It was getting late. Though the sky displayed a myriad of colour, with the growing shadows came a sense of foreboding. A nervous hush fell upon the forest, the only movement coming from the wind blowing through the leaves, and the day-dwellers scurrying for sanctuary. It had been this way for as long as Gaeryll could remember.
He glanced up from his book to watch the fiery display, the familiar sense of dread in his stomach warning him he had stayed too late. Again. peering over his shoulder at the empty room, he debated spending yet another night amongst the tomes of knowledge. How many would that make? Six? Seven?
His chair scraped against the wood flooring as he got to his feet, a soft chuckle falling from his lips. “Maybe I should just move in,” he joked.
Gathering up the books he’d been perusing, he began the arduous process of putting them all away. When he had only two left, the doors to the library burst open, startling him so that the books toppled to the floor. He turned to the intruder, only now realizing how dark it had gotten.
“Gaeryll? You’re in here, right?”
“Geez, Tylligrith, you nearly scared my heart into leaving my body,” Gaeryll said with a relieved sigh.
As he bent down to pick up the dropped books, the lights flared on, allowing him to check for any damage to the spines. Thankfully, there wasn’t any.
“Reading in the dark isn’t good for your eyes,” Tylligrith told him. “Or were you planning on staying the night here?”
Gaeryll cast a sidelong look at his friend. “I was contemplating it.”
Tyligrith smirked and took one of the books from Gaeryll’s hands. He was a full head and shoulders taller than Gaeryll, broader too, and handsome. Not only was he the brawn between the two of them, but he had intelligence to match. Being the son of an inventor meant he had grown up tinkering and creating.
It wasn’t that Gaeryll was ugly. He was fair enough, but next to Tylligrith, he enjoyed anonymity.
“Have you been here all day?”
“All week, more like,” Gaeryll replied, returning the book he held to its place. “You know that.”
Tylligrith nodded. “I do. Which is why I’m assuming you haven’t heard.” He opened the book he held and casually flipped through the pages.
After a pause, Gaeryll rolled his eyes. “Well, are you going to tell me?”
Appearing to ignore the question, Tylligrith casually closed the book and searched out the place where it belonged. When he had made an end of that task, he turned to Gaeryll with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “There’s been a rumour going around. Everyone is talking about it.”
“That’s usually how rumours work.”
Tylligrith nodded his agreement as though he had been the one to state that obvious fact. “Anyway, they’re saying the Defenders have returned.”
Gaeryll blanked at such a bizarre statement. “What?”
“Well, to be more precise, they’re saying that a Defender has returned. A few people have reported seeing one patrolling about. The news has got everyone’s hopes up. I thought maybe you and I could go put the rumours to rest.” He glanced at Gaeryll meaningfully.
“And how do you figure we could do that?”
Tylligrith broke into a broad grin. “We go and find this so-called Defender, of course!”
“Of course,” Gaeryll murmured. “And why do you want to go find it? I thought you were of the mind that we don’t need any Defenders.”
“We don’t. That’s why we need to go find whatever it is everyone is seeing to show them they’re all just delusional.”
“How fun,” Gaeryll drawled sarcastically. “I’m sure everyone would greatly appreciate that.”
“Oh, come on, Gaer. We’re the only heroes we Fae need.”
He arched an eyebrow at his heroic-looking friend. “Speak for yourself. I’m just as happy to lock myself in the library where it’s safe. There’s no way I’ll be joining you in your crusade to battle the Night.”
Tylligrith laughed and clapped Gaeryll heavily on the back so the slighter man nearly fell forward into the bookshelf. “Don’t be so modest. You’re not a coward like some of those others I could mention. Come on, just come with me. You need the fresh air anyway.”
Sighing, Gaeryll met his friend’s pleading gaze. “Oh, fine. Just stop making that face. I’ll go with you to find the Defender.”
“So-called Defender,” Tylligrith corrected with an overly excited grin
With a growing apprehension coiling within and around his stomach, Gaeryll made sure the lights were turned off and the door to the library firmly shut before following Tylligtrith out into the dark. His wings ached only slightly from disuse, and more-so from extended periods of accidental cramped positions. Stretching them felt good, so he supposed he owed Tylligrith a thanks for that much. Aside from the small pleasure of feeling the wind on his face, he was already regretting his choice to come along on this escapade.
They had gotten further from their Fae settlement and safety than Gaeryll preferred when Tyligrith came to an abrupt halt.
“What is it?” Gaeryll asked in a breathy whisper.
“Did you hear that?”
Gaeryll paused to survey the dark. There was a strange sound coming from somewhere to their left. Holding his breath in fright, he listened to the eerie grunts, wishing desperately to be anywhere but there. Then he frowned. “Wait a second. Doesn’t that voice sound familiar to you?”
“I was thinking the same thing. Come on, Gaer. Let’s go see what trouble she’s got herself in this time.”
They followed the noise until they found the source. What they saw didn’t surprise them at all.
“That doesn’t look comfortable,” Tylligrith spoke up, an amused expression on his chiseled face.
The girl caught in the spider’s web looked up at their approach and grinned broadly. It was a goofy expression, but incredibly endearing. “Tyll! Gaer!” she greeted brightly. “How nice to see you. Have I ever told you how striking you both look upside down?”
Gaeryll met her grin with one of his own, her carefree nature putting him slightly more at ease. “Symraen, what are you doing this time?”
“Spider silk,” she said innocently. “For the blanket I’m making.”
