Chapter 5 can be read below the cut.
The sun was just starting to rise in Méngruna. When Lisel had left the inn about an hour earlier, the other three had been sleeping. She stood outside of it, staring at the window of their room. After a couple more moments of staring, she carefully climbed up the wall, taking care to make as little noise as possible.
The sound of her hand grabbing onto the window sill was loud enough to wake up Sirilrhis. He sat up immediately and reached for his sword. Once he saw Lisel, his shoulders slumped. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Why can’t you just use the door?”
Lisel couldn’t tell if he was annoyed because of what she had just done or because she had woken him up. “I went out through the window,” she said. She pulled herself up so that she was sitting on the windowsill. “I didn’t want the innkeeper asking any questions, so I came back in the same way.”
Sirilrhis raised an eyebrow. “You think it’s better that people see you climbing up a building?”
Lisel looked toward Kiyaska and Hirúka. Both of them were still asleep – Hirúka was stretched out on the ground in his tiger form, and Kiyaska was using him as a pillow.
“Hey, you two!” said Lisel. “Wake up. We’re leaving soon.”
Kiyaska rubbed her eyes and looked up at Lisel sleepily. “But it’s so early,” she protested.
Lisel picked up her rifle. “We need to get moving. Get up.”
While Lisel buckled her dao to her belt, Kiyaska turned to Hirúka and started shaking him violently. It took a few moments for him to wake up.
“What?” he said with a yawn. “Are we leaving so soon? Why?”
“Because Lisel said so! Why else?” said Kiyaska.
“What town are we headed to next?” Sirilrhis asked once they were outside the inn.
Lisel looked down at the map in her hands. “We’re not going down the coast, so…we’re actually going through the forest.”
Sirilrhis frowned. “The main road leads down the coast. The route you want us to follow will take us through the forests.”
Lisel raised an eyebrow at him. “Yes? Did you have something to add?” she asked.
Sirilrhis stared back at her. “The forests,” he repeated.
“Yes, the forests,” Lisel stressed. “We’ll have to camp every night instead of having a roof over our heads.”
“That isn’t what I’m worried about,” said Sirilrhis. “The forests are full of spirits, Lisel. Spirits who don’t like intruders.”
Lisel rolled her eyes. “Good grief. Are you trying to scare me? We’re not going to bother them. We’re going to go through the forests as quickly as we can and disturb as little as possible. And there’s already a road, so if we stick to that I highly doubt we’re going to run into too many problems.”
“I’m glad you’re able to admit that there are going to be problems,” said Sirilrhis.
“Let’s just get going,” said Lisel.
Unlike Resuni, Méngruna was not a walled city. The border between the city and the wilderness was marked by the paved stone road merging with a well-worn dirt path. Lisel thought that she felt a change once they crossed the boundary, but she couldn’t quite tell what it was.
“I don’t recognize any of this,” Sirilrhis said suddenly.
“Recognize?” asked Hirúka. “When were you last here?”
Sirilrhis scratched the back of his head and looked around, frowning. Then he shrugged. “Two hundred years ago?” he said. “Three hundred? I don’t remember the exact number of years.”
“Does the forest feel the same?” Hirúka asked.
“Feel?” Sirilrhis asked. “You mean the spirits? I thought you might be too young to recognize that.”
“Yeah, of course!” said Hirúka. “It’s really obvious that there’s at least…one…spirit in the trees over there.” He pointed to a random tree. “Right?”
Sirilrhis shook his head, smiling. “It’s fine to say that you can’t notice anything. Being able to detect spirits when they’re doing their best to hide is a skill that requires a lot of work to develop.”
Hirúka’s shoulders slumped. “It’s not that,” he said. “I know how to tell when a spirit’s made its home somewhere and it’s a place I need to avoid. That’s something we’re taught when we’re children.” He looked at the forest around them. “But this forest doesn’t feel right. It’s like it’s put a damper on my senses or something.”
The last signs of human habitation disappeared two hours later. Occasionally, one of them saw a run-down shack or a sign indicating the distance to Méngruna or the next major town, but there were no people. It was quiet but not noiseless; there were plenty of birds signing in the trees and small animals running around in the underbrush.
The clouds covered more and more of the sky as they walked. The entire sky ended up such a uniform gray that most of the trees no longer cast any shadows. Some mist – or fog, Lisel didn’t actually know the difference – started popping up around the trees, and it got thicker the further they got into the forest. She still heard animals running around, but the sounds were much more muted.
“Is this weird?” she wondered out loud. After a moment, she looked up at Sirilrhis.
“How would I know?” he answered. “I haven’t been here for two hundred years.”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” said Lisel. She gestured at the foggy landscape. “Is all of this normal? Is there something weird going on? Is this the work of a spirit or is it just normal fog?”
“Seems like normal fog to me,” said Sirilrhis.
“Are you one hundred percent sure of that?” Lisel asked sharply.
“Of course I am!” Sirilrhis scoffed. “Spirits can’t make fog. That’s not a thing they do.”
A couple of minutes later, Kiyaska pointed to something ahead of them. “What’s that stone thing?” she said.
Lisel looked toward forward. “It’s just a shrine,” she said.
“Are shrines important?” Kiyaska asked.
“Only if you’re particularly religious,” said Lisel. “But-”
“Wait a minute,” Sirilrhis interrupted. He walked to the shrine and set down a piece of dried fruit at the alter. Lisel saw his mouth move. Though she was too far away to hear what he said, she assumed it was some sort of prayer.
“Do you really think that was necessary?” she asked when he returned to the group.
Sirilrhis shrugged. “It can’t hurt.”
“Do you really believe it’s going to do anything?” Lisel stressed.
Sirilrhis rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what spirits live here. I don’t know how they generally behave. I’d rather not run into any problems later on because I didn’t leave any offerings.”
