It’s night under the trees, their dense canopy shunning the sun. Cold, too. Cang mourns his fuzzy boots, left behind in the lich’s dungeons.
“This isn’t feeling so good,” Shyan says. Her skin is alight with a buzz from the toxin she took in.
“Wrong,” Fassn says. “This stuff is crazy.” He dips his fingers in and out of his mouth, leaving them sticky with saliva. He murmurs around his fingers, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill.”
Something flashes at the edge of Cang’s vision and he whirls to track it. A dark shape, then another, scuttling across the tree branches, now on the trunk, now descending to the ground. Then another, and another. “Perhaps we ought to seek your doctor further down the river,” Cang says, but there are dark shapes behind him, too.
Shyan and Fassn are still quivering from the slowly-acting neurotoxin they’ve taken in from contact with the vines. Their palsied hands pull and pluck the sharpened wooden darts from their clothes. Cang uses one to pick his teeth.
“Maybe our friends above have gone to bed,” Fassn says.
The sun is drifting past evening — long shadows stretch out from the trees and the stakes strung with vines along the riverbank. A gentle breeze toussles the canopy of beech and elm. Shyan fancies she hears the chittering below the pleasant sound. Her face twitches into a scowl and tingles.
“I think I need a doctor,” she murmurs.
“Come along, then,” Cang says. “Certain to be a medical professional in this dark wood.”
The hand-length wooden darts spill from the canopy, thrown by the chittering creatures that strung the vines. Each makes a soft, sibillant whoosh as it cuts the air until it lands in a tree trunk or the soil with a sharp thunk.
Shyan and Fassn are hobbled by their contact with the vines and whatever foul poison they contain. Cang tears ahead, first to reach the tree line, while Abia comes up behind. She attracts several darts but they get caught up in her voluminous robes, failing to pierce her flesh.
When the gang reaches the tree line, the wooden darts stop — but the chittering grows angry and loud.
In contact with the vine, her body buzzes. Shyan’s eyes roll up ’til only the whites of her sclera are showing. Her progress is immediately arrested. The chittering voices above rise in intensity.
Cang mutters a curse and turns back to her. With his own shoulder, he knocks her in the back of the knee, upsetting her balance and sending her sprawling.
Just then, a dozen or more sharp sticks, hand-length, come shooting from the canopy. The hand-fashioned darts hit their targets with a quiet zip, hard enough to stand up. They land in the trees, the ground, a few in the vine-strung stakes — and one in the back of Shyan’s shoulder. She cries out as red blood drips.
Stunned and weary, the gang sprints for the treeline to get cover as another wave of sharp sticks rains.
The tree’s rustling soon gives way to chittering voices, speaking hurriedly in a language Shyan doesn’t understand. “You ever seen these things, Abia?” she asks.
She shakes her head once, firmly, but speaks an unfamiliar phrase aloud, directed at the trees. The chittering that follows is more animated than before. Leaves drift down from the canopy as whatever is up there moves about.
Meanwhile, Fassn is shaking off the deep burn in his palm.
“We’re just passing through,” Shyan says. Abia translates as best she can, though she’s unsure what the language is. More rustling and chirruping is all that follows.
“Perhaps these insensate creatures are not worth our precious time,” Cang says. He ducks under one of the strung vines.
“Maybe you’re right,” Shyan says. She does the same, but her shoulder brushes a vine and she goes rigid with shock.
The instant his skin makes contact with the vines, a jolting shock goes through him. Fassn’s eyes roll back in his head. His grip is frozen.
“Oh no,” Shyan says. “Not again.” She strides next to Fassn and with the side of her hand delivers a rapid chop to the vine. Its green flesh snaps under the sudden pressure like a ligament, comes to a dangling rest.
“We might have been better served letting him suffer,” Cang says. He gestures subtly, no more than a nod, at the trees surrounding the stakes — dark shapes linger and shift above.
It isn’t long before “here” is a rocky riverbank giving way to stony beach. The boat butts up upon it, and oarless, the gang judders to an uneasy halt.
As the last slivers of sun disappear the night’s cold moves quickly in. Shyan and Cang disembark, pull the boat ashore enough for Abia to step out. Fassn stomps and splashes a bit, soaking his boots, before following the rest.
Sharp stakes rise from the ground, head high. They’re doubly tall over Cang, who’s first to see them. He throws a hand up to signal his companions and points out a taut length of vine strung between the stakes. “A quite clever implement,” he says.
Shyan squints at the poles. “They’re here, too.”
Abia leans in to study their make as Fassn grabs a vine.