“I thought it might be that.” Gaeryll glanced over the hopeless trap Symraen had gotten herself caught in. “Would you like a hand?”
She beamed at him. “Much appreciated. I knew I could count on you.”
“What would you have done if we hadn’t come by, Sym?” Tylligrith asked, tugging at the sticky threads. “What if the Night had gotten to you first?”
Before Symraen could answer, a loud whoosh made all of them freeze in fright.
“W-what was that?” Symraen quivered, still suspended in the web.
“I don’t know,” Tylligrith said, watching the darkness around them.
Gaeryll felt his throat constrict with fear. It made his next words difficult to say. “We should hurry,” was the squeaked plea.
Tylligrith nodded, keeping one eye on their surroundings as they worked to free Symraen.
“Look out!” Symraen shouted, her frightened gaze glued upward.
The spider’s web snapped, and Gaeryll caught Symran as Tylligrith spun to act as a shield to whatever was coming for them.
None of them were expecting to see the creature that landed neatly on the branch to stare at them curiously. It was larger than any of them had imagined, though they all had grown up hearing the tales. Drawings and paintings could only prepare them so much. As it was, they returned the intelligent gaze with much less intelligent expressions of their own.
The creature leaned forward, taking a single step closer, revealing its dangerously taloned feet. “Well?” the creature said in a haughty tone. “Aren’t you going to thank me? Or do you prefer standing there gaping in awe?” The feathers around the creature’s neck and chest puffed out. “Not that I can blame you.”
Gaeryll forced his head to turn so he could look at Tylligrith. “Tyll?” His voice came out in an embarrassing rasp.
“They’re real,” Symraen breathed.
“It’s a she,” Tylligrith said with a slight frown. “Wasn’t expecting that.”
“Why are you surprised?” Gaeryll asked, his voice sill pitched higher than he would have liked. “In the stories, the females were always the fiercer.”
“The Defenders are real,” Symraen repeated.
“I know that,” Tylligrith snapped at Gaeryll. “I was merely making an observation.”
Gaeryll swallowed, trying his hardest to simultaneously control his trembling. “Do you suppose she’s here to help us?”
“You know what I think about that.”
The Defender took another step forward so that she towered over them. She was covered in glossy feathers of indiscernible colour in the dark, though all the drawings depicted them as being creamy gold. Besides the sword-like talons, she also possessed a rather terrifying beak that looked as though it could snap any of them in half, including Tylligrith. That was a frightening thought.
She lowered her head, so her eyes were at their level. Those orbs of swirling darkness narrowed in suspicion. “What are you blathering about?” she demanded in a dangerous hush. “I already did help you, and you have yet to thank me.”
The three Fae stared at her blankly.
“Forgive us,” Gaeryll said slowly, “but when did you help us?”
She turned her offended gaze on him. “Just a few moments ago when I freed the girl.”
“Oh!” Symraen gasped, her eyes suddenly sparkling in admiration. “You cut the threads! That’s why you flew over like that.”
The Defender stood back up, puffing out her feathers once again. “You finally understand, then.”
“We didn’t need a Defender’s help,” Tylligrith said. “We could have gotten her out ourselves.”
The Defender looked at him contemplatively.
Gaeryll cast a glare at Tylligrith. Making the Defender angry might be the last thing they ever did. He would prefer not to be eaten by a creature he had always admired and dreamt of.
“Defender? What are you going on about this time?”
The question was so unexpected, Gaeryll forgot all about being afraid. “You don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
“Defenders,” he began in a scholarly tone. “They lived here a long time ago, fighting against the Night as great warriors. Unfortunately, they disappeared, and no one knows why. You’re the first to return in over two hundred years. They protected us Fae.”
“We don’t need any Defenders,” Tylligrith put in stubbornly.
“Why did you leave?” Symraen asked at the same time. “And why did you only come back now?”
“They’re just a bunch of selfish cowards who abandoned us and left us to a massacre. Do you even know how many died after your kind left?”
“Have you returned to protect us again? I always knew the Defenders hadn’t abandoned us. I’m sure there must be a logical explanation. Surely you can enlighten us,” Symraen was saying.
The two continued to speak over one another as Gaeryll intoned the histories, oblivious to the fact that he was being ignored.
“ENOUGH!” the Defender shouted, clearly annoyed.
The three fell into immediate stunned silence.
“I have no knowledge of these Defender-whatsits that you keep going on about. Whatever you think I am, or whatever you’ve been misled to believe I’m here for, forget it. I’m only here because this is where my wings brought me. You got that?”
Symraen opened her mouth.
“Forget it!” the not-Defender snapped in irritation. “I’m not here to save you or give reason for something I had and have nothing to do with. If you mention even one more thing about it, I’ll eat you!”
Symraen closed her mouth faster than one could blink.
Gaeryll wanted to inquire further, he had so many questions swirling through his brain, but he bit his tongue to keep it silent.
“What will you do now?” Tylligrith asked fearlessly.
The not-Defender eyed him before giving answer. “Hunt,” she said simply.
“Hunt what?” Tylligrith pressed.
“Food. Do you want to join me?”
Gaeryll glanced at Symraen who matched his confusion. “We should probably head back,” he determined. “It’s not safe. The Night. . ..” He wasn’t sure what to say beyond that. “We should get back,” he finished awkwardly.
The not-Defender shrugged. “Suit yourselves. If you ever feel like having some fun, I’ll be around. And if you ever find yourself trapped in another spider’s web,” here she paused to wink at Symraen, “just call out for me. The name’s Ewryn.”
. . . .
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