Maelys followed behind, boots slamming into the grass below. The acoustics of a town going to sleep was replaced by a forest waking up. The calls of thousands of restless crickets bounced off the wall, amplifying the noise. It was accompanied by the occasional bird call and other common predators.
“We’ll have to be careful we don’t attract any unwanted attention,” Rozire whispered back, gazing into the forest. “The Meadows are large enough to house a steady population of all kinds of beasts. Mostly animals you can find all over the place. Watch out for bears, and don’t touch any of the plants. Got it?”
Maelys nodded furiously. If they encountered any bears, there was no way the two of them could survive. Neither of them had any defenses to speak of. A staff and an umbrella couldn’t discourage a rabid squirrel, let alone a rampaging monster. It was no wonder so few people even tried to sneak into Upper Terrace.
“Is…” Maelys jogged a little closer so he could whisper as quietly as possible. “Is that what the Red Teeth is for? To poison any bears?”
They passed beneath the first few trees as they entered the Meadows. Leaves crunched under their shoes, and Rozire ducked under branches that were too tall to bump into. He realized that some trees were partially uprooted, while others were partially submerged in an unusual amount of dirt.
“It would be a waste to use it on a bear,” Rozire finally responded with a shake of his head. “And in any case, they’re easy to avoid. We don’t really have to whisper, by the way. Things will probably smell us or see us long before they hear us.”
Maelys may not have been the most experienced survivalist in Tebrein, but he wasn’t confident that either of those statements were very accurate. “Where exactly on your travels did you have to learn how to avoid bears?”
Rozire winked to his pupil. “You still have quite a bit to learn about me, you know.”
At that moment, a deep, distant sound echoed through the trees, like the sound of a low note on a horn. The sound continued for a few seconds, and when it stopped, the rest of the forest was nearly silent.
Maelys shot Rozire a glance, who returned it. His mentor’s demeanor remained unconcerned, but his grip the staff tightened visibly.
“What was that?” Maelys mouthed, almost completely silent now.
“That,” Rozire said, voice unchanged. “Is one of the true guardians of Upper Terrace. Lower Terrace and the Meadows wouldn’t stand a chance in the event of a full scale assault. An army would just burn down the forest and kill nearly everything inside. But that, my boy. That could stop an army, if it needed to. Those are the things we’re actually scared of. It’s what makes the Meadows so dangerous. Don’t worry, though. They’re pretty noticeable.”
As they started to pass beneath the forest, Maelys stopped.
“What’s wrong? You’re not having doubts now, are you? We’re only a night’s journey from one of the largest cities in the world!”
“I’m not going,” Maelys said.
“What? Don’t give me that, you’ve traveled halfway across the world with me and you’re going to stop now?”
“This isn’t what it used to be.”
“What are you talking about, we’ve been in lots of dangerous situations before.”
“This is different,” Maelys argued, raising his voice. “Before it was hiking through mountains and meeting interesting people! Discovering new and exciting things! Now it’s breaking the law, committing blasphemy to do it, and risking our lives along the way! And for what? You’ve never even told me anything!”
“Sure I have. I’m a cartographer mapping the the world. I don’t carry parchment with me because my job doesn’t truly begin until our journey ends. We’ve talked about this.”
“You don’t need to go to Upper Terrace to mark it on a map.”
“I realize that, but you don’t understand. Upper Terrace is the end of the journey.”
Maelys paused. “Upper Terrace is your home?”
His mentor shook his head. “Not exactly. It’s more complicated than that. But suffice to say, once we get into the city safely, our lives will change drastically.”
He looked back to Lower Terrace, the wall still visible through the trees, then ahead, where the forest fell into shadow. The path ahead was still unclear. “Promise we can get there safe?” he asked.
Taking note of the genuine concern on Maelys’ face, Rozire softened, his demeanor losing his jovial air for a moment. “I’ll protect us. We have nothing to worry about.”
Maelys nodded, and took the lead as they started off into the wood proper. His mentor followed behind, and before long they were back to traversing over roots and through bushes in relative silence.
“What is it like in Upper Terrace?” Maelys asked after a while, grabbing a firm dead branch off the ground to use as a walking stick.
“Well, life there isn’t really all that different from anywhere else in Tebrein. You’ve seen all manner of towns and villages, even larger ones like Tal’Doraken and Thornwall. In most of those cities you have the normal folk being governed by one house or lord. Upper Terrace is the same, but all the people are unspeakably rich and the ones lording over them make a council which also rules the nation of Tebrein.” Rozire paused to look up at the sky, which drew Maelys’ attention. It was a clear night, without a whisper of a cloud, but with the thickening canopy only a faint outline of the sister-planet could be seen. “It’s also much bigger than most cities, save Lower Terrace, of course, but it isn’t densely populated. People use their money to buy bigger houses or buy their neighbor’s houses so they can claim more land. It’s a game the nobility like to play. If you don’t have enough money, you get pushed out.”
A lot of that didn’t sit well with Maelys and his idea of why Rozire would have any business in a place like that. His mentor was the richest person he had ever met, as far as he knew, but with how big the houses seemed to be from a distance, he doubted even Rozire could afford to survive in such a society. Beyond that, he hated politics. On their journeys the two often went out of their way to avoid having to deal with them if it could be helped. Either way it didn’t sound like a place to stay.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Rozire said. “This doesn’t really sound like an adventure. And you’re right, it’s not. But it gets better. I have some friends in the pal—”
Following a soft crash of distant thunder, the ground began to shudder. Maelys wrapped his form around a tree trunk as tightly as he could as the tremors intensified. Dozens of birds flooded out of the trees they were nested in, flying northwards.
Rozire cursed under his breath, grabbing his pupil’s collar and peeling him off the tree. “We have to go. Now.”
A second boom of thunder, closer now. It was like a god setting foot on mortal soil, the very ground beneath them quaked in fear. Maelys, too stunned to do anything else, allowed his mentor to pull him from the tree, but instead of turning and running in the direction the birds had gone as Rozire had done, he fell to the floor in shock.
Through a gap in the trees he saw it. A gold shimmer, like a piece of plate armor. Moving in his general direction.
Before he could glimpse anything more, the world went black.
Soon, a face appeared in it. A crooked smile with pale eyes on a shapeless form, staring straight into his soul, a burning hunger from deep within. From somewhere, it pulled out a sword.
And lunged for him.
Maelys sparked into action, pulling to his feet and sprinting the way Rozire had to have gone. Deft leaps and ducks took him over roots and under low branches. It was several moments before he even realized that his blindness seemed to have already been cured. A glance backwards gave him no view of the shadowy swordsman, but it did little to help his terror.
The ground was still shaking, and at the same time it also seemed to be steadily sinking. He was climbing a hill yet not getting any higher. “Rozire!” he shouted, jerking his head back and forth in a panic to find his mentor. He was nowhere to be seen.
The sound of a low horn blared throughout the forest once again, this time much closer. Not the call of a beast on a leisurely stroll. It was the roar of a monster on the hunt.