Her face was still flaming from the memory of Sylin waking her. Earlier that morning, she awoke to him playfully flicking his finger against her nose, his body leaning directly over her, and his face only inches above hers. To make matters worse, he did it with his hair still wet and his shirt only partially buttoned. She had accidentally fallen asleep while he showered. Though he woke her under the impression that she wanted to get cleaned up before seeing her brother, the way that the memory clung to her made part of her wish that he didn’t understand her quite as well as he did, and had let her sleep in long enough to wake up on her own. She wasn’t sure how much he heard of the morning conversation, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. She knew that Sylin understood her well enough to know that a morning disagreement would do little to deter her from visiting her brother.
She fanned her face, doing her best to suppress the memory, as the taxi neared the hospital. She needed to focus on the situation at hand. Her brother was still recovering, and she was still uncertain whether the hospital cameras caught anything regarding Sylin’s unstable state. She had been too busy struggling to tow him along, the previous day to pay attention to his actions. While it was unlikely that he looked up, she couldn’t be sure. Despite sharing the concern with him, Sylin insisted, to her dismay, on accompanying her to the entrance. She let out a relieved sigh as they pulled up before the building. There weren’t any visible enforcement scouts the site. Unfastening her seatbelt, and opening the door, she took a step out of the vehicle, before feeling Sylin’s hand on her arm.
“Be careful,” he said, his tone laced in worry. An emotion she hadn’t seen or heard from him since the first time she got cut by a sword, years ago. They were only barely in their teens when it happened, and had hardly gotten to know each other. Her brother had just left her behind for training. Her only thought, at the time, was to become like him, so that she could reunite with him as soon as possible. She had picked up the first sword she could find and did her best to imitate her brother’s postures from memory. However, unused to the weapon’s weight, and unfamiliar with its use, she left a nasty gash on her forearm. Yet, despite their lack of familiarity with one another, it was Sylin who panicked at the time, and sought for help. Granted, to be fair, it probably looked worse than it actually was, with the mess that the blood made. She probably actually had to thank her youthful recklessness for the strength of their bond. Had it not been for the cut, they probably wouldn’t have spent so much time together for the weeks after. But, she couldn’t see how a short hospital visit to see her brother could be compared to an injury that could’ve left her crippled for life.
Putting a hand over his, she smiled reassuringly at him as she slipped out of his grasp and closed the door behind her. She walked to the entrance, before turning to wave. Watching the taxi take off and eventually disappearing behind the trees in the distance, she let out a sigh, relieved that he actually listened to her. Standing at the entrance for a few moments more, reassuring herself that he was safely out of range, she turned and began heading toward her brother’s room.
As soon as he was certain that he was no longer in direct line of sight from the hospital, he paid the driver, and got off the vehicle. Then, on foot, he walked back in the direction of the building. He knew her too well. As much as she cared for her brother, she’d never visit if he insisted on joining her. She’d never risk one person’s safety for the sake of another, much less in a case where she has personal emotions toward both individuals in question.
But, he couldn’t let her visit her brother alone. Not after the accidental mishap yesterday, especially if Xiyana was right about seeing hints of his spirit nature. Though being non-corporal and non-light-based meant that it was impossible for cameras to capture, even without the vast visual differences between his hair length and attire for the select few that were able to perceive them, the detectable energy fluctuations would be too much for the average onlooker to dismiss. Given the region’s distaste and flat out animosity toward the inhuman and their apologists and sympathizers, being caught on camera with a prime suspect could bring her trouble. He couldn’t standby and watch her get drawn into a problem that he had meant to keep her out of. Ensuring his illusions were properly in place, he stepped into the hospital.
“Stop right there!” A man shouted at him, flashing an officer’s badge. “We’ve received report of a silver haired warlock spotted around here. Please collaborate with investigation.”
“Sure.” Sylin answered casually, keeping his hands raised at face level where they were visible. The undercover officer immediately cuffed them together with what he suspected were anti-magic cuffs. He could already feel his energy sapping away, just moments after coming into contact with them. Even without magic, carrying something like that should impact a person, even if it was just mood. How officers managed to regularly carry something like that, would probably forever remain a mystery to him. “So, where are we going, exactly?” He asked, keeping his tone upbeat to hide the effect that the cuffs were having on him, as he followed the man down an empty corridor and into a dark room.
