1 – The Dread 3

 

 

“So, let me get this straight.”

Latasha was seated across from me. She had her arms and legs crossed in an unladylike manner as she addressed me, “You can’t speak, you can’t read, and you do magic. How does that make sense?”

Um, I’m sorry? was all I could say. No matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t understand why she was upset.

“You’re scaring her,” Melory said.

“What? No, I’m not–“ Latasha sighed, “I’m not mad, alright? I’m just confused. How is she a magus?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Kaelyn asked. She was seated next to Latasha, closest to the open back of the vehicle.

“Nothing. Nothing at all, it’s just–“

The wagon jostled and nearly launched us from our seats. Latasha, perhaps distracted from speaking, almost fell over onto my knees. She snapped her head towards the front of the vehicle. “Hey driver, be gentle!”

“So sorry, madame, road’s rough and all. We’ve just entered the cirque, lotsa uphills and downhills ahead,” came the response from the front.

“Well, you– ugh, whatever. Just drive careful–“

Another big bump. Latasha groaned but expressed no further complaints.

“Why does everyone call you madame?” asked Kaelyn.

“Because, uh, don’t worry about that, Ruddy.”

“Should we call you madame too?”

“Absolutely not,” Latasha said before hunching over to pick up the slate that had fallen off her lap. She glanced at me, wrote something with the chalk-stick, then whirled it around to show me a large symbol that had been drawn on the surface. “This is ‘A’. It’s the first letter of the alphabet, got it?”

Before I could burn the details of the letter into my brain, she turned it back around, wiped it with the cuff of her shirt, and showed me a new writing.

“This is ‘B’, second one. Bee, is how you pronounce it.” She repeated the routine, but paused in the middle of jotting down the next letter. “You know what, I don’t have time for this. You do it, Wussy Girl,” she passed the slate to Farica beside her.

“M– me?” The girl made a puppy-eyed look.

“Yes, you. Teach her so we could at least know her name.”

“It’s okay, Farica,” Melory jumped in, “You don’t have to do what she says.”

Latasha gave her a mighty glare but did not rebuke. Melory, sitting to my right, was bravely answering the lady’s stare. It was a stark contrast to how she looked back at the slaver’s camp, her head between her thighs, waiting to be saved.

Latasha grabbed the slate and lobbed it over to Melory. “You do it, then.”

Melory shrugged. “Sure,” she accepted the object. She proceeded on drawing small symbols starting from one corner of the slate, arranging them in a neat row.

I don’t get what the fuss is.

“We can’t just keep calling you Whitey, can we?” She responded without looking up from the board.

What if, uh, what if I don’t have a name?

Her ears twitched. She paused, then leaned in and whispered, “You can make one up.”

“Did you say something, Goldie?”

“I wasn’t talking to you, madame.

Friction. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Captured against their will, nearly got sold as slaves, and even after the rescue, there was barely any time to lie down and rest. We were tired, and spending hours on a bumpy ride with our asses glued on crudely-assembled seats thrown together in a rush certainly didn’t help to ease the irritable mood.

The girls had been on edge ever since Luise told us about the potential danger of the Dread. Anxious? Probably, and another contributor to that was the man on my left, sitting too close for my comfort. He was so silent and unconcerned even back when Latasha bombarded him with colorful words because he refused to remove the inauspicious hood. Clearly she didn’t like him being there, and the others were trying hard in pretending that he wasn’t there. As for me, I personally wouldn’t mind him myself, if not for what he said to me earlier.

Another bump on the road shook the whole wagon, sending us barreling into each other. I found myself clutching to Sallis for balance. I didn’t mean to, of course. I looked up and saw under the hood his eyes for the first time; a strange grey color, staring at me without expression. He looked young.

I quickly let go of him and backed away. He didn’t say anything, but something told me he did not like that.

“I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.” Latasha was starting to lose it.

I hate this too. And not just because of the death-glare from the man beside me. The pain in my head wasn’t as sharp anymore, but whenever the wheels bumped against a rock, it felt like it was my head they were bumping against.

“Why not just stop here? It’s a good as any place to make camp, right?”

Whoever Latasha was saying that to, they apparently heard her wish because a sharp, high-pitched sound whistled in the air, signaling the wagon to a stop.

