Abia’s ears do not deceive. Soon the gang hears the padding of small feet, the creaks of branches gripped by hands. The creatures, alerted to the theft, are on their way. Shyan springs up and puts out their low fire.
“We know not the next town’s location,” Cang grumbles.
The glowing sphere bobbing around him perks up and starts to turn circles around his head. He swats at it irritably, but it deftly dodges. It pulls away toward the woods just as scowling grey creatures emerge behind the gang, growling about jewels.
By true nightfall, when the sun has sunk low beyond the trees and their craggy shadows reach lengthening black hands to grab and drag and never let go, the party arrives in the grey creatures’ village. The creatures are awake, keeping a vigil with burning torches and lanterns strung up in the trees. The crunching ground underfoot gives the group away, so that when they reach the village proper, the creatures are arrayed about in anxious anticipation. Seeing the princess on her own two feet, plodding along in the company of humans — two of whom are obviously bearing signs of poisoning — they erupt in cheers. Someone produces a flute, and another a drum, and soon the village square, such that it is, between the trees, erupts with music and mirth.
The princess grins, happy to be taken into the celebration. Soon the gang loses sight of her among her companions. For humans, at a glance, these grey creatures are tough to distinguish.
Shyan clears her throat, speaks up over the noise and dancing. “So,” she says. “The antidote?”
They don’t seem to hear her.
“The elders of my village are the keepers of the antidote,” says the princess. “I cannot produce it on my own.”
“That’s fine,” Shyan says. She has to fight to keep her eyes from rolling back in her head. There’s a ton of pressure behind them, as though they want to shoot from her skull like billiard balls at the break. “Show us the way.”
The evening woods are dense with noise and movement. Creatures move about, barely glimpsed in the underbrush. As the gang treks, the sun begins to set.
“Have we light for our journey?” asks the princess. “A lantern, perhaps?”
Sheepily, the party looks at one another. “Most of our gear was stolen,” Shyan begins, a note of apology in her voice.
“Stolen? By village folk, perhaps?”
“Er, a lich?”
The princess shakes her head solemnly. “These are tough times,” she says.
Suppressing a cough, Shyan says, “It’s been better.”
“What do you mean?” Fassn asks, prodding at the skin of his forearm. “This tingling feeling, you don’t like it?”
“No, Fassn, I don’t like it,” Shyan says. “I can’t feel my toes and my tongue feels like it’s burning.”
“Aw, I didn’t get that,” he says. He sticks out his tongue and grabs it like his hand is a set of forceps.
“Humans are strange,” says the princess.
Cang nods, disgusted by his friends’ display. “Fortunately, daily life is not always like this.” Abia shifts her weight and Cang adds, “Well, not wholly often.”
“So, the antidote,” Shyan says, her face ashen. “Wait, one moment,” she adds, ducking into a bush to vomit. Wiping her lip with the back of her battered leather gauntlet, she says again, “So, the antidote.”
The princess’ round, grey face falls. Her bulbous black eyes are washed with pain. “Of course not,” she says. “The humans of the village would never dare assault my people again. Not with you find protectors at my side.”
Shyan and Fassn share a queasy look, sweating beading on the ends of their respective noses. “Maybe no more questions,” Shyan says.
“Yeah, maybe just the antidote,” adds Fassn. His teeth chatter. “What’s it like to be a princess?”
“Wonderful, most wonderful,” she says. Her wide lipless mouth turns up into a grin. “The sumptuous grace of my mother’s palace is one of the world’s great marvels.” Seeming to suddenly recall her manners, she adds, “And what is it like being, er,” she says, surveying the filthy group of grubby adventurers before her. “Um, one of you?”
The forest is made up of tall baobab trees with horizontal limbs reaching out in all directions. Birds and insects chitter among them, flashing and flitting from bough to bough. The gang slowly marches in formation, their speed arrested by Shyan and Fassn’s infirmities. The short grey princess, too, is no speedster, so the group’s pace is leisurely despite its preference to get away from the village immediately.
“So,” Cang says as they amble together. “How did you come to be captured by the humans of the village?”
“They rode in on their beasts,” says the princess. “The tall ones become taller. You understand,” she says, eyeing Cang, who’s not much taller than she is, though broader by far. “Their four-legged tall beasts snort and roar and there is nowhere to run. I offered myself to preserve the well-being of my family in my absence.”
Abia shifts in her gait uncomfortably.
“Then won’t they just come back?” Fassn asks.
The birdsong seems to die at that moment as all eyes shift to him.