If I roll my eyes one more time, they’re liable to roll away for good. So, I suppress a sigh, roll my shoulders, and keep facing the path straight ahead. Ignoring my comrades, for the time being, might be the only means of preserving my sanity.
“I must say, Thad, your intellect is astounding. No, truly, I’m in awe of your very presence.”
A strained “Muddler” is Thad’s only response to Wodahs’ current mood, but by his gravelly undertone, it’s safe to say that he is dangerously close to losing his temper.
So much for staying out of it. I spin around and nearly collide with Wodahs, who was much closer than I had realized.
“Woah, Er, you do realize you’re facing the wrong direction, yes?” His signature grin grates on my very last nerve, and I huff as I readjust my pack’s straps.
“And what, exactly, is so amusing now?” I practically hiss through my gritted teeth; my parched throat feels like I’ve been swallowing lumps of dirt. Talking is not something I want to do much of right now.
Wodahs shrugs. “Everything?” He gestures all around before starting to tick off his fingers. “This lovely forest for one. The whole idea of being sent out here to experience the world, so they make us travel in the most uninhabited stretch of forest land. That’s two,” he wiggles both fingers as if to make sure I’m paying attention. “We don’t have any water left, and we’re lost. Shall I go on?”
“Ignore him, Er; you know how he gets when he’s hungry.” Thad sighs and swats at something buzzing around his ears.
Wodahs tuts at him but doesn’t say more. He nods in Thad’s direction and bumps my shoulder. I turn to see that Thad is leaning against a tree with his eyes closed, his breathing is labored, and he’s still favoring his right leg.
I sigh. “He’s insisting that it’s fine,” I say, making sure to keep my voice low, but Wodahs rolls his eyes before raising an eyebrow at me.
“He’s just worried about wasting a potion on himself. We should strap the stubborn oaf down and take a look at that leg.”
A hmmph is all I manage before Thad’s eyes pop back open, and he pushes himself away from the tree.
“You two done?”
I nod, and we all shuffle onward, Wodahs muttering under his breath about “Brainy never learns” and something about “…by myself.” It’s enough that, Wodahs being Wodahs, I should probably keep a better eye on him. But my legs ache, my wings are dragging, and I’m just too tired to care.
An ear-splitting scream shatters the air around us, and I freeze, my body tensing as I look for who, or what, might be nearby.
“Relax. It’s just a schrychee bird,” Wodahs tilts his head to the side as another scream tries to drown out his words, “they’re loud but harmless. It’s the silent ones that you need to worry about.” The last part is barely a whisper, but I hear it, and it makes my skin crawl with the possibilities.
Every young Faye knows not to wander off the path to the Doberr mountains, and yet here we are. Our only advantage is the bits that Wodahs might remember from his childhood before the monastery, but he has never spoken much about those days.
I grip his arm and hold him back while Thad stumbles further ahead. “What aren’t you telling me, Wodahs?”
He sighs. “Just pray to the Light that you never have to find out.”
My eyes are dry and itchy, but I can’t close them. Not yet. Not until I know just what is out there watching us. The small voice in the back of my mind whispers that I need to sleep, that I have to rest while Wodahs is on the first watch, but the rest of me balks at the idea.
Thad’s sleep is restless, and he tosses around in his blankets. A bead of sweat glistens on his temple from the soft glow of firelight, but that doesn’t stop the shivers that are wracking his body. I hear the crunch of dirt as Wodahs crouches over him and pulls his blankets back over his shoulders.
“We need to get him that potion, Eran.”
I sit up but shake my head. “It isn’t in our packs. I already looked while we were setting up camp.”
Wodahs groans. “What did he do with it, then?” He glances at me and must see something in my expression because his eyes narrow. “Eran?”
“What if,” I drag my palms over my eyes and rub them. “What if there never was any in the packs?”
Wodahs’ eye twitches, and he blinks but doesn’t say anything for a long moment. “What are you saying?”
I sigh. “It was supposed to be a test – to prove our strengths beyond light energy and flying – so maybe they didn’t let us take anything… ‘extra.’”