“Huh? Really?” She spoke to the driver, “Hey, why are we stopping?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I’m goin’ up front and see what’s up,” the coach said before jumping off the seat.

From the open back of the wagon, I could see the rest of the convoy coming to a stop. A number of people were disembarking, one or two from each vehicle, and were walking or riding on horses towards the front of the line. The clapping of horses was matched by the knocking of wood as Latasha’s boot tapped on the floor, itching to stretch itself. Her restlessness was infectious – my toes were curling in my footwear.

“It’d be good if this is our stop,” she muttered.

“For all our sakes, it better not be,” Melory said.

“And why is that?”

“There’s hours of daylight left. I’m sure some people are longing to get back to their soft beds but stopping now would mean stretching the time we’d have to spend in the wilderness.”

Latasha couldn’t muster a comeback.

“Um, you know a lot, don’t you, Melory?” Kaelyn said, attempting to veer the topic.

“Of course I do. I’m always travelling.”

“You’re nomads, then? You live on the roads?”

“Had to,” Melory said, “since you people destroyed my home.”

I could see Latasha’s shoulders tensing up, her brows pulling together and her eyes narrowing. “You blame us for that?”

“No, I don’t blame you. I just blame the murderers that gave birth to you.”

Melory, calm down. I couldn’t let her ruin this. She was my only way to communicate with everyone else.

“I’ll have you know that my parents are highly respectable people,” Latasha said.

“And mine are dead. I guess I have yours to thank for that. Of course, I have to thank you too for letting yourself be captured, right? Because criminals have been slaving my people for years and no one ever did anything. Then they caught you, and suddenly everyone is–“

Melory. I touched her hand.

She stopped. She leaned back in her seat and heaved a long sigh.

“My father never supported the war,” Latasha said. “My mother ran campaigns against the Sack of Elystar, ended up being ostracized for years. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the family.”

“…me too,” Melory said under her breath.

The abrupt silence that came after forced us to pay special attention to a pair of footsteps. I saw the silhouette of a man through the fabric of the hood across me, walking towards the back side of the wagon. A second later, a blond head popped out at the back.

“Ladies,” Luise greeted. He raised a brow when no one had the will nor the energy to reply. “Bad time?”

“What do you want, Luise?” Latasha said tiredly.

“I just thought you might want to be kept updated. Have I thought wrong?”

“No, sorry–“ she cut herself short, a tad too late, and corrected herself, “go ahead.”

“Our path’s blocked by some sort of landslide. We’re exploring options for alternative routes, should just take a few minutes before we’re back on our way.”

“Got it. Do what you have to do.”

Luise turned to leave, hesitated, then gave us a short glance. “Play nice, okay? We still have quite a bit of journey ahead of us.” He addressed the hooded man, “That means you too, Sallis.”

“…” the magus said.

Luise wasted no time returning to the front. I almost wanted him to stay just so we could have someone to keep the conversation running. Just as he promised, a few minutes later our driver returned, and we started moving again.

“Landslide, huh?” Kaelyn said. “Must be the recent downpours.”

“Uh-huh. Must be,” Latasha said, her gaze downwards as she fiddled with her fingers.

At least she tried, that Ruddy. I could’ve said something to Melory, but this? This was all new to me—dealing with cultural differences, with conversation mines, being afraid of saying the wrong things—oh how simple were the days when all I had to worry about was survival.

 

 

We had to bear with another hour of that bumpy, silent ride where everyone was consciously pressing their lips together, until another whistle was sounded and we were told by the driver to disembark.

Crisp, fresh wind blew on our faces as soon as we bared ourselves out the back. The sun had sunk in its afterglows, casting an orange shimmer on the horizon to the west, beyond the hill, and a dark purplish hue onto the clouds above our heads.

Luise was there to welcome us when we got off. From the corner of my eye, I saw him saying something to Sallis. Something about my good behavior, I hoped.

As Luise guided us through the bustle and uphill, the other ‘drifters’ were quick to split their work. Some were parking the vehicles by the road while others were unloading on a wide clearing on the hillside, which I assumed was our campsite. Within just a few minutes, fire pits had already been dug, primed with firewood prepared ahead of time. Tents were erected, and cooking pots assembled and ready for use.

