They threaded the now completely barren forest. It looked like it was burned long ago – Ona became even more silent, cutting through the snow banks with mute obstinacy. Tiyan followed her like a ghost – two small human shapes among curled trees, standing in the frozen ground like sore thumbs.
All the time, Tiyan wondered when the Will-o’-the-Wisps would appear. They were going in more or less south, Ona was certain, but Tiyan felt more and more that he does something wrong. His inner compass was telling him they do, something whispered to him, that he should start searching elsewhere. That soon he will have to make up his mind… if wandering fires won’t appear. Mina circled in his mind almost all the time, his guts squeezed with worry. It was the sixth day and the landscape looked almost the same – aside of the road, which was showing beautifully damaged remains in form of signposts loosely hanging on nails and foundations of once cozy inns. But who knows how to find an entrance to the enchanted land? It could be hidden so well, he will never be able to find it.
He heard of humans who wandered close to Ain’asel. They never saw the path, or signs – they were just finding themselves under a completely different sky. No stars known to travelers, unknown constellations and even snow gleamed with different light. Few of them returned. They were sure it was a curse, being again in the reality of the humans. They were going mad in the end, but all confesed before that, that the sky… it was not a human sky, too close to the land, like it was about to press them against the earth. Something to ponder about, Tiyan thought bitterly.
Ona was silent, silent like a stone, but he was aware that she was not angry. Her own demons pulled her strings, and he respected that. When he was starting to talk, Ona of course talked back. But there was something in her, some worry and hurry. Tiyan was thinking about the favor she would one day ask for.
With wind in the face – strong and not stopped by the thicker trees, they had snow under caps and wraps, which bit them just in the skin, melting under their jackets. The weather was even more working up on Ona, who looked like she was about to bite through the path, with teeth in the trees and arms squeezing life from the wind.
He couldn’t not admire her. She reminded him of hunters from his childhood, the ones who he looked up for. Nayarala… Seph, Kofen. They were village legends. He was sure they were widely known, but when he grew up, he understood, the hunters, just like other people, were silent and unknown heroes of everyday life. They weren’t killing dragons, or saving women from the castles guarded by evil spirits. They were mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. But they were taking life as it was, trying to beat it in its own game.
Ona was like that too.
When he was going to sleep, he was thinking about Noyd. A lot. What she would say seeing him in the company of Ona. If she would like her, or she would consider him reckless trusting his life so much to an unknown traveler. Afterall, he was sleeping tightly as she guarded him. She could pierce him with her knife so easily. She could choke him to death. But he felt that he could trust her. She was not a changeling in disguise, she was not a deadling or maddened faeborn. She was… Ona.
He felt safe near her.
And knew that Noyd wouldn’t like it. Even if nothing really was happening. Noyd was never jealous, but still, Tiyan left her, joining another. Sleeping with her between same walls. Actually liking her.
She was sad, when he decided to not spoil their friendship with romance. But when he said goodbye to Noyd, he knew, after their first despearate lovemaking, nothing will be ever the same. Something changed between them, irrevocably. And he knew that for the better.
But he has always feared. He feared that he may lose her.
Stupid, you are stupid. Now, you can never see her again. Now, you can die under unknown stars, pressed to the ground by crepuscular darkness. And you’ll never tell her… that you are not just her friend. That you feel more… much more.
Ona didn’t know about Noyd, but he was sure she would just shrug. Ona was not endangering Noyd in any way and they both knew that.
But that wasn’t making feel better. For leaving her. For being a fool. For pretending they can be only friends, while his heart already spoke. In dark times, at least this should be easier.
He stumbled just on standing Ona, almost falling in the snow.
“What’s going on?” he said almost bluntly, trying for his voice to be louder than the wind.
Ona showed him.
There was blood on the snow. A lot of blood.
And small body parts.
Maybe belonging to squirrels or other small animals, a lot of them. Torn from the bodies with vicious precision, half-maimed; visible bones; wounds done purposefully and with cruel aim, corpses laying on blood-stained ground, making a perfect circle.
Tiyan did not have the healthiest expression, because Ona had to add.
“Do not puke. That would be unwise.”
