Haradeth had never before seen the lands of Sylvani. Few had. Even his own mother had not been here – or if she had, she hadn’t told him. Then again, there’s a lot she didn’t tell me, he thought with a bitter twist. Eighteen was an adult by mortal standards, but a child by the standards of the demigods. There was much his mother had left to teach him. Please, please be alright.
The Sylvani had claimed a stretch of forest on the northernmost tip of the continent, where it was warmest. It wasn’t his woods, but this forest still sung to him as he wound through the trees that towered overhead. The life, the energy that infused this place was different than what Haradeth knew, but also familiar. The great cat that stalked behind them, trying to decide if Lorathor and Haradeth were predator or prey, felt different than the cougars of his home forest, but also similar. The raptors that flew through the trees, small creatures that hunted the great dragonflies of this wood, still held the same intensity in their pursuit as the falcons he knew.
The strangest were the apes that watched them from the trees, scattering when they noticed their feline pursuit. They felt like the beasts Haradeth was most comfortable with, but the also felt like men, a strange blend of the two. Haradeth resolved to seek one out before he left these woods.
That resolve was distracted when Lorathor pushed aside some low ferns ahead of them. “We’re here,” the Sylvani said simply.
Haradeth gaped at what he saw. The homelands of the Sylvani were in a great sinkhole in the middle of the forest, one so wide he could scarcely see the other edge, overflowing with vegetation – but no trees. Instead of trees were great spires of woven green and silver metal, topped with domes of glass that overlooked the valley below. At the parting of the ferns, a metal bridge began to grow out of the side of the sinkhole, twining its way across the vast empty space towards the nearest of the glass domes. It was far more advanced than anything ever built man, and far more beautiful than anything ever crafted by Alohym hands. Lorathor grinned at Haradeth’s open mouthed expression. “I never get tired of it, either,” he said simply, then began to scamper across the forming bridge.
Barely able to breathe, Haradeth followed. What shocked him most was the feeling he was getting from these vines of metal as the grew to grant them passage. They felt alive, somehow, although it was a strange form a life. Living metal, growing like a plant, and with a strange amusement that suggested sentience. It’s like stepping onto another world. Even the animal life within the sinkhole felt different. Strange and wonderful, alive with the same desires as the creatures they had left behind. He managed to catch a glimpse of one that flittered up to study him and Lorathor as they walked across the bridge. It fluttered like a hummingbird, but instead of wings, it hand webbing stretched between tentacles that it undulated to hold itself aloft. Its beak was akin to that of a bird, but ringed by six more tentacles, two of which ended in eye stalks that blinked curiously at Haradeth. He sensed confusion coming from it.
He glanced ahead to asked Lorathor what he was looking at, and almost fell off the metal vines in shock. “Who the flath are you?” he shouted at the thing that had taken his companions place.
It was a hunched creature, standing on two thick tentacles. Its forelimbs were three tentacles each, wrapped into a tight bundle and ending in fingers. The face was flat and featureless, save for a beak much like the fluttering creature that had scattered at Haradeth’s voice. The eyes however…those were undoubtedly the curiously shaped irises of a Sylvani. “I should have warned you,” the creature said in Lorathor’s voice, “but I honestly wanted to see your reaction.”
“Lorathor?” Haradeth asked, his jaw threatening to drop so hard it hit the valley below. “I…how?”
“This is my natural form,” Lorathor said. “When we travel among humans, we shift our bodies into the ones you know. Here, though, there’s no such need to contort ourselves.”
“You…hide what you look like? Constantly?”
The skin around Lorathor’s beak stretched in a way that reminded Haradeth of a smile. “It’s hard enough to travel safely among humans looking as much like them as we can. They never do adapt well to the new and different. It’s safer for us – and for them.”
Haradeth swallowed hard. “I…suppose. It’s just hard to…I’m not used to this.”
Lorathor chuckled, and shifted back to his more human appearance. As he did, Haradeth could see the way skin folded to hide the tentacles as arms, the way the beak was folded into a slit and pulled back to hide itself as a tonsil, the way the legs lengthened and contorted to give the appearance of musculature stretched over bones. “I wanted to show you before you met my people. Here, now, in this time, they will not hide their appearance for the sake of an outsider.”
“What do you mean now? Did they used to?”
Lorathor nodded. “You’ll see. I said it would be difficult to get my people’s aid, and there’s much that’s taboo for me to say without Her approval.”
“You’ve mentioned Her a few times. Can you tell me yet who She is?” Haradeth asked with a frown.
“No. But soon. You were going to ask me something?”
“Oh…yes. The creatures. Why haven’t they spread to the rest of the forest?”
“We keep them contained.” Lorathor said.
Haradeth waited for Lorathor to elaborate, and Lorathor declined, instead beginning to walk down the twisting vines of green metal again. Haradeth began to walk to keep up. “How can you keep them contained? Even my mother couldn’t keep all the creatures within our forest if she asked them.”
“You don’t ask,” Lorathor said cryptically. “You just make it so they can’t leave.”
Haradeth ground his teeth. “You’ve been enjoying the mystery, Lorathor. When do we get some answers?”
“When you stop bellyaching and speak to Her.” Lorathor rolled his eyes, an impressive gesture with his unusual irises.
“Is she in the dome ahead?” Haradeth asked.
“In a manner of speaking.”
Haradeth bit back another snappy reply, instead taking a deep breath. “Can you tell me how many of your people there are, at least?”
“Yes.” Lorathor said, looking over his shoulder – which, Haradeth reminded himself, was no more an actual shoulder than Lorathor’s smile was actually a mouth.
“And I can tell you,” Lorathor said. “But you’re impatient and can be rude, so I’m not going to.”
“If you think I’m impatient and rude, why bring me? Why not…why not anyone else?”
“Because you’re semi divine. Anything less would be an insult to Her. Few gods have ever set foot in our refuge, Haradeth.”
Haradeth opened his mouth, then took a deep breath. “Thank you for the compliment.”
Lorathor beamed at him. “Good, you can learn. Now, come on.” Lorathor motioned for Haradeth to follow, and they continued along the branch of woven metal to the dome of impossible glass.