I spotted a few among the people that stood taller than the rest, just like the one I’d seen before. On a closer look, it was obvious they weren’t human, with what the fur-covered bodies and proportions, with wider hips and shoulders making them look stout from afar. Despite their beastly looks, they were cooperating normally with the drifters.

What are they? I asked Melory.

“Avlarks,” she told me. “My countrymen. Or used to be. Now they’re just warriors without a nation. Wandering mercenaries, if you like.”

“Yeah, I know what an avlark is, thanks,” Latasha said.

“I wasn’t talking to– never mind.”

“Stew is cooking. I’ll come back and bring you girls some,” Luise said and left us on a spot where they’d prepared a small fire just for us. They even left a bundle of blankets for us to keep warm, just in case the fire wasn’t enough.

“Honestly, they’re acting like fairies,” Latasha remarked.

“Fairies?” Kaelyn tilted her head.

“Yeah. Leaving stuff for us without being seen, like shy teenagers in love.”

Her choice of words amused me. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought it was weird that our supposed rescuers were keeping distance.

“I’m sorry, because of me…” Farica mewled.

“No? I mean, I’m glad they’re giving us some girl-space,” Latasha assured, blatantly brushing off Sallis’ existence.

I looked at Melory to clue me in, but she merely shook her head.

Luise came back later hauling a stewpot with vapor rising out. Accompanying him was a familiar face; a tall, dark-haired man bearing a gargantuan sword, except the sword was nowhere to be seen and in his hand instead was a stack of bowls.

“Smothering hell,” said Latasha. She immediately took a defensive posture, shoulders hunched and arms raised in front of her chest. Farica hid behind her.

Luise looked between her and the dark-haired man. “I take it you two have met?”

“Oh, we’ve… um, talked.”

“More like, she kicked me in a very tender place because of a misunderstanding,” the tall man said, “and ran away before I had the chance to explain.”

“Ah,” Luise made an understanding smile. “I believe I’ve explained it for you, then. Latasha, this is Aenir. He’s a friend whose help was crucial in the rescue.”

Latasha relaxed her shoulders but was still warily eyeing the man. “He a drifter?”

‘Aenir’ was about to answer, but Luise interrupted, “Nay, he’s just normal man with a noble heart–”

“On second thought, I don’t really care. Give us the food and be on your way, thank you.”

Menacing lines formed on Aenir’s forehead. Luise gave him a tap on the shoulder. “As you wish, madame,” he said, putting down the pot.

Aenir followed suit, placing the porringers nearby. Then he walked over to me. “May I talk to you?”

“She can’t talk,” Melory told him.

I can if you translate for me.

Aenir stared at the slate in her hands. She made a little shake with her head, though I had to wonder if that shake was intended for him or for me. “Can’t write either,” she said.

The two men shared a glance. “Can’t be helped, I guess?” Luise suggested.

Aenir crossed his arms as more lines appeared on his face. “I don’t buy it. How can a magus be illiterate?”

“That’s what I said,” Latasha reported. “But it’s the truth nonetheless. Now can you please go away?”

His eyes settled on Farica, who was shrinking her figure on Latasha’s back. “Another time then,” he promised.

They left afterwards, and promptly Latasha grabbed the porringer stack even though the ruddy was already reaching for it. I didn’t know if others noticed how she forcefully took the role of distributing the bowls.

I’d taken note on her tendency to take lead on some things, like borrowing the writing slate, always speaking up first when the men were around, and now she was handing out the stew. Just the little things, but it was little things she would get thanked for. Maybe she thought it would enforce her authority over this little group?

“Here,” she gave me my share. On second thought, I might be reading too much into it.

A pleasant smell exuded from the thin container. There was some sort of metal apparatus dipped into the broth consisting of a long handle and a round, concave head. Looking at the others, I realized it was an eating utensil. I copied how they used it, spilled some soup on the dirt instead.

“Here,” Melory took hold of my hand holding the object. “This is how you use a spoon,” she said, guiding the tool from the bowl and into my mouth.

Thanks.

She responded with a smile. “Anytime.”

