Chapter 20 can be read below the cut.
The area surrounding Lisel’s group was fairly mountainous. They’d passed many deep ravines and gorges, many of which had rivers and lakes at the bottom. There was fog everywhere, though it was not thick enough to be obstructive, and the clouds were fading fast as the run rose higher into the sky.
It was just after seven o’clock, and they’d just packed up the camp and set off again. Lisel, as usual, was looking at her map. Kiyaska was engrossed in looking around at the surrounding area, and Hirúka calmly walked along in his tiger form, occasionally answering one of her questions. Sirilrhis was the most cheerful Lisel had seen him – he was singing and dancing as they walked.
Lisel folded up the map and put it away. “I didn’t know you could sing so well,”she said to Sirilrhis, who was currently twirling around in front of her with his arms outstretched.
Sirilrhis turned his head just enough so he could look at Lisel. “Why do you even bother with poaching?” she asked. “I’m sure you could make good money if you joined the opera. You’re so dramatic. You’d fit right in.”
Sirilrhis furrowed his eyebrows. Lisel frowned right back at him. “What, are you insulted? I’m not trying to insult you,” she said.
“Lisel, I’m ‘poaching’ because I want to eat deer,” said Sirilrhis. “It’s not my fault that I haven’t been approved for a hunting permit this year.”
“This year, and the previous year, probably the one before that,” said Lisel.
“Yes,” said Sirilrhis. “And? Your point? Is there one?”
Lisel rolled her eyes. “My point is that you wouldn’t be getting in trouble if you bothered to fill out the forms correctly. It’s not even remotely difficult.”
Sirilrhis looked annoyed. “Those forms are different every time I see them. I ask questions and I get conflicting answers. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the City Officials are deliberately trying to prevent me from doing any legal hunting. But I’m sure they’re all reasonable people and wouldn’t ever dream of doing something like that. Isn’t that right, Lisel?”
“Sure. Whatever you say,” said Lisel, ignoring his jabs. Sirilrhis opened his mouth again, but she cut him off before he could say anything else. “There’s a village up ahead.”
Sirilrhis immediately dropped his sour mood. “How much further ahead is it? I might have heard of it.”
“Really?” said Lisel. She raised an eyebrow. “You think you’ve heard of a tiny village in this forest?”
“Yes,” said Sirilrhis. “There’s a village around this area that’s populated almost entirely by monks and priests. There’s a sacred forest beyond it and those people are the caretakers.”
“There’s an entire sacred forest here?” said Lisel. “Why haven’t I heard of it?”
Sirilrhis side-eyed her. “Judging by the way you talk about things in general, I’m assuming it’s because your education was lacking in anything that has to do with things outside of the Capital.”
Kiyaska suddenly ran up to the front of the group and pointed forward. “Is that the village?” she asked.
There were some wooden buildings in a small valley ahead. A large ginkgo tree sat at what appeared to be the entrance of the village. The same river they’d been walking along ran right through the middle of the buildings, and was crossed by a small wooden bridge. Streetlamps lined the path, but they weren’t lit since it was still morning.
“It certainly looks like the only village around here,” said Lisel. “Let’s go and see if we can find anyone to talk to.”
As they got closer to the village, Lisel saw an old nun brushing leaves off the main path. When the nun saw them, there was a brief expression of confusion on her face, then worry as her eyes moved over Lisel’s uniform.
“What is a soldier doing here?” the nun asked.
Lisel stopped in front of her. The nun was fairly short, and although Lisel wasn’t particularly tall, she towered over the other woman. “We’re traveling. I’m with the Rebels,” she said.
“Are you now?” said the nun. “Are you passing through or will you be staying for longer than the night?”
“We’re passing through,” said Lisel. Sirilrhis elbowed her, and she elbowed him back before continuing. “If you have any food or other goods we could purchase, we’d greatly appreciate it.”
“I’m quite sorry, but we don’t,” said the nun. “You see…” She trailed off, and both her voice and gaze faltered. “Madam Rebel Soldier, I’d like to speak to you and your group inside. Please follow me.”
The nun lead them into what appeared to be the main temple. In the foyer, she set her broom aside and turned back to the four of them. “Please leave your shoes and belongings here. Weapons are not allowed in the temple. It is a place of peace, not violence.
She looked directly at Lisel as she said that, and Lisel suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “I understand,” she sighed.
The nun led them down the hall and into a small, empty room. She shut the door before she addressed any of them. “There are Imperial soldiers in the sacred forest,” she said, frowning.
Lisel leaned against the wall with her arms crossed. “How long have they been there?” she asked.
“At least one week,” said the nun. “The first one came to our village eleven days ago. Since then, they have been staying in the forest. Occasionally, one of them comes into the village for supplies. They have spilled blood and are now actively committing acts that desecrate the sanctity of the forest.”
“Are there any soldiers in the village right now?” Sirilrhis asked. “Is that why we’re here?”
The nun nodded. “There is at least one soldier near the village at all times. I am not sure where that person is, but I do not want to be overheard.”
Lisel shifted from foot to foot. “Do you have a plan for getting rid of them?” she asked.
“I want them removed from the forest,” said the nun. “That is all.”
