Enduring this wretched storm had long ago lost what little appeal it boasted. Dribbles of rain had begun pattering the ground last night while they were sleeping, soon extinguishing the fire they’d painstakingly created and protected from the relentless wind. Accompanied by growing rumbles of thunder, Derrick had suggested moving under the tree for cover, though that hadn’t done much good, the rain forced its way through the dense tree cover to pelt them, weighing her curls down until they lay almost straight against her head, dripping water into her face.
They’d sat that way, brooding while the storm assaulted them for about a mark, until the scream of an animal scared them almost out of their wet skins. Elise ruefully remembered having clutched at Derrick’s strong forearm in panic. They had wasted no time scrambling up the tree they’d taken shelter under, though she scraped her left shin rather badly as Derrick hauled her hastily up to the next branch.
The inhuman scream of misery reverberated through the gusty trees again and again. Not being within their immediate vicinity, they were thus unable to see the beast, but Elise had prayed that it hadn’t caught their scent, nor was it able to climb trees.
Only after two marks of shifting restively around on the thick branch (the rough bark on the tree was not made to comfortably accommodate soft-skinned rear-ends like hers) did the chilling yowl cease to call remorsefully through the rain. Neither Derrick nor Elise knew why, but nor were they inclined to climb down and investigate, either. She balanced carefully on the branch, letting the rain trail down her face in rivulets, trying to control her shivering, peering into the pluvial night, utterly miserable. Just as her shivering became unbearable, a powerful arm slid around her and pulled her back. Huddled against Derrick’s broad chest, Elise’s shivering subsided. They dozed lightly that way, balancing against each other on their coarse perch until a blustery, inclement version of dawn appeared.
Finding herself embarrassingly all too comfortable when she woke sleepily under Derrick’s heavy arm, his warm breath on her neck, Elise bolted upright and clambered away without delay. Only when Elise went to move to the next branch down did she realize that she had no chain on her wrist. Had it vanished while they slept? Or was it a figment of her imagination, a dream? More like a nightmare! She didn’t care what happened as long as it was gone, she thought, massaging her wrist where the chain had clasped it. And that meant that if the chain was gone, so was the spell that Gabriella had set on the area. That was all it took to entice Derrick into waking up.
They hadn’t been walking very long when they came across the large body of a dead white cat of some kind, cougar like. Blood matted the wet fur around a gaping wound across its ribs and belly that claws had raked open.
Elise had stepped cautiously closer, her lips pursed thoughtfully. The grass around the cat had been flattened as if another body had lain there. Derrick thought perhaps the cat had just flipped over but Elise told him (nicely) that there was no blood on the grass there. Perhaps the cat’s mate, she hypothesized, found its dead companion and that was what had screamed all night. Either theory was feasible, rain might have washed away any blood on the grass had Derrick’s theory been accurate. They had retreated carefully, quietly, with sword and bow ready in hand, in the event that the dead cat’s mate or killer was lurking in close proximity.
Now they were following the creek, which they finally found and recognized a few marks ago. It was dusk already but they both agreed to persevere in the hopes of arriving home for a hot meal and dry clothes.
They decided to rest for a few minutes, though every time Elise sat down to rest, she found it harder and harder to get back on her feet again.
A huge sigh tore through Derrick and he leaned his head back on the tree they reclined against. His eyes closed, he observed ruefully, “I bet if we hadn’t been out here last night and today, it never would have rained. Not even a—”
-- Greetings, human child.--
Elise bolted upright and stared at Derrick.
“What?” he asked, staring back at her with widened aquamarine eyes.
“What did you just do?” Elise whispered.
He started to furrow his brow in disgust, but, remembering the chain, he only exclaimed incredulously, “Nothing!”
Laughter resounded in Elise’s head but she heard nothing but the sound of the rain hitting the leaves on the ground around her.
“What in the world – ”
-- What in the world, indeed, -- agreed the deep voice in her head, with more throaty laughter.
Terrified, Elise clutched at Derrick unashamedly - but Derrick wasn’t there!
