Once they were past the thorn wall, the shadows of the forest closed in. With the sun setting already the whole landscape was cast in shadows that stretched oddly across the landscape.
Tythel held out a hand and engulfed it in dragonflame. She told herself that being ready to fight felt like a good idea at this point, but the reality was she wanted to keep the darkness at bay. It didn’t produce quite as much light as she expected, and she glared at Nicandros’ unlight sword. He saw her gaze and shrugged. “If we have to fight you’ll appreciate it, girl.”
With nothing to say to that, they began to head deeper into the woods. Everything about the forest seemed more menacing than anything Tythel had seen before. The tree branches were bare and looked like hands reaching down the grasp at them. The underbrush was thick and snarled, full of enough thorned plants that Nicandros had to walk behind her and mirror her footsteps. There was no calming chirping of crickets here – instead a low buzz that promised venomous insects and the occasional distant hoot of an owl.
Finally, the light caught something. The reflection of two lights, peering out of the underbrush. Eyes. The thing behind the eyes, upon realizing it was noticed, screamed at Tythel in a sound very much like someone being violently stabbed to death. It startled her so much she fell over, and Nicandros whirled to face the threat.
Tythel quick raised her hand and relit the dragonflame around it. A cat, easily as big from nose to tail as Tythel was tall, slunk out and stared at them, sniffing the air. It seemed to decide they were alright, and turned to go back, glancing over its shoulder at them.
“I think it wants us to follow,” she whispered to Nicandros.
Nicandros grunted. “Best we do then.”
The great cat led them deeper into the woods. Around the time nightfall truly settled in, they came to a soldier wearing the armor of the Alohym. He was standing straight up, his eyes wide and unblinking.
Vines had crept in through the spaces between the metal cords of his armor, growing so rapidly they’d bulged out the thick metal in places. They’d also apparently worked their way inwards, and a cluster of them had erupted from the soldier’s mouth. The cat looked back at them, as if to make sure they understood the penalty for wrongdoing here.
Tythel glanced at Nicandros, who sheathed his unlight blade. The cat gave a chuffing sound that Tythel thought might be approval.
“If there’s dead soldiers here,” Tythel whispered, “why haven’t Those From Above attacked from the sky? They levelled a huge chunk of forest just to try to strike us.”
“Lathariel,” he responded, his voice pitched low as well, “last time the Alohym sent their vessels near here, she was able to bring it down. They didn’t know how close the effort came to killing her, but they didn’t want to risk coming back.” He bit the inside of his cheek, “But that was three years ago. They might have thought it safe to try again.”
Tythel was about to respond when the cat let out a warning growl, and they fell silent.
Tythel heard what had set the cat on guard, and motioned for Nicandros to listen. The sound of insects had completely vanished, replaced with another, intermittent noice. Crunch. It was the sound of massive footsteps on leaves, and between each step there was the grinding of metal on metal. The cat dove into the safety of a bush. As soon as he could hear it, Nicandros moved behind a tree, and Tythel joined him, putting out the flame as she did. Plants began to glow as soon as the fire was gone, providing some light.
The next footstep landed near them. It looked like one of the Alohym tentacles, although it didn’t end in a glowing crystal, but a four fingered claw. Tythel’s gaze followed it upwards, through the leafless branches.
There was a pod at the top of it, just high enough to be over the tree line. It was a wedge shape similar to the heads of the Alohym. The branches that it was snapping through were trying to wrap around its five legs, she could see that, but its every motion was enough to tear through them without problem. An unlight crystal rested on its belly, drawing light from the glowing plant leaves. It was primed to fire, but it was hunting for a target. Light and Shadow, how do we fight that? The legs were each as thick around as Karjon’s neck had been.
Nicandros drew his unlight sword, and Tythel realized he was going to try regardless of how impossible it seemed.
