No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out what was weighing on my mind. So I treated it like the thing I was supposed to do but couldn’t for the life of me remember, only to realize that half an hour ago I should have been on the other side of the city, not checking my phone sitting in the bathroom. Or like the lost keys I always found when I wasn’t looking for them. I just let it go, figuring I’d eventually remember.
That said, I’d love to erase from my memory what I just saw. But, unfortunately, my brain didn’t work as a hard drive. There was no DELETE button. So with that dying cry of man and woman still echoing in my mind, I tore my eyes away from the distant moss piles full of blooming flowers and glanced around the clearing.
It may have fallen silent for the time being, as no one dared to speak or move, myself included, but no doubt that couldn’t last forever.
At first glance, it would seem Esu was about to let the intruders in his woods die of old age as he took his time with every growl, not attacking them. I dare say his actions spoke otherwise. He just let two people become fertilizer for a man-eating moss without batting an eye, so to speak. An action that may have deterred Shadowbreakers and mercenaries from similar efforts also drove some to even more desperate attempts.
I was not a people person, more of a flower girl, but even I could recognize among them those reconciled to death. They were smiling and relaxed. Then there were those with calm tempers and logical minds, calculating their options. And then “We are f*****!” group, whose eyes darted from side to side, from Esu to their feet and a moss beneath them, while they clutched their weapons so tightly I could hear the leather on their grips, hilts, and handles squeak.
And then there was me, not quite sure which group to put myself in. I was … I was many things. While the collar was around my neck, I felt cornered and ready to die. Now, now I wanted to live. The presence of beasts several times my level made me scared shitless, but at the same time, I was thrilled by what I learned here. The sight of humans and terrans in front of me stirred rage in me, but the fact that I was standing there basically naked was highly embarrassing to me.
Then there was Aspen, lying in a clearing somewhere, in a pool of her own blood, at best just dying. That’s what I hoped, desperate to help her, but I couldn’t.
No … I didn’t dare help her. After seeing a moss eat two people, I didn’t dare move even an inch. Esu might consider me his spawn, but parents often spank disobedient children, don’t they?
I didn’t want to get spanked with that moss.
So right now, the clearing was almost a place of tranquillity. Though, beneath that serene facade was a boiling cauldron of emotions waiting to explode and turn this clearing into a bloodbath at any moment.
Everybody was aware of that, just like me. That’s what made the tension in the clearing so palpable I could have sworn I could even smell it. Every second felt like a minute and a bead of sweat trickling slowly down my spine to my tail, like torture.
Who dares to move first? Who will be so stupid?
Then my ears twitched, registering the movement.
“Sir, Esu. Sir, I…” said Tate, cut off when he tripped over a smoldering root.
I facepalm myself, or should I say facetail myself, since it was Sage who did the slapping. Speechless, I asked myself how I could have forgotten him. I should have thought he’d be the one to do something stupid, as he was about as predictable as the weather.
Workhand stood up quickly, blackened by the soot and ash that covered the ground. “Sir,” he addressed Esu while trying to walk closer to the king without stumbling again. “I don’t mean to be rude, but that bear attacked me. Sir.”
Whether it was his stupidity or his courage, one couldn’t help but admire it in disbelief. So it was no wonder I found myself reacting like most in the clearing, staring open-mouthed at the young man.
I held my breath as the treetops, for which I had the antlers on Esau’s head, rustled. This ancient, massive beast has moved, leaning closer to the young man. Then, unexpectedly, he sniffed at him, closing his emerald eyes while doing so. When he opened them again, a brief roar left his throat. “Death!”
Tate, taken aback by the roar, took a step back. Not his claim, though. “It… it’s true, sir.”
The poor guy had no idea what the roar meant. If he knew, he wouldn’t be standing there, he’d be running for his life. Without realizing it at first, I found myself not wishing the young man dead, even though he was one of the slavers.
I even considered speaking to Esu on his behalf.
“I smell death on you,” the King of the Woods spoke before I made up my mind. “You have been challenged.”
