With Haradeth leading them, they moved much through the forest with greatly reduced impediment. He seemed to know where every bush was, every bramble, every fallen log. If Lathariel is his mother, he probably does. At times, Nicandros and Tythel found themselves falling behind, and had to push to keep up.
Tythel didn’t try to speak during this journey. All her focus was required to keep track of her feet, and even if it hadn’t been, the battle was weighing on her. Why did Nicandros freeze? She thought back to their first encounter. He’d thrown that sphere at the soldiers and their armor had stopped moving, and she’d assumed they were dead, but now she wondered if they had been instead somehow immobilized. Was he a pacifist, unwilling to kill? They why carry a sword at all – or, for that matter, why would he not try and prevent her from taking a life?
The soldier whose face she burned crawled in front of her thoughts, and she dismissed him with some difficulty. Thomah had been one thing, he had been part of the group that had kill Karjon. The only remorse Tythel felt for his death was that she hadn’t gotten more information out of him, such as the name of the ship involved. This soldier, however? Likely knew nothing of her or her father. He was just doing what he believed was right for his gods. Was being on opposite sides enough to justify his death?
“We’re here,” Haradeth said, snapping her out of the uncomfortable reflection. She felt a surge of gratitude towards him, right up until she saw where ‘here’ was.
It was a fortress grown out of the forest, a citadel of plants. The thorns that had circled the woods were just a fence compared to the wall of spines surrounding the uniformly thick bark on the edge of this structure. Tree limbs reached down from over the thorns like the grasping hands of spindly giants waiting for them to move too close. Atop the walls she saw hives that swarmed with buzzing insects looking for a target to sting, and she saw other shapes moving in the forest outside the wall. An army of nature, ready to strike.
With Haradeth’s words, a section of the wooden wall folded away, and he motioned them inside. Sagwa padded in in front of them, and Tythel and Nicandros slipped through.
The interior of the fortress was well lit, not by torches, but by dozens of the illuminated leaves and some insects that glowed like fireflies, but did not flicker on and off. Torchflies. It was much less menacing than its exterior. The hallways were woven wood like the exterior, but the bark was traced into purposeful patterns that gave it an artistic look and lacked the thorns. The spacing of the illuminating leaves was used deliberately to enhance those patterns, and the floor was covered with a thick green moss that gave the impression of a carpet.
Haradeth lead them through some hallways until the entered something like a throne room. An entire thick branch of the light leaves grew out of the ceiling, hanging down like a natural chandelier. There was a table in the center, one that grew out of the floor, and chairs spaced around it, a total of thirteen.
Six of the chairs were occupied. Four of them held humans, two women and two men. Another chair held one of the Sylvani, a male of that species. His tail twitched as he studied them with the odd Sylvani eyes with their wavey pupils.
In the largest and most ornate of these chairs sat Lathariel.
Karjon had not described her much, and Tythel gasped audibly seeing her. It looked like if she was standing, Tythel would barely come up to her shoulders. Her hair was a deep and vibrant green and full of flowers, and her eyes were yellow and slitted like a cats. She was not some willowy whips of a woman stretched to that height either, but built large all around, with soft curves and a face that looked like it would be warm when it was smiling.
At the moment she was not smiling, however. Her face was contorted into a frown, her brow furrowed. “Nicandros,” she said, focusing on the man. “So good of you to return to us in our hour of need.”
If sarcasm could kill a man, Tythel would have had to dodge aside to not be caught in the blast radius of Nicandros’ demise. He bowed his head, but his lips were tight with anger. “You know well why I left. I ask you then to consider what could have prompted my return.” His voice was thick with emotion.
Lathariel considered for a moment, and the hard edges to her expression softened. “I ache for your loss, Nicandros.”
“Thank you, Lady Lathariel.”
She pursed her lips, although having watch the shift after her sarcasm, Tythel didn’t think this was anger. Some other emotion, perhaps frustration or concern? I need to get Nicandros to help me with this, she thought, but then those piercing eyes were focused on her.
