“Someone’s alive out here.”
Geetsha’s words fell on a silent crowd. They all stood there in the clearing, surrounding her in a half-circle, exchanging quiet looks between one another. No one was sure exactly what to say. Adal didn’t hear a thing. He looked to the moa. They stood with rigid back and necks, eyes alert and surveying the foliage beyond the clearing. But they’d been acting agitated since the gunfire, hadn’t they?
“You said someone, not something,” Torcha said, pointing out the obvious. “Does that mean a survivor?”
“Well we found a horse,” said Riss. “Horses need riders.”
That much was true. Adal squinted past the edge of the torchlight, toward where the clearing continued. The last traces of twilight were fast fading from the sky. Something tugged at his subconscious, a shape barely registered in the murk. He narrowed his eyes yet further, but the shapes refused to resolve.
“I’m going to take a look further across the plateau,” he said to the others. “I think I see something.”
And it wasn’t a something that got his hackles up. Only a few paces away from the others, he saw it: a metallic glint upon the ground. Half-buried in dirt, something man-made. He jogged the last few steps regardless of his exhaustion, powered forward by intrigue. He dug his toe into the earth, kicking soil aside, and crouched down.
A belt buckle. Still attached to a torn shred of leather that had yet to rot. Whoever had left it, they hadn’t left it long ago.
“I’ve found a buckle!” He flipped it over to Riss when she arrived at his side. “Geetsha’s right. There’s someone out here.”
Riss gave their wispy, white-haired guide another of those sideways looks. She was so obvious with her distrust. Again, Adal tamped down the urge to tell her to at least be subtle about it. But Geetsha didn’t seem to notice.
“There’s a trail down the other side of this plateau,” she said, her voice a contemplative whisper. “Perhaps someone fled up it. Or down it.”
They combed the clearing and found further evidence. It was laughably obvious once they put their torches to ground and covered a bit more area. Had they walked into the clearing at full daylight, Adal imagined they would have spotted the signs immediately: a few discarded torches, scattered piles of ash. A copse of normal trees–he hated that he had to qualify that–which had been partially felled for firewood. And at the far end of the clearing, a great central firepit.
Normally they might have taken some time to explore, to see what clues might be gleaned, but Riss trained her focus on Geetsha.
“All right,” she said. “You heard something. Where?”
Geetsha closed her eyes for a moment. She cupped her hands to either of her ears, just standing there. It went on long enough that Adal cast a sidelong look to Torcha, whose mouth scrunched up in skepticism.
Finally, Geetsha spoke up:
“Down the back side of the plateau. Further down the trail.”
Riss looked to Vosk and Adal, sizing them both up with a quick head-to-toe.
“Here or there, you two?” she asked.
“I can’t speak for Vosk, but I’m not keen on splitting up again.”
“Rather not,” Vosk agreed.
The night around them was pitch dark, only scraps of occasional starlight filtering through the tree cover. Though their lanterns burned brightly, it didn’t feel enough. Something about the darkness was pervasive. Adal couldn’t put his finger on what. Perhaps he was merely so tired that he was starting to… not quite hallucinate, but starting to tread that line, that border between fully alert and not.
They descended a steep, fungus-riddled slope, and as they climbed lower, the trees grew… colorful.
Adal had to blink a few times. He had to be certain what he was seeing was real. Perhaps he was more tired than he thought.
But no, the startled gasps from the others–and Torcha’s soft coo of delight–confirmed that what he was seeing was real.
The bottom of the path intersected with a thicket of twisted, sharp-thorned brambles. Someone had hacked a path through them, and the uppermost thorns were draped with strands of gauzy, colorful filaments, delicate as a multicolored spider’s web. It looked as though someone wearing many silken scarves had run through the thorns and left shreds in their wake, yet there were no disturbances in the growth, no broken branches and no signs that anything living had passed through in some time.
The soft, colorful threads draped over the path through the brambles, an undisturbed curtain. By torchlight, they looked maroon and orange and a ruddy green-brown that Adal suspected would shine emerald in sunlight.
It was beautiful.
“It looks like silk,” Torcha whispered. “Like spider silk. Or like they weave up in Patalban.”
Shuffling her way to the front of the queue and stepping between Riss and Geetsha, Torcha held out a hand. Riss reached aside and touched her forearm.
“Torcha!” she hissed, her voice low. “Careful. Stuff… melds to other stuff here, remember?”
Torcha tipped her head back and pulled down her hood, red curls rustling. She stood on her tip-toes, examining the strands of thread with a doubtful frown.
“Anyone have a hen bone?” She glanced back toward the packbirds. “If that stuff melds with bones and meat, we should be able to test it.”
Instead, Geetsha stepped forward and parted the thin, translucent curtain of threads with a hand. A bare hand, Adal noted.
“This is safe,” she promised. Riss’ back was rigid as she watched.
Adal and Riss locked eyes. Torcha scowled. For all of Geetsha’s confidence, nobody seemed in a hurry to take her at her word.
Geetsha slipped beyond the curtain into the darkness beyond. The threads fluttered in her wake like fringe on a dancer’s skirt.