Apologies for the late upload! I’ve had the flu for the last week and I had to make some last minute fixes before I could publish today’s chapter.
A small fire crackled merrily under a small lean-to, oblivious to the plight of its sole observer. Insects sang their song into the blackness of the night, giving the feeling as if the entire forest around her were alive. Aside from being comforting, the thought was rather terrifying when you’re the only being lit in an ocean of smothering darkness.
To make matters worse, Gib had tromped off into the wilderness almost an hour ago to investigate some oddly human sounds. As if someone were trapped inside a cave and calling for help.
Karina tugged at her messy braids as she watched the flame slowly heat the contents of a kettle. “Come on!” She whispered. “It doesn’t take this long to boil water. Are you messing with me right now?”
She nearly flipped the steaming liquid all over herself as an explosion rocked the night, followed by a mind-shattering scream in the distance. The cacophony of the forest dimmed briefly for a moment, the only sounds being her own terrified breathing. She’d set the metal container on a small rock encircling the fire and was pressed up against the broken ship behind her. Karina’s hand caressed the hilt of a large knife that hung off her hip, pulling the blade to check its sharpness before turning her attention away.
The kettle whistled.
She jumped, then breathed a sigh of relief. Karina grabbed the two tin cans she’d prepared with tea leaves, topped them both with the hot water, and navigated her way into the crew hold on deck.
When The Nightmare had crashed in the midst of the storm all those nights ago, the ship had carved a path of destruction through hundreds of meters of branches and vines and darkness to its current resting position. The deck listed almost 45 degrees to the right, making navigation around the ship treacherous at best. Already it had claimed one ankle.
It was to him that she brought the tea now.
“Hey Sekkel.” She smiled. “Midnight brew?”
The aged doctor accepted the warm cup gingerly. “Ah, delightful. Thank you Karina.” He offered a small bow. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, but if this foot of mine doesn’t heal up soon I might have to amputate out of boredom.”
She shuddered. “At least your lamp lights up the place.” She said. “Being outside is like stepping into blindness. But the monsters all around us don’t have that limitation, I can feel them watching me any time I’m alone.” She touched the worn leather of the knife hilt one more time. A keepsake, she said, as well as a weapon. To remind her of the two companions they’d lost.
“There’s no way falling has any way to hurt that gal.”
Her sister had said. Teena snored from her cot across the room loud enough to make them jump. Karina smiled at her sister. Another explosion echoed through the inside of the ship and caused little bits of debris to rain down onto them. The still sleeping form of Teena got to her feet and kicked a propeller she’d been trying to fix, then collapsed back into bed.
Karina giggled. She and Sekkel discussed their options to getting out of this predicament before Karina sighed and rose. “That last one sounded close. I better get topside in case Gib needs me when he gets back.
She navigated the obstacle course that was the stairs back to the surface and settled into the darkness to watch.
Thorns and needles relentlessly ripped at her hair, skin and clothes as Leliana hurtled through the darkness at breakneck speeds. It had been a little while since the sounds they were following had quieted, and she was beginning to wonder if the Protector was lost. Was that a human screaming in the distance, or some terrifying beast coming to rip them apart? She had no way of knowing. The forests she’d been sleeping in up to this point had all seemed laughably tame in comparison.
Leliana nearly flattened her running companion as he suddenly stopped mid-stride. “Ah! Little warning next time?”
He offered no reply, just raising a finger for silence. Finally, less than five minutes after stopping, they went careening through the forest at speeds that would surely kill them before they reached their destination.
Blood and sticky ichor oozed down his hand freely as Gib made a mad dash through the underbrush. His breath heaved, sounding hollow even to his own ears. He navigated the terrain by torchlight, fighting for every step of ground he gained. The carpet of moss which covered the entirety of the forest floor easily hid pitfalls or fallen trees in his path, one wrong step would send him tumbling. And dead.
Finally the twisted wreckage of the ship loomed out of the shadows.
The woman in question nearly hurled herself from the top of the ship as he suddenly appeared behind her.
“I bring ill tidings, o’ friend.” Gib never stopped moving as he spoke, collecting a half a dozen things from the storeroom before moving to the stairs. “We must leave. Tonight. Right now. There are monsters out there which are, even now, hunting our little family as we sleep.”
