Chapter 21 can be read below the cut.
Lisel sighed. “Get back in the tree and stay here, Hirúka,” she said.
“But-” Hirúka started.
Lisel leaned toward him. “Do it and don’t come down until I tell you!” she hissed between her teeth.
There was the sound of another gunshot. It didn’t hit anything, but Hirúka still jumped. Lisel glared at him, and he turned around and scrambled up the tree.
“What do you want me to do?” Kiyaska asked.
Two soldiers ran into the area. One of them had a rifle in his hands and the other had a dao. Both of them recognized Lisel immediately. The soldier with the rifle put it up to his face to aim, and the one with the dao started running at her.
“LISEL TSENSUNG, YOU TRAITOR!” yelled the soldier with the dao. “I’LL KILL YOU!”
Now everyone knew she was here. Lisel ducked down just before the soldier fired. The bullet clipped Kiyaska’s cheek, close enough to burn but not close enough to do any actual damage. Kiyaska stumbled backward, startled like she wasn’t sure what just happened. She did manage to get back into the bushes to hide.
The soldier with the dao stabbed at Lisel. She dodged and hooked her foot around his ankle, tripping him. As he fell, she grabbed the dao out of his hands and threw it in a random direction, into the bushes and far away from the three of them. She hoped Kiyaska or Hirúka might pick it up later.
Lisel looked toward the rifleman. He was aiming at her again. This wasn’t at all a good situation – she didn’t know how to get those two over to Sirilrhis, or where Sirilrhis even was. As the now dao-less soldier started to get up, Lisel kneed him in the face. She hoped she hadn’t broken his nose or even caused it to start bleeding.
There was one option left now: magic. Lisel didn’t even bother saying the incantation out loud. From the perspective of the soldiers (and Kiyaska, wherever she was), Lisel disappeared. She made her way over to the soldier and yanked the rifle out of his hands before throwing him to the ground, much more violently than she probably should have done.
Both the soldiers lay on the ground, groaning. Fortunately, they were both too injured to move. Lisel pulled back the bolt on the rifle and ejected the cartridge. Two down. Where were the others?
She heard the sound of another gunshot, and the bullet hit the barrel of the rifle Lisel held, denting it. She dropped it in shock and darted behind a tree. That definitely answered her question.
In the clearing, Sirilrhis looked down at three soldiers, all tied up so that they couldn’t move or go anywhere. They had not been difficult to find. “So!” he said. “How many more of you are there?”
The sole woman soldier spit at him. “I’ll never tell you anything,” she said. “The others will find and kill you before you can find them.”
Sirilrhis hummed under his breath. “Well, it’s nice to know that there are more of you out there.”
A shout suddenly came from the area Lisel and the others had gone to. “SIRILRHIS! I NEED YOUR HELP!”
Lisel had never used that tone of voice before. It almost sounded like a scream – one of shock, not the usual orders she yelled. Sirilrhis immediately ran through the forest toward her. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw some spirits hiding in the bushes. They were looking at the tied-up soldiers, but staying out of view of them.
Sirilrhis got to the clearing to see four soldiers on the ground. Another one had Lisel in a chokehold, and she was trying without success to fend him off. She was bleeding from a cut on her head, and there was also blood on her hands and fingers.
Without hesitation, Sirilrhis ran forward and kicked the soldier in the knees. That knocked him to the ground. Sirilrhis then grabbed the soldier and strangled him until he went limp from the back of air, taking sure not to actually crush his throat or spine.
“Where are Kiyaska and Hirúka?” he asked.
Lisel shook her head and tried to wipe the blood from her face. All she succeeded in doing was smearing it around even further. “I don’t know. I told them to hide. I hope that’s what they did.”
Sirilrhis’s concern for the two momentarily overrode his common sense. “HIRÚKA! KIYASKA!” he yelled. “Where are you-”
Lisel shot him an angry look and slapped her hand over his mouth. “Keep your fucking mouth shut. We don’t need to alert anyone else to our location,” she hissed. She removed her hand, still glaring. “Did you find any soldiers.”
“Three,” said Sirilrhis. “How many did you say there usually are? Twelve?”
“Ten to twelve,” said Lisel. “We have eight. There have to be a few more running around.”
“Lisel!” Kiyaska shouted from the bushes. “We got some of them.”
Hirúka and Kiyaska walked toward them. Hirúka, in his tiger form, carried two tied-up and beat up Imperial soldiers on his back, and Kiyaska dragged another by his feet. Lisel assumed and hoped that that particular soldier had been hit in the head just hard enough to temporarily remove him from his senses, but not hard enough to actually kill him.
“That makes eleven,” said Lisel.
