(chapter continued from previous post)
Where did they find all these weird plants? Tyrel wondered. Here, the ground had been built up with coarse sand and small riverbed gravel, with only the paving stones of the path offering secure footing. It looked too dry for anything to grow, yet peculiar plants with thick fleshy leaves, some of them adorned with alarming spines, seemed to find it just right. He didn’t much care for the smells here, either: at least some of these plants had strong odours, and they weren’t all pleasant.
One gardener, at least, hadn’t gone to the screaming peafowl. He prowled cautiously, watching not only his footing but his surroundings alertly. Tyrel recognized him by both sight and scent: that was the one who’d been up the tree earlier that day, the one who had left a female scent on it.
No matter how watchful he was, he was human, and that was probably why he seemed absolutely unaware of the creature stalking him.
It looked rather like one of the furry bipeds that lived in the miniature castle, but perceptibly larger, and the grotesquely long legs with their disproportionate muscle in the thigh made it at least roughly average human height, though not by much. It moved like a long-legged wading bird, one ungainly step at a time, the body bobbing and lurching. It was all-over dark, and would have been just a black silhouette in the night without Talir’s yellow light helpfully highlighting it for Tyrel. He didn’t really need to hear Kaveri’s low warning whistle, nearly blending with the background of nocturnal insects and a few birds and yet, since it was the one he and Madoc had been using for years, one sound Tyrel could never miss.
It was bigger than him, but Tyrel was the closest, and he could at least keep it from hurting the defenceless and oblivious gardener. If he could take it down, or at least keep it busy until Madoc could join in, that would be better yet.
It seemed unlikely that the creature counted as “born of earth,” but so what? Real danger was more familiar than the moons-given alternative.
Besides, he wasn’t entirely certain that his death wouldn’t be the best solution all around.
He crouched behind a strange plant that was nearly spherical with vertical ridges and an abundance of long prickly things, measuring the distance. A little closer would be better before he attacked, so he made a low slinking run to the shelter of a plant with a rosette of pointed fleshy leaves.
The spirit creature picked up a handful of gravel, eyeing the gardener. Tyrel rapidly considered probable intentions, and concluded that it was going to try to startle the gardener just as he came level with a cluster of thin cylindrical plants—or were they all growing from the same root? If he shied away from the gravel and into the plants, he might be pulling spines out of his hide for a while.
Not exactly lethal damage, but not pleasant. Tyrel darted out from behind the plant. Twice his own body length from the spirit creature, he gathered himself and leaped, aiming for its chest.
At the last instant, it recoiled to one side, with surprising speed and an ear-splitting screech.
The gardener whirled; anything he might have said was drowned out by the spirit creature. Whether humans could see the thing or not, it was hard to believe they wouldn’t be able to hear it.
Tyrel slewed to a more-or-less controlled halt and spun around to keep it in sight. Ears back and teeth bared, he edged around to put himself between the creature and the gardener.
With a shrill chattering that sounded nothing like Kaveri’s, it snatched up a handful of gravel and flung it at him; it stung, but that was all, and he could ignore that. Judging by the swearing behind him, some of what missed Tyrel must not have missed the gardener.
That failing, it screeched again and ran at him, hands extended.
A bobcat, with more mass and a longer run, bowled it right over.
It scrambled desperately to get to its feet, arms up to protect its neck and throat from Madoc’s teeth. With those awkward bizarre legs finally under it, it flung itself into a leap that Tyrel would have considered impossible: it arced high above even the tallest spiny plants and out of sight.
Fox and bobcat looked at each other, then in the direction it had gone, sharing the same thought: how were they going to catch anything that could jump like that?
The gardener contemplated the cross fox and the bobcat. Tyrel wondered what exactly they were supposed to do now. Kieran had been extremely emphatic about never letting humans identify them as anything other than humans or mundane animals, but clearly that was already a lost cause.
“I thought the trickster was the only spirit creature loose in the valley,” the gardener said dryly. “Who exactly are you?”
