Chapter 7 can be read below the cut.
Lisel’s group neared the edge of the Great Forest about nine in the morning. The trees were much more spread out here, unlike the trees in the middle of the forest, which were so close together that they formed a ceiling with their branches and leaves. The fog was quickly disappearing in the sunlight, and the sun was actually visible.
Kiyaska stretched her arms above her head. “We’re finally out!” she said.
“You sure seem happy about that,” Lisel commented.
“Yeah!” Kiyaska chirped. “I never wanna go through a forest like that again.”
Lisel chuckled. “We have to go through a few more forests, but I don’t think they’re going to be anything like the Great Forest. Well, at least I hope they won’t.”
“Are we near any towns?” Kiyaska asked.
Lisel pulled out the map, angling it so that Kiyaska could easily see it. “No, we’re at the very edge of the forest now. And it looks like…” Lisel frowned and held the map closer to her face. ‘There’s another forest? What?”
Kiyaska looked disappointed. “Oh no…”
Lisel continued frowning. “Why is there another forest?” she muttered to herself. “I thought we were done with this shit.”
“You are aware that the vast majority of this province is covered in trees, aren’t you?” Sirilrhis said loudly from behind them. “And Símaqágu as well?”
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” said Lisel, not bothering to hide the exasperation in her voice. “I just didn’t realize that all of those trees got thick enough to constitute another problem forest.”
“Why not?” said Sirilrhis. “These things are usually marked really clearly-”
Lisel shoved the map into his face and pointed to the barely-legible label of Central Shensi Forest. “Oh,” said Sirilrhis. “I see why you wouldn’t notice that at first.”
Lisel sighed. “Let’s just hope that this upcoming forest won’t be as bad as the previous one.”
It took twenty minutes to fully exit the Great Forest. The area ahead was a flat, grassy meadow, full of flowers and other small plants and shrubs with the occasional tree here and there. A small, shallow river ran alongside the dirt road. The sky was a deep, clear blue with scattered clouds, and the fog was completely gone.
“I’m surprised there isn’t some kind of village here,” said Hirúka.
“There might be. This is a fairly large clearing,” said Sirilrhis.
After half an hour of walking through the meadow, no one saw any evidence of sentient life. There were no remnants of stone houses or wooden shacks, no firepits or sign markers. Occasionally, an animal ran across the road, but those were few and far between. There were some tiny fish and frogs in the river, but they were the only constant signs of non-plant life anyone saw.
“There’s plenty of fish in the river and more than enough room to grow crops,” said Hirúka. “Enough rabbits running around, too. If there’s no village here when there should be one, does that mean the forest we’re about to go through is just as weird and hostile as the one we just left?”
“That may be the case,” Lisel grumbled.
It didn’t take much longer to reach the boundary of Central Shensi Forest. Much to Lisel’s relief, it didn’t look particularly similar to the Great Forest. The trees were much more spread out, so the sunlight reached the ground. This didn’t seem to be unusual, since since there were plenty of flourishing small plants and flowers like what they saw in the meadow. Birds sang in the trees. And, best of all, there was no fog.
“This looks really normal,” Hirúka commented. “Feels normal, too.”
Sirilrhis peered at the sign at the side of the road. “Nearest town, 60 kilometers.”
“Guess that’s how far we’ll walk today,” said Lisel.
The difference between this forest and the Great Forest was immediately obvious. Hirúka and Sirilrhis mentioned that nothing felt unusual. Even Lisel’s more muted instincts told her that this place was safe.
“See, Kiyaska?” said Hirúka. “This is what a forest is supposed to be like!”
Kiyaska didn’t look impressed. “Uh-huh,” she said.
Hirúka chattered on and on about forests. Kiyaska was mildly confused by his excitement. Occasionally she nodded or made some sort of noncommittal noise when he paused. Eventually, her attention wandered too far and she toned him out, looking around at the forest for anything unusual or interesting.
She quickly spotted some odd-looking rocks. Plants grew on them, their roots trailing along the rocks to the ground. They were vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite recall why.
“What is that?” Kiyaska asked, pointing toward the rocks. “That rock thing over there doesn’t look normal.”
“I think it’s just an old shrine,” said Hirúka.
“Like the one outside the first forest?” Kiyaska asked. “It doesn’t look similar.”
“Yeah,” said Hirúka. “They don’t all look the same.”
“So what does that word – shrine – actually mean?” Kiyaska asked.
“It’s a place you go to worship a god. Or your ancestors. Or a spirit. Usually you leave some kind of offering for them,” said Hirúka.
None of that sounded familiar. “Oh…we don’t have those in Zarya Wa,” said Kiyaska.
Hirúka’s expression went from interested to confused as her words set in. “Really? You don’t? Do you only have temples? How does your religion even work?”
“Really differently from yours, I guess,” said Kiyaska.
Hours passed and evidence of temporary habitation started showing up. None of the buildings were houses; they were all hunting shacks and the occasional shrine.
