Chapter 4

“Joy!” Smiles chirped, and Joy grinned, lunging forward at the same time as Flitter.

The wasp saw them coming, but the horrible insect was still in the middle of trying to sting Smiles, which made it difficult for it to dodge, with how she’d drawn it into a knot-hole in the tree’s trunk. Joy and Flitter slammed their weapons into the chinks in its armor, Flitter’s spear piercing into its thorax, while Joy’s rapier pierced deep into one of its eyes. The creature twitched, then began to writhe, and Joy jumped back hastily.

“Back! Those hurt if they land on you!” Joy warned, and she saw the other two back away, Smiles clambering up the back of the hole to exit through another section of the rotted stump, while Rain and Boom kept their distance, watching the wasp warily.

The creature writhed some more, and after a few seconds Boom asked. “Is it dead?”

“I don’t know! Want to burn it, and find out?” Joy suggested. “I never trust a wasp.”

“Sure! Fire Blast!” Boom exclaimed, and an orb of flame appeared in her hand, then shot out to slam into the wasp’s remaining good wing. She’d taken care of the other earlier, to keep it from fleeing.

The wasp twitched a couple more times in response, but its spasms were growing a little less pronounced. Joy watched it warily, then nodded. “Yep, it’s dead!”

“Oh, good! I thought it was going to eat me!” Smiles said, hopping down from the large tree stump with a huge smile on her face.

“You shouldn’t have drawn it in there.” Joy replied, shaking her head. “If it’d been faster, it’d have pinned you to the back wall, and you’d have had to turn your back to escape! If you had wings it’d be different, but you don’t yet.”

“Yeah. It couldn’t fly, and Joy always says that we don’t have to kill it fast, we have to make sure we don’t get hurt.” Flitter agreed. “It’s why I became a lancer! That way I can stab them from farther away!”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time?” Smiles said, bouncing from foot to foot. “We killed it!”

“Yeah!” Rain said, looking relieved. “One less wasp in the forest!”

“And plenty of others to go.” Joy reminded them, though she nodded in pleased agreement.

She didn’t know what the name of the forest they lived in was, but it was different than the other forests she’d been to. She supposed that should have surprised her, but it didn’t. All of the forests that apis had been living in had been different so far, after all.

Rather than a proper forest, the entire region seemed to the ancient, slowly-decaying remnants of either a tree or an entire forest of trees. The only soil was rich patches that had formed from the rotted wood, and there were mountains formed of the titanic trees that had once grown here. It was fascinating to Joy, as huge trees larger around than towns still towered into the sky, their leaves blotting out the sunlight across vast swathes of the land, but smaller plants flourished as well, making the entire region an enormous example of the cycle of life and death.

It was made even more complicated by the various tunnels and caverns that had been carved into the ground over the years, by bees, beetles, termites, and more. From what the apis said, the fact that so much was made of solid wood meant that tunnels didn’t easily collapse, so they had to be wary of new entrances being carved into the hive. Still, while the area was dangerous, she’d found it was great for training.

“Do we go hunting another? Or maybe we could find a spider or something?” Boom suggested hopefully. “I hate wasps.”

“I don’t know. Spiders are quick, and one wrong move and you’re poisoned. Rain might not be able to cure us.” Flicker replied, frowning slightly.

“We are a little far from the hive.” Joy said, pausing and considering for a moment. If it was just her, she’d probably go a little farther, but she didn’t want to get the other apis killed. The queen seemed to want them to explore the outside world when she left, so they were more important than normal.

She debated, but a second later she saw Smiles perk up, her antennae twitching as her pheromones shifted to indicate her curiosity. Only a moment later Joy and the others caught the same scent as Smiles, and all of them were smelling the air.

It was a scent that Joy recognized. Sweat, oil, the metallic scent of armor, a hint of the acrid scent of the alcohol that so many non-apis seemed to love, and a bit of blood as well. There were the scents of at least six non-apis that Joy could identify, probably more. They just didn’t put off as many pheromones as apis did.

“What’re those? You recognize the smells.” Rain said, looking at Joy curiously.

“They’re non-apis. I’m not sure what type, but probably humans. They’re more common than other types, from what I saw.” Joy explained, and frowned. “But the attendant said that they’re not common in this area. We probably need to find out why they’re here.”

“We’re going to talk to them?” Smiles asked excitedly.

“Maybe! Let’s hide first, and if they aren’t mean, we can talk to them.” Joy replied cheerfully.

The others quickly nodded, and they started moving toward the scent carefully. It wouldn’t do to walk into a spider’s web, after all.

Ivaline swallowed, her throat incredibly dry after the day of stumbling through the Wooden Mountains, especially since her captors had given her barely any food or water. She was honestly surprised she’d survived this far at all, since she’d nearly been eaten when a hunting spider had lunged out of its hiding space at her.

Now, though… she missed her home. The nice, soft bed, so unlike the hard wood floor of the ‘cave’ she was in, and the lovely meals Cook had prepared for her. She even wished she’d paid more attention to Magus Fordah’s lessons, since maybe she wouldn’t have been kidnapped.

The sound of footsteps caused Ivaline to flinch, and she cowered as someone entered the room, then paled still more at the sight of the bandit she’d taken to calling Brute. He was big, muscular, and wore thick hide armor taken from some black-scaled beast. Worse, he’d cut the spider that attacked her nearly in two, and frequently leered at her. He was the worst of the bandits, as far as she was concerned.

“Here you are, girl. Dinner, I hope you enjoy it.” Brute sneered, dropping a large biscuit on the ground in front of her, then more carefully set down a waterskin that had seen better days. “Now, if you want company tonight, you just have to ask. I’m sure none of us would say no to that!”

“I… I have no need of that!” Ivaline squeaked, scooting backward from him slightly, which prompted a booming laugh from the man.

“Thought you might say that! Get your rest, girl. If you don’t, it’s no skin off my nose. We’ll let you go as soon as we get what we want.” Brute replied, and turned away, leaving Ivaline in the dank ‘cave’ that smelled of rotting wood.

For several seconds Ivaline cowered, then she swallowed hard and edged forward to take the biscuit and waterskin. She had to keep up her strength if she was going to get back home, no matter how difficult it was, and how terrible the food might be.

Even if the water wasn’t clear, it was refreshing, and Ivaline did her best to force the food down, even while she heard the bandits laughing and talking outside her prison. Oh, how she wished to be anywhere but here, and that her guards would arrive at—

That was when Ivaline caught the sound of a soft rasping from below. She blinked in confusion, then let out a soft yelp as a blade punched through the floor not two feet in front of her, and her eyes widened as it punched through several places in a circle, then someone hit it sharply, causing a disc of wood to pop upward slightly, then someone grabbed an edge and yanked it downward.

A moment later, a woman’s head popped through the hole, which was barely large enough to fit the head. The woman had a pretty, yellow-tinged complexion with hints of glittering gold to her cheeks. Her hair was golden-blonde streaked with black, and a pair of black antennae extended from her head upward, which twitched twice. Then she turned to face Ivaline, revealing eyes that were bright gold with black sclera.

“I… what?” Ivaline gasped, gaping at the alien-looking woman in front of her.

“Shh, quiet!” the woman replied, smiling reassuringly at Ivaline. “Hi, I’m Joy! You look like a prisoner. Are you a good person, bad person, or is it complicated?”

Chapter 3Chapter 5