“We’re just going to ask you some questions.” The officer answered gruffly, as he pushed a chair to Sylin and shut the door. Then sitting himself, the man dropped a cold bag into Sylin’s lap, before flashing a bright desk lamp directly at his face. The cold emanating from the pouch immediately told him what it was. Anti-magic residue. A substance meant to disrupt any local traces of magic. Specifically, it was meant to sap a warlock’s strength and dispel any illusions. That meant that the light would be used to study his features. He squinted his eyes tightly at the light, using his eyelids to hide the shape of his pupils.
Though commonly used by the magical folk, he’s learned not to be dependent on his illusions. Even well-practiced and long used to consistently sustaining an image, a distraction could still threaten his hold over the spell. It’s constant demand for attention and energy meant that too much deviation from truth could leave him short on magic supply. At the same time, too little deviation would leave him with an unconvincing image, and unable to blend in with the human racial majority.
Part of it was just lack of dedication. He never did give much focus to studying the magical art, seeing little use for it beyond blending in with the crowd. Besides, from his experience, the best lies weren’t the ones that strayed significantly the truth, but rather the ones with just enough detail to barely veer from reality. He found that his most successful cloaking illusions were the ones that scarcely covered his differences, limited to the scope of a specific characteristic of the item in question, such as the distinctive nature of his eyes and ears. The secret to a successful illusion, therefore, lie in crafting believable falsehoods, mixtures that required both changing and hiding reality. A fine line just on the borders of truth and fiction.
“What did you want to ask me?” Sylin asked, leaning back in his chair casually, as the officer approached him to study his features in detail. He had chosen his haircut specifically to limit his dependence on his illusory talents. His hair, in it’s particular cut, already hid the tops of his ears. With only a minor difference of a small point above them, it wouldn’t occur to most unsuspecting people to sort through his hair for anything different, especially when searching for a warlock, a race that had drastically different features underneath their deceptive cover.
He did his best to smile at the officer while maintaining the exaggerated squint, silently challenging the man to find something that couldn’t be arguably human. False accusations were fairly common. Racism, in districts like these, was blatant, particularly among the common folk. If someone was distasteful. Must’ve been a warlock. If someone had odd habits or practices. Must’ve been a warlock. If someone committed a crime. Must’ve been a warlock. Rumors were rampant, and police were often called to handle a wild goose chase, even if most of the accusations could be easily disproved by a little digging. The baseless blame normally irritated him, but today, he was glad for it. What better way to ensure Xiyana’s safety and uninvolvement than convincing the officer that this case was exactly that…a false accusation?
Xev glowered at her from his bed, as she closed the door behind her, clearly still displeased with how the last conversation ended.
“The warlock with you?” He asked, tone harsh.
“I told him not to come.” She answered, shaking her head and walking up toward him.
Her brother released a breath, relaxing before continuing in a softer tone. “You might think you know him well. But I know better than anyone how much a single betrayal has cost our family.” He sighed, running a hand through his sandy hair. “I know that you’re stubborn, but you can never be too careful. Sometimes it’s those that you trust that can hurt you the most.”
“I understand.” She told her brother, not wanting to argue any further, as she walked over to the table at the foot of his bed and picked up a fruit knife. Though, there was some weight to his words. Being half a decade younger, some details regarding the incident evaded her. She hadn’t even realized the danger she was in that day, and owed her entire survival to her brother. Their parents had been familiar with their would-be killer for years before the incident.
Up till day of the tragedy, they’ve always referred to the warlock as a friend. But there was always something off about that man, even before the incident. He was so secretive, always keeping to himself and maintaining a distance, regardless of all efforts to include him. Their parents passed off their behavior as a difference in customs. And she had naively accepted that response up till the point that everything went wrong.