“Follow me,” he whispered, “stay close. And when I say to, hurl as much fire as you can where I tell you. Do you understand?” She nodded, and he crept closer to it, the cloak he wore helping him blend into the forest floor. She followed, moving on all fours like she had as a child when she wanted to impersonate her father. Once he was within arms reach of it, he stood up and and rammed the unlight blade into the tentacle with all of his might, twisting it to the side to cut a nice sickle into it. Inside she could see metal cords like the armor of the soldiers,
The attack did not go unnoticed. The pod at the top bellowed, a harsh sound like a sheet of metal being torn asunder. She wondered if this strange device, this walking vessel, could feel pain. “Now!” Nicandros bellowed, pointing to the hole.
This close, she didn’t need to hurl the fire like a ball. She shoved her hands up to the gap and let a stream of dragonflame pour from her fingers into the gap he had created.
It wasn’t enough to melt the exterior of the tentacle. But something inside burst with a sound like lightning striking, and that sound travelled up the length of the appendage. The pod began to list to one side. It tried to rearrange its tentacles to support its weight, but it had been mid step when the burst had happened.
As it fell, it fired the unlight beam. It couldn’t aim at her and Nicandros, but it could cut a swath through the forest below.
Once it hit the ground, a few soldiers began to spill out of it, disoriented from the crash. They weren’t wearing the near indestructible flying armor of other soldiers. They were armed with arcwands of unlight and had a lighter chainmail weave that clung to their bodies. Their helmets only covered their heads and put some of that green glass over their faces.
“Fight or die, girl!” Nicandros shouted as he charged towards them. The cat let out one of those disturbing screams and rushed after him.
For a moment, Tythel was paralyzed. Between the crash and the cats screams, the soldiers were disoriented, but there was so much distance between them. They’d have time to ready their arcwands.
Then get there before they do, she chided herself, and broke into a sprint after the others.
The cat reached its target first, and one of the men went down screaming as claws raked his exposed arms. Nicandros reached his opponent as well before they could fire, and his sword that had slashed through the thick metal of the walking pod, should have been able to cut through the man’s chainmail with no difficulty. At the last second, however, Nicandros turned his blade to the side and struck the man across the face with the flat of it.
Why would he do that? Tythel asked herself, but then the other three soldiers had readied their arcwands. One fired at her, and she dove to the ground as he did. The blast went over her head and she rolled with the dive, coming up right at his feet.
She lashed out with her foot, hitting him in the knee. Although the chainmail protected him, the force of her kick was enough to send him tumbling to the ground. She brought up the dragonflame on her hands and shoved it directly into the soldier’s face.
Death was instant, which she supposed was a mercy. She whirled. The cat had already moved on to his next target, slashing under the helmet of his prey, and Nicandros’ foe was unconscious. He was just standing there over the soldier, staring at him in mute disbelief.
Which meant the remaining soldier was free to level his arcwand at Nicandros’ back. Tythel had to move or he’d be dead. She tackled the man to the ground as he fired, sending his shot wild. It knocked his helmet aside, and she brought her flameless fist down on the back of his skull, knocking him unconscious. “What the flath?” she shouted at Nicandros, unsure if she was using the word correctly and not caring. “Fight or die, you said, but you froze!”
Nicandros’ face was contorted with emotion when he looked at her, but she couldn’t read it. “Don’t speak of things you don’t understand, girl,” he whispered, and his voice was thick and low.
“And don’t squabble amongst allies in the middle of a fight,” said a third voice. A man stepped out of the woods, illuminated by the glowing plants. As he stepped closer, she realized her first impression was wrong – he was a boy, probably close to her age. He had a sword that looked like it was made of wood in each hand, although the blood dropping from the tips of each implied they were sharper than that. His clothing was woven vines interlocked with bone plates, his skin was the color of oak bark, and the hair atop his head the color of autumn leaves and wild.
“Hadareth,” Nicandros said gruffly, “you’ve grown.”
“And you aged,” Hadareth said, his mouth turned down in a frown. “That was the last of them, but more may be back soon. Come, both of you,” he nodded to them each in turn, then to the cat, “Sagwa.” At his name, the cat perked up and slunk over to its master. “We need to meet my mother. Lathariel is waiting.”