“And what did you bring with you, Nicandros? A pyromancer into my woods?” Tythel didn’t think she was angry at her, but the idea of pyromancers clearly offended her on some level. She’s Queen of the Forest, Tythel. Do you think she’ll be thrilled someone’s throwing around fire?
“Not a pyromancer. I present to you Tythel, the scion of Karjon.” Nicandros stepped aside, as if he shared concerns about explosive sarcasm with Tythel.
Lathariel’s eyes widened, and she motioned Tythel closer. When she didn’t move right away, Haradeth prodded her gently, and she stepped closer to this imposing goddess. Little gods, Karjon called them. Little. I’m half her flathing size. Tythel decided she liked the word flath, and tiny irrelevant thought that was soon bowled away by Lathariel reaching out and gently taking Tythel by the chin to look directly into her eyes.
“He gave you a heartfire adoption?” she asked after a second that seemed like an eternity. There was warmth in those eyes, warmth and sadness.
“Yes.” Tythel felt the need to babble. “The last thing thing he ever got to do, besides fighting against Those From Above. They found us somehow, right after it was done, and they had their unlight rays and he tried to fight but their vessel was so large and he couldn’t fly because he had to protect me and then we flew away but they…they hit his wing…” The tears, held at bay for some time now, began to return.
Lathariel stood up, went to one knee so she was on eye level with Tythel, and embraced her. Tythel went stiff with shock at first, then returned the gesture. “Your father was my oldest friend. I will mourn his loss.” If the goddess had any other thoughts on the matter right now, she kept them to herself.
The Sylvani spoke after a moment, cutting through the silence. “Personally, I like the word unlight. Good way to distinguish their arcwands from the ones they’ve made here.”
Lathariel let Tythel go, and blocked Tythel from the view of the room to give her time to compose herself. “Yes, Lorathor. Now, Tythel, we have numerous problems right now. The Alohym have returned in force, and though we drove that group away – thank you both for your help in that – they’ll likely return.”
Tythel nodded, stepping aside. “I’m happy to help,” she said, both to Lathariel and the others.
Lathariel nodded. “And you will, child. It is good that you came when you did.” She turned to look at everyone in the room one at a time. “We must abandon these woods.”
“We can’t!” Haradeth erupted, and suddenly all eyes were on him. He took a deep breath to settle himself. “Mother. Your power is far greater here than it will be anywhere else. If we flee-”
“My power is not strong enough even here to resist a sustained assault.” She frowned at him, but it was a softer frown than before. “I do not like it anymore than you do, my son. But if we stand here, we will perish.”
“We have a dragon now!” he exclaimed, motioning to Tythel who could only blink in surprise. “Doesn’t their fire destroy their vessels?”
Tythel shook her head before anyone could speak for her. “My father’s flame heated the metal, but didn’t melt it. My flames only took down the thing in the woods because it had been cut open. If I can destroy them, I do not yet know how.”
Haradeth shot her a furious look, and Tythel realized he didn’t think she could win. He just wanted a reason to stay. “We can still fight! Even if-”
Again, he was cut off by his mother. Her voice was gentle but unyielding. “No, Haradeth, we cannot. We must flee, we must regroup. I promise you we will return when we have driven the Alohym from this world. But for now, we must survive. We must find the Vacuity Engine, and to do that we will need to change how we fight. Especially because we have a new weapon.”
Haradeth rolled his eyes. “You heard her. Her fire isn’t of any use against them!”
“That’s not what I’m referring to. A weapon to restore the spirits of the people, a banner to rally around.”
Tythel’s ears could hear Nicandros muttering beside her. It sounded a lot like “You’ve got to be flathing kidding me.”
Latheriel turned to face Tythel fully. “After all, we have the rightful heir to the throne now.”
Tythel felt every eye on her again, and while part of her wanted to sink into the moss carpet, she couldn’t help but give Nicandros look to make sure he knew she’d been right.
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