Um, back then, why didn’t you–

“Not now,” she whispered. That’s when I realized the others were looking.

“Athyra’s teats, you’ve got a lot of things to learn, Whitey.”

“Give her a break, Latasha. She isn’t like you.”

Latasha dropped her spoon into her bowl, the metal clanking. “What do you mean, ‘like me’?

Melory cleared her throat. “Most of us didn’t grow with silver spoons up our rumps.

I dropped the spoon into the bowl. Was there another use for these things other than for eating?

For a moment I thought they were going to start pulling each other’s hair. Instead, Latasha just shrugged and addressed me, “I’m sorry, Whitey. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

I wasn’t sure what she was sorry about. I was too distracted by the warm and sapid stew. It could very well be the best thing I’ve ever tasted at that point.

“This thing is so bland I could die.” Latasha paused, “Wait, there’s one bowl left. Did someone not get a share?”

“…”

Sallis. I’d forgotten he was even there.

 

 

An hour after stew, the drifters told us to turn in early because we were going be on the road at first light. Our sleeping quarters was a large wagon, wider than the one we rode in this noon, meant for commodity rather than people.

“No.” Latasha barred entry to the back of the wagon. “We bore with you for a full day, but there’s no way in hell am I letting you sleep with us.”

Sallis had a deadpan look on his face as he stood outside. He made no indication of retaliation, which made it more unsettling somehow.

Latasha rested her hands on her hips. “Are you hearing me? Find someplace else to sleep.”

“I can’t do that,” a low voice came from under the hood. He made a move to climb the wagon.

“You come in here and I’ll do the same thing to you as I did to that Aenir chap.”

He froze with one foot on the tread. Slowly, he retreated back onto the ground. He goggled at Latasha, assessing how serious she was. He then redirected that gaze to me.

“Play nice,” he said before turning his back and walking away.

‘Play nice’. Was he saying that to me, or to himself?

“Freaking magi, they’re all creepers I tell you.”

“We should sleep,” Melory suggested. “We’ve still got legions ahead of us.”

 

 

▬ ▬ ▬

 

 

Wrong. You have two guesses left, the bird said.

Um, uh…

‘Without me, there can be no life. Without me, there can be no death. I am everywhere, yet no place can describe me for I am nowhere. You can never see me, hear me, smell me, or feel me, for I am boundless.’ What am I?

Air! You’re air!

Wrong again. Air doesn’t exist in vacuum, stupid. You have one guess left.

I racked my brain yet again. It wasn’t ‘life’, and it wasn’t ‘air’, which leaves but one option left.

Tick-tock, brat. Tick-tock.

E– energy? You’re energy, you must be.

The raven made a loud, vulgar croak. Wrong. You lose.

Eh?! But…

Now I get to eat you.

“Don’t worry,” Melory said, “you don’t have to do what he says.”

But I promised.

Promised? the raven laughed. Since when have you kept your promises?

No, I–

Wake up, brat. You’re a filthy little liar, always was, always will. Look at you now, eating delicious food, blankets to keep you warm at night, and what about us?

I couldn’t say anything. My voice was stuck in my throat.

“Pfft, look, she can’t even speak. Useless little Whitey, and she claims to be a magus?” Latasha laughed with her head tilted up, palm against her chin.

“Play nice,” the hooded man told me, “or I will end your life. I have the authority.”

Wake up, brat. These aren’t your friends. No one ever was.

I felt tears welling up. Not even you? You said I was like family.

Family? You left us, abandoned us here to rot. Wake up, brat.

No, I shook my head. I’m not–

I said, wak–

 

“—ke up!”

The earth was shaking. I screamed, Don’t eat me! Don’t eat me!

“Stop, stop! She’s awake!”

I realized it was me being shook, not the earth. Worried faces greeted me when I opened my eyes.

“Finally. My arms were getting tired.” Latasha was on top of me. She let go of her grip on my shoulders.

Beside her was Melory. Kaelyn and Farica was slouching over me, looking at my face as if there were something horrid on it. I swept my hand over my face, but the only thing I could feel was cold sweat.

What’s going on?

Melory was the one who answered, “You were talking in your sleep.”

