“Why can’t they just look like the illustrations in the book?” Trissiny complained.
“I guess the plants just don’t feel a need to conform to your expectations,” Toby said, smiling. “Maybe Juniper could carry a complaint to Naiya for you?”
“Actually, that would be a really bad idea,” Juniper called from a few yards away. “She doesn’t have a lot of patience for complainers.”
Trissiny just grumbled, staring at the sad little cluster of leaves in her hand, wondering whether to pick it and add it to her collection. “I can’t tell if this is a twisted, undernourished specimen or just…not a versithorae.”
“Rafe did say those wouldn’t be as common,” Gabriel said, craning his neck around Toby to peer at her. “I mean, look how thick the brush is around here. Stands to reason there’s been no burning for a while. Versithorae like ash.”
With a sigh, Trissiny plucked the scraggly little plant and pressed it into the small book Rafe had issued for the purpose. “Well, whatever, I’m counting it. If I’m wrong, the worst thing that’ll happen is I get a poor grade in herbalism. I’ve yet to hear someone explain why I should care about that.”
Gabriel laughed; she ignored him, turning toward another clump of brush in search of the next item on her list.
The Sea had dropped an interesting geographical feature into their path, and Rafe had not hesitated to make homework of it. A crater, deep but sloping gently due to its considerable width, was set in the floor of the prairie, its lip surrounded by a rim of thick trees that made it look like a patch of jungle when approached from the outside. Within, however, the broad bowl was filled with bushes and lush grasses, around a small, almost perfectly circular lake in the center. After having seen nothing but miles and miles of amber tallgrass, the various shades of green were a relief for the senses.
They had paused to enjoy the little oasis, but Rafe had also set them to collecting and identifying plant samples, as he had at the last such feature they’d encountered, which was a near perfect opposite of this one: a steep, rounded hill rising out of the prairie, covered with towering trees. Two days after their brush with the centaur at the hot springs, they had seen no other signs of intelligent life, and were beginning to relax a little.
Everyone remained in sight of each other, though it wasn’t hard; the underbrush wasn’t as tall as the tallgrass, and the sloping geography of the crater made everything visible from any point within. They’d wandered off into smaller groups, though. Only Rafe was by himself, apparently asleep on the shore of the lake. Teal and Shaeine were prowling up near the lip of the crater, where the shade of the trees was more comfortable for the drow. Ruda was making methodical progress through a swath of brush with her list in hand, Fross buzzing about her head to help spot plants, and Juniper ranging widely around them—and doing more goofing off than work, or at least so it appeared to the others. Much like her performance their first day in the University’s greenhouse, she seemed delighted to meet every plant she came across, and determined to introduce herself to each of them. The last group was mostly quiet and somewhat more tense. Trissiny and Gabriel had both gravitated toward Toby, but were little inclined to talk to each other.
Trissiny knelt to rummage beneath a bush, looking for the shade-loving ground cover plants near the bottom of her list. Behind her, Toby nudged Gabriel with an elbow, then jerked his head significantly in her direction. Gabe grimaced, shaking his head emphatically; Toby bopped him gently on the forehead. With a sigh, the half-demon took a hesitant step toward her, squaring his shoulders as if about to march into a dragon’s den.
“So,” he said with forced lightness, “I keep forgetting to mention it, Trissiny, but I think we know one of your relatives.”
“What?!” She shot upright and spun so abruptly that Gabe staggered backward, raising his hands to ward her off. Her expression was a blend of shock and disbelief.
“I…uh…I… A teacher!” he stammered, still backpedaling. “At our school, growing up… There was a Ms. Avelea who taught history. I liked her a lot better than Tellwyrn.”
“Oh.” Trissiny relaxed, then, disconcertingly, chuckled. “Oh. You startled me for a moment.”
“I, um, noticed. Sorry? I…think I’ve missed something.”
She shook her head, still smiling ruefully. “Avelea is the surname given to orphans raised by the Sisters of Avei. So, in a sense… Yes, your teacher would be my sister, as we all are. I doubt I’ve met her, though. Hardly any of us with the name share even a drop of blood.”
“Oh,” he said, then grimaced. “So that… Oh. So when I talked about your relatives out of nowhere, that probably sounded like…”
“Like more of what I generally expect from you,” she replied, turning back to the bush.
“Um…sorry. I didn’t realize…”
“No harm done.” Trissiny spoke without turning around, her voice somewhat muffled by the foliage. “Or meant, I’m sure.”
“I wouldn’t have deliberately pushed a button like that,” he said, sounding lame even to himself. “I was just…trying to be friendly.”
