Chapter 13 can be read below the cut.
Lisel was, once again, looking down at her map. Currently, the four of them were in the part of Shensi that bordered Símaqágu. Unlike the rest of the Shensi forests they’d traveled through, this forest was swampy and slightly difficult to traverse. Hírúka had become excited when they’d seen the first signs of swamp, saying that most of Símaqágu was a swamp and that he was happy to see something so familiar. Lisel hadn’t like the sound of that at the time, and still didn’t like it.
The sun was setting and according to the map, they weren’t close to any towns or cities. Sirilrhis, who had been hovering over Lisel’s shoulder as usual, pointed to a nearby spot.
“I know there are villages here,” he said. “They’re fairly deep inside the swamp, not close to the road or anything. They aren’t marked on your map, and neither are the roads that lead to them, if they even still exist.”
“Another night of camping. Great,” said Lisel with a sigh.
Sirilrhis straightened up. “That’s probably for the best. I’ve heard that the swamp people are unfriendly to outsiders. Violently unfriendly.”
“You’re six hundred years old and all you’re familiar with are rumors?” said Lisel. “That’s disappointing. But I wonder if these people are the cannibals I heard people tell stories about when I was in the military.”
“I’m not familiar with military rumors,” said Sirilrhis. He sounded bewildered.
“WHAT IS THAT!?” exclaimed Kiyaska.
“Kiyaska, don’t yell,” said Lisel. “We don’t know if there are unfriendly people around here.”
Kiyaska pointed toward the tree. “There are glowing things flying around!” she said. “What are they?”
“Those are just fireflies,” said Hirúka.
Kiyaska dropped her hand to her side and looked up at Hirúka, confused. “It’s on fire?” she said. “Who lights bugs on fire?”
“It’s not on fire,” said Lisel.
“But why would it be called that then?” Kiyaska asked.
“It’s a kind of glowing insect,” said Sirilrhis. “It has nothing to do with fire. That simply happens to be the name in the the Meitsung language. The various dragon and tiger languages have different names for those insects.”
“I still don’t like the name,” said Kiyaska. She did not look impressed.
“What’s it called in your language?” Hirúka asked.
“We don’t have a name for these fireflies because we don’t have them in Zarya Wa,” said Kiyaska. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a glowing insect.”
“Weird,” said Hirúka. “They’re everywhere in the tiger homelands.”
“Can I go catch one?” Kiyaska asked. “I want to see what it looks like up close.”
“Please, no,” said Lisel. “I don’t need you running off and getting lost in the dark.”
More and more fireflies came out as the sun sank lower in the sky. Kiyaska looked around at them all, utterly fascinated, while Lisel was preoccupied with finding a good camping spot. After a while, she came to a stop in the middle of the road and turned around to face the other three.
“What do you think about stopping here?” she asked.
“It’s as good of a place as any,” said Sirilrhis.
As the other three started unpacking, Sirilrhis stepped off the road to gather wood for a fire. He was facing away from the group and the road when the snake in his pocket poked its head out and licked his hand.
“Need something?” Sirilrhis asked. The snake stayed still, looking at the tree line. “Just wanted to look at the fireflies?”
Sirilrhis looked toward the trees. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. In that brief time period, all he saw were the fireflies. Behind those fireflies stood a barely-visible human-shaped figure at the edge of the trees. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing, and he dropped the firewood to the ground in shock.
“What are you doing?” said Lisel from the campsite. “You better not have dropped that in the water.”
Sirilrhis reluctantly took his eyes off the dark figure to look back at Lisel. “I didn’t,” he said. He looked back at the tree line. The dark figure was gone.
“What’s bothering you now?” Lisel asked when Sirilrhis got back to the campsite. Sirilrhis set the firewood down and pressed his hand to it. It ignited a moment later.
“I saw someone in the trees,” said Sirilrhis. He sat down cross-legged and set his palms on his knees. “They were watching us.”
Lisel sighed and leaned her head back. “Great,” she said. “Hirúka, do you know any protection spells that ward off projectiles? Or people?”
“No, sorry,” said Hirúka.
Hirúka wrote the protection spells in the dirt and mud around them after dinner. Kiyaska was still looking at the trees, fascinated with the fireflies. Sirilrhis was preoccupied with making his usual tea, and Lisel sat there in front of the campfire with her legs crossed, drumming her fingers against her knee.
“Kiyaska, do you want any tea?” Sirilrhis asked. “What about you, Hirúka?”
Hirúka looked at Sirilrhis like he was out of his mind. “Uh, no? I want to sleep.”
Sirilrhis looked over to Kiyaska. “What about you?”
Kiyaska stared at the teapot. “No, it’s gross,” she said.
Sirilrhis sighed, and poured another cup of tea. He caught Lisel’s gaze. “Tea?” he asked.
“No,” answered Lisel.
Sirilrhis kept staring at her. “You’re going to keep watch,” he said. “It’ll help prevent you from falling asleep.”
Lisel took the cup of tea from him and drained half of it in a single gulp. “I think that’s all I need,” she said.
Hirúka finished writing the spell and sat down dramatically with a sigh. “Well, that’s the best I can do,” he said. “It won’t help if any people attack us, but it’ll keep spirits away.”
The fire burned down to embers over the next two hours. Hirúka switched back to his tiger form and Kiyaska fell asleep against him, using him as a pillow. Sirilrhis, who had been drinking cup after cup of tea the whole time, was now understandably jittery. Lisel still had the same cup of tea that she took from him all those hours earlier; it was empty and she hadn’t bothered to refill it.
