Chapter 15 can be read below the cut.
Haruyéng sat on the outskirts of Tsengtu, looking at the slate in his hand. STAY IN TSENGTU UNTIL YOU HAVE CONFIRMED THE IDENTITY OF ALL THE REBELS was what the latest message read. He sighed and set the slate to the side. “So vague,” he muttered under his breath. “This is not what I’m supposed to be doing.”
I’m the Commander of the Firearms Division. I should be at the Capital with the rest of them, not out here in this town wasting my time. Did I insult someone without realizing it? Haruyéng leaned back and stared up at the sky. It was getting brighter. His squad had better be awake by now.
A couple of minutes later, he heard footsteps. Haruyéng turned to see Onnarré, who was surprisingly unarmed. Hayésu and Lu had mentioned that he liked to come out early for target practice, but that clearly wasn’t the reason he was here.
“You’re up early today,” Haruyéng remarked.
“What are you doing here?” Onnarré asked.
Haruyéng chuckled. “Of course you get right to the point.” He picked up the slate and held it out toward Onnarré. “I got a few messages from my superiors. I just wanted to read them in peace before I passed the information on to the three of you.”
Onnarré narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Haruyéng set the slate back down on the tree stump. “Basically nothing. They want us to stay here until we catch all the Rebels.”
It took him a moment to notice that Onnarré was staring at him expectantly. “Did you have anything else to say to me? Are you here for a real reason?” Haruyéng asked.
Onnarré shifted from foot to foot and looked away. “Why are we actually here?” he asked.
“We’re here to find the Rebels in this town and question them,” answered Haruyéng. “Well, maybe just arrest them. Onnarré, you know this. What’s your real issue?”
“But we’re here and not someone else,” said Onnarré. “That doesn’t seem right. Why would that be the case?”
Haruyéng threw his arms up in exasperation. “Hell if I know! No one told me anything. It was all just ‘go here, Haruyéng. Find the Rebels, Haruyéng. We’re not going to give you any sort of context or reason, Haruyéng’. I have nothing, Onnarré.”
Onnarré looked puzzled. “You don’t actually know?” he asked.
“Of course I don’t fucking know!” said Haruyéng. “I’ve been trying to figure out why I, of all people, was sent here the whole time we’ve been here! It doesn’t make any sense to me either, Onnarré. There are people who are actually qualified to hunt down Rebels, and none of them are me.”
He sighed and rubbed his face. “I should be back at the Capital, actually commanding the rest of the Division. I’ve angered someone or something.”
“Did you do something you weren’t supposed to?” Onnarré asked.
Haruyéng sighed through his fingers. “I’ve done literally hundreds of things I wasn’t supposed to,” he said. “I’m sure you have, too.”
“You really can’t think of any reason why the Empire would want to get rid of you?” Onnarré asked.
“No,” said Haruyéng, “and I really don’t want to think about it right now.”
“Where did Hirúka go?” Kiyaska asked.
Lisel didn’t even bother looking up from her map. She continued tracing the path with her finger. “I have no idea. Sirilrhis?”
Sirilrhis grunted in response. Or maybe it wasn’t a response at all – he had been stomping out the remnants of their fire.
“I’m going to need a real answer,” said Lisel.
“I don’t know,” said Sirilrhis. “I wasn’t keeping track of him.”
Lisel folded up the map and looked over at him. “Well, go get him. We’re going to leave now.”
Instead of doing something sensible like walking around to look for Hirúka, Sirilrhis cupped his hands around his mouth and started yelling. “HIRÚKA! WE’RE LEAVING NOW! GET BACK HERE!”
“I didn’t mean that,” said Lisel.
“What did you want me to do?” Sirilrhis asked. He put his hands on his hips and tilted his head back slightly as he looked down at her. “I don’t know where he is. I don’t want to wander around until I run into him. I have no idea how long that’ll take.”
Hirúka, in his tiger form, leaped out of the bushes and onto the road. He shook some of the leaves off of his head, and in a moment, was back to his human form. “We’re leaving right now?” he asked.
“Where were you?” Lisel asked. “You know better than to wander off on your own.”
Hirúka started picking up his things. “I was just checking some stuff out. The coast is clear, by the way, so we can get going right away.”