Gabriel sighed again, staring at her back. He turned to face Toby, shrugging. Toby rolled his eyes and made a shooing gesture in Trissiny’s direction, getting another emphatic headshake in reply.
“Guys?” Juniper eased up out of a nearby stand of broad-leafed grass in which she’d been crouching. Her voice was pitched lower than usual. “Trissiny? Stand up slowly and come over here.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“You’re being stalked. I’m gonna try to put myself between—”
She spun mid-sentence and leaped to one side as an enormous shape exploded out of a nearby copse of bushes, lunging at Gabriel. Juniper collided with it in midair; she brought a hand down on the animal’s head, eliciting a howl of protest, and they both crashed to the ground, immediately springing apart.
It was a cat, that much was obvious, though the thing was the size of a horse. Its tawny coat made for poor camouflage in the green crater, but would have suited it ideally out among the tallgrass of the prairie. Most alarmingly, it had two colossal fangs protruding from its upper mouth, each the length of a human forearm. The cat rolled to its feet immediately, glaring at Juniper, but did not lunge at her again, even though she was slower to regain her balance. With the two of them standing so close together, it seemed absurd that her weight could have been enough to slow the creature, much less knock it down.
Toby and Trissiny both burst alight, golden radiance flaring up around them, and sending Gabriel staggering away, retching in pain. Trissiny drew her blade, but didn’t even have time to step around Juniper to face the cat.
Vadrieny landed beside them with a thump, having hit the ground hard from a steep dive. The great cat whirled to face her, but the demon extended her burning wings to their full extent, flexed her talons, and screamed.
Gabriel and Juniper both backed away, clutching at their ears in pain; only the two paladins seemed protected. The sound was abominable, a protracted shriek somewhat like the cry of a hawk, but filled with an impossible fury that clawed at the brain, and with a shrill resonance like nails on a blackboard.
The cat flattened its ears back against its skull, dropping to the ground. It stared at Vadrieny for a bare few seconds before turning and bounding away with a howl of protest. Within moments, it had ascended to the rim of trees and vanished beyond the crater.
It took the sudden silence following the demon’s cry for them to realize just how noisy the crater had been, before. Insects, birds and frogs from the lake had all filled the air with the sounds of life; now, dead silence descended, broken only by the faint voice of the wind. And then by Gabriel.
“What the hell was that?!”
“Smilodon,” said Ruda, having just made it there. Her sword was out, but she was simply staring after the departing animal, letting the blade trail among the grass. “Damn… Never thought I’d see something like that. We got a skeleton of one back home, but they’re supposed to be extinct.”
“Like centaurs,” said Trissiny.
“Triss, would you mind awfully turning down the glow a bit?” Gabriel asked. He was standing a good fifteen feet from her, but still wincing at the light she was putting off. Toby had extinguished his as soon as the cat had departed. She turned her head to regard him silently for a moment, but then allowed the light to wink out. “Thanks.”
“There’s lots of supposedly extinct stuff still bopping around in the Golden Sea,” Professor Rafe said brightly, arriving along with Shaeine. “The thing I wonder about is what it was doing in here! Do you guys see any prey animals? Cos I sure don’t.”
“Oh, it probably just came to drink,” said Juniper. “I don’t guess there are a lot of sources of fresh water out there. Actually…it is sort of puzzling how a predator that size lives in the Sea. Aside from those bison, we haven’t seen a lot of animals big enough to support him.”
“Maybe the Sea takes them where they need to go,” Gabe suggested. “And on the subject of going, I’m of the opinion that the charm has gone out of this place.”
“Oh, please, you heard the tree lady,” Ruda said, grinning. “The big kitty’s gone, probably a hundred miles away on a Sea shift by now. We’re safer here.”
“Nonsense! We move on!” Rafe declared, pointing dramatically at the rim of the crater. “Everybody pack up your samples and lace up your boots, we’ve tarried plenty long enough! We’ve been going mostly uphill, deeper into the Sea, and not getting much action except for the odd bit of pretty scenery. From now on, we travel…SIDEWAYS!”
With this declaration, he marched off, heading for the edge of the crater. After exchanging a round of significant glances, the students began trailing after him.
“Was that more joking?” Fross asked uncertainly. “Because I’m not wearing boots.”
“For purposes of this discussion, sure, it was joking,” Ruda said. “But don’t repeat any jokes you hear from Rafe, they’ll just make you sound like a fucking idiot. Gods know they do him.”
“I was starting to figure that part out anyway, but thank you.”