“Is there a part of the forest where spirits are known to congregate?” Sirilrhis asked. “There must be at least one.”
The nun nodded. “There is a clearing by one of the natural bridges. You will recognize it when you see it.”
Sirilrhis and Lisel looked at each other. “No spilling any blood, right?” said Lisel.
“That is correct,” said the nun.
The four of them walked back into the foyer. As they put on their shoes, Kiyaska reached for her bow. Lisel grabbed her forearm. “Kiyaska, no,” she said.
Kiyaska looked confused. “Why not? Aren’t we going to fight the Imperials?”
Lisel let go of Kiyaska’s arm and pulled some rope out of her pack. “Not with any weapons. We aren’t going to kill them.”
“So what are we going to do, exactly?” Hirúka asked.
“We’re going to round up all the Imperial soldiers in the forest,” said Lisel. “Then we’ll take them to that clearing the nun mentioned and…and…”
She looked at Sirilrhis expectantly. “The forest will take care of things,” he said.
“Ah, I get it,” said Hirúka.
“Well, I don’t,” said Kiyaska.
The four of them stood at the border of the village and the sacred forest. The same nun stood alongside them. “I do not know how many soldiers there are,” she said. “We have seen at least three.”
“There’s got to be more than three,” said Lisel. “We usually – we used to travel in groups of ten to twelve.”
Hirúka looked worried. “That sounds like a problem.”
“It won’t be. I can handle it,” said Lisel.
Sirilrhis narrowed his eyes at her. “I think you mean we.”
“Of course. We can do it,” said Lisel. She turned back to the nun. “We’ll be back in a few hours – sunset, at the latest.”
The nun looked skeptical. “Are you certain of that?” she asked.
Lisel nodded. “Yes. It absolutely will not take more than a few hours.”
With that, she headed into the forest. Hirúka, still looking skeptical, jogged up so that he matched her pace. “We don’t even know how many Imperials there actually are, and you think catching them all is only going to take a few hours?” he said.
“Of course,” replied Lisel. She pointed to a tall tree about thirty meters ahead of them. “Hirúka. I want you to go to the top of that tree and see if you can find where those Imperials have set up camp. Sirilrhis, find the clearing. Stay there and keep the Imperials in.”
“Understood,” said Sirilrhis.
Lisel looked to Kiyaska. “You’ll be sticking with me.”
Sirilrhis headed off to find the clearing while the other three walked toward the tall tree Lisel had pointed out. Kiyaska still looked confused. “We’re going to beat up those Imperials, right?” she said.
“Yes,” said Lisel. “But Kiyaska, please: whatever you do, do not kill them. I don’t know what’s going to happen if you do, but considering that this is a holy place that Sirilrhis is taking seriously, I’d rather we not take our chances with anything.”
“So what’s going to happen when we bring the soldiers to that clearing?” asked Kiyaska.
Lisel opened her mouth to answer, then realized she couldn’t. She didn’t know anything about this either. “Hirúka, can you explain to Kiyaska what’s going to happen?” she said sheepishly.
Hirúka stopped in his tracks and looked back as he waited for the two of them to catch up. “When Sirilrhis said the forest would take care of things, he meant that the spirits would get rid of the Imperials for us,” he explained.
Kiyaska stared back at him. “Well, duh. How are they going to do that?”
Hirúka rubbed the back of his neck, looking nervous. “I’ve only seen this happen once, back when I was a little kid. There was an intruder – a human – in our village and he killed one of our Elders. The others brought him to this place in the forest close by that me and all the other kids were told to stay away from. We weren’t supposed to be watching, but some of us snuck out to see what was going on. The Elders…they asked the spirits of the forest to take care of the intruder. And then they left.”
“And?” said Kiyaska expectantly.
“After a few seconds, the spirits came in and tore the intruder apart. They ate him alive,” said Hirúka.
Kiyaska stared at him in disbelief, her mouth hanging open. “What?” she said. “You told an entire story just to say that!?”
Hirúka looked startled. “Uh…you’re not surprised that spirits eat people?”
Kiyaska looked at Hirúka like he was stupid. “No? Why would I be surprised by that? Spirits eat people in Zarya Wa, too!”
Hirúka was stunned. “Do…do you execute people in the same way, though? I think-”
Lisel, irritated by Hirúka continuing to talk, grabbed both him and Kiyaska by the backs of their necks and started marching them toward the tree Hirúka was supposed to be climbing. “Now is not the time for this conversation,” she said. “Hirúka, climb up.”
Lisel looked around for any sign of the Imperial soldiers as Hirúka scaled the tree in his tiger form. “I don’t know why no one’s tried to kill us yet. There’s no way Imperial soldiers wouldn’t have noticed us walking around. We aren’t being sneaky.” She looked back at Kiyaska. “You wouldn’t notice something like that and fail to mention it, would you?”
“No? Why would you say that?” asked Kiyaska. She seemed startled by the accusation.
There was a shout from a part of the forest about fifty meters ahead of them, and then a loud cracking sound. A bullet hit the tree Hirúka was in, breaking off a branch. Hirúka jumped down to the ground a moment, still in his tiger form with his fur standing up.
“One of them saw me!” he said. “They’re probably coming this way!”