Tate was challenged? When? By whom? Maybe Esu meant mentally challenged? I would believe that, but…
“Your rival lies dead. Her body now belongs to the forest.” Esu grumbled, nodding his head to the dead mossbear Tate killed. “You fought, you won. Free to go.”
His words took my breath away. Tate was free to go? Just like that? What the bloody hell was going on?
The glance at the clueless workhand made me snort, wishing I was half as lucky as he was. My unintentional nasal sound caught his attention, though. “Miss, Grey?”
“This idiot,” I thought to myself, sighing aloud. Maybe it was part of his luck too, but I decided to help him. I closed my eyes for a second, trying to recall my pantomime movements. I used to be decent at it. Then I used hand gestures, facial expressions, tail and wing movements, even sounds to translate Esu’s growls.
Though, my confidence quickly ran up against Tate’s lack of understanding. “Miss Grey, you’re telling me to dig a hole? A…and then I’m supposed to jump in?”
His answer made me want to nod, but after taking a deep breath, I shook my head and tried to explain Esu’s growls to him again. This time Tate blushed, and I paused, dreading what had formed in his mind.
“I get it now, miss. So I’m supposed to dig a hole for you to crap in?” he said confidently, nodding. “I have been thinking about it myself for some time.”
“I give up,” I growled, throwing my hands in the air. I didn’t think it could get any worse, but he did it. He made me feel even more embarrassed. Honestly, how could he even think of that?
Little did I know I shouldn’t have made my last gesture since Tate again failed to see its meaning. “You need to go really badly.”
“Moss take you!” I cursed in my mind. Yet I didn’t dare to say it out loud, lest Esu take me at my word.
“Traiana’s tits, boy,” a bull-like voice reached my ears. “Are you blind? You’re free to go, you lucky bastard.”
Like me, Tate looked for the voice, finding a man kneeling on the ground behind Shadowbreakers. He was too far away for me to see his class, nor could I see what he was bending over.
Tate then turned to me. “Is that true, miss? I thought you …”
I immediately stopped him with wild gestures before he started talking again about how I needed to take a dump. Instead, I pointed to a deep-voiced man and nodded, giving a thumbs up, not sure if such a gesture existed on Eleaden.
“Really,” “That can’t be true,” “We killed one of those beasts too, maybe…” muttered and whispered Shadowbreakers and mercenaries as I confirmed that man’s words.
“See, boy,” the man said. “Thank Esu, and get out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” Tate nodded quickly, turned to the King of the Woods and bowed his head. “Thank you, sir Esu.”
Even though I had a feeling he didn’t know what he was thanking for, Esu nodded, acknowledging his half-baked gratitude. I assumed Tate would turn on his heel and disappear from Esulmor Woods as fast as he could. Against all my expectations, he looked at me. “Are you sure you don’t need me to dig that hole?”
“You,” I growled, red-faced. Now, I fully understood Rutledge’s frustration with this challenged idiot, and I couldn’t help but admire the trader’s patience with him.
“On second thought, come here, boy,” the kneeling man said, saving Tate from a beating I had planned for him. Tate gave me one last smile and ran after the man.
I was determined to put those two out of my mind and just worry about Aspen and myself again when my ears twitched as the man spoke anew.
“Take care of that woman,” he said, pointing to the ground, stood up, tapped Tate on the shoulder, and headed towards me.
I ignored this man’s strange behavior as my mind raced, trying to remember where Aspen had fallen. Though finding a landmark was extremely difficult, I would say impossible. All the trees in the area had the same charred look. There was no stream running through the clearing, nor were there any large boulders. All I could navigate by were the dead or stunned bodies of the mossbears and the wreckage of wagon and cages.
Was it really Aspen who was lying there? It might as well have been one of the Shadows. Still, a spark of hope flared inside me.