Hours passed as they walked deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees blocked out most of the sky, making it much darker than it otherwise would have been at midday. The fog, fortunately, did not get any thicker. Lisel still heard animals running around, but there were no more birds chirping.
The first time Sirilrhis created a floating fireball, she jumped. She had no idea dragons could do that, and judging by the reactions of Hirúka and Kiyaska, neither did they. The two of them were more fascinated than scared. Lisel was grateful for the extra light, but she decided not to say anything about it.
Sirilrhis had migrated all the way to the back of the group some time ago, and Lisel turned back to talk to him. “Are you really sure that all this fog is normal?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It’s fog, Lisel. Sometimes it’s inconvenient like this. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Lisel stewed in her own thoughts for a while. When she came back to reality, she realized that Hirúka and Kiyaska had been talking to each other for some time. It had become incredibly easy to tune them out, as they rarely talked about anything serious.
“We don’t have this many trees in Zarya Wa,” said Kiyaska. “It’s plateaus and mountains. Well, mostly plateaus. The mountains are all on the border with the Meitsung Empire. It’s all above the tree line, though.”
“So you’ve never seen a real forest before?” said Hirúka. “One that goes on and on for hundreds of kilometers?”
Kiyaska shook her head. “That sounds scary,” she said.
“This is one of those forests,” Sirilrhis cut in.
Kiyaska’s eyes widened. “It is!?” she squeaked. “But…but…isn’t it so easy to get lost when you can hardly see anything? Especially when it’s so foggy…”
“The road is clearly marked, Kiyaska,” said Lisel. “We aren’t going to get lost as long as we keep following it.”
“Are you sure?” Kiyaska asked.
“Yeah?” said Lisel. She actually turned back to frown at Kiyaska. “I highly doubt the road is going to suddenly disappear.”
Sirilrhis eventually joined Lisel at the front of the group, while Kiyaska and Hirúka trailed behind. Every time Lisel looked back to check up on the two, Kiyaska looked more and more uncomfortable. She was fidgeting, gripping her arms and looking from one side of the path to the other.
“It’s weird,” said Hirúka suddenly. “Normally, I’d be able to tell if we’re heading into spirit territory. It’s got a really unique gúraq. Uh, spirit aura, I mean. And this looks like prime spirit territory, but I can’t tell where any of them are! It’s so frustrating.”
“This is an old forest. There are probably spirits everywhere,” said Sirilrhis. “That may be throwing you off.”
“What about you?” Hirúka asked.
“Well, I can sense spirits everywhere,” said Sirilrhis. “However, there are so many of them that I can’t tell where any individual spirit starts or ends.”
Everyone eventually fell back into silence. Hirúka ended up walking slower and slower until he was at the back of the group. His skin was still tingling, and he kept looking around to try and see signs of anything strange. All his efforts were all unsuccessful. He couldn’t focus well enough to single anything out.
A severed hand flew across his field of vision. It took a few moments for Hirúka to process what he had just seen. He let out a startled squawk and ran up to the front of the group, grabbing Lisel’s arm and spinning her around so that she faced him.
“THE TREES JUST THREW A HAND AT ME!” he shouted.
Lisel and Sirilrhis both looked baffled. “Are you sure?” Lisel asked. “Trees don’t do that.”
Hirúka made the most distraught expression Lisel had ever seen in her life. She ignored this and looked up at Sirilrhis. “Have anything to say about this, dragon?”
“If a spirit did that, it clearly doesn’t want us here,” he said. “We should walk faster.”
“Guess they weren’t too happy with your offerings,” said Lisel. She pried Hirúka’s hand off her arm and pushed him forward. “Move your legs. Start walking again.”
“Is this normal for forests?” Kiyaska asked after a few moments of silence.
Sirilrhis let out a small laugh and put his hand on her shoulder. “No, this is definitely unusual.”
Hirúka and Kiyaska eventually got comfortable enough to start their usual chatter again. Lisel watched them for a minute before turning to Sirilrhis. “Do you believe what Hirúka said?” she asked. “That the tree actually threw a hand at him?”
“I didn’t see a hand, but I doubt he’d suddenly start hallucinating out of fear.” said Sirilrhis. “Spirits can’t create illusions. If he says he saw a hand, then it was probably a hand.”
Lisel raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know much about spirits, but that sounds fairly hostile to me. Should I assume that we’re going to be attacked?”
Sirilrhis shrugged. “Who knows? Spirits are fickle. It could have been a warning that we’re straying too close to something, or it could be a precursor to their future violence. I have no idea. It’s impossible to tell.”
Lisel leaned close to him. “You are being too blasé about this,” she hissed under her breath. “I need to know whether or not we’re about to be in danger so I can plan appropriately.”
Sirilrhis stared down at her. “It is impossible for me to answer that question.”
Lisel slapped her palm into her face and sighed in frustration. “I know that already,” she said.
There was a loud crashing sound from somewhere in front of her, far enough away that the source of the noise was concealed by the fog. Lisel couldn’t pinpoint where it occurred. She immediately started reaching for her rifle.
Sirilrhis stepped forward and held his arm out in front of her. “That was just a tree falling over. Don’t get antsy.”
Despite his own words, Sirilrhis kept a hand on the hilt of his jian as he walked forward. Lisel followed slowly. Behind her, Hirúka and Kiyaska had both stopped in their tracks.
It was an old tree that had fallen, and it was stretched out all the way across the road. Lisel couldn’t help but think that it looked like a purposeful roadblock. Sirilrhis stepped up on top of the tree, then hopped off to the other side of the road.
“What’s it look like?” Lisel asked.
“It looks like it just broke on its own,” Sirilrhis answered. He gestured at the three of them to follow him. “Come on.”