Chapter 6 can be read below the cut.
Lisel looked down at the tree before she stepped over it. “Don’t you think it’s suspicious that it broke right in front of us?” she asked.
“If course,” said Sirilrhis, “but what do you want me to do about it? Start yelling at all the nearby spirits to leave us alone? I’m sure that would make them angry.” He shook his head and sighed. “We should have gone down the coast.”
Hirúka looked around wildly. “So what do we do? Are we gonna backtrack and do that? Or are we just gonna keep going through this forest?”
Lisel sighed and pulled out the map. She tapped a spot in the middle of the Great Forest in Shensi Province. “Hey, everyone. Look at the map. We should be around here,” she said. “There are four more hours of daylight. That’s not enough time to backtrack, and it isn’t enough time to get through the rest of the forest.”
“So we’re going to be stuck here at night with a bunch of forest spirits that want to kill us?” Hirúka squeaked.
Sirilrhis put a hand on Hirúka’s shoulder and squeezed. “Nothing is trying to kill us,” he said, in a tone that Lisel assumed was supposed to be reassuring.
“If you aren’t entirely sure of that, then don’t say it,” Lisel said irritably.
“I’m not, but-” Sirilrhis started.
Lisel put her hand up to silence him. “Then shut it,” she said. “We are going to walk as far as we can. Once it gets too dark, we set up a camp for the night. And then we deal with whatever the hell the forest is going to throw at us.”
The next three hours were uneventful. Hirúka and Kiyaska still looked nervous, but they were quiet – they didn’t even go back to their usual conversations. They only spoke if Lisel or Sirilrhis asked one of them a question.
It was still foggy when the sun started setting. Even the light from the floating fireballs, it quickly became too dark for Lisel to be comfortable. “We’ll have to stop soon,” she said with a sigh. “What a shame. I was hoping we could get a little further today.”
They decided to set up camp in the middle of the road. No one felt comfortable going into the trees, and Lisel highly doubted that any other travelers would stumble upon them in the middle of the night.
Just like all the other previous nights, Sirilrhis had started brewing tea after he lit the fire. Lisel declined it immediately. She didn’t need to feel any more antsy than she already did.
After staring absently at the fire for a couple of minutes, Lisel heard a strange rustling noise and turned around to see Hirúka dragging a tree branch against the ground. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Writing a protection spell,” Hirúka answered.
“I didn’t know you knew how to use magic,” said Lisel.
“All of us tigers learn how to do this,” said Hirúka. “It’s how we keep our villages safe.”
Kiyaska took a sip of her tea and grimaced. “Do you – ugh – do you also live in forests with a lot of hostile spirits?” she asked.
Hirúka shook his head. “There are plenty of spirits and most of them aren’t friendly, but not like this.” He finished writing the spell and sat back down, then looked up at Sirilrhis expectantly. “So, how effective do you think this is going to be?”
Sirilrhis shrugged. “No idea. I’ve never been around this many hostile spirits before. It’s just as much a learning experience for me as it is for you.”
Sirilrhis started awake at the sound of something crackling. It took him a moment to remember what happened – he fell asleep while keeping watch, and he did that without waking Lisel first. He glanced to his side and saw that Lisel was, indeed, still asleep.
The fire had completely burned out. Only a few embers still glowed, but that combined with Sirilrhis’s sharp night vision let him see the thing that made the noise. It was a pale and emaciated creature, roughly humanoid in shape, with long and thin limbs. It paced outside the border that Hirúka made, and Sirilrhis could barely hear its footsteps.
He snapped his fingers at the fire to start it up again, then set his hand on Lisel’s shoulder. Before she moved, he leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Lisel. Sit up and don’t say a word. There’s a thing here looking at us and I’d rather not startle it.”
Lisel rubbed her eyes before she looked at the creature. It took her a moment to process what she was looking at, and she gasped and immediately reached her for her rifle. Sirilrhis reached for her wrist, and she preemptively slapped his hand away.
“What is that thing?” she asked.
“No idea,” said Sirilrhis. “It’s probably something indigenous to the forest.”
Lisel stared at the creature, still baffled. “I think this is one of those monsters in the stories about people wandering into weird places at night,” she said. “But half of those stories end up with people being violently murdered. I’d like to avoid that.”
She reached for her pack. “What are you doing?” Sirilrhis said sharply.
Lisel pulled out spell paper, a quill, an ink stone and an ink stick. “I’m going to write a spell to make it go away,” she said. “Can you make the fire a little brighter?”
Sirilrhis stared in bewilderment as Lisel ground down the ink stick. “You’re going to try to write a talisman?” he said.
Lisel dipped the quill into the ink. “Yeah. Why not?”
“You aren’t a priest or a monk,” said Sirilrhis. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Lisel frowned. “I don’t see how it’s a problem. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work.”
She stood up and approached the creature, which paused in its pacing and stared at her intently. Both of them stood on opposite sides of the barrier. The creature reached over it and immediately snatched it arm back as it started smoking.