I glanced at the approaching middle-aged man. He wasn’t as tall as Ward, nor as buff as the bruiser. A thick beard adorned his face, longer, shaggy, slightly wavy hair covered his head, and under his thick eyebrows were hiding blue eyes. His gear was a mix of everything, just like the mercenaries, but it lacked their insignia. Nor did I see any weapons on him.
For some reason, I felt oppressed by his presence and hesitated with my question.
“That smell,” grumbled Esu in disbelief when the man stopped a few steps away from me, and a bloody carcass of an animal unknown to me appeared at his feet.
The sight of it was revolting. The idea of eating the meat raw was disgusting, but the smell of it was intoxicating. Whatever it was, it teased my senses so much that I started to drool.
The man bowed his head. “A gift.”
Esu sucked in the carcass’s smell and reminisced. “Tender flesh, crunchy bones. Home.”
I flinched when moss shoots sprouted from his back, wrapped around the carcass, and delivered this gift into its maw in an instant. An animal, beast, or monster, half the size of mossbears, was but a small morsel to a massive beast like Esu. Yet, he even ended up licking his maw.
I found myself growling weakly at this provocation.
“Speak, gift bearer,” Esu grunted, satisfied and much to my relief, ignoring my daring.
His answer made me wonder even more where this gift bearer, whom I had been unable to place with any group in the clearing, came from. What was that animal that made me drool so much? Why the same beast as a gift did not have Ward more so that thought fuddler.
However, when the man looked at me with a raised eyebrow,I grinned. It almost looked like he was saying. “A little help, please.”
Well, first, I wiped my saliva and looked.
[Fighter: lvl ???]
“Bloody hell.” I almost made the mistake of staring back at the strongest human I’ve ever met. That grin was more than brave enough. So I swallowed my snarky remarks and quickly translated Esu’s words, just to grin again, this time to myself, when the thought crossed my mind.
A little while ago I was a slave, now I’ve been made secretary and translator for a king, quite a promotion, isn’t it?
“Unfortunately, I’m here for her.” He tossed his head towards me, sighing at my odd behavior that hadn’t escaped his awareness.
“Why?” growled Esu, taking the question from my lips. “To kill?”
I quickly translated everything, adding my own questions. I wasn’t going to end up in the hands of another man eager to find out how my body worked, what made it tick. He completely ignored my questions, yet his answer to Esu took my breath away, anyway.
“To train her,” he said.
For a moment, I thought I must have heard wrong. That it was another mistranslation of bestial language, only to realize that he wasn’t an ancient beast, but a Standard-speaking human. So my question was, what the bloody hell was he talking about.
“Weak. Practice she needs,” Esu grunted in agreement.
Wait, what? Yeah, I needed training, but was he selling me out? Translating, I threw in my questions again, more urgently this time.
The man frowned at me. “Not the time, girl.”
But I insisted on answering. I mean, I glared at him insistently and dared to growl. “San, Rezso, is that enough?”
Was it? Just two words? Rezso was my trainer back in Castiana, but what was that supposed to tell me? San…hmm? Did he mean Sanysia Rayden, Captain Rayden? Did she send him? Why him, why didn’t she come herself and with an army?
“She is indeed weak but has potential,” the fighter said. His assessment shifted my attention back to him and Esu. I wanted to growl in disapproval, but I had to admit he was right, I was weak compared to the two of them. Actually, everyone in the clearing, including the beasts, was much stronger than me.
Oh, except Tate, of course. He had insane luck, though.
Me? I had potential? It was good to have potential, right?
“Like any cub,” agreed Esu. I waited a bit to see if he would say anything else, then translated his words, wondering if the man was an Imperial Agent. But why would the Captain send him, and how did he know Razso?
Hmm…training? No, it can’t be him. I stole a glance at the fighter, wondering if this was the man Razso was talking about, the one looking for someone to teach his combat style. The man I’m supposed to meet tomorrow. Why would he suddenly show up here, though? It made no sense. Only a fool would come here to face Esu, for someone he didn’t even know.
“I’ll teach now,” Esu said with a deep growl.
Huh? Teach who? Confused, I translated what he said, to which the fighter just nodded in acceptance and understanding.