But, Sylin wasn’t anything like that. Sitting, she picked up the apple on the table, and began to shave off its peel by muscle memory, letting herself get lost in thought. Even if he wasn’t all up in her space all the time, Sylin had always offered his shoulder when she asked. Since they’ve come to know each other, she couldn’t name a time that he wasn’t there for her. This time was no exception. He’d helped her brother, despite knowledge that he would have to enter a region hostile to himself to do so. He came, without regard to himself, and without any expectation for repayment.
She couldn’t imagine someone who was so unconditionally supportive of her plotting against her. If he truly wanted to bring her harm, there has certainly been no shortage of opportunity over the years. With the time that they knew each other, he could’ve easily chosen to do so, back when she was nothing but an utterly helpless child, back when they’ve just met. Even after learning offensive skills, she had frequently left herself unguarded toward him, giving him opportunity to tease her time and time again until, without realizing, she unintentionally let him walk into her heart.
Setting down the knife, she walked over to her brother and offered him the prepared fruit. They spent the next few moments like that in silence, with her shaving apple peels, and then eating the prepared fruit together. She didn’t know how to talk to her brother. It’s been more than a year since she’s seen him before learning that he’s been petrified, and she didn’t exactly want to elaborate on his condition. It’d bring Sylin back into the conversation.
“So, how have you been?” Xev finally asked, breaking the silence.
“Just finished college, and have been practicing with the sword.” She answered, looking up at him. “I’m planning to enlist and hoping to pass the requirements, now that I have more time.”
“Now’s not the best time.” Her brother stated. He raised a hand to silence her, when she tried to give an answer. “It’s a dangerous world out there, Xiyana. The range where petrified wood can be found has only increased over the years. While, the country does need more support, the last thing I’d want is for you to enlist without at least reaching the advanced-tier and getting some actual combat experience.”
“But-“ She started.
“No buts.” He said, cutting her off, his tone firm. “At your level of skill and experience, it’s too easy to make a costly mistake. You’d only be sacrificing yourself meaninglessly. What our country needs are capable individuals, not rookies that are only capable of becoming another casualty statistic.”
“I need a breath of fresh air.” She said, tone emotionless, as she stood and turned to walk to the door. She’d been planning to join for months, since her graduation, not including the years that she’s been dreaming to join her brother since their initial separation. Since he enrolled in specialized training, he was often gone for months on end. The pattern only worsened when he was formally accepted as an enlistee.
Deep inside, she knew her brother was right. After all, even he, a supreme tier ended up petrified. But, it still hurt to hear. It hurt that he didn’t even give her plans any consideration. It hurt that all her efforts made over the past few months felt thrown back at her face. She needed time to think. Time to organize her thoughts to keep her from releasing emotions against her brother, feelings that weren’t even his fault.
“Xiyana-“ He started, softening his tone.
“I’m fine. I’ll be back.” She answered, cutting him off, before slamming the door behind her.
Xev smacked himself on the forehead. That hadn’t exactly gone how he intended. It was the first time he’s had a chance to speak to his sister in privacy, since his deployment the past year. He’d just planned to catch up with her. But now, it seemed like he put a distance between the two of them. He hadn’t intended on reprimanding her twice since they’ve started talking, but her recent actions and thoughts put her at too much danger for him to simply ignore. He couldn’t stand the thought of possibly losing her. His last family member.
He sighed. The two of them used to be so close. He opened his hand, and looked down on the open locket wrapped around it. Their last family photograph together, before the incident. The reminder that’s been sustaining him over the past years.
Family looked out for one another. She may not understand it now, but if putting himself on her bad side kept her alive, he’d continue to do so. Regardless of how it may make her feel. Regardless of how it might affect their relationship. He just wanted her alive, safe, and well. Was it all too much to ask for?
Xiyana stood at the hospital balcony, silently watching the traffic pass below, as she sorted through her emotions.
Suddenly, arms wrapped around her waist. She almost punched the offender, before she turned to see his face, as he put a chin on her shoulder.
“What are you doing here?” She asked, agitated. He could be caught at any moment. She hadn’t even checked if anyone in the hospital suspected him yet.
“Obviously missing you.” Sylin answered, burying his nose into her hair. “How did your talk with your brother go?”