Sirilrhis picked up one of the soldiers Lisel knocked down; Lisel grabbed another. “I guess we’re leaving the other two here for now?” she said.
“I can carry them on my back,” Hirúka piped up. “They’re probably not too heavy. Where’s the clearing?”
Sirilrhis pointed toward the clearing with his hand. “Back there. It’s not far.”
The walk back to the clearing took a while. Lisel and Kiyaska were both exhausted – Kiyaska from having to drag a grown man larger than her, and Lisel from the fight and injuries she obtained. When they got to the clearing, the soldiers that Sirilrhis had left were gone. There were fragments of fabric and rope, and bloodstains in several places.
“Did they escape already?” Kiyaska asked.
Sirilrhis set down the soldiers and pointed to a patch of blood. “No. Look there. The forest already dealt with them.” He turned around with a worried expression on his face. “I was hoping they wouldn’t do this so quickly. Let’s take anything these soldiers have and leave as soon as we can. I don’t want to be here when the spirits come out.”
“There might still be another one,” said Lisel as they left the clearing.
“Do you really want to find that last soldier right now?” Sirilrhis asked. “You’re injured and tired.”
Lisel looked at the weapons in her hands and sighed. “I don’t want to carry these around when we’re looking for their camp. Let’s go back to the village and…I don’t know, give them to the nun. I’m sure she’ll know how to get rid of them.”
“We could sell them when we get to a bigger town,” suggested Hirúka.
Lisel shook her head. “The next town we get to will be in the Empire. That won’t be an option.”
Walking back to the village took just about all of Lisel’s remaining strength. Somehow, she ended up carrying most of the weapons and supplies they’d taken from the soldiers. When they got back to the temple, she dropped everything down on the ground and let out a heavy breath.
“Are you sure you weren’t shot or otherwise seriously injured?” Sirilrhis asked. “The way you’re acting is concerning.”
“I don’t know,” said Lisel. She sat down on the steps, hanging her head. “I can’t tell. Everything hurts and I’m exhausted.”
“Just check yourself for injuries! It’s not that hard,” said Kiyaska.
“Where’s that nun?” Hirúka asked. “I bet she could help.”
“I am right here,” said the nun. Her eyes widened as she looked over Lisel. “Goodness, woman. What happened? I told you not to spill their blood.”
Lisel grinned, still staring at the ground. “I didn’t. It’s my blood, not theirs,” she said. She zoned out as Sirilrhis talked to the nun, staring at her hands and the ground. After some time, the nun tapped her shoulder.
“Madam Soldier, you can now go inside and retriever your weapons,” said the nun.
Lisel followed the others into the foyer, still somewhat out of it. “If you plan on going through the sacred forest to reach the border, you will pass through a very dangerous area,” said the nun.
That statement was enough to startle Lisel out of her daze. “How do you know we’re going to the border?” she asked. “I never told you that.”
“I don’t know where else you could be going,” said the nun. “I doubt you have any intention of going to the Forest of the Immortals.”
Sirilrhis perked up. “The Forest of the Immortals? Is that what Liusral Thérel is called in Meitsung soré?”
The nun nodded. “Ever since the death of the previous Immortals, people have been traveling to that forest in the hope that they, too, may become Immortals. When I initially saw you, I thought that was what you intended to do.”
Kiyaska frowned. “You can become an Immortal by going to a forest? I thought you had to do a lot more than that.”
“You do,” said the nun. “Some of us here have that goal and are dedicating our lives to it. The forest won’t help anyone. It’s just a place where some of the Immortals used to live.”
“Will we pass directly through it on our route?” Sirilrhis asked.
The nun frowned. “I don’t know the route,” she said.
Sirilrhis gestured at Lisel. “Get the map out.”
Lisel scrambled to get the map out of her pack. Sirilrhis took it from her and pointed their route out to the nun. “This is the path we are planning on taking,” he said.
The nun raised her eyebrows. “You’re going straight through the most dangerous area of that forest,” she said. “There’s no guarantee that the spirits won’t kill you as soon as the sun starts to set. Even you, dragon.”
Lisel shook her head. “We can make it through in a single day. It won’t be a problem,” she said.
“Are there cool things there, or is it just a normal forest?” Kiyaska asked.
The nun laughed. “There are many things in the forest. I will leave it vague so that you can see for yourself.”
Hirúka looked worried. “There isn’t anything particularly dangerous that you aren’t telling us about, is there?” he asked.
“No, just spirits,” said the nun.
It took a while for Lisel to get the blood cleaned off her face and hands. She also tried (unsuccessfully) to get the blood out of her clothes. Afterward, she felt much better, so she decided they were going to leave immediately. Hirúka, as usual, was upset.