“Parc!” Wodahs voice is a strained whisper, and he jumps to his feet with a wild look in his eye. “We don’t have time for their stupid games. Thad is dying, Er, he’s dying.” He tugs at his hair. “There’s only one thing left to do, only one thing that might save him.” I assume he’s still talking to me, but it seems as if Wodahs is trying to reassure himself.
“What do we need to do?”
“We need knaalee venom.” His face has paled even by the dim light of the campfire, and he looks like he might get sick.
This can’t be good. “What’s a knaalee?”
Wodahs’ eyes snap up to mine as he tries to hide a shudder. “Quiet – too quiet.” Thad groans in his sleep, and Wodahs seems to recollect himself. “No one’s ever found a knaalee, but a few people have managed to get a knaalee to find them.”
I nod. “How do you bait a knaalee?”
“First, you catch a cuinnel…”
A pair of beady black eyes stare up at me in a last cry for mercy as I bind the cuinnel’s furry snout shut. His fur is soft and warm, and he whimpers. I can’t do this.
“Isn’t there some other way, Wodahs?” I glance over at him, but he shakes his head.
“None that I know of.” He carries an armful of bright red wejel leaves over to me and scatters it around where the frightened cuinnel is tied to a tree trunk. “Are you ready, Er?”
From the corner of my eye, I can see that Thad is still shivering beneath all of our blankets. He won’t make it much longer.
I take a deep breath as my chest clenches. “What if… I was the bait? Wouldn’t that work? You said that the knaalee are known to eat people in these woods.”
Wodahs drags his hand through his hair and grimaces. “Yes. I’m sure it would work.”
I stand a little straighter and try my best to smile, to look confident. “Then that’s what we’ll do.”
The air is damp and heavy, pressing me down as I wait. The hardened wejel chunks dig into my legs no matter how I adjust my position. Their bright, deep red cores glow from the light energy we used to burn down the leaves to this form, and they glisten like a hundred mini torches all around and under me. Anything used to hunting in the dark will be investigating something so bright in the middle of the woods.
I can’t see or hear Wodahs and Thad, but I know that they’re hiding nearby where Wodahs can keep Thad safe and watch for the knaalee.
A piece of wejel tumbles over the pile with several echoing clinks when I move into a crouching position. I wince at the sound, and that’s when I smell it. The pungent scent of rotting flesh assaults my senses just as a gust of hot air whooshes through my hair.
I pull on my light energy, feeling it rush down my arms and pulsing just below the surface of my palms. I lunge to the right, a shower of wejel flying after me as its wings beat the air, its sharp claws digging into the dirt behind my feet. I turn in time to see its eye slits focused on me. Its long tongue whips the air around my face as its long, slender neck lashing after me.
I dive under beneath its chest and jump up, gripping its throat as I jam my shoulder into its torso. My light energy pulses outwards, the scent of burning flesh burning my nose. The knaalee’s jaw drops open in a silent screech, and its tongue lashes the air a breath away from my hands.
We tumble together in the ground, and its long talon kicks into my chest, knocking the air from my legs as it digs in deeper. It rips down my stomach, and there’s something warm trailing down my side that I don’t have time to worry about.
Suddenly, the knaalee twitches and shudders, its body collapsing on top of me.
I shove it off of me and take a deep shuddering breath to steady my nerves. “Took you long enough.”
Wodahs grins and holds up the knaalee’s head like a trophy. “I’d say that I have magnificent timing.”
I roll to my side and push up to my knees. My light energy swirls around in my chest and pours into the deep gash in my torso, burning as it stitches me back together. “If anyone asks -”
“We had an uneventful stroll to the Doberr mountains?” He winks and nods toward the tree where Thad is wrapped up underneath all our blankets. “Brainy will be outpacing us all in the morning. I hear knaalee venom is powerful stuff.”
I breathe easier than I have in days. “Let’s get him better and get out of here.”
A few hours later, the sun is rising, its warm rays warming our faces as we trudge along. It’s slow-moving, as the venom is still working its way through Thad’s system, and Wodahs and I walk on either side of him, supporting him.
We stumble to a stop in surprise when Thad chuckles. “I’m not the only one that sees that, right?” He nods to our right, and we turn as one to look. I almost can’t believe my eyes—the road to Doberr. We’ve found it.