“Wha? Right now, but we can’t. Sekkel hasn’t had time to heal proper- Gib! Your arm!” She was in the middle of following him downstairs when she caught sight of that gruesome mess on his arm.
“’Tis not mine,” he replied. “Some creatures of the night. They bleed black and infect others, making their bodies into slaves.” He said grimly. “Grab Teena, we should away before long!” His generally booming voice was kept confined to a whisper to avoid unwanted attention from outside.
“Are we going somewhere?” Sekkel had heard them start down the stairs and heard the panic in his friends’ voice.
“Monsters, Sekkel. Large and small, they seek to consume all.” The big man was wearing three backpacks now, and gently collected the old doctor into his arms. “Quickly Karina, raise our fair Teena and let us away!”
“Listen to the night.” The Protector instructed her. “Tell me what you hear?”
They were currently in the lowest branches of a forest pine, resting on its rough bark. Leliana squeezed her eyes, listening as intently as she could. “Bugs? A dying cat? The…uhh, whispers of the moon?” She had no idea what he was looking for.
He smiled. “All of that and more. But you’re being too specific.” He explained. “Allow yourself the freedom of listening without listening. Accept the sounds you are given, but do not identify them.” He moved next to her, closing his eyes. “I hear the sounds I would expect of a natural wilderness in this direction, for example. The bugs call to each other. The cats, hunt. Deer and mice, die.”
Leliana though she heard loud squeaking in the distance at this.
She felt him shift, facing left. “And this way, the same. Allow the night to draw your attention to the difference.” They absorbed the sounds in silence for several long minutes, turning in sync with each other.
“Wait.” She had no idea which direction they faced now, as her eyes had been closed to listen this whole time. She really hoped he knew his way back. “There. Everything is quieter this way. The bugs and birds and everything.”
Now that she was clued in, she didn’t know how she’d ever missed it. The difference was glaring.
“Good. The sounds of humans in need have been coming from there as well. There are no human towns this far out, so we must investigate.” He explained. “It is this task which I wish you to fulfill in the future, as well. For now, I will follow. You lead the way.”
Teena teetered up the steep slope of the stairs with two armfuls of metallic tools and glass vials. She’d been expecting this day for a while now, so it wasn’t too big of a shock. Still, she hadn’t expected to leave while she was sleeping. “Okay I got-”
Any traces of sleep the tiny engineer displayed evaporated as the captain’s door exploded off its hinges.
“Gib? Wha’s it? Leave me alone, you hear.” Jovi slurred from inside the room.
He didn’t care.
“We leave now, Jovi. Grab what you can and let’s go.”
“I’m not goin’ an’where now am I? Look at me.” Teena grimaced at the sounds her former captain was making. “Leave me forever. I deserve it.” She wept.
Gib glared. A minute later, he stepped down to the forest floor, three backpacks and two crew members in hand.
“Pu’ me DOWN!”
One of them seemed more reluctant to be saved than the other.
“Jovi, pull yourself together.” Teena chided. “Look at Gib right now. Is that the face of a man who’s going to leave you alone because you threw a fit?” She clucked her tongue. “Get your ass in gear, girly.” Pink pigtails bounced in the torchlight as she yawned and stretched, clipping various tool pouches and belts into place.
Jovi opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Instead, her eyes bulged, and she screamed in terror. “Look out!”
A trio of blackened, fur-less wolves materialized into the torchlight around Gib. The leader of the pack lunged, receiving a brutal kick to the face in reply.
“RUN!” Karina hauled her sister onto her shoulders and set off at a dead sprint, followed none-too-cleanly by a staggering Jovi. Gib brought up the rear with Sekkel, lashing out at the animals when they got too close.
Teena clung to her sister, digging through the zippered pouches on her hips. “Stop that, I’m going to fall!” Karina warned her.
“We’ll never make it.” Teena rebuffed. “I’ve got something that can help though. I just have to…find…it…AH!” The small woman leveled a flare gun at one of the pursuing monsters and pulled the trigger.
There was a bright burst of light as the bright explosive flew straight into the pack leader’s mouth. Seconds later, he exploded.
Without warning, two figures dropped out of the trees, nearly landing on top of Karina and Gib.