“You really have no sense of self control when it comes to tea, do you?” said Lisel. “I didn’t realize dragons could be affected by caffeine to this extent.”
Sirilrhis drummed his fingers against his leg. “What if I take first shift?” he said, ignoring Lisel’s comments. “Will you be able to sleep?”
Lisel set her teacup next to the teapot. “No, I’ll just stay awake until I get tired.”
Despite her own words, she soon fell asleep. Sirilrhis remained awake the entire night. During that time period, the snake slithered out of his pocket and wandered around, never straying too far from him. When the sky started getting lighter, Sirilrhis crossed his arms and closed his eyes. He stayed in that half-aware state for about an hour before Lisel started stirring.
Lisel yawned and looked around, bleary-eyed, before suddenly realizing the situation. She sat up quickly and immediately started talking to Sirilrhis. The sound was loud and accusing enough that he jumped.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Lisel demanded. “You made me miss my shift! And you’re sleeping.” She looked up at the sky. “It’s sunrise already? We ought to get going.”
Hirúka, still in his tiger form, groaned as he stretched. “Can’t we at least eat breakfast first?”
“Of course,” said Lisel. “But we’ll leave right after that.”
“Did you really drink so much tea that you didn’t sleep at all?” Lisel asked around an hour later.
“Yes,” said Sirilrhis. “I’m beginning to think it was not that great of an idea.”
The swamp got thicker as they walked further into it. The road ceased being dirt and turned into stone slabs and cracked rocks as the area became more and more marshy. There was more standing water here, and it was also much more humid. And if that wasn’t enough, Lisel noted with displeasure that there were a significantly large number of biting insects flying around.
“There’s so much mud,” Kiyaska commented.
“Try not to step in the water,” said Sirilrhis. “It’s disgusting and there are alligators in it.”
Lisel fixed him with an intense stare on hearing that. “Alligators!?” she exclaimed. “There are alligators here?”
“What’s an alligator?” Kiyaska asked.
“It’s a large armored lizard about as long as you are tall,” said Sirilrhis. “They’re docile, but it’s better not to make one of them angry.”
Kiyaska looked uncomfortable. “I don’t like the sound of that,” she said.
“Do we need to be concerned about this?” Lisel asked.
“No. If we run into one, I’ll tell it to go away,” said Sirilrhis.
Lisel stopped in her tracks to stare at him. Kiyaska and Hirúka did the same, watching Lisel closely instead of Sirilrhis. Sirilrhis did not notice that they’d stopped walking until he stepped onto the wooden bridge ahead of them and turned around.
“You’re going to talk,” said Lisel, “to an alligator. And tell it to go away.”
“Yes?” said Sirilrhis.
Lisel gaped at him. “Is the lack of sleep messing with your brain?”
“Oh, that’s your concern,” said Sirilrhis. “All dragons can talk to non-spirit animals, but especially reptiles, as we’re also reptiles.”
“You say that like it’s suppose to make sense,” Lisel said in exasperation.
The wooden bridge was much thinner than the dirt road, so they had to walk single file. It creaked and groaned with every step. Lisel did not like the sounds it was making at all, but the bridge held, so she tried to put her concerns in the back of her mind.
Kiyaska swatted away a mosquito. “These bugs are annoying,” she grumbled.
“Take care that you don’t let any of them land on your skin for too long. Some of them will drink your blood,” said Sirilrhis.
“I know what a mosquito is. We have them in Zarya Wa, too,” said Kiyaska.
They walked undisturbed for an hour. Lisel heard all sorts of animal calls, many of them unfamiliar. Occasionally she or one of the others saw a bird, turtle, or frog. Fortunately, no one saw any alligators.
“Is this really part of the main road through Shensi Province?” Hirúka asked, breaking the silence. “It goes through a swamp on a tiny, rickety wooden bridge?”
“This isn’t the main road,” said Lisel. “It’s still a major road, so I don’t know why we haven’t seen anyone else, other than the person Sirilrhis saw in the trees last night. And I doubt that person was friendly.”
“You actually want to run into people?” said Sirilrhis. “I thought you didn’t want any more distractions.”
“Of course not,” said Lisel. “But I do think it’s a little weird that we’ve barely seen anyone outside of towns and cities. Plenty of people live in the middle of nowhere.”
They stopped for lunch around eleven o’clock, near a bridge over a shallow river. Lisel leaned against one of the bridge posts as they ate their food. Sirilrhis and Hirúka had wandered off into the trees somewhere, but she could still hear them talking and making noise, so she turned her thoughts away from them.
Hirúka slowly chewed on his meat bun as he looked around. “This is kind of similar to the forest around my village,” he said. “It’s just way more flat here.”
“Your village is in the mountains?” said Sirilrhis. “South or east?”
“Southeast,” answered Hirúka. “About one hundred kilometers northwest of where the border of Arquhin meets the ocean.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed you were from that area. Your accent must not be that obvious,” said Sirilrhis.
“Have you heard me speak much in Mayu Lháni?” Hirúka asked, looking confused.
“I don’t think so,” said Sirilrhis. “Anyway, we should start heading back to-”
A wooden staff suddenly hit Sirilrhis in the shoulders. Startled, he reached for his sword, but the staff hit his hand next. He barely had time to jerk his hand back before the staff hit him again in the back of the knees, knocking him off his feet. Sirilrhis landed in the water on his back.
Hirúka had been staring blankly, confused and not sure how to react as a short human woman made quick work of Sirilrhis. The staff was suddenly turned toward him and he switched to his tiger form, drawing his ears back and hissing.
“I don’t know what you two are doing here,” said the woman, “but you need to-”