The following rumbling drew the attention of everyone in the clearing. The meaning wasn’t anything specific, but if I had to describe it, I would as a simple “Hey!”. King of the Woods looked around slowly before growling again at everyone. “You dared to challenge.”
No one told me to do it, but I took my new job seriously and tried to translate for everybody as best I could. Whether the others understood my sign language wasn’t my problem.
“Now you will be,” Esu added after taking two slow breaths and looked at me. “Call the mature ones, call the mothers, cub.”
I froze, pointing at myself. “Me?”
“You, cub.” He grunted in amusement. “Need to learn.”
“How?” I dared to ask.
“Just call. They’ll come,” he assured me.
But I wasn’t sure at all and feared failure. After all, I have called like this before, and they did not come. What has changed since then? What was I even supposed to say? Moms, Dad’s asking for you?
Jokes aside, my dad was far away and my mom even further. These mossbears couldn’t replace them.
However, the thought of my mother and how she fought her enemy to the bitter end gave me courage. I still wasn’t sure of the words to use in my cry, but when I thought about it, the words weren’t as much important to the mossbears as the meaning behind them.
Esu saw my acquired confidence and beckoned. “Call.”
So I did.
“Great mothers, mature ones, come,” I screamed at the top of my lungs, my voice echoing through the woods much farther than I expected. A simple message, yet it’s meaning was quite clear. The question was whether they would heed my call.
That’s why I briefly pondered mentioning Esu, but it wasn’t the King of the Woods who called them. It was me.
“What the f*** did she do?” one Shadow asked. A question I’d like to know the answer to myself because there was no response from the woods. Afraid to look at Esu, I glanced at the fighter, my quite possibly future trainer, as if he should know the answer to this failure. To my disappointment, he just shrugged as if it didn’t concern him.
“Asshole!” I clenched my fists but didn’t make a sound.
Gathering the courage to ask Esu if I had done something wrong, I took a breath just as the first mother mossbear came out of the woods. Then the second and the third. And then came roars from all corners of the Esulmor Woods. Their meaning was nothing specific, basically just an acknowledgment of my call that gave me goosebumps.
“No, no, what the f***,” was one of the more decent curses coming from the ranks of Shadowbreaker and the mercenaries.
“Bloody hell, how?” I added a curse of my own, though it sounded more like something between a squeal and a growl. It hasn’t been that long since I had called more desperately, insisted more, and they all had ignored me. Now it seemed like the whole woods under Granora mountain range heard me. So, how was it possible? What have I done differently?
“Look down,” said the fighter, seeing my confusion and pointing to the ground. I looked, froze, almost yelped, and was glad I didn’t jump aside when I saw my feet submerged in the moss. Perhaps for the first time, my bestial instincts worked in my favor, seeing moss not as a danger but as something beneficial. That was against what reason told me because I already saw myself as a pile of fertilizer soon to be.
Of course, I wasn’t stupid, and even though I didn’t quite understand how he did it, I figured Esu helped me.
When two beasts fighting each other stumbled out of the woods into the clearing, I knew they were adult mossbears. Bigger than the one Tate killed but considerably smaller than a mother mossbears. Unlike them, they also seemed full of energy. However, one grunt from Esu and both individuals stopped fighting. It wasn’t long before the edge of the clearing, which a moment ago had been nothing but charred, smoldering trees, now looked like an impenetrable wall of mossbears.
I gulped. “What have I done?”
“You called, they came. Family,” was Esu’s answer to my thoughtless question. This was supposed to be a family? This was an army, an army of beasts.
“Mature ones strong but stupid. Lack of experience,” Esu growled. “They will challenge. The intruders will fight. They win. They free.”
I was speechless, still staring at the beasts, unable to imagine how the Shadows or the mercenaries could fight their way free.
“You lack experience. You fight too, cub,” added Esu.
I froze, understanding I hadn’t just f***** the others in the clearing, but I had screwed myself.
Where was Tate and his hole when one needed it?