Tiyan almost asked why, but of course. Whoever or whatever came through here, and left this carcass, surely could still be very close. Throwing up would leave traces, intense scent. Besides… she underestimated him, he was definitely not going to throw up.
He huffed, warm air leaving his nostrils and dissipating with a cloud in the air.
“Do you think… we should take a different path…?”
“Yes, ” Ona agreed. “You know that this—” she showed the squirrels or whatever it was. “— was specially put that way?”
Tiyan nodded. Of course. This was more than obvious.
“I may be guessing what it is. And for us, it would be better to not attract it.”
“How do you know?” Tiyan decided to be more inquisitive.
“It may be faeries… or that. Both options are bad. But I truly doubt the fey did that. They usually prefer humans over small creatures.”
She kneeled near the laying bodies, her finger slid through the bloody mess. She showed him the index – it was tinted with whitish substance, with slightly green shade. Tiyan quickly thought that it looks like saliva.
“I am sure we can try to avoid both” she stated. “If it’s fey, we have less chances, But if it’s what I think, it doesn’t look good too.”
Not saying anything more, she cleaned the fingers in the snow and standing up, she looked with a piercing gaze into the trees shapes in the distance, a seemingly burned trunks. The light circling her sithouette with a bright outline. She looked like embraced by halo for a moment.
“The sun is still high. We should go around the road” her voice muffled by scarves… or worry.
She seemed so collected, almost cold but Tiyan felt it’s a pose. And it were not her words that worried him more, but expresssion, subtle body talk. It was first time he saw her that alert. Frightened. But concealing it deeply to not show anything. But he was – suprisingly – a good observer. Her eyes were drifting around in visible anxiety, and she twice rubbed her forehead, something which was typical for his father too, when he was worried.
“You surely know what you are doing” Tiyan really thought so. But each longer path meant lost time. He didn’t know if to hate the one who killed those squirrels… or Ona for being reasonable.
Mina. He should go faster.
A crooked grin from Ona indicated that she finds him even greener than before.
“So, maybe tell me from what do we run? Because we certainly run.”
“Have you heard about the fey beasts?”
Tiyan didn’t. It slightly angered him, that he never cared to learn more. He would be able to carry himself in the wilderness much better.
“Magic. It’s all magic, vile and uncontrolled. It can change animals into rotting balls of pain… but sometimes, it works on their minds too. It can madden them…or give them both madness and almost human intelligence. Then they are furious, and calculating, wanting to take revenge on the world. They are so dangerous that we call them fey beasts. They can plan and think.”
Tiyan imagined an beast, angry, vengeance-driven… a perfect killer who likes to cause pain and knows how to do it. Intelligent. Puruser with skills. And… slightly mad. It was actually a nightmare, so Tiyan decided that indeed, it would be better to not enter its territory.
Additionally, it hit him how much Ona knows. Like she met one of them in the past… and took her time to understand it.
“But why it…” he waved at the remains, trying to just forget how maimed they were. “Why all of this? I don’t see sense, aside of marking its territory.”
A cursed suspicion wormed its way to his brain. Painful in its simplicity.
“Perhaps. Or its some kind of rite. Understandable only for them.”
Say it. You don’t need to protect me. I am not a child.
“It’s not the first time, yes? You didn’t only hear about them” more a statement than a question.
“I met one… once. And back then.. one of them did… similar thing. Not the same… similar. That’s why I doubt it’s lesser folk. But since then… a lot changed” Ona fixed her scarves, her eyes drifting worryingly in the sun’s direction, lingering for a bit on the brightness.
“You’ll lose your eyes,” fired Tiyan.
“So they say,” smiled darkly Ona. “We may hurry. These remains are very fresh. I don’t want to still be around when the night falls.”
Better hurry indeed. Mina can scream. She might be in pain.
The two bundled shapes changed direction, aiming just into the seemingly burned forest on the other side of the road, hoping that if they circle the territory slightly, they might not meet the death.
What is we attracted this beast long ago? What is it killed these animals to show us it knows?
And he felt, no, he knew, that Ona is aware of that too. Maybe has a plan, maybe not.
But hopes it’ not true.