Kiyaska was the only one who found this bizarre, and she vocalized it loudly. “This is so weird,” she said. “Why isn’t anyone living around here? There’s all these buildings here and they’re just abandoned.”
“Most people in this province live on the coast and northwest of Méngruna,” Sirilrhis explained. “The locals have stories about the forests belonging to certain spirits, so they don’t live in them. They visit to hunt or pay their respects.”
Lisel sighed. “I wish you would have told me that before we went in. It would have made things easier.”
“Some spirits are picky and can’t be reasoned with,” said Sirilrhis. “It likely wouldn’t have helped.”
“So if we went to a shrine and said a prayer or two, do you think we wouldn’t run into any more weird things?” Hirúka asked.
Sirilrhis shook his head. “No. Spirits can tell when you’re being disingenuous. You can’t pray for safe passage when you don’t even know what spirits you have to pray to.” He looked down at Lisel. “I’m guessing from your accent that you’re from the Capital Region and have no idea what the local spirits are in this province.”
“That’s right,” said Lisel.
“We’ll just have to deal with running into more weird things, won’t we?” said Hirúka.
“Yep,” confirmed Sirilrhis. Hirúka did not look happy to hear that.
They passed more shrines as they walked further into the forest. Kiyaska was fascinated by each and every single one of them. She kept wandering off to look at them, or running up to one that looked different from the ones they previously saw.
“Is this going to cause problems?” Lisel asked Sirilrhis as Kiyaska ran off toward yet another shrine.
“I doubt it,” said Sirilrhis.
“Think the spirits here are going to be offended by us like they were in the previous forest?” said Lisel.
“Still doubt it,” replied Sirilrhis. “I don’t sense anything strange.”
Kiyaska suddenly pointed to something in front of her. “A village!” she shouted.
“Don’t yell!” Lisel called to Kiyaska. “There’s a village? Are you sure it isn’t just another group of shacks-”
Kiyaska ran out of view. Moments later, Hirúka sprinted after her in his tiger form. Lisel sighed. “Let’s go get them before they do something stupid,” she said.
Kiyaska hadn’t been exaggerating. After Lisel rounded the bend in the road, she saw that there was indeed, a village. About ten small houses surrounded a central clearing with a tall, thin pole in the center. It looked like a meeting area – there were tree stumps encircling it.
Two middle-aged human men stood near the stumps, looking at Kiyaska and Hirúka. “Are you with them?” one of the men asked, gesturing toward the two.
Lisel nodded. “Yes, we’re travelers. We’re passing through the forest and going to Símaqágu Province.”
“Quite an interesting group you have,” said the other man. “A tiger, a dragon, an elf, and one of those northern nomads.”
“Not particularly unusual if you’re in the city,” said Lisel. Most of the rural towns and villages in East Meitsung were comprised almost entirely of Rénghan humans or elves. Dragons were concentrated in the very northern parts of Meitsung, and tigers lived almost exclusively in the very southeast. A group as diverse as hers was odd. She hoped that this man was just making an observation and because he found them unusual, and not because he was an Imperial spy.
“I suppose you’re heading to Suqhúlnis?” the first man asked. “Why aren’t you using the road that runs along the sea? It’s much safer than this forest.”
“Why are you living here if the forest isn’t safe?” Kiyaska asked.
The first man looked taken aback. “This area is on the very edge of safe land. The spirits won’t allow us to make any permanent settlements further in.”
“So it is the spirits causing all these problems,” said Lisel. “But that doesn’t explain the monster.”
“A monster?” said the other man.
Lisel glanced at Sirilrhis before continuing. “We encountered a…thing…in the Great Forest. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was pale and emaciated, like a corpse with all its limbs stretched out.”
The two middle-aged men look at each other, then back at Lisel. “That sounds familiar,” said the first man. “The Great Forest produces many things that are difficult to understand. But how did you get away from it? Those monsters generally eat people.”
Hirúka recoils and makes the most uncomfortable expression Lisel has ever seen on a tiger’s face. “Eat people? It was trying to eat us!?” he exclaimed.
Lisel gestured at Hirúka. “He drew a protection spell around us. That kept it from getting to us until I tried to make it go away and blew it up instead. So we had to run for a while. That aside, we’re going to be going through more forests.”
“That’s not exactly the best idea,” said the second man.
“We’re under time constraints,” said Lisel. “That road is the quickest, so it’s the one we’re going to take.”
“I guess there’s no convincing you otherwise,” said the first man. “I don’t know how far you plan on traveling today, but there’s a cabin thirty kilometers south of here. If you follow the road and keep up a good walking pace, you’ll be there by sunset.”
Lisel pulled her map out of her pack and tapped the point where the cabin should be. “Got it. Thank you,” she said.
“Well? Are we going to stay at that cabin tonight?” Sirilrhis asked as they left the village.
“I don’t see why not,” said Lisel. “I’d rather not travel when it’s dark, and it’d be nice to have walls separating us from any monsters and spirits.” She glanced down at Hirúka. “I’m still going to have you write your protection spells.”
“Yeah, of course,” said Hirúka.