Whispers in the Forest
Night fell and starlight navigated its way through the forest canopy to their camp. Jessica had volunteered to take the first watch and sat with her back against the fire, thinking back upon the events that day. She blinked, tracing the outlines of dark shapes with her eyes, and her ears twitched as a twig snapped in the distance. She concentrated, enhancing the sensations, remembering her travels with Cesaro when squirrels had taught her hearing while wolves had taught her sight.
She stilled and focused on her own heartbeat, directing energy into her chest for a single heartbeat twice as strong as normal. Around her the world shimmered as she felt the pulse of the forest respond to her call. Dark colors brightened and sounds became more distinguished, morphing before her into streams of information. Crickets chirped. Locusts buzzed. An owl hooted, and mice squeaked.
Safety in the hollows, they whispered to her. The forest watches you tonight. Above, the tree branches swayed, restless. The darkness seeks those hidden in darkness. As always, their message was enigmatic, incomplete.
“Nature does not speak in the language of man, but rather in sensations,” Cesaro had once said to her in one of their lessons. “It speaks in feelings that offer more hunches than sense. Emotions and instincts, perceptions and insights. Beware of translating them, as much can be lost, and only in their base form can they truly be understood. Never forget that, Jessica, for as much as man thinks he has risen above nature, it still holds the greatest mysteries.”
She tensed as unease trickled through the the forest, causing the hairs on her neck to prick. Soon their trail would be discovered by more experienced hunters. Soon, but not tonight.
In addition to the anxiety resulting from her communication with the forest, a third feeling lingered in the back of her mind. A nagging feeling, the source of which she narrowed down to a single focal point on the warm body resting slightly to her left.
This boy, this boy she had spent the past few months desperately searching for, who appeared little more than a impulsive adolescent. Who she had pledged her life to protect, even though he appeared less valuable than a common soldier. He was not tall or bulky like a warrior, nor had she been impressed when she had tried to get him to repeat his magical skills. She wondered if she had been mistaken, if maybe there had been two Cinis’ and she had picked the wrong one.
But no, there were other signs. The way he could navigate the tunnels underneath the city, how he had escaped Rorcul, and most of all, the appearance of Amellias.
She had seen him practicing with the diamond before he retired for the night. His white face and the beads of sweat rolling down his brow testified to his effort, though each of his attempts had been more pitiful than the last, the diamond rocking slower and slower to his call. She had tried to help him, explaining the method repetitively to no avail.
Beside her, Cinis relaxed in his makeshift bed of leaves and a blanket stolen from the raft. Something about the forest reminded him of the city tunnels, where the air was fresh compared to below. For the first time since the tavern burned, he had had time to think about the events of the last few days without worrying about drowning or being killed. To digest, without simply acting—to regain control over himself and his emotions. Though the city itself was left behind, the memories came flooding back in a rush that caught him off guard.
He thought of Rearden. The countless hours spent taking lessons and running the tavern that now seemed so far away, as if somebody else’s memories had replaced his own. Lying stock still so Jessica would not notice, he felt the first tear slide down. Then a second, and a third. He rolled over, allowing a saline drop to arc off his face and patter against the bare ground to be absorbed instantly into the thirsty dirt. And as the dirt drank, the faint tone of a single bell rang in the darkness.
Jessica stirred, cocking an ear to better listen. There was a second bell of to her right, and she swiveled to see it, the tone lingering with no apparent source. Cinis dried his eyes with the blanket and sat up to see Jessica holding a finger across her lips. Ahead, pinpricks of blue light twinkled as they danced between the trees, drawing closer. Quieter versions of the bells played as they drew in, creating a musical entourage similar to wind chimes on a gusty day. The lights grew from dozens to hundreds as they gathered before them in a small semicircle, converging with each note and shimmering to match the frequency.
Then, with a puff of smoke, the fire was extinguished and replaced by a single blue light, brighter than all the others, that hovered atop the ashes.
Leaning forward and squinting, Cinis saw that it was not merely a light at all, but rather a tiny person with azure glowing wings. She inspected him, staring intently down a long nose in judgement as her wings hummed before she settling down to stand. And spreading her spindly arms wide, she smiled, and spoke.
“It appears,” she said, her voice melodic and excited, “that we have an audience!”