With a final glance behind him, Marc turned back to the woods, took a deep breath, and plunged down the path. The branches reached at him as he stumbled forward, and for a moment he thought they were alive and reaching down to tear him apart. He swatted them away and twisted as he ran down the path, their wooden fingers clutching at his clothes and trying to inhibit his progress. Marc stumbled in his panic, landing face-first in a bed of small tan flowers. Marc rolled over to stare at the trees, half-expecting them to be grasping for him. It took him a few seconds before he realized the trees were standing still save for a gentle swaying in the breeze. Chuckling at his foolishness, Marc stood up and dusted himself off. He continued down the path, this time moving at a brisk walk.
It wasn’t long before his throat began to itch. Marc reached up and rubbed at his neck, but it provided a limited relief at best. Soon he was rubbing his neck constantly as he walked. He opened his mouth to call out for Sabina, but found that his throat refused to respond to his will.
“Help! Intruder! Intruder!” Marc felt himself calling out. He tried to quell the shouting, but continued to screech out a warning. Clamping his hands over his own mouth muffled the sound, barely.
Marc heard a crack from the woods ahead of him. He tried to be still but shouted out “Help! Come quick! Interloper!”
Sabina stepped out of the growth in front of Marc and looked at him, her head cocked slightly to the side. She had a rag tied over her nose and mouth, but he recognized her. Unfortunately, her appearance did little to quell his shouting. Sabina rushed forward and shoved a rag into his mouth. He could still breathe through his nose, but his shouts were muffled.
“You should not be here,” she whispered, turning around and walking deeper into the woods. She held a hand out behind her to help guide Marc. He took it, following her deeper into the forest.
As they walked, she turned to talk over her shoulder. “You have been infected and your voice is not your own.”
He wanted to stop shouting, to tell her about the men coming who were looking for her, but he continued to try and scream around the gag in his mouth.
Up ahead, the path widened into a clearing. A small wooden shack stood in the center of it, with a fire pit dug out in front of the door. Sabina guided him into the clearing, half-dragging him towards her hut. Marc looked down at the ground and saw hoof prints, three sets of them. He jerked back on Sabina’s wrist, almost pulling her to the ground. When she whipped her head around, a fire burned in her eyes. Marc ignored it and pointed frantically at the ground.
“Hoof prints?” Sabina narrowed her eyes as she bent towards the marks and touched them with her outstretched fingers. “Who would come up here?”
“We came looking for you, Sabina.” The voice was thick and dark. Marc recognized it instantly.
Both Marc and Sabina turned to face the man in the silk robe. The other two foreigners stood behind him near the edge of the clearing, holding three horses. Marc rushed forward, putting himself between the stranger and Sabina. He charged at the man, dropping his shoulder in an attempt to buy Sabina time to escape. The man saw the move and twisted to avoid the mad rush. Marc stumbled and the stranger elbowed him in the back, sending Marc sprawling.
The pain in his back combined with his continuous shouting made it difficult for Marc to get air. He rolled onto his back and propped himself up to a sitting position, breathing as deeply as he could through his nose. His throat continued to scream of its own volition, depriving him of the air he needed to recuperate. The man in silks looked down at Marc with a frightening grin. He turned back to face Sabina. She was standing tall in front of him, but the sweat on her brow was clearly visible.
“We wish you no harm, Sabina,” the man gave a bow. “I would like to present you with a proposition.”
“Who are you and what do you want?” Sabina asked, raising her chin as she did so.
“We are Mana’Olai, and we have traveled here to seek your expertise.”
“Expertise with what?”
The man held out his hand and gestured towards Marc. “With the gruw. You are clearly familiar with this,” he hesitated as he searched for the right word, “creature. You can walk among their fields and not be infected. Your knowledge would prove most useful.”
Sabina’s shoulders softened, but her legs remained tense. “What for?”
“We find that we need to expand the creature’s functionality. We are attempting to breed a more useful gruw, a gruw-makken. With your knowledge, we would be closer to success.”
“Why should I help you?”
“We offer glory, gold,” he paused watching for the effect these terms had. Sabina didn’t even blink. He gestured towards Marc again. “Perhaps this young boy’s dwindling life.”
Marc’s eyes went wide as he heard those words. He shook his head, but the effort made his vision spin. If he kept shouting, it would not be long before he passed into unconsciousness. From the man’s comment, that would not relieve him from his curse.
“What you propose is impossible. The gruw infection cannot be cured.”
“And if I prove you wrong, do you agree to come with me and share your knowledge with others who are fascinated by this creature?”
For several agonizing seconds the two bargainers stood there, until Sabina nodded her assent. The stranger snapped his fingers and one of the two men with the horses pulled a bottle out of his silks. He rushed over to Marc and removed the gag. Everyone winced as his shouting filled the clearing. The foreigner put the bottle cap in his teeth and pulled, opening the vessel. He poured the contents into Marc’s throat and clamped the young man’s mouth shut. Marc tried to swallow the liquid, but it went into his lungs instead. He began to cough violently, leaning over as he did so. He felt a huge sense of relief as he coughed up what looked like a four-inch long tan flower. Before he had a chance to do anything, the man behind him crushed the parasite under the heel of his boot.
The stranger spoke to the wide-eyed Sabina. “We could learn much from each other. Would you like to assist us in the creation of a new species?”
Sabina looked from Marc up to the stranger. She regained as much of her composure as she could before she nodded.
“Good. Then may the god-kings smile upon our agreement.”