“Derrick!” she cried.
“Elise!” he yelled in return - already several yards away from her, sword drawn.
“Elise! Get away from there! Elise!”
But the voice was in her head again.-- You may tell him that he can put away his stick-pin. I am not going to harm you. Or him.-- This was accompanied by a rich undertone of amusement.
My God, Elise thought, I am reading a feeling in my head.... Derrick was yelling at her…. Pointing up?
Elise got dazedly to her feet, disoriented. Looked up slowly. A huge animal was sitting calmly on a thick branch above, the tip of its tail curling casually. Elise felt rooted to the ground, unable to move.
“Elise!” yelled Derrick. “Get away from there! Dammit!”
The cat jumped gracefully down from branch to branch, until it stood just above Elise’s head, its claws extended into the wood of the tree, regarding her with great amber eyes that displayed a degree of warmth and intelligence within their depths.
And then Derrick grabbed her arm and yanked her away from the tree.
“Snap out of it!” he whispered furiously before he approached the tree again with his sword in front of him. He can barely use that thing, was Elise’s first coherent thought. Suddenly, Derrick stiffened. Backing away, he groped for Elise’s arm.
“It - it spoke - it—”
“I know,” she fell silent, not sure whether she was afraid for her life or not, after looking into the cat’s eyes….
-- Obviously you think I have some interest in consuming you. It would do you both well not to indulge in such flattery in the future. Had I been hungered, you may rest assured that your unpalatable species would be farthest from my preferred cuisine, even were I starving. Now, boy… --
Elise heard nothing more, not in her mind, but she saw and even felt Derrick shudder. Whatever the beast had imparted to Derrick, it was assumedly not pleasant.
“Derrick?” she asked in a small voice. “I – .... Are you okay?”
He seemed to shake himself and informed her, “I’m going to get help. The cabin’s only about a mile and half from here. Can you handle this? It – he – says....”
“I know,” she said timidly.
“He won’t let you go. I’m – I’m going to get help.” With that, Derrick ran off in a sprint through the mud.
Gathering her pluck, she sucked in a deep breath and turned back to the beast, which had jumped to the ground and sat regarding her impenitently.
“What do you want?” Elise cried, her eyes blazing. “And what do you mean, I can’t leave!”
-- I never said that. You Outworlders are much too irascible.--
“Excuse me?” Elise flared. “I don’t.... What did you call me? An Outworlder? How did you know that?” she demanded. The cat yawned – its head was almost as high as her chin – as it replied with a twitch of its tail,
-- You may want to speak a bit louder – I have the acquaintance of a nearby young limba mother who would delight in tearing the entrails from your body to feed still steaming to her latest brood --
Elise shut her mouth with a snap. Whoever and whatever this animal was, it practiced a deftness with words which she found unnerving.
-- Do you suppose we might endeavor to conclude this useless bantering and progress to introductions? --
Elise blinked. Introductions? Out here in the cold rain and the wind whipping her dress and hair around her, and he wants introductions?
-- I am Fiaz. I am a zary’andu. And you, sarcastic human child, are Elise.--
Sarcastic! He didn’t know sarcastic yet! He wants sarcastic? Elise fumed angrily, I can –
The sound of a bored mental sigh resonated through her mind. -- Shall we? --
Shall we what, she wondered, her tirade momentarily disarmed.
-- Shall we proceed to the domicile you call home? We will arrive at the same time your friend does if we leave now.--
How can we? He left minutes ago, Elise thought, still amazed at the ease the black beast sitting impatiently in front of her read her thoughts and carried on a conversation.
-- I should like to think that my acquaintance with this forest far surpasses that of you humans -- was the mental response, steeped in condescension.
Not at all sure of what was about to commence by her docilely following the gigantic cat into the denser part of the forest, Elise continued to follow behind the cat’s quick trot.
But she kept her bow out.
As they turned sharply to the left in the mud, Fiaz added, -- And you may put that inconsequential weapon away.--