Saku flexed his toes and let the heat work out the million aches and pinches. His inner robe had nearly dried. His thoughts had cleared, and his crimson outer robes hung dripping from the low branch of a nearby tree. The girl had washed them. Milyi, the one who'd spoken in his dreams to someone oddly absent now.
It made no sense, a girl alone in the jungle. She wasn't a hunter, nor had he seen a village from the air--not for many miles. And she'd been talking to someone.
"Are you warm?" She leaned between the fire and Saku's toes, a fall of dark hair framing a shadowed face.
"Yes. Thank you."
Her voice had lovely edges, soft friendly notes and an echo of something expectant. Curiosity most likely--she had found him face-down in the river. "Are you hungry yet?"
"Not much." His insides felt hollow, but just the thought of food made head spin again. Perhaps Angel's poison had affected his appetite.
"You should try to eat." Milyi squatted and the fire blazed behind her. She offered Saku a long leaf rolled around some fruit mush. "Your body has been through a lot."
She offered an opening for him to tell her his story. The stings would require an explanation of their own, and the fall, the trip downriver, had added an additional layer of bruising and scratches. Saku took the frond with feigned eagerness. He dragged his fingers through the fruit and managed to force a dribble of the stuff between his lips.
The taste of sweet juice woke his stomach. His body responded despite his reticence, and he scooped again, swallowed cool mush and remembered what it meant to be hungry. How long since he ate real food? Had the toxins in his blood sustained him even as it dulled and molded his thoughts?
"You see?" Milyi's humor put a flame in his cheeks. He devoured the mush now, dribbled juice from his chin and fingers. "I'll get you some more."
"No." But even as he shook his head, his belly rumbled and begged for a second helping. Had he eaten? "Maybe just a little more."
She scampered away, and the surrounding foliage echoed with her laughter, a sweet sound. Nothing like the drone that had filled his head for days now...or had it been weeks? He followed her movements though the sounds she made, the rustling of the fronds, the scrabbling as she scaled a tree trunk, and the soft whisper of her voice and she talked to someone.
Definitely someone else here.
He watched the dark trunks beyond the ring of firelight. The bark danced with shadows and light, cast demons wriggling over the familiar jungle. It made a pattern of dark and light, gold and deep green, but that pattern never stopped moving, waving like the fire, flickering...and skittering up the tree.
Saku leaned forward and squinted to see through the flames. The trunks still danced, but something else had moved there..something also dark and light.
"Here you are." Milyi swished back into the little clearing. She'd found another fruit, and this time she squatted by the fire and began to prepare it in front of him. The thick skin had a yellow hue and peeled easily enough once the initial split was made.
Saku watched her pry the fruit open with a sharp stick and then use her agile fingers to do the work quickly. She lay the milky sections on another frond and then folded the leaf around them and worked it down to a paste by rolling the bundle between her palms.
While she worked, the girl hummed a soft tune that lent a friendlier mood to the shadows and fire. She passed Saku her bundle, and he pried one end open and found a perfect, juicy patty inside. He nibbled it, peeling the frond back as he went, and his appetite surged back to life.
"Your friend is shy." He tried to make the words casual, to leave the question of whether or not there was a friend out of the statement. The girl still stiffened visibly.
"I heard you talking to someone before." Saku gulped fruit between bites. The juice made a sweet syrup for the meaty paste. "Horatch, you said."
"Horatch." She parroted him, and shifted from one foot to the other.
"Yes. He's not very friendly? Or maybe he's keeping watch?"
"Yes. That's it." She frowned and then gave Saku a different sort of look, as if she judged him for some task. He'd seen the same face on the elder hunters before he'd left his home village. He'd failed that time, failed to pass their judgment and return. "But, I think...Horatch is afraid of you."
"Afraid of me?" Saku laughed at the thought, but the girl's face had fallen into a grim expression.
"He's afraid of me?"
"My..." Saku dropped his gaze to the garment he wore, his black inner robes, the Angel's gift. The crimson portion hung from the branch nearby, but both marked him as belonging to the Wisps. Why would someone fear that? Unless... "My robes scare him?"
"And me too a little." Now she rocked back on her heels and the look she gave him held more hope. "I've never seen anything like them before."
"They were a gift." Saku watched her closely, observed the shadow fall across her features and, behind her, the flicker of movement against the trees again. "Would you judge a man by his clothing?"
"But Horatch would."
"Only because he fears for his life." Now, Milyi grew impassioned. Her words burst free, full of her own secrets and fears as well. "He fears you will try to harm him."
"And why would I do that?" Saku thought he knew now. He remembered the Angel's goal, the monster rambling free through the forest. Had this girl fallen in with that? If so, she never would have healed him, never pulled him from the icy current to begin with. "Why should Horatch fear me?"
"Because our people do not understand and..."
A new voice interrupted her. It came from above and behind Saku, from a circling spy he'd only caught a flicker of. It accused him from the shadows, "Because you ally yourself with those who would destroy the world."
"I would destroy nothing," Saku said. He believed it, that much. He would not.
"Then face me and prove it," Horatch dared.
Saku stood and looked at Milyi's face. She still shone with hope, still tested him. Whatever waited at his back, Saku vowed he wouldn't fail her. This time, he would not be judged and found lacking. He set his jaw and stood tall, even though his robes hung damp still, a weight against his shoulders.
Saku turned and saw the monster, the devil spider that Milyi had dared him not to kill.