Directing the words at Essairyn, the leader stated more than asked, “What brings you to the Spirit and Demon Forest, human? You are not familiar with our customs.”
Startled by the sudden words that she understood, Essairyn faltered, “I-I understand you?” before resigning herself to the notion that most of the spirit animals here could probably speak with humans. “I actually just arrived here. I’m a traveller from Earth. My name’s Essairyn. And this is Akari, a spirit I met and am traveling with,” she replied, gesturing at the fox who was perched on her shoulder.
The leader held a steadfast gaze as he introduced himself, “Errol. Leader of the solh’vunds of the Spirit-Demon Forest.” He tipped his head at the den before adding, “She was one of the best hunters. Her mate and her sisters are with her litter that the night guardian has healed.”
“Night guardian? You mean the nightstalker?” Essairyn queried.
“Yes, we call them night guardians. They can be fearsome creatures, but they protect the Spirit-Demon Forest as we do. They are unlike other nightstalkers..” he paused before continuing, “They take souls, but only to keep the balance and health of the forest. Strengthening weak bodies is a special ability of theirs. In this case, the strength of her soul was used to fortify her litter’s weak bodies. She had insisted on carrying them even though she knew she’d be at risk since her first miscarriage…”
Errol’s face was still stoic, but Essairyn noticed a small gloom lingering in his eyes. As she pondered this for a moment, he spoke up again. “I welcome you to this forest and world. However, heed your companion. In her past life she has destroyed many homes, spirits and demons alike. Even to this day her deeds ring throughout our history.”
Akari’s eyes glinted at his remark, and Essairyn looked at her from the corner of her eyes. “I would leave it your kind to remember such events from long ago..” Akari voiced with a trace of disdain. These guardian animals were always the lackeys of the spirit gods which had pursued her. As the keeper of the forest, the solh’vunds would preserve the history of right and wrong by the code of the spirits gods.
“Of course, the solh’vunds were one of the first spirits to have existed,” Errol coolly replied.
“Then do you plan to inform the spirits and demons of my return?” Akari raised her eyebrow tuft.
“It’s not in my interests to partake in gossip. Besides, you’re hardly a threat in that state.”
Akari looked as if she was going to shoot back at Errol, but she couldn’t find the right words to disprove him and instead just turned away and gave a grudging humph. Just you wait when my powers return… You won’t be speak so boldly then, solh’vund Errol.
Essairyn smirked at the outwardly cute reaction and addressed Errol. “Thanks for the advice, but I think I’ll take my chances on her.” Whatever Akari’s history was, and despite her own suspicions, Essairyn honestly felt that Akari would make a good traveling companion. They mutually benefitted one another, and the fox had answered her questions very well. The girl’s intuition also told her that there was more to the story. Something tragic had laid in the depths of the fox’s eyes when they were talking in the treehouse earlier.
Akari jerked her head at Essairyn and met the girl’s mirthful eyes before turning away with a slightly embarrassed scowl. The unordinary duo’s exchange prompted a shade of a smile on the solh’vund’s face. “I must join my brethren in the hunt,” Errol imparted as he turned to leave, “Make sure to find a safe place to spend the night. Demons lurk in the dark..” And with those words, he disappeared into the gloom.
“Tch,” Akari clicked her tongue, “What an uptight guy.”
Essairyn laughed at the fox before saying, “Let’s go back to the treehouse. It probably is best that we don’t linger out here too long.”
Akari sighed her agreement, and they flew below the canopy back to the ancient tree. But before they travelled very far, a murky figure manifested itself from behind the trees. Essairyn knew exactly what it was, and slight trepidation rose in her throat. She watched the figure become clearer as they moved closer. It was the nightstalker.
When they reached several meters away, the beast demon turned its upper body towards them. As it focused its gaze on the two, its sunken eyes blinked with small stars that seemed to shine far away. Its mouth gaped open a little, and upon the sight of Essairyn, it tipped its head slightly to the side. While unquestionably horrifying, the nightstalker had a somewhat dumb way about it that made it oddly endearing to the girl. With that impression, Essairyn halted three meters in front of the beast.
Realizing Essairyn was about to try conversing with the beast demon, Akari squawked under her breath, “Are you nuts?!”
“We’re about to see,” the girl murmured in response, garnering a look of utter disbelief on the fox’s face.
“So..” Essairyn shakily began, “you’re a nightstalker.” The nightstalker just stared at her vacuously, and she scratched her head. “Umm, I heard about what you did back there. Thanks for doing that; although, I’m not really in a position to thank you since I’m not really close with the solh’vunds or anything but.. Uh.. yeah, thank you. That was kind of you,” Essairyn finished with a small smile.