“Flailing, more like. Fish on land. Add sleeping posture to your list of things to learn, Whitey. I mean, ‘Thyra’s sake, were you battling a beast in your sleep?”

“I think she needs space,” Melory told them.

Latasha got off me and went away mumbling to herself. The others dispersed seeing I was awake and well, except for Melory, who looked like she wanted to talk to me.

“You were saying stuff in your sleep,” she said in a hushed voice.

What did I say?

“I don’t know. I think you said ‘air’ several times. I thought you couldn’t breathe.”

Sorry if I bothered you.

“No, not at all… well, you did slap her in your sleep,” she pointed a surreptitious thumb at Latasha, “but mostly we were just worried. Kaelyn was saying you got possessed by the ghost of the Dread.”

I glanced outside the wagon. The sun was already above the tree line. Weren’t we supposed to depart at dawn?

“Oh, about that, Latasha already went out to ask. She’d just came back before you started… um, ‘flailing’,” Melory said in a deliberately louder voice, prompting Latasha to turn around.

“Someone went missing. They’re delaying departure to search,” Latasha explained.

“Another horse?” Kaelyn said.

“I said someone. A person, one of the drifters. That scoun– Luise said he was gone around midnight.”

“C– could it be the ghost?”

“Ghosts aren’t real, Ruddy. Anyway, they’re limiting the search until noon, so stretch while you can. There’s a stream nearby if you want to take a wash or something.“

“I’ll go,” Melory said. “She’ll go with me,” she indicated me.

Huh? I will?

Latasha narrowed her eyes. “It’s down the hill. Someone will point you there.”

Melory practically dragged me down the wagon and away from earshot before telling me, “Sorry, I wanted to use this chance to talk with you.”

Oh, uh, it’s okay.

She gave me a sweet smile. “Shall we go, then?”

Sure. I looked around and suddenly reminded myself of something. Where’s Sallis? He’s not going to join us, is he?

“Um, no. The drifters pulled him out earlier. To help with the missing-person search, I think.”

I see. That meant they trusted me enough without a watch dog breathing down my neck. One burden off my shoulders, if only for temporary.

We went downhill as Latasha told us to. Since it was near the perimeter, we had to ask for permission. The drifters were kind enough to lend us towels and a bottle filled with clear liquid after we told them our intent.

“It’s still within the safe zone, so there’s a risk of someone spottin’ you. But hey, better peepin’ ‘umans than nir’ounds, right?” the soldier joked. Melory frowned at that.

We had to go a little into the woods before we found the stream. There were trees blocking the way, but it was so near the road that someone with enough motivation could see between the gaps.

“It’s cold,” Melory tested the stream with her toe. She sent me a look, “You know how to wash, right?”

Of course.

Melory walked up a tree by the bank and I followed her. She gave me a long stare.

“You, uh… I’d prefer we not see each other.”

I tilted my head. Why?

She started rubbing her forehead. “Just, please? I don’t know about you Laxians, but in my culture, we don’t show our bodies outside of special occasions.”

Special occasions?

“Yeah, like, um, c– ceremonies and stuff, and, and uh…”

I was just joking, Melory.

The color of her face turned cherry. Her ears drooped as she made a wily frown, “You are mean.”

I had to fight off a sudden urge to grab her ears. I’ll just be over there, then.

“Okay.”

I chose a big rock jutting out the knee-depth stream and placed it between myself and her. As soon as I took off my clothes, a cold, teat-hardening wind blew over me, prompting me to do my business quickly.

I popped myself up from behind the rock. Melory was still undressing behind the tree. I called out, You wanted to speak?

“Yeah, hold on–“ she peeked out, saw me, and quickly looked away. “S– sorry.”

It’s okay.

“Um, can I ask you about it?”

About what?

“No, never mind. Anyway, I’m coming out now.”

I dived back behind the rock to give her space. We each ended having a section of the stream to ourselves.

Melory, do you not want people to know that you can hear me?

I could hear a splash of water on the other side. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, err, it creates questions.”

Questions?

“Yeah. The kind that would lead to more questions, and that can be harmful.”

Okay. I sort of understood what she meant. No one else was able to hear me, after all, which brought me to the next question, How can you hear me?

