Unsurprisingly, I didn’t manage to sleep, though resting my eyelids did seem to do some good.
When I opened them again, I felt a little calmer.
I shifted in the branch, rubbing my eyes.
I looked back at the swamp.
The creature had resumed its place, playing a dead log as it waited for the next unfortunate passerby.
I looked back up toward the top of the hill I’d climbed down from.
Once I worked up the courage to climb down again, I’d have to backtrack and find another path to travel along—hopefully a less treacherous one.
I was about to begin climbing down the tree, my eyes fixed on the swamp monster for even the smallest sign of movement, when I heard it.
A strange, monotonous chanting.
It sounded like it was echoing up from the bowels of one of the mountains, on my side of the swamp.
The words were spoken by deep male voices.
The words, the way they were pronounced, and the intonation sounded like they were being chanted by humans, or perhaps witches—albeit in some strange tongue.
Bewildered, I lowered myself down slowly from the tree.
The swamp monster’s eyes didn’t open, so I jumped to the ground and began scrambling back up the hill, casting glances back every few paces to check that it wasn’t following me.
I was panting by the time I reached the top of the mountain where I thought the voices were coming from, and my mouth was parched.
I crouched down low on the grassy glade, afraid that more dragons might come flying by.
I scanned the area, trying to figure out where the voices could possibly be emanating from.
As I moved forward, I spotted a crater.
I crawled closer to the edge of it and peered down.
My eyes were almost scorched as flames burned up from the hole.
I crawled backward, moving around the other side of the hole to see if I could see any better.
The flames died and I found myself staring down at a circle of seven men, kneeling with their heads bowed.
At least, I thought they were men.
But on second glance, although they had humanoid features, they were clearly anything but human.
They were naked from the waist upward.
Their limbs were constructed as a human’s.
I could see that their shoulder blades were capped with shining scales, and their ears were sharp and pointed.
They all had dark skin, and their muscles looked inhumanly large.
I leaned in further, trying to get a better look.
They were all gathered around a pool of dark red liquid, surrounded by a ring of flames.
They all knelt around it, as though paying homage.
One man of the seven, kneeling on a platform a little higher from the ground, was leading the chant as they all repeated it after him.
A hiss came from behind me.
Whirling around, I gasped in horror to find myself staring into bright yellow eyes.
It was the swamp creature.
It had followed me up the mountain after all.
Its jaws were wide open, within three feet of my legs.
I lost balance and the next thing I knew, I was falling into the crater.
Since the entrance to the crater was almost directly above the tub of liquid, thankfully I missed the flames.
I fell head first into the liquid.
Had the vessel not been deep enough, I would have broken my neck.
But it was deep.
Even with the force of my fall, I didn’t touch the bottom.
I kicked hard and fought my way to the surface.
Gasping, I wiped the liquid from my eyes—liquid I was now certain was blood.
A deathly silence had fallen in the cave.
I looked around, now only a few feet away from each of the strange men.
They stood towering over me, staring at me with a mixture of shock and wonder.
I hauled myself out of the blood.
Balancing on the edge of the pool, I fumbled for the knife I’d fastened to my waist.
It was no longer in its sheath.
It must have been dislodged during the fall.
I looked upward, shuddering as I took in the height I’d just dropped from.
When I lowered my eyes to the men again, they were still examining me with the same mix of fascination and surprise, as though I were some kind of alien.
Much like the expression I was sure that I assumed when looking at them.
The man nearest to me spoke in a coarse, guttural voice.
Although he was looking directly at me, it didn’t feel as though he was speaking to me.
“Dressed in silk and borne from sky.
Skin soaked in the blood of enemies.” I gaped at him.
Huh? A dark-haired man beside him stepped forward closer to me.
“Maiden of fire?” he whispered, his voice assuming the same tone of reverence.
I was half tempted to blurt out that they’d mistaken me for someone else, but… Maiden of fire? I couldn’t quite find it in myself to turn that title down.
“Could it be?” A third man narrowed his bright eyes on me.
“She’s a human.” The man lurched forward and gripped my arm.
He pulled me toward him and pressed his nose against my wrist, drawing in a deep breath.
His lips parted as he looked at me.
“This is no ordinary human.
Her blood is not like any I’ve ever smelt before… What else could this be but an omen?” His response was met with silence as they continued to stare at me.
“She fell as we were paying homage to the fire that burns through our veins and devours our enemies.
We must take her as a gift from our ancestors.” I wasn’t sure what to do as he held out a hand to me.