“Now that you brought it up, I’m really curious about how something that size makes a living out here,” Gabriel mused as they walked. “It could probably bring down a bison pretty easily, but they travel in big groups.”
“We brought one down easy enough,” said Ruda.
“Um, no, ‘we’ didn’t,” Fross corrected. “Juniper did. And no animal would attack a dryad unless it was mentally damaged. You saw how even the smilodon didn’t jump after her even after she hit it.”
“Maybe we’re just a rare delicacy, then,” Gabriel said lightly. “I wonder what human tastes like.”
“It might be best,” Trissiny said without turning around to look at him, “if you in particular didn’t wonder about things like that out loud.”
“A lot like pig,” said Juniper, who was in the lead of the group. “Or…I guess you’d call it pork when you’re eating it. Which is really funny when you think about it! There’s, like, no resemblance at all. Maybe humans and pigs evolved from the same kind of animal?”
She continued blithely on in Professor Rafe’s tracks, apparently unaware that the entire group had come to a stop and were staring at her back.
“Wait, so… How does she know what humans taste like?”
Ruda sighed. “Welcome to the conversation, Fross.”
“Thanks! I’m still confused, though.”
“You’re probably better off.”
Some time after noon, they encountered other travelers for the first time.
Rafe, walking in the head of the group as usual, was the first to spot them. Trissiny, following his pointing finger, discerned them immediately, but it was some minutes before the others could make anything out beyond a faint smudge of dust thrown into the air. Two covered wagons, pulled by oxen, were on the way directly toward them, heading downhill and thus to the edge of the Sea. Moving east as they were, the students could likely have avoided the other party entirely by continuing on their way, but by consensus everyone stopped to meet the others. Aside from the fact that they were supposed to be having encounters with denizens of the Golden Sea, the alternative of traipsing along through endless tallgrass was just plain boring.
They had plenty of time to arrange themselves and watch the others approach. The occupants of the second wagon were hidden by the first, but those driving the lead wagon were visible: a man and a woman, both human, and both dressed in typical frontier style, in denim trousers and plain buttoned shirts. He was blonde and fair, as was pretty common among frontier towns, with a ten-gallon hat shielding him from the sun; she was dark-haired and had a swarthy Tiraan complexion. Both carried staves, which they raised and aimed at the students when they drew close.
Trissiny and Toby both glowed subtly, probably not enough to be noticeable in the sunlight, but ready to throw up divine shields at need. Standing just behind them, Shaeine drew on her own power, a silver luminescence rising around her hands, which were folded behind her back.
The wagons rumbled to a halt, their occupants surveying the nine of them warily. Toby cleared his throat, opening his mouth to speak.
“BEHOLD!” Rafe bellowed, grinning maniacally and throwing his arms wide. Toby sighed.
“Yeah, we see you,” said the woman, shifting her staff to aim at him in particular. “Weren’t expecting to meet any other adventurers, specially not on foot at this time of day. The sun’s not—holy fuck, is that a drow?”
Toby cleared his throat. “We don’t mean you any harm. I don’t begrudge you holding weapons, this being dangerous territory and all, but would you mind not pointing them at my friends?”
“I mind a little,” said the man. His expression remained cold, and his staff remained aimed at Trissiny, who he had clearly decided was the most obvious threat. “I see you’ve got a Sister along, which is a little reassuring. Fact remains, though, it’s been years since there was loot in any quantity to be found in the Sea. Most reliable way to strike it rich out here is to rob somebody else who’s already done the heavy digging. It ain’t wise for us to be too friendly toward strangers.”
“Ooh, you looted something good? Nice!” Ruda grinned widely. “What’d ya get?”
Both of them shifted, aiming their staves at her. “Don’t see how it’s any of your business,” the man said grimly.
“If I may?” Gabriel stepped forward. “We don’t want or need your loot. We are on a glorious quest to wander around the prairie like idiots for an indeterminate amount of time until this head case over here decides we can go home.” He jerked a thumb at Rafe, who grinned delightedly.
The pair eyed him, then glanced at each other. The woman, though, relaxed and raised her staff to point at the sky. “Ah, I see. Kids from Tellwyrn’s University, then?”
“I’m a little troubled by how obvious that apparently is,” said Teal.
“That’s another matter,” said the man, also lifting his weapon. “Sorry for the rude welcome. Can’t be too careful out here.”
“No harm done,” Toby said, smiling. “It’s a good idea to be cautious, especially in a place like this. Have you run into much trouble?”
“Not of the kind that’s likely to be roaming around makin’ a pest of itself,” the man replied, then leaned over to spit to the side. “We did come across some ruins down in a canyon… Full o’ monsters, but a fairly decent haul for the effort. You’ll forgive me if I don’t give you directions.”