“I can’t really hear you, not really. I just feel your… thoughts? Intentions and… feelings, maybe? From there I just guess what you’re actually saying.”

I see. I’d figured it was something like that. I also noticed how she didn’t really answer my question, but I decided not to call her out on that.

The both of us silently continued our bath. Melory seemed to be holding back, which in turn made me hold back. Hence, we came to an unspoken agreement not to ask anything personal about each other. We finished quickly, thanks to the magical liquid we received from the drifters which helped scrape off dirt from our skin. We put on our clothes and was about to head back when Melory stopped in her tracks.

“What did you say?” she asked me.

I didn’t…

“Wait, huh?” she turned around to face the stream. “That’s weird. I thought I–” her ears twitched, “there it is again.” She turned around and faced the stream.

I followed her gaze and saw something rustling the plants across the stream. Something was skulking around. Melory, step back.

“It’s speaking to me. Can’t you hear it?”

I said step back. Then I addressed the invader, Who’s there? Show yourself!

I was hoping it was one of the drifters, maybe someone who was coming back from chores and saw us, decided to do something harmless. What came out of the bushes was something else.

It crawled out, leg by leg. It stood on all eight probably at the height of my knees. Its body was hairy, colored in bright, striped patterns. Four orbs on its front, which I assumed were its eyes, were fixed at us.

It lifted its pair of foremost legs high above its head. Melory made something between a shriek and a whimper. She pulled on my cuffs, “We– we should run.”

Wait. The creature didn’t seem aggressive. Not territorial, but what then? Hunting? If that’s the case, turning our backs could mean our end.

Distance to the road: a hundred feet, approximately. Less than ten seconds if we were to make a break for it, but that ‘less than ten seconds’ could be enough for the creature to catch one of us.

I grabbed Melory’s hand. Move back, slowly, but don’t take your eyes off it.

The creature started moving, but not towards us. Not even changing position. The legs planted firm on the ground and skewed sideways, swinging the body left and right in a wavy motion. The two foremost legs, still raised up, followed the motion one step behind.

What is it doing?

“I– I don’t know. I think…” Her face draws an expression of utter bafflement, “I think it’s dancing. Almost as if it’s courting.”

The creature’s innermost appendages moved, starting with a brisk up-down motion that kept in pace with the swinging. Then it stirred, almost vibrating, making disturbing clicking noises.

Melory looked at me. “Um…” she pointed a tentative finger at me.

One glance of her face and I knew what she was trying to say. I looked at the creature who was still ‘dancing’. What the fuck?

It stopped, probably sensing hostility. Its forelegs were bent into a hook shape as it started making a forward-to-back movement, repeatedly. It kept doing that gesture as it retreated back under the shadows, disappearing from view.

What the fuck? I repeated.

“It wants us, or, um, you to follow.”

We shared a look, didn’t need to speak a word to come to a decision. We packed our things and scurried the way we came, not once looking back, though Melory did look up at the trees as if expecting something to jump down on our faces.

“We have to tell someone.”

Agreed. But maybe not about…

“Yeah.”

 

We couldn’t find anyone on the way up, and when we arrived back at camp, we realized it was because they were all gathered in a big circle. Something must’ve happened while we were taking our wash.

A man with wrinkled face and greying short-cropped hair stood at the center. He wore the same cloak as the others, but colored dark-red instead of teal. The drifter chief.

Standing beside that person was Luise, for whatever reason, and one of those avlark people; seven feet tall, with brown fur and wearing almost zero clothing. It had a large scar streaking vertically across its right eye, as well as parts missing from the wolf-like ear on the same side. The leader of the bear-men, I surmised.

We’ll tell them after.

Melory nodded at this and we sought out the others. It wasn’t hard to spot Latasha’s group, given how there was an invisible ditch separating them from the men.

“What’s happening?” Melory said as we sat behind them.

“Shush, we’re about to find out,” Latasha said.

“We found Carleigh,” the drifter chief at the center announced, and the chatter was immediately hushed down. “Unfortunately, he was already dead when we found him. Killed by beasts.”

