Chapter Two: Jeneva

Jeneva

I was in my element.

I was where I belonged.

Completely alone in the silence, except for the gigantic bipedal tree creature with an affinity for spewing poison.

Home sweet home.

A glob of the foul stuff hissed as it ate away the earth beneath. It was only inches from my boot, but I didn’t flinch or try to move out of the way.

A rapid movement around a sorvuc was far more dangerous than its projectile poison. Its damn branches were covered in tiny neural fibers, capable of detecting incredibly small movements. The fibers were illuminated purple.

The sorvuc searched for me.

Under different circumstances, I would have found it beautiful, but at that moment, it was just a pain in my ass.

The humidity made my short hair damp and scratchy. It clung to the curve of my neck. I longed to brush it away, but a movement like that would be a death sentence.

The luminescent purple faded away to a tranquil pink. I realized I was holding my breath.

Slowly, so slowly, I crept closer to the wide trunk of the sorvuc. I had already made an incision in its trunk. That’s what pissed it off in the first place.

A necessary risk, but I only needed a few more drops of the thick scarlet fluid that seeped from the incision. The right person would pay a small fortune for its sap—or is it blood? Hell if I know.

As I slid my vial into place, ready to collect the liquid that would keep me comfortable for months, shouts erupted from somewhere nearby.

Damn it.

The sorvuc shrieked, its neural fibers flaring purple once again. It pivoted, razor-sharp leaves dangerously close to me. I rolled away, camouflaging my own moments in its rustling.

The hulking creature lumbered off in the direction the shouts came from—sort of. Its neural fibers must have picked up the sound vibrations, but with so many trees, it would have been difficult for the creature to determine the exact direction.

It’s a good thing sorvuc had those fibers. They were as deaf as, well, a tree—at least, the sort of trees our ancestors brought over on their generation ship. But those trees sure as hell didn’t fling poison or walk.

Walking plants were something Ankau had in excess. Even so, I’d take a hostile tree giant over people any day. At least they left me in peace.

Another round of shouts echoed through the trees. I clenched my teeth.

Speaking of peace.

I moved quickly and quietly through the dense forest, mindful not to disturb any of the thick vines that crisscrossed the forest floor. It was difficult to tell which ones were looking for a snack.

I spied a small herd of luurizi, grazing between the roots of the docile Lenaus trees.

Their coats of lilac, sage, and pearl shimmered when they caught the mottled light bleeding through the canopy. Their silvery horns shone like jewels. It was easy to forget how deadly they were.

I was sure they can smell me.

Ordinarily, they would attack the moment they sensed an intruder. But this particular herd had become accustomed to my scent after so many years. It was an uneasy truce, but I still knew better than to take my eye off of them.

Another bout of shouting brought me back to the present. It was louder this time. And stupider.

Clearly, whoever it was had a death wish, which was fine. I’d just prefer to be farther away when it happened.

The trees gave way to a small clearing. Two women, who I can only assume are the shouting morons, stood inches away from each other, their faces red with anger. They didn’t notice my intrusion.

“You’re not even trying anymore!”  One woman, blonde and petite, screamed at the other. Her voice was tight, like she was trying to stay in control.

Sharp would have been the only way to describe her—sharp cheekbones, sharp chin, and sharp shoulders. Even her mouth was a sharp slash across her face.

I winced at her words, a headache throbbing at my temples. I almost wished something would come along and kill them.

“What more do you want me to do?” The other woman, dark-haired and softer than the other, snapped at the blonde. “If I had known you were going to bring this up, I never would have agreed to meet you!”

Though they were different in coloring, they had the same nose and face shape. I guessed they were sisters—not that I cared.

“What other reason would there be to meet up?” the blonde hissed, her grey-green eyes narrowing. “What else do we have?”

There was more poison in those words than there was in a fully grown sorvuc.

“I hate to interrupt,” I said, startling both women.

I wanted to sound as annoyed as I felt, but my voice was brittle and raspy with disuse. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had spoken aloud.

“But you really should shut up,” I continued.

The blonde pivoted to face me. I was at least a head taller than her, but she somehow seemed bigger than she actually was. And the glare on her face would have made a narrisiri hesitate.

“This is none of your business,” she said through clenched teeth. The other woman glowered at me from behind the blonde.

“Nope, it isn’t. I don’t want to know about it. I don’t care about it. But you really should find somewhere else to finish your screaming match,” I replied.

“Do you think we’re idiots? We have a howler with us,” the blonde smugly fished a small black device from her pocket.

I hated those damn things. They emitted a high-pitched sound above the threshold of human hearing. It was meant to repel the creatures that stalked the forest, but I always thought it was a scam.

First of all, the people living in the cities and towns hardly knew anything about the creatures that lived out here. Second, how would anyone know for a fact that a howler was working? No one could hear it.

“Yes, I do think you’re idiots if you think that carrying a howler into the middle of aramirion territory during nesting season is a good idea,” I snapped, fighting the urge to give the blonde a smug smile. “If they can hear that thing, you’re screwed.”

The dark-haired woman paled as she put her hand on the blonde’s shoulder. The blonde stiffened at her touch.

“Leena, is that true?” the dark-haired woman whispered. Her eyes, the same color as the blonde’s, nervously scanned the surrounding forest.

“How the hell would I know, Mariella? You’re the one who moved all the way out to the middle of freaking nowhere!” the blonde, Leena, shrieked.

I turned to leave. Obviously, they had no intention of listening to me. Perhaps the dark-haired one, Mariella, might have seen reason, but Leena had some sort of chip on her shoulder—a chip the size of a damn ravine.

Fine. Whatever. They were adults.

I tried my best to warn them. It’s not my fault if they chose not to listen to me.

What would I know, right? I’ve only been living out here for fifteen years. They would come to their senses and leave, or they would keep at it until one beast or another silenced them.

Either way, I got my forest and my silence back.

I could still feel their flurries of emotion as I marched through the undergrowth. If I was going to find another sorvuc to fill my vial, I needed to concentrate, but I couldn’t do that with the feelings of two idiots in my head. I should turn back, try even harder to get them to leave.

A horrible screech unlike anything I had ever heard tore through the air. The sheer force of it drove me to my knees.

I tried to protect my ears with my hands, but it was useless. My vision blurred, stars danced behind my eyes. I could practically feel my brain thrashing, desperate to escape that terrible sound.

Those idiots either did something to their howler, or the damn thing was malfunctioning. That had to be it.

As soon as I could get back on my feet, I staggered back to the clearing where I left the arguing pair. I would tear their stupid howler apart with my bare hands if I had to—anything to stop the noise.

“What the hell did you do?” I screamed.

Again, they didn’t notice me when I entered the clearing, but, this time, they weren’t distracted by an argument.

They stood side by side, looking up at the sky. Their faces were pale and their mouths were open in terror and confusion. I followed their gaze.

A jagged scar of pitch marred the once pristine stretch of endless blue.

The sky, my sky, had been torn open.

There was a beat of silence as if the whole planet had drawn in a collective breath of shock.

Then the forest erupted into chaos.

***

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