“You do know where that shortcut Nelunna mentioned is, right?” said Lisel. She and the others followed behind Hirúka closely.
“Yeah, that’s what I was checking out!” said Hirúka. He gestured wildly with his hands. “I’m surprised she even knew about it. It’s not something that’s particularly obvious to humans. Or elves, I guess.”
“Why not?” Lisel asked.
Hirúka tapped his nose. “Both your species have a bad sense of smell. I could tell from the scent alone that lots of tigers and spirits use that path. And it matches up with what Nelunna drew on the map, so it’s got to be the same one.”
Lisel gestured at the path in front of them. “I’ll take your word for it. Lead the way, Hirúka.”
They followed the road for a couple of minutes. When it started to curve to the right, Hirúka took a sharp turn into the trees. Lisel stopped in her tracks and looked after him. There was a small marker – a white flag – tied to a stake in the ground near where Hirúka had stepped off the dirt path. If Lisel looked very hard, she could see that there also was a path here, but it looked more like a deer path than something used by a human or elf.
“The road is basically invisible, but that marker isn’t too hard to notice,” said Lisel.
Hirúka started looking around. Kiyaska pointed at the marker. “It’s there!” she said.
“Oh, huh,” said Hirúka. “I didn’t even see that.”
This was utterly bewildering to Lisel. “You really rely on your nose so much that you don’t understand you should also be using your eyes?” she asked.
Hirúka rubbed the back of his neck, looking embarrassed. “I wasn’t looking for markers!” he said. “Um…the scent here is really obvious! Isn’t it, Sirilrhis?”
He looked at Sirilrhis expectantly. Sirilrhis scanned the area lazily. “Yep, it definitely smells like spirits,” he said. “In fact, this whole forest does, but it’s obvious that this is a well-used path.”
Hirúka led them further down the path. Approximately every fifty meters, there was a stake in the ground with a white flag tied to it. Lisel wondered just who put them there. The flags were cloth and didn’t have any anti-degradation spells written on them. Someone had to be coming out here often and replacing them.
“Do tigers use trail markers?” Kiyaska asked.
Hirúka shook his head. “No. Some human or elf must have put them here. I don’t think there are any villages around here, so…I have no idea who did it.”
“So you have villages, right?” Kiyaska asked.
“Yes?” said Hirúka. “Most of us live in villages instead of towns or cities. They’re all over the place.”
“Are we going to come across any?” Kiyaska asked.
“I hope so!” said Hirúka. “I’d really like to get a chance to speak my own language again and get caught up on what’s happening here and be around my own people! It’s so weird to be around humans and elves all the time.”
“I thought you wanted to go on an adventure,” said Lisel. “What happened to that? Are you homesick already?”
“It’s not that!” Hirúka protested. “I just wanna speak my own language for a bit.”
“I speak your language,” said Sirilrhis from the back of the group. “You could talk to me.”
Hirúka side-eyed him. “I doubt you’re too fluent,” he said.
Sirilrhis faked looking dejected. “You’re hurting my feelings, son.”
Hirúka pulled his hat lower on his head. He looked mortified. “Don’t call me son ever again,” he muttered.
The four of them continued walking. Some of the white flag markers were missing, but both Hirúka and Sirilrhis could smell the path well enough that it wasn’t a problem. The forest itself continued looking the same – same plates, same animals, same sounds.
“What sort of spirits live here, Hirúka?” Sirilrhis asked.
Hirúka rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I don’t know what spirits live in this exact area, but nature spirits, mostly. Animals, plants. There are probably more spirits here than normal animals. Most of the larger birds and birds of prey are spirits, as are the deer. Predators like foxes and wolves, and wildcats if there are any. Most of the old, large trees are probably spirits. And…some of the rivers and ponds and lakes, too, I think.”
“I didn’t know plants or water could be spirits,” said Lisel.
“Really?” said Sirilrhis. “Your parents never told you any of those stories? You never read any classical literature mentioning them? You never-”
Lisel waved her hand at him in irritation. “I get it, I get it. I’m an ignorant city person who doesn’t understand anything about the country. You’ve told me that way too many times for me to ever forget it.”
“That is not what I was going to say,” said Sirilrhis. “I was simply surprised that you’re unfamiliar with something that most people have heard of.”