Internally, Essairyn was smacking herself for acting so awkwardly and saying thanks to the beast as if she were looking for a conversation starter with a human person instead. Even though the civility was uncalled for in this untamed world, perhaps she was just too used to being polite. She also truly wanted to understand this fearsome beast. Essairyn believed in the idea that there was more to someone or something than what meets the eye.
The nightstalker tipped its head to the other side, still staring. Then it suddenly smiled; its face wrinkled in a decrepit way, and its eyes were still the same unblinking state. Okay, Essairyn thought, that’s kinda creepy. The nightstalker reached out a slow hand to the girl, and she looked at it perplexedly. The hand looked as if it was made of thick roots encased in hardened soil and covered in a thin veneer of transparent ash. She glanced up at the nightstalker who was still smiling.
“Uhh… You want me to step on your hand?”
The nightstalker nodded, but the weight of its moon-shaped horns made its head bobble more than nod. While Essairyn was hesitant to trust the beast demon so easily, she recalled how it had wordlessly healed the defenseless solh’vunds pups. She also remembered the pack leader’s words on how it helped balance and maintain the forest. So with a leap of faith, she stepped onto the nightstalker’s palm and released her magic circle. Meanwhile, Akari clung to her with a wary face.
As soon as both of her feet landed, the nightstalker slowly bent its elbow and began plodding through the forest with her positioned in the front. She blinked, wondering where the nightstalker was taking her and why. After a few paces, the nightstalker picked up some speed. With its tremendous height and long strides, the forest flew by in spurts. As she rode, she noticed red pupils flickering in the undergrowth below. The sight of them made her quiver, and she looked up at the nightstalker. It was facing forward with a dutiful expression that made Essairyn feel somehow relieved. A minute later, they arrived at the outskirts of the ancient tree.
“You knew where I was going?” Essairyn exclaimed.
The nightstalker gave a knowing look and proceeded to trudge towards the base of the colossal tree. Once they reached the roots, the nightstalker lifted the hand Essairyn and Akari were on to the highest point it could reach.
Baffled by the turn of events, Essairyn blinked at the nightstalker who had an benevolent expression on its face, or as benevolent as a five-story skeletal monster could make. It had carried them safely to the tree in such a short time despite the distance. She gave it a small grateful nod and stepped off the large hand onto a bough. Seeing her land there, the nightstalker backed up and waved before plodding off again into the night.
Essairyn blinked again. “Did it just escort me here?” she asked, dumfounded. If her suspicions were right, demons really did lurk in the dark as Errol had cautioned. But it was the nightstalker who had safely carried them to the treehouse. A demon, rather than a spirit, had helped her. At the remembrance of the red eyes in the undergrowth, she shuddered. No way, do other demons know about how I killed the bear and man? But then why did the nightstalker… It really was baffling. Akari was right. Demons weren’t necessarily all bad, or spirits all good.
Akari yawned. “Beats me. I’m tired,” she declared, slouching on the girl’s shoulder. “And hungry.”
“Hah, you’re always hungry,” Essairyn commented.
“I’m still growing,” Akari retorted lazily.
Essairyn grinned at the cute fox and then leapt powerfully up onto the next branch.
“Whoa whoa whoa! Why’re you jumping when you could fly?” the fox shrieked tensely as the girl leapt upwards.
She laughed merrily as the grumbling fox clung onto her shoulder. “Exercise before bed is apparently good. It’ll also increase our appetite. And I’m so ready to roast this piggy.” She had always enjoyed cooking since taking culinary classes back in high school. But since she didn’t live on campus, she had never cooked independently for herself. Thus, she was quite excited to roast it and experiment with the flavors of the other foods and ingredients.
“You mean the gapisvara?”
Essairyn alighted on the porch. “Yup. Can you teach me how to cook this thing though?”
Akari rolled her eyes in mirth. “And here you sounded as if you knew how to cook it.”
“Ahaha, well I don’t really want to start a fire in a wooden house. There’s probably some safer way with magic right?”
“Yeah, yeah.” The fox casually waved the girl off with a paw. “I can show you, but you probably would have figured it out yourself anyway, Miss anomaly.”
Essairyn gave a mock sheepish smile. “I guess you don’t want to eat any then..” She turned her back and casually took out the gapisvara and other food.
The fox was aghast. “How could you—! Fine fine! This master cook will show you how it's done!”