They say spirits play in the deep dark of the sunless forest, where the light is eaten by gods.

They say those spirits sing a lullaby in that deep deep dark, where Hunger sleeps.

Sa Sa, they say. Hama’as Sa. Sleep Sa, sleep, in the dark dark deep.

It tumbled as it fell, flashing faintly, rolling in the air, and was quickly lost to sight. But she could hear it still, each clatter as it struck the branches far below. Scattering pieces of itself with every sharp collision. And she was caught, frozen mid-motion, staring after the heavy bit of bark her passing had dislodged. The forest gone eerily silent around her save for the distant drip of water.

Somehow, there was less comfort in the sound than usual.

Trickling down to shatter against the hollow shell set beneath, it elicited a slow, steady rhythm that echoed cavernously through the shifting murk. It seemed almost like an enormous heart: the first beat striking heavy, the second following quickly as the liquid bounced. A faint breeze was the breath of this great beast. It smelled of musky rot and damp, rising as it did from the deep below. Warm and rank, its passing dimmed the glimmer on all sides, and wrinkled Wai’s nose.

Still staring down, body pressed to the wood supporting her, she could see between the gleaming trunks and branches where Sa slept. And as the breeze swept past, and the faded light returned, she peered through that darkness warily. Waiting, still and watchful, wide eyes reflecting twisting patterns until she blinked and there they were.

Lights winking, one by one, into existence. Untethered from the trees, floating in the shadows so far away they were like specks of dust.

“Hama’as Sa. Hama’as.” She barely breathed the words, shrinking back from the edge with a sigh of relief. A breath, but no wakeful stirring, or the lights wouldn’t still be shining. Good. Very good. Let him sleep forever. It was better for the world, that way. And let no one know she still worried over every stray scrap of bark and twig that went spiraling beyond her reach. As though anything so small would even be noticeable to the huge beast lurking below. Ha! There was all of time to keep him dreaming, and nothing had yet awakened him, a bit of bark was hardly going to change that. But now, her fears assuaged, she had trails to keep.

With that galvanizing thought stirring her back into motion, Wai stood and continued her climb. She was following the thick trunk of an Issil tree, taking full advantage of its rough bark and stooped growth to find easy hand and footholds on an efficient diagonal. Of course, the tree was old, and the bark was coming loose in places. So, faster was by no means safer, but she’d learned to test her support well before trusting it. And still hated every second of tense agony when the bark gave way and she watched it tumble down and down and down. Years, and she still froze every time, heart racing, waiting for ruin to rise up through the branches.

It never did.

Wai usually avoided the problem altogether, taking an alternate, if longer, route. This time though, she had volunteered to check the trails rather than run them, and if she skipped this section for fear, that failure could cost a life. Trees were not static, stagnant statues frozen in time. They grew, changed shape, weakened, died.

Important, then, to pay attention.

She knew this unsurprisingly well, and would have climbed ten times the height she managed if it meant safety, but she was still glad it wasn’t required. It was another relief to haul herself over the arched bole that marked the final stretch and she paused there to listen again. The water dripped, as it should. The air was still. Her breath was loud when she closed her eyes, so she opened them again and looked instead. Close at hand, beneath her fingers, soft moss filled ridges in the bark, lining tiny crevasses where moisture gathered. Pale light limned each edge in long striations, making large shadows on the opposite side of every crack where tiny beetles crawled across the moss. She could feel one climbing over her finger, all scratchy feet and soft, tickling suction as it searched for a meal.

Farther away, a tree flower spread its petals, revealing a bundle of gently waving stamen. They flashed faintly with every shift in direction. The tips, she knew, would be sticky enough to trap even a small bird, if it let the lightshow trick its eyes. She’d watched those dark petals fold in around a poor, foolish quern. Its struggles only speeding the process. She’d seen others dart in before they closed and make off with the meal, carefully avoiding the sticky tendrils. It had taught her a valuable lesson: beyond the villages, it was dangerous to let your guard down. Fear of awaking an ancient beast hid the more immediate threat of having attracted unwanted attention. That was what she listened and looked for now.

A slight rustle turned her head to follow a lizard, leaving a trail of darkened moss in its wake, every pause punctuated by its own glow streaking down its back to disguise where its trail ended. Small head darting forward, it was snapping up the beetles she’d already noticed, wary attentiveness letting her relax. It would not have been nearby if something more dangerous was around. And it scurried swiftly away at the first sign of motion when she swung herself forward to jump to the next wide bole, bare feet landing lightly, picking up the steady momentum she’d lost while climbing.

Much like the lizard, the pressure of her weight on the moss made it react, leaving a trail of dark footprints behind her until it recovered. And, like the lizard, her own skin glowed to cover that darkness, should anything else be watching. It had been a successful camouflage so far. Though it was far from foolproof, and she took advantage of every branch and tangle of vines to obscure her bright silhouette so she didn’t stand out as much against a backdrop of darkness.

Despite her caution, once she’d ascertained that the route was still safe, she moved quickly, pausing only to check vines and rope for wear and tear, or to mark brittle branches with her knife, a deep, thick gouge that was easy to notice even at high speed. Other flowers were opening around her, each sticky tendril the same length as her arm. Their petals made good roofs. Once, she disturbed a family of orn: big-eared, wide-eyed tree hoppers. They leapt out of her way, every one of them making it effortlessly far, and hooting quiet indignation, their dark fur blending into the shadows, and oddly sweet snub-noses hiding a wicked set of chiselled teeth. Thankfully, they didn’t bite unless provoked.

Wai only stopped when she reached the source of the dripping. A large bowl carved into a branch where water often flowed. It went all the way through, and the water emerged from a miniscule hole in the bottom. It dripped onto a tied down and air-filled skin. That was what made the drumming sound. Both a marker for runners, as well as an easy method of finding water. There were many along the running routes, because water did not always follow the same path. It was every runner’s responsibility to see to their up-keep, and, unless urgency dictated otherwise, learn the reason for one falling silent. If it was plugged, that was an easy fix. If the water had stopped flowing, there was little they could do.

But now, after picking out the debris that made it past the covering, she scooped up some of the cool liquid in a little cup and drank gratefully. Easing the lingering dryness of her mouth from her earlier fear. From here, it was an easier run, a gentle descent compared to some and the village wasn’t far away. She’d reach it before she found another water drum. Good incentive to keep on. She might sleep under a roof this time, hanging safely between the branches of the trees, if she made good time.

One more drink, a glance about, and she resettled her pack and continued on.