“Filthy tall ones like yourselves,” rasps the grey creatures’ leader.
“I am afraid that gives us little to go on,” Cang replies.
“Village,” it says, pointing east. “They swarm and hunt and take.”
Fassn belches, then woozily sits down on the ground. Now the creatures are taller than him, and some move tentatively closer. A particularly brave creature reaches out to pet his greying curly hair. Its mates chitter at the courage.
“Hey,” Shyan murmurs. “Stay away from him.” But she’s too far and her movements too sluggish. The creatures alight and scamper away before she can do much more than stir.
Abia and Cang exchange a glance. “You are certain you have enough antidote for both of our compatriots?”
The leader grins, mouth full of tight little shark’s teeth.
Abia nods, and Cang says, “To the village, then.”
The creatures’ chittering rises to an excited, bubbling pitch.
“Laughable,” Cang says, turning his back on the grey things.
“Sure,” their leader rasps. “Laugh, laugh.” Its compatriots certainly do: a juddering, chirping laughter rises from their ranks. Yet more from the trees above.
Fassn, beside himself as the neurotoxin flows through him, can’t help but chuckle along.
“What favour?” Abia asks.
“Why should we perform labours for free?” Cang says.
“Not free. Antidote.”
“Our priestess,” rasps the creature. “Has been taken by humans.”
“We know nothing of her, our most sincere apologies. We must be on our way,” Cang says.
“Antidote,” Shyan chokes, spittle flying from her lips.
Cang rolls his eyes. “Captured by whom?”
“Humans,” a voice rasps. It’s high and light, but rough, as though the creature speaking had damaged its throat. It comes from behind Cang, and he’s first to whirl on his heel to face it. The speaker is about Cang’s height, with mottled grey skin and scraps of leather stitched together to make a tunic. At its belt of rope dangles a cache of wooden darts and a small pouch. Other voices chitter and laugh.
“What would you have of us?” Cang says. “Our companions are wounded and we would see them safe.”
“Speak for yourself,” Fassn says. He staggers a bit, still licking his fingers. A cool breeze rustles the trees.
“Toxin,” the creature rasps. “Body, blood, brain.”
Cang sneers. “Pass over the antidote, then, and be gone with you.”
The chittering laughter rises, but falls again as the leader speaks. “Human,” it says. “First you do favour for us.”
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.”