“Of course,” Toby replied equably. “It wouldn’t do us much good anyway; I doubt the way there still exists. Or if it does, it leads somewhere else by now.”
“I should warn you that there are centaurs on the move,” he went on more seriously. “The Golden Sea being what it is, there’s no telling how close they might be. But we’ve encountered a lone scout, which we killed, and met an elf who said there’s an entire group of as many as sixty still in this general region. If…we’re still in that general region. It’s hard to say.”
The man and woman exchanged a long, serious look.
“That’s troubling news,” she said slowly. “The Sea doesn’t commonly shift you by a huge amount at one time…except that sometimes it does, but if you’ve seen something, it’s likely to stay in your general area until you do some serious walking. When was this?”
“Two days ago.”
“We appreciate the warning,” said the man, tipping his hat to them. “Not much to be done about it except keep our eyes out and weapons up, but…forewarned is forearmed, as they say.”
“Of course,” he replied. “I wouldn’t want anybody to wander into them by mistake.”
“You’ll pardon us if we don’t hang around to chat, but with this news especially, we’re eager to get outta the Sea and back to somewhere we can start spending our haul.”
“Of course,” Toby said again. “Thanks for talking with us.”
“Mm,” the man said noncommittally, and flicked his reins. He tugged the brim of his hat again as the oxen started moving. “Y’all take care.”
They stood aside to let the tiny wagon train pass. Driving the second cart was a blonde man with subtly pointed ears, doubtless a half-elf, with a much scruffier man beside him, both also holding staves. They nodded to the students in passing, but didn’t offer a word of greeting.
“So,” Ruda said thoughtfully, “ruins. Wonder what our odds are of finding those?”
“Dismal,” said Rafe cheerily. “But worry not, my little chickens! It’s the Golden Sea, after all. We’re sure to find something rewardingly deadly, if we only persevere and have faith!”
“Seriously,” said Gabe. “Is there a medical term for what’s wrong with you?”
“It’s called genius, y’little hellbug. All right, that’s enough lollygaggin’. ONWARD TO FUCKING GLORY!”
Given the lack of general interest in the Sea’s terrain—amber waves of grain were scenic and all, but got old quickly when there was nothing else to see—when the students found anything interesting, they made a beeline for it. Thus, when a canyon opened up before them, the group headed into it without a second thought. It began as a little dip in the level of the plain, but the tallgrass quickly faded away, yielding to gravel and dusty rock, with increasingly tall stone walls to either side.
“And what happens if there’s not a convenient exit at the other end of this?” Gabriel asked, after they had hiked deep enough into the ravine that the entrance was no longer visible behind them.
“Then we backtrack!” Rafe said cheerfully. “Anyhow, these things often have side branches, so don’t assume the exit’s in a straight line ahead. Besides, odds are good we’ll find something cool! Most of the interesting stuff in the Sea is attached to some anomaly in the geography. Once in a while you do find things just sitting around on the prairie, but odds are much better within the hills and canyons and whatnot.”
“That guy on the wagon said they found ruins and treasure in a canyon,” Ruda commented, gesticulating vaguely with a half-consumed bottle of whiskey. “Think this might be it?”
“Not likely,” said Toby. “He also said that canyon was full of monsters.”
“I don’t think we’ve gone deep enough into this one yet to determine what it might be full of,” Trissiny said grimly. “In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to ask him exactly what kind of ‘monsters’ they were.”
Teal stopped short, raising her head. “Something…does anyone else hear that?”
“What?” Rafe paused, looking back at her. “I don’t, and my hearing is exceptional.”
“Hoofbeats,” Shaeine said tersely.
The others glanced at one another, but before anybody could voice a question, the sound grew loud enough to be audible to everyone. Nervously, the group pulled together and by silent consensus pressed themselves against the canyon wall. Above, the noise grew until it was obviously right above them.
“Could be bison,” Gabriel said. “Or wild horses. Unicorns…”
A long, whooping shout echoed from above, followed by answering yells in a language none of them understood. The steady drum of hooves all moving in unison changed tempo, fading into the more chaotic noise of creatures stomping about in one place.
“With riders?” Gabe suggested weakly.
“Fross,” Trissiny said very quietly, “would you mind having a look?”
The pixie didn’t reply verbally, but zipped straight upward to the rim of the canyon. Her glow, already hard to spot in the bright sunlight, dimmed further. Seconds later, she shot back down to rejoin them. Nobody was surprised when she said exactly what they did not want to hear.