Lisel used that as an opportunity to lean over the barrier and slap the talisman onto the creature’s forehead. It shrieked loudly as it drew back, attempting to claw the talisman off its face. The noise woke up both Kiyaska and Hirúka.
“It worked!” said Lisel happily.
The creature stumbled back and burst into flames. Lisel mood and demeanor changed immediately; she went from excited to mortified in a moment. This definitely was not supposed to happen.
“Shit, not again,” he said quietly.
“Again!?” exclaimed Sirilrhis.
The creature, still on fire, ran at them. Hirúka was startled enough that he backed out of the spell barrier, his fur standing on end. “What is that?” he said. “What’s going on?”
Lisel buckled on her sword belt. “We need to go,” she said. Then, louder, so that there was no doubt the other three couldn’t hear her, “NOW!”
As the creature crossed the spell boundary, Sirilrhis grabbed Kiyaska in one hand and her travel bag in the other. He threw her backward before grabbing his own things. Lisel grabbed Hirúka’s bag and her own and barely had any time to look back at the group before she started running.
Kiyaska looked confused, but mostly like she was still mostly asleep. “Is that even the right way?” she asked.
Sirilrhis grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet. “Yes, come on, let’s go!”
The creature, which had managed to crawl into the center of the spell ring, exploded. It was a bright, fiery explosion that lit up the road and the surrounding forest. It even caught some of the nearby trees on fire. What was left of the creature continued burning in a crumpled pile on the ground.
Sirilrhis let go of Kiyaska’s arm and ran up to Lisel. “What the fuck was that?” he hissed through his teeth.
“A mistake,” said Lisel.
“A mistake?” Sirilrhis scoffed. “Most mistakes in spells don’t cause explosions.”
“We can talk about it once we find a safe place to stay for the rest of the night,” said Lisel.
Around a minute later, Lisel slowed down to a walk. The others followed suit.
“What was that thing?” Kiyaska asked.
“And why was it on fire?” Hirúka questioned. He looked at Sirilrhis expectantly. “Did you light it on fire?”
“No. I’d also like to know the answer to that question,” said Sirilrhis. He looked directly at Lisel.
Lisel ignored Sirilrhis’s comment. “Are you sure we’re in a safe place?” she asked. “We made so much noise running here. Hirúka, write your protection spell again.”
“But it crossed the one I made-” Hirúka started.
Lisel held up her hand, palm facing him. “Only after it caught on fire. Things were fine before I put the talisman on that creature. Your spell worked. It’ll work again.”
Hirúka still looked unsure of himself. “Okay, but don’t go blaming me if we get attacked by another one of those things.”
Hirúka drew the spell and Sirilrhis summoned some more fire orbs. “Can you please tell me what that was about?” he said to Lisel.
Lisel sighed and sat down. “That was unintentional,” she said. “I just wanted it to go away.”
Sirilrhis sat down next to her and crossed his legs. “What did you write, exactly? Were you too vague?”
“No!” said Lisel strongly. “I clearly wrote down that I wanted that whatever-the-hell-it-is to go away. I didn’t write anything about it catching fire and exploding.”
Sirilrhis narrowed his eyes. “You said ‘again’. I remember that.”
Lisel rubbed her face. “Sometimes this is what happens when I try to write spells,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
Sirilrhis stared. “Did you never learn how? Was it not part of your schooling?”
“Yes, of course!” said Lisel. “I went through all the basic magic classes we had to take.”
“Do your ‘basic’ spells have this same problem?” Sirilrhis asked
“No,” Lisel answered.
“Is it only complex spells where you run into this exploding problem?”
“Do you especially have problems writing spells that, in general, only monks and priests try to write?” Sirilrhis asked.
“Yes,” said Lisel with a sigh.
“Then this is a skill problem,” said Sirilrhis.
Hirúka sat down with a huff. “The spell is done,” he announced. Lisel was about to thank him when he started talking again. “How do you have a skill problem when your magic is that strong? Not everyone can write spells that cause explodey problems.”
“I think that’s the problem,” said Sirilrhis. “You have a lot of potential, but very little skill.” Lisel scowled. Sirilrhis grinned and pulled up his sleeve so that the spell was visible. “I was actually thinking about having you remove this spell, but…I think it would be better if I found someone else.”
The four of them spent the next three hours waiting for the sun to rise. Sirilrhis dozed off quickly, sitting there with his arms still crossed. The other three were too antsy to go back to sleep.
Lisel stood up and stretched when the sky finally started turning gray. Kiyaska looked up at her. “Are we leaving now?” she asked.
“Yeah,” said Lisel. “Wake up Sirilrhis, will you?”
Kiyaska grabbed Sirilrhis’s shoulder and started shaking him. He jolted awake, and the fireballs fizzed out. “Huh? What’s going on?” he mumbled.
“We’re leaving. Make those fireballs again! It’s still dark,” said Kiyaska.
The four of them set off down the road. The forest was still dark and foggy, but it didn’t have the same foreboding feeling it did before. Lisel hoped it would stay that way.