“And not just any beasts,” Luise added. “Drifters, we might be facing an Alpha. Orlev, Aldwan and I have decided to raise alert protocol to class-B, Yellow. This is not a subjugation. Our priority is the rescuees’ safety. As of now, the mission is to retreat from the Dread…”

Latasha turned her head and gave us a once-over. “You look pale.”

“Yeah, we–“

“Well, Whitey is always pale, but–“

“—we saw a monster.”

I don’t know if it was because she said it a bit too loudly or if it coincided with the breaks between the chief’s explanations, but heads turned to her, and the chief stopped talking.

“Miss Melory,” he came over, “tell us more.”

 

 

“…A giant spider?”

Chief Constable Orlev, leader of the drifters, narrowed his eyes. There was something in his composure that told me of a hardened veteran; skeptical, but always assuming the worst. “And you both saw this?”

“Yes!” Melory said. I nodded along.

“This spider, what did it do?” Luise inquired.

“It was just watching. Luring us, I think.”

Sounds about right.

“Do you ‘hink it’s rela’ed with your Carleigh?” asked the chief of the avlarks. He was easily one foot higher than the tallest human, towering over us.

“Chances are low that it’s not linked, Aldwan. I’ll instruct the men to tighten the perimeters. It must’ve gotten through jumping on top of trees,” Orlev said.

“And then what?” Latasha said. “Clearly there’s something out there picking us off.”

Orlev crossed his arms, resting his chin between his thumb and index finger. “The Dread… is it?”

I saw Kaelyn flinch at the mention.

“What do you think, Ald?”

“I don’t like this, Orlevha,” the avlark answered. “I’m not one thu believha in old folk’ales, but this giant spider?” He glanced at the girls.

“Alright. We’ll hold off going further in the cirque and send some scouts in. We stay here for the night while we hash out other possible routes.”

“Wait, what does that mean?” Latasha asked.

“It’s nothing, madame,” Orlev assured her. “We’re just going to make sure the road’s safe before going in.”

“No. You’re not saying something.”

“It’s really not–“

“Chief,” Luise interrupted. “She’s not as bratty a noble as she looks–“

“Hey–“

“—and if she’s saying they should know, I’d vouch for her judgement.”

“Are you sure?” Orlev said.

“Absolutely.” Luise gave Latasha a wink.

“Fuck you, Luise.”

“Alright then,” Orlev addressed us, though he was specifically addressing Latasha, “Twenty years ago, during the last Blight, there were… reports of similar beasts.”

“The Sixth Blight? I’ve read all about it. There was no such report.”

“That’s because it’s nevhar been confirmed, La’asha-arleda,” Aldwan told her. “There were plenty of witnesses, but no concrete evhadences.”

“You’re saying a demon is behind this?” Luise said. I was mildly surprised he wasn’t in the know as well. Although, to be fair, he looked young and was probably just a child twenty years ago.

“’That’s what vhalks back then say. If it’s true, then we’re way out of our league here. That’s why Orlevha was reluc’ant. He didn’t want thu scare you.”

“I’m not scared,” Latasha said, looking up at the avlark, staring him in the eye.

“You should be, lassie,” Aldwan warned, his expression grim.

“Ald, ease up. We’re to give them straight, not terrorize them.” Orlev turned to Latasha, “That said, I trust you to keep yourselves from being overwhelmed by this because this is still a conjecture. The reports back then originated from the south, nowhere near this place, and one sighting doesn’t indicate much. Just keep calm and follow our procedures. The drifters are trained for this.”

Latasha gave him a curt nod, but it wasn’t her he should be worrying about. Surprisingly, Farica didn’t seem that scared either, but looking at the deadpan face, it’s possible that the girl didn’t actually understand the conversation. Ruddy’s dread, however, was apparent from the stiff way she stood, constantly scratching her arms that were crossed over her chest.

But the girls weren’t the most restless ones here. It was the avlark chief, observable from his dilated pupils as well as the ears, perked up and alert. Orlev was better at hiding it, but I didn’t miss how he couldn’t look at Latasha in the eye.

“Just, hypothetically,” Latasha said, “if it turned out to be a demon, what would your immediate procedure be?”

Orlev paused. Aldwan answered in his stead, “Drop every’ing and run.”

 

 

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