“Hold on!” shouted Libus, and he steered the raft right, aiming toward the nearest bank. Thick branches extended overhead as the raft grounded against the shallow side of the river. Spaded leaves blocked the sunlight overhead as Jessica and Libus jumped into the low current, then held the raft for Cinis to disembark. But he stood motionless, his eyes turning toward the crate.
“Hurry up, boy, unless you’re ready to rejoin Amellias face down in the river!” Libus yelled, waist deep in the water. “You stand no chance against all of them, and I can guarantee you that not all of them are as they seem. Likely to be a few demons mixed in there.”
“Jessica, how good would you say your forestry skills are? Good enough to cover our tracks and our smells?” asked Cinis.
“Not if you keep standing there, but with a few minutes head start, they’ll never be able to catch us.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Cinis replied. He raised his foot off the deck and planted his heel against the wood of the crate. The crate holding all the precious black pearls toppled overboard into the river, landing on its side and flowing downriver, the pearls flowing in a stream from its lip into the water.
A roar exploded from behind as their pursuants saw the crate floating away, their voices now close enough to be heard, and an arrow splashed into the water ten feet from the edge of the raft.
*Another gift for you, Amellias,* Cinis thought, watching the treasure sink down to the riverbed. *May they only increase your beauty. And may you be in my debt.*
Then he jumped after Libus and Jessica, plunging into the river, his motion kicking the raft out from underneath Libus’ arms and throwing him off balance, dunking his head momentarily underneath the water. Sputtering, Libus resurfaced as three arrows splashed next to him, an additional lodging itself in a tree trunk just behind them, far closer than Cinis would have preferred.
“Follow me, and keep close!” shouted Jessica, and she stormed into the foliage, ferns and branches parting temporarily to allow her to pass. As Cinis approached the same plants, they again bent away from him then folded behind him, as if he were wading through the forest instead of crashing through it. After three minutes of running, Jessica turned left into a small patch of flattened briars, listening as shouts originated from the riverbank.
“They’ll have landed by now,” she said, “and we can hope the stories of this forest will have them spooked enough to prevent them from following us too far. But in case Libus is right, and they have demons among them, we’ll need to make sure they can’t hunt us by smell. Quick, come here and stand still. Both of you!”
Jessica pulled a knife out from her belt and tugged at Cinis’ shirt, using the blade to remove an entire sleeve.
“Shred it into strips,” she said as the voices slowly approached, and she cut away Libus’ sleeve as well as her own. Then she closed her eyes, brought her fingers to her mouth, and whistled.
“Quiet!” said Libus. “They’ll hear us!”
But she ignored him and whistled again, this time even louder, and the shouting voices responded with shouts and yells. Then the vegetation around them began to quiver, rustling sounds circling around them in every direction.
A squirrel soared from a nearby tree, landing on all fours and sprinting toward her, then standing on its hind two legs as its whiskers twitched. Above, a hawk screeched, diving downward to land on her arm, its steely eyes regarding Cinis as it cocked its head. Then a deer jumped over a thicket to their left, trotting around her as a red fox rushed through the same thicket, and a small troupe of squeaking mice assembled at her feet.
“The strips,” she said, extending a hand, and Cinis and Libus handed them over, having ripped their sleeves apart.
“I give you these as gifts,” said Jessica, speaking quickly and dropping them to her feet, as she looked at each of the animals in turn, “For material to build your nests, for ornaments to your fur, for however you wish to use them. Take them, and go, for there are those who wish to steal them from you!”
The squirrel raised a tiny fist and scurried forward, snatching up a piece of the torn fabric, its eyes widening in paranoia as soon as it made contact with the strip. It chattered, zig-zagging away from the group and dragging the fabric behind, the material rubbing against the ground as it raced back into the forest.
Likewise, the fox snagged the cloth in its jaws, grabbing a second when it thought Jessica was not looking, and departed, the deer following it with fragments of its own. Then the mice stretched a single piece between them, circling away as each tried to chew through to separate a part from the main, their squeaks decreasing in volume with each passing second as they disappeared into the underbrush.
The hawk took the rest of the bundle in its talons, spreading its wings and launching itself back in the sky, Cinis watching as a piece of cloth fluttered to the ground far away as it accidentally dropped it.
“Remarkable,” said Libus as Jessica led them away again at a jog, his hair still wet from his fall into the river.
“Our scents will be in every corner of this wood by nightfall,” said Jessica. “Their understanding and memories are limited, but they’ll carry the fragments back to their nests or forget and leave them somewhere along the way. In either case, we’ll be long gone.”
“How much farther should we run before getting our bearings?” asked Cinis. “We don’t want to get lost or too far off track.”
“Let’s go for another hour, just in case,” replied Jessica. “I know the general direction, and once we are safe, we can worry about finding the road.”
“Agreed,” said Libus. “We’ll want to be certain that we shook them from our trail. And we’ll post careful watch tonight, just to be sure. And even if we are sure, we’ll want to watch for *other* possibilities.”
Sweat poured down Cinis’ neck as they traveled deeper, less and less sunlight reaching the forest floor while the heat and humidity seemed to increase. Around him, he heard birds calling out to one another, their song far different from those he was used to in the city. Orange centipedes rushed out of their path, accompanied by other bugs, like beetles, parting from their rushed footprints.
As promised, Jessica stopped an hour in, finding a small clearing where they could set down the packs she had made on the raft. She passed water to them as they listened, trying to pick out voices from the forest, but hearing nothing other than natural sounds. Libus received the water before Cinis, tilting his head back to drink as Cinis watched thirstily, his own tongue so dry that it was sticking to the roof of his mouth.
And Cinis’ eyes narrowed as he tried to see through the darkness, staring at a spot on Libus’ left cheek, just above the beard stubble. The same place that he had held the mirror that morning, where there seemed to be a streaking of color after his fall in the river.
“Libus,” said Cinis, laughing and pointing, “do you wear makeup?”
Libus choked on the water, sputtering as Jessica looked up and jumped to her feet, planting herself between Libus and Cinis.
“I know that mark!” she shouted, taking a fighting stance as Libus raised a hand to hide the image, but not before Cinis saw the design. It was hard to make out the entire mark, half of it still obscured by a combination of shade and cover up, but the outline was clear—an hourglass, only a few grains of sand left in the top, and the bottom nearly filled.
“What is it?” asked Cinis as Libus’ jaw tightened and he stared forward, no longer attempting to hide it, and Jessica shouted once more.
“It’s from Cratus, the boulderer city, and they only use that mark for one purpose. To mark Outcasts!”