled on top of it. I felt a razor-edged crescent of rune-carved bone slice into my knee.
Then a strong, grey-skinned hand dragged me back into the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing: Enamdis. Bayl stepped smoothly in front of me, alhulak whirling in his hand as he faced down the snarling beast-spirit.
I saw something hanging at his hip: the remains of a carrikal, its jawbone blades broken and useless. It seemed to me that it shone with the same inner light that had suffused Mei’s pale form.
Mul and beast-spirit stared at each other for a long moment. Then the beast turned and looked back to where Mei still sat, serene in the moonlight. Her eyes were open now, wide and luminous. Slowly, solemnly, she shook her head.
The beast vanished. The forest withdrew its terrible presence so suddenly that I gasped as though struck. The normal sounds of the nocturnal forest returned in a deafening rush.
In the centre of the clearing, Mei bowed her golden head and, as slowly and gracefully as a felled tree, toppled sidelong into the moss and loam.