Fern glared at each of them in turn. She had never been one to buy in to the myths concerning mysterious, possibly invisible creatures that preyed on human organs, and this tale was sounding suspiciously like one of that genre. “I think I’ll take my chances.”
“As you wish, little thief. All the luck to you, then.” The merman tapped a finger to his forehead in a careless salute and turned away. “Come, Cedric. We had best be getting to our lodgings.”
And as quick and silent as two flitting shadows, they had vanished into the night.
Upon locating the date palm that she had remembered, Fern crawled beneath it and curled up on the ground beside its rough trunk. She fell asleep easily amidst dreams involving cinnamon and nutmeg, and she must have slumbered peacefully for several hours before she awoke with a start.
For a few moments, she did not know what had disturbed her. Perhaps it had merely been a nocturnal bird alighting atop her palm tree. But no— there was something prowling nearby, sniffing about. She lay very still, her heart beating like a drum, and tried to keep her breathing quiet. She told herself that it was nothing more than a stray dog in search of a meal, yet now that she was alone in the dark, the words of the pierced-eared merman detective seemed rather more ominous. There was something out there, within an arm’s reach, prowling around her tree. She did not know what it was, although it would have taken only a slight turn of her head to determine its nature. But she did not want to risk it. She did not dare even to open her eyes for fear of what she might see.
At length, the sniffing receded, and she could hear the creature walking away. However, she remained rigid and silent. She doubted very much that she would sleep anymore that night.
Morning came, the sun rising over the desert in the east and projecting rays of warmth and security over the land. Soon the selfsame sun would age to become angry and unforgiving, but for the moment, it assured Fern that all was well. Her little scare during the night, while not forgotten, did not weigh on her nearly as much as it had before, and by the time she had crawled from beneath the little date palm into the full sunlight, she had convinced herself that it had indeed been a dog that had visited her, not any sort of sinister, unidentifiable bloodthirsty being.
Fern picked a few pockets as she made her way up the hill toward the center of Alyaport—a handful of coins here, some jewelry there; nothing special. The familiar thrill of adrenaline swept her thoughts about the previous night’s events entirely away. Everything was as it always had been: perfectly, blissfully normal.
Then someone screamed.