"Commander," the valiant said, not sparing Seri a second glance. "Zani and I found something while on patrol. Something that we think you should see."
"Danger?" Eshai asked, one hand already reaching for the long spear strapped across her back. "Not at the moment. It's just odd. And closer to the settlement than we'd like."
Eshai's fingers still hesitated over the shaft of her spear, but as Seri watched, she relaxed them, letting her hand fall back to her side. "Is it on the ground?"
"All right," Eshai said. "Lead the way." To Seri she added, "You might as well come along. This could be educational."
There was something in the way she said 'educational', something wry and sarcastic that had Seri's stomach twisting itself into knots all over again. But she nodded, trailing along behind Eshai as the valiant led them both away.
* * *
The thing in the woods was a carcass. Not a beast carcass—Seri wasn't sure she could have handled seeing that—but a monkey. It was curled around itself, its throat torn out. It looked like it had been there for a few days at least, and it stank. Seri coughed, turning her face away as she felt her gorge rise. Eshai spared her only a glance before walking toward the animal, her other two valiants close behind. They looked troubled, casting the trees around them a dark look. Seri didn't understand why they were so bothered by a dead animal, but their unease was catching. She knew valiants were used to fighting beasts on the ground, but she wasn't a valiant. Valiants had armor to protect them, armor that made them incredibly powerful in close combat. Seri had the clothes on her back and no weapon.
She stayed close to Eshai, keeping one hand over her nose and mouth.
Eshai used the shaft of her spear to turn the animal over, letting off a wave of noxious gas that made Seri's eyes water. The wound was infested with maggots. She looked away, unable to watch. The ground squelched as Eshai bent down.
"A natural predator?" Seri heard her ask.
One of the valiants, the one that had approached Eshai, shook his head. "Predator would've eaten it, Commander."
"Only a beast kills like this," the second valiant said. He was an older man, his black hair streaked through with gray. Seri assumed he must be Zani.
"Monkeys usually manage to get away," Eshai said. "Could this one have been slow? Or injured?"
Zani shook his head. "Blood on the branches. It was killed in the trees. And fell."
Eshai's gaze shifted from the creature to the trees, and with a sudden terrible certainty, Seri understood what the problem was. Beasts didn't climb. They couldn't. Shouldn't. That was why the spreading trees were safe. The teachings echoed in her head.
'The beasts roam the forest paths. Be cautious, child of the People.'
"Double up patrols for the next three days," Eshai said, her voice carrying the clear tone of command as she looked back at the other two. "Search for any evidence of this beast. Work in pairs—no one leaves the settlement alone. Inform the settlers of the extra precautions. If we're lucky, it's already decided to pass us by, but I'm not taking any chances."
"Yes, Commander," the valiants said, touching their hands to their hearts in salute.
* * *
On the way back to the settlement, Seri kept her eyes on the trees, unable to shake the feeling that they were being watched. Eshai kept her gaze fixed ahead of her as she walked, calm and confident. Seri didn't know how Eshai could be so calm. The tension coiled inside her so tightly she thought she might burst. When she couldn't take it any longer, she opened her mouth.
"There couldn't possibly be a beast in the trees. Could there?"
"I've seen a lot of things that shouldn't be possible out here," Eshai said. "And beasts 'do' occasionally get into the spreading trees. Sometimes they get desperate. They're poor climbers and any valiant worth their armor would shoot them down before they made it halfway, but&" She shrugged, as if to say, 'things happen', but Seri wondered if a clumsy, desperate beast would have been able to kill something as nimble as a monkey.
She shivered, thinking back to the settlement, to the platforms open to the air, no walls yet, nothing but tarps to keep off the rain. "The settlement—"