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In the Forest of the Night

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The last thing Magnus thought before things broke really, really bad was that he could get used to this planet. It was the greenest world he’d ever seen, a vast network of trees covering practically the whole world’s surface. Miles and miles of forest with, as far as they could see from orbit, no people of any kind. No civilizations, not even the beginnings of anything similar. No large animals.

“No birds.” Lup dumped an armful of dead wood into the center of the clearing and then crouched down to arrange it into something that would burn well when she set it alight. “That’s what’s weirding me out, you know?”

Taako shrugged and rummaged through his pack, getting rations ready while Magnus finished getting the tent up. “No birds means nothing waking me up at the first sign of daylight, babe, so I absolutely do not care.”

Magnus snorted and tied off the last guyline. “Like a bird has ever been loud enough to wake you up.”

“Uh, wow, rude.”

It had been their first day out on the surface, taking an initial look around before they started looking for the Light in earnest. Magnus thought it would probably take a while, if the day’s travel was anything to go by. It was slow going through the tangle of the forest -- this was the first clearing they’d even seen besides the one where they set the Starblaster down. The forest wasn’t quite thick enough to need machetes, but it was close, and Taako did more than his fair share of grumbling about the effort.

But Magnus didn’t mind. He knew how to use an axe, if he had to, and in the meantime this world was . . . nice. It was pleasantly cool and the air smelled incredible, like life and growing things. No civilization meant nobody they’d have to fight with or negotiate with to get the Light, and even if it was quiet without birds calling in the trees, it wasn’t so quiet as to be unsettling.

Sure, Magnus thought as he cracked his back and Lup sat back on her heels and Taako held up a spice jar with a triumphant sound. He could get used to this.

Then Lup snapped her fingers, and everything went abruptly to shit.

A few tongues of flame kindled in the dry firewood, and the forest exploded with noise like a cyclone, incredibly, painfully loud. Branches whipped through the air, smashing into the tent and collapsing it, and another steamrolled into Magnus’s center of mass, sending him sprawling and knocking the wind out of his lungs.

“What the fuck?” Lup’s hands were wreathed in flame, whipping in the wind and nearly dying out. Taako clambered to his feet and got his back against his sister’s, one hand clapped to his head trying to keep his hat in place.

“Tornado?” Taako hazarded a guess, bracing against Lup as the howling got impossibly louder. Something above them shifted and creaked and cracked, and it was suddenly very, very dark. Lup glanced up to see the tree canopy closed up tight, blocking the sky. The trees above them looked like they might come down at any moment. Well, shit.

“We gotta bounce!” She gritted out, and her brother nodded and held out a hand, shouting the words for Teleport against the maelstrom.

Magic fizzed and crackled around them and around Magnus’s still-prone form, and things went dark in a completely different way, comforting and abruptly silent instead of raging and deafening.

They came back to the world right where she expected, safe in the belly of the Starblaster, and they came in rough, smacking to the floor with enough force to be painful. Lup took a second to recover before pushing herself up on her elbows. Taako looked smug -- wow, super shocker there -- and she glared at him. “You forgot our stuff. And also, ow.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I was so busy saving us from being crushed to death I --” Taako froze so abruptly and completely Lup could feel it in her own bones, and his next words came out in a dumbfounded whisper. “Oh. Shit.”

Lup didn’t like that. She didn’t like that at all. She twisted around to follow his gaze even though she already knew what she was going to see.

What she was going to not see.

“Oh.” Lup said, her guts gone cold. “Shit.”

Magnus wasn’t there.

***

His head hurt.

Also, his shoulders hurt.

Also, oh, wow, holy gods his chest didn’t just hurt, it screamed with agony every time he was dragged further along the . . . ground . . .

Oh. Shit.

Magnus screwed up his willpower and opened his eyes. It didn’t do much to make his head stop hurting. Branches moved slowly above him, with tree canopy above them and rapidly-darkening sky far beyond that. None of it was actually moving, of course -- no, that was him. Something had him by the wrists and was dragging him slowly but steadily across the forest floor. He could feel rocks and twigs dig in through the back of his jacket. His arms and shoulders ached in protest at taking his body weight like that, and his head throbbed.

But the chest was definitely the most concerning thing, here. Every breath, every scrape, every miniscule bump against the ground sent another jolt of oh ow fuck ow through his ribcage. Magnus took an experimental shot at a deeper breath and then moaned when that proved to be a really terrible experiment.

Yeah, those were broken ribs all right. He wondered if he should be worried about one of them puncturing a lung, what with him being dragged like this.

. . . oh. Yeah. Right. Priorities.

He tried to twist around enough to get a look at who or what was dragging him, which was no easy proposition given that he was almost definitely concussed in addition to his other injuries. There was a thick length of what looked like rough vines binding his wrists, tight enough his fingers were starting to get tingly. More vine leading off from that, held taut from the effort of dragging him, and at the other end of that . . .

Well. It was an upright figure, covered in some kind of shaggy, moss-green cloak that trailed almost to the ground. Between the headache and the failing light and being, you know, upside down and backwards, Magnus couldn’t make out much besides that. “Hello?” He tried, his voice coming out a little more breathless than he’d have liked. “Uh . . . hey! Excuse me?”

Nothing. Whoever was under the cloak didn’t make any sign that they’d heard him.

Magnus tried digging in his heels, looking for purchase in the layer of leaf litter. Nothing. He wrapped one hand around the vine and tried yanking it, with no success.

Okay. Alright. This is gonna hurt. Magnus tried to brace himself. Hurt more.

He managed to get a leg bent and gave a flailing shove that flipped him over on his stomach. The impact blasted through his chest, pain racing up into his already-aching shoulders, and black sparks fizzed around the edges of his vision. Don’t pass out, bud, don’t pass out . . .

Miraculously, he didn’t. A rock scrawled its way across his forehead and cheek, narrowly missing his eye, and dirt pushed into his nostrils and mouth. This was . . . not better.

Magnus gritted his teeth and wrapped his fingers awkwardly around the vine again, this time hauling backwards with all the might he could muster and scrabbling with his feet at the same time. For a dizzying moment he tottered, half-crouched, arms screaming with the effort of pulling against the vine.

Then he managed to get his feet under him, albeit stumblingly, and pushed himself upright. Okay, good, now we’re getting somewhere. He had more leverage in this position, and he squared his shoulders and dug in his heels, putting all his strength into resisting the figure at the other end of the vine.

The figure paused, just barely, although it didn’t turn its head or make a sound. Then it picked up the pace, until Magnus damn near had to run to keep from being pulled off his feet.

“Hey!” Damn it. Magnus scowled and hunkered his shoulders. “Enough of this bullshit.”

With a burst of frenetic energy, he sprinted forward and reached out to loop his bound arms around whatever the thing had that passed for a throat. Maybe he could --

Something very big and impossibly fast came arcing back at him, and Magnus had zero time to react before it caught him across the torso in a lightning bolt of impact and agony.

He screamed, or tried to without any air left in his lungs to do the work, and went flying backwards.

He was already unconscious when he hit the ground.