(note: This chapter contains some sensitive content. Please view the description below for the exact details.)
Luss rolled over on his makeshift bed, unable to get comfortable.
As was customary after the choosing of groups, the five members in each group were to get used to the circumstances of traveling together by camping together—wherever they wanted—for the night before setting out.
Adif, the elf girl, had volunteered the spot near the bizarre shack-treehouse combination as their camping site, and no one had any better suggestions.
They had already gone and given farewells to their parents, meeting back at the chosen campsite afterwards.
For that moment, Luss felt some solidarity with Shayrow—the dhampyr. Both he and Luss headed to the site right away and waited for the others to return.
“What’s your reason?” Luss asked him.
“The family I’ve got left doesn’t live nearby,” Shayrow said. “What about you?”
“I was such an ugly baby that my parents offed themselves.”
Shayrow’s eyes widened in shock.
“I’m kidding!” Luss uneasily grinned. “Sheesh! Don’t you got a sense of humor?”
“I don’t think death is a particularly amusing topic,” Shayrow coolly replied. “Please don’t joke about it.”
Luss turned his palms up and backed off. He didn’t say another word to Shayrow for the rest of the evening.
And now Luss was lying on a soft patch of grass that he’d been lucky enough to find, cursing himself for attending the choosing of groups in the first place. He honestly hadn’t thought that he’d get put in a group.
Jelro—the merfling—was stretched out with his animal friends lying around him or draped over him. Shayrow would have been completely unnoticeable in the dark if it weren’t for his snoring.
Luss rolled over again, curling up with his arms hugged against himself.
He could tell that Jelro and Kestek weren’t completely convinced by his act, but at least Jelro didn’t seem to want to argue.
For the entire time since they had met, up until the group settled down to sleep, Kestek had kept looking towards Luss, probably waiting for him to do something that would give him away.
But Luss knew all his weak points and how to cover them.
He was never going to make another mistake like that.
Luss turned over on his back, staring up at the stars. He could hear the owl softly hooting and the bat unsteadily circling the area.
Oddly enough, Jelro’s posse of animal friends was presenting Luss with a problem that he had never faced before. Something inside of him was reaching for the animals, trying to communicate with them, but Luss knew doing that would ruin everything in the blink of an eye.
After a few more minutes, Luss gave up trying to sleep and quietly crawled away from the clearing. He crept into the shadows of the trees, considering the many possibilities of the night.
But then he smelled smoke.
Luss had two fears—cold iron, and fire.
But he found himself moving closer to the source of the smoke, curious as to what it could be.
He ended up close to the center of the town, where a large crowd was gathering around as the guards dragged something towards the fire.
Luss sucked in a breath.
It was a nixie burning.
Despite being terrified, Luss couldn’t tear his eyes away from the scared face of the nixie that was being dragged to the pyre.
Mostly because they were very much still alive.
They won’t be for long, Luss bitterly thought.
Unless you help, an annoying voice in the back of his mind pointed out.
And get myself killed along with them?!
You know the guards better than that.
Luss took a deep breath.
Then he stupidly rushed forward, vanishing into thin air.
In reality, he was just shifting through the air, staying invisible to anyone that didn’t look hard enough. The guards were so focused on the fire and their swords that it was unlikely that they would notice.
The nixie was a young boy, although to the guards he probably looked in his late teens. Nixies had a longer adolescent phase than most species, which Luss liked to blame for the mischievous nature of most nixies.
Luss perched himself on the roof of the nearest building, waiting for his chance to swoop in and help the nixie.
The nixie suddenly stiffened, his gaze locking on the space that Luss was in. He squinted, trying to see if there were something there or not.
Luss knew he had one chance, or maybe two if he got lucky. But he didn’t want to rely on luck. That was a fool’s method.
The guard in the front reached for his sword, unsheathing the shiny blade while being careful to keep it out of the flames. The iron wouldn’t have the same effect if it spent too long in the heat.
Luss took the opportunity to act.
And suddenly, there was a manticore looming over the pyre. It spread its massive wings and let out a roar that was akin to a chorus of trumpets.
Several of the guards fled immediately, while others stood their ground, shouting to protect the town. A few of the guards yelled something about the monster being an illusion created by the nixie.
Manticores were one of the most dangerous creatures in existence, seeing as nobody knew a whole lot about them. Anyone that got close enough for the chance to study one wouldn’t live to tell the tale.
They were enormous beasts, resembling lions to an extent but with scaly wings and an indescribable monster head. They had spiraling horns and stinging tails, as well as somewhere around three rows of sharp teeth, although no one had been able to get close enough for an accurate count.
Luss had great interest in deadly monsters, so he had spent much of his time studying their anatomy and behavior.
His favorite fact was that in all Merrowish languages, manticores were called aima’hcistha’q, which literally meant “man-eater.”
The manticore was a distraction enough for the nixie to escape the pyre without the guards noticing.
There was one thing that Luss had learned about manticores that few—if any—guards knew, which was tragic in Luss’s opinion.
Manticores were afraid of elephants.
The nixie apparently knew that fact; he suddenly skidded to a stop and focused, his form melting and growing larger. Luss knew that nixies had to maintain the same mass-to-volume ratio with their forms, making it difficult to shapeshift very quickly into large forms.
It was quite the magnificent face-off. The elephant stared down the manticore, who shrieked but held its ground.
Then with a screech of defeat, the manticore shot off into the cloudy sky, destroying the roof of the barracks with its tail on its way out.
The elephant vanished, and Luss went after the nixie once he had made sure he was one with the air.
The nixie dropped to his knees in front of Luss.
“Shh!” Luss held a finger to his lips, glancing over his shoulder to where the guards were sweeping the area for signs of the nixie. He crouched down to join the nixie in the shadows.
“Can you sign?” Luss asked in MeSL—Merrow Sign Language—which was generally the same across most waters with a few differences in dialect.
The nixie nodded.
“Thank you,” he signed. “I thought I was a goner.”
“I thought you were, too,” Luss admitted. “Don’t let them catch you again.”
“Wait, are you leaving?”
“I have to. I’ve got my own façade to keep up.” Luss apologetically shrugged.
“Good luck. Please don’t get killed. And thank you.”
“Same to you.”
And with that, they went their separate ways. Luss returned to the camp, relieved to see that even the elf girl appeared to be asleep.
Exhausted from everything that had just happened, Luss had barely lain down before he drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, he was the last one to wake up. Kestek had started a small fire to cook the morning meal, and she gave Luss a funny look as he scooted back from the flames.
Adif suddenly came crashing through the trees with Jelro, both of them holding food they had probably gotten from the market.
“You won’t believe it,” Adif gasped out. “Last night, a manticore attacked the town!”
“What?!” Kestek shrieked at the same time Shayrow calmly asked, “Is anyone injured?”
“Is anyone dead?” Luss flatly added.
“Two of the guards lost some blood, but no one died.” Adif shook her head, amazed.
“It was during a nixie burning, and the nixie turned into an elephant,” Jelro noted, glancing around to see if anyone could make sense of the statement.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Kestek scoffed.
“Easy,” Luss said. “Manticores are afraid of elephants. They’re the one animal that they won’t kill.”
“Wait, really?” Adif gaped at Luss. “Where did you learn that?”
“Some independent studies,” Luss vaguely answered, keeping a bored look on his face while he inwardly grinned.
If only they knew why.
~ ~ ~