“You’re still insulting me,” Lisel pointed out.
“I’m legitimately bewildered!” said Sirilrhis. “You can’t even use your age as an excuse. You absolutely should know better.”
Hirúka spoke up before Lisel could. “Um, Lisel, it’s okay if you don’t know that,” he said. “I think a lot of humans and elves don’t, since they don’t live in nature and aren’t connected to it.”
“How true is that?” Kiyaska asked. She looked confused. “Do Imperials really not understand what is and isn’t a spirit? What Hirúka said seems obvious to me.”
“Kiyaska, I think what your people know to be spirits and what most people in Meitsung know to be spirits are a bit different,” said Sirilrhis.
Kiyaska continued looking confused. “Really? What do you know about spirits in our culture?”
“Next to nothing,” Sirilrhis admitted. “But I’m sure your spirits aren’t the same as those here in Meitsung.”
Numerous spirits flitted around as they walked. The crow spirits in the trees above chattered constantly among themselves. They sounded exactly like normal crows, but Lisel could heard a clear word every now and then.
“The birds are talking about us,” said Kiyaska.
Lisel looked up at the crows. “Why would they be doing something like that?” she asked.
Kiyaska shrugged and looked back up at the trees. “I don’t know. They’re crows, so they’re probably curious.”
The chattering continued. After a while, it stopped, and Lisel heard what sounded like whispering. It took her a while to realize that it was crow voices she was hearing, and that the crows were whispering about them.
Bewildered, she looked up at the trees. “It’s rude to talk about people when they’re right in front of you!” she yelled. “If you have something to say, come down here and say it to my face!”
“Really?” Sirilrhis commented.
“Um, what’s going on?” said Hirúka.
One of the crow spirits took off from the tree and flew around the group in a lazy circle, getting lower and lower. Lisel held out her arm, and the crow landed on it. It took a moment to shake out its feathers and get situated.
“What are you doing here?” the crow spirit asked.
“We’re traveling,” said Lisel. “We don’t plan on staying in this area for long or disturbing any spirits.”
The crow spirit tilted its head to the side. “Elves say that all the time. But they’re elves, and elves are never honest.”
Lisel frowned. “What do you mean by that? How many elves have you even met?”
“Lisel,” said Sirilrhis. Get back on track was the tone his voice had.
“Do you not want us here?” Lisel asked. “I understand not liking outsiders. No one likes it when someone comes into their house and makes a mess.”
The crow turned its head again. “Elves are liars,” it said.
Lisel sighed in irritation. “Are you going to answer my question or are you just going to insult my species?” She leaned in closer to the crow spirit. “Look, I don’t know what elf wronged you in the past, but I am not that person. I am someone entirely different. Can you just tell me why you’re talking about us? Can you answer that one question?”
The crow spirit stretched out a wing, pointing down the path. “Elves with weapons and military clothes!” it said. “They’re on this path, coming this way.”
“Elves with weapons and military clothes,” Lisel muttered to herself. “They wouldn’t happen to be Rebels, would they?”
The crow pulled at Lisel’s sleeve. “Different uniforms,” it said. “What’s the word…Imperials? That’s it! Imperial soldiers. Imperial soldiers headed this way.”
Lisel looked down the path. “Headed our way, huh?” she said. “I guess we’ll have to go deal with them.”
Hirúka was starting to look panicked. “What? How could Imperials get this far into Símaqágu without anyone noticing?”
Lisel shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out if we take one of them alive.” The crow spirit flew off, and Lisel reached for her rifle.
“Hold on a minute,” said Sirilrhis. He looked uneasy. “Are we actually going to fight Imperial soldiers?”
“Yes?” said Lisel. “I don’t know what your thinking is, but I definitely don’t want any walking around alive if I can help it.”
Sirilrhis remained looking uneasy, while Hirúka now looked petrified. “We’re actually going to fight Imperial soldiers?” he said, his voice shaking.
Lisel continued fiddling with her rifle. “Yes,” she said. “And I know you don’t have any combat training or experience. That’s why you’re going to spot them for us.” She turned to Kiyaska. “You finally ready to kill Imperials?”
Kiyaska grinned excitedly. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she said.