Letting anyone see them change was absolutely at the bottom of the list, but options were limited if they wanted to do anything other than flee into the darkness, and a potential ally could make all the difference.
So, Tyrel changed. Madoc growled softly, but sat down beside him and a step behind, tufted ears twisting to track sounds but his unblinking gaze fixed on the gardener.
“You knew it was there?” Tyrel demanded.
Kaveri, not even out of breath with Lirit’s light shimmering faintly around her and feeding her, raced up to join them. “I saw where it… oh.” She skidded to a halt uncertainly, took in the situation, and stepped into position on Tyrel’s other side.
“You saw where it went?” Tyrel said.
“Yes. I think it’s near the pond with the ducks. Um, what…?” Her glance at Tyrel spoke all the myriad questions at once.
“I had a feeling that something was nearby,” the gardener said. “I’ve caught a few glimpses of it before tonight. I don’t think it’s actually dangerous, but it’s one of the most persistent pests ever to come into the valley. Again, you are…?”
“I’m Tyrel. The bobcat is Madoc, and this is Kaveri.”
“I didn’t realize the moons had their own spirit creatures.”
This was one highly observant gardener.
“I… that’s probably a good way to look at it, really,” Kaveri said reflectively.
“We heard there was trouble,” Tyrel said, “and thought we might be some help, since everything suggested that it was a spirit creature.”
“And humans usually can’t even see them unless they choose to be seen. Yes. Thank you for the altruism. And what I assume was a rescue.”
“So how could you see it?”
“I’ve always been aware of spirit creatures. The wise-woman in our village told me that it’s because I’m in between.”
Kaveri just nodded. “My people have said for a long time that being or having been on both sides of a boundary gives an ability to see things others don’t.”
“It’s a long story.”
Tyrel shrugged mentally. Whatever this was, Kaveri appeared to recognize it and see no threat. “Maybe we can work together?” he suggested. “You know a lot more about this situation than we do. We don’t mean any harm to anyone. A friend brought us here to see this place, and we didn’t like the thought of just leaving without trying to help.”
The gardener paused only a moment to think. “Within the limits of what my oath to the order allows, yes. I’m Dayo. And I’m open to suggestions as to what to do about our unwelcome resident.”
“How long has it been here?” Tyrel asked.
“A fortnight, perhaps. It’s difficult to be sure precisely. Some small things happened over the few days before it became unmistakable that something was responsible. I don’t know of any events in particular that could have drawn it here. Friends and I have searched the library, but that’s been little help. We’ve concluded that it’s most likely born of a trickster god, but there are any number of candidates. It’s all but impossible to put hard borders on the geographical dominion of the gods of concepts, and we have visitors here from many parts of the world who believe in, and therefore could bring with them, many gods. We found no descriptions that match, but we couldn’t find descriptions of the typical spirit creatures of all trickster gods.”
“Is there any pattern?”
“There’s never any real damage done, but sometimes it’s nearly impossible for us to undo without causing damage ourselves. Otherwise, it’s apparently random. No two pranks are ever identical, but maybe it just hasn’t run out of ideas yet.”
“Who’s the local earthborn?” Kaveri asked. “Is there any chance he or she might have any interest in this?”
Dayo hesitated briefly. “Umako is earth-lord of the valley. His mother Chimaka surrounds the valley, and has been known to intervene here, but she does so rarely and only at great need. Umako… prefers that she not. He sometimes does take an interest, but he prefers that we take care of the gardens without disturbing him. That is, after all, why Chimaka formed our order and set us to cultivate the valley and give people from many lands a reason to come here, so that her son can be entertained.”
That sounds like an odd arrangement, but what do I know? Maybe it’s not.
“Just us, then,” Kaveri said cheerfully. “‘Rel? Now what?”
Like I know?
Old reflexes took over.
“We need two things. We need a way to get both it and us in the same place at the same time. And we need a way to contain it so it can’t just jump away. For that, we need to know everything you can think of about this thing.”