“It went fine. I just needed some fresh air.” She answered, before pushing his face away. “Can you stop being so touchy for once?”
“Xiyana doesn’t like me anymore.” He whined, pouting. She turned to find that his eyes even watered.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just…” She sighed. He was incorrigible. “Fine.”
Like a puppy being offered a treat, his face immediately lit up at her words. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her to a nearby table and sat beside her.
“Is your brother still mad about you spending a night with me?” He asked curiously, after a moment of pause.
“That’s not the problem.” She answered. “But you shouldn’t be here right now. We’re not even sure if they’re watching out for you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He said, nonchalantly. “I entered from the front door. If they were searching, they would’ve apprehended me the moment I walked in.”
“They might still be silently watching you.” She suggested, visually searching the area for cameras.
“They’re not.” He answered with certainty that she found hard to follow. Then more seriously, he continued. “I thought it was strange for someone of your brother’s level to be petrified, so I asked to see the recent hospitalization trends. The number of petrified patients have grown exponentially over the past few weeks, just the time frame when your brother should’ve been infected, based on his condition when you brought me over.”
“Yeah, Xev mentioned that the petrification ring has expanded recently.” She shared.
“The thing is, this rate is far too high to be natural.” Sylin continued. “Even if there was a population increase among petrifying worms, it wouldn’t be enough to justify the sheer number of patients. The trend varies too far from historical incidents. I’m afraid that something’s changed. Something dangerous might be lurking beyond what the country’s scouts are monitoring. I might have to leave you for some time.”
“You what?” She asked, not totally believing her ears. She’d been separated from her brother for so long. But Sylin. He was always nearby. Always there for her, so long as she asked him. She looked down at his hand. He was clenching and unclenching a fist. A habit that he’d always unconsciously returned to, whenever he was reluctant. Just like he did in the past, every time she asked him to leave when she missed her family so much that she wanted to cry, at least up until the day that he promised her that he’d be her family in their absence. He was serious this time.
“I have to investigate. This problem. It might get worse if no one stops it. It might be beyond human ability.” He answered her, solemnly. “But you’ll be fine.” He quickly added, as if suddenly realizing what his leave might mean to her. “Your brother is recovering. Since he was discharged with petrification as the cause, the country wouldn’t be expecting his return soon. He’s a supreme tier. When he finishes his physical therapies, he can protect you in my absence.”
She sat there in silent shock, as the reality of his suggestion settled onto her. Without pausing, he pulled her into a hug. Somehow it felt different, without his usual smile and laughter. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.” He whispered. “I’m going to miss you.”
Her heart ached at his words. How many more people would leave her for the sake of the country? Though her brother was in the process of recovery, she knew that he would return to the front lines as soon as he was ready. Xev, at least, had his men to back him up. What about Sylin? Would anyone be there for him if he fell or got wounded? She didn’t want to think about what could happen to him if he went alone, but she also needed to be sure that he wouldn’t be.
“Is anyone going with you?” She asked, hoping that his response would reassure her.
“No. I plan to go alone.” He answered, sounding regretful.
“I’m coming with you.” She stated.
“What about your brother?” He asked, pulling apart from the hug. The illusion over his pupils briefly flickered, their shape narrowing into slits, before immediately returning to the rounded appearance she was used to.
“He’s still doing physical therapy and like you said, no one will be asking for him anytime soon. He should have time to recover. There will be many people taking care of him in the hospital.” Unlike you, she wanted to say, but the words stuck in her throat.
“It’s too dangerous.” He responded, looking into the distance. “Even if you aren’t going to stay by your brother during his recovery, I’d doubt he’d agree to put you in such unpredictable danger.”
“He doesn’t have to.” She asserted. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
“I’m not sure that I’d even be able to defend myself out there.” He stated, tone more resigned than angry.
“That’s even more of a reason that I should go with you.” She doubted that she she would be able to rest at ease otherwise.
“It’s possible that I won’t be able to protect you.” He continued.
“That doesn’t matter.” She answered. “Besides, it would be good for me to get some practice.”
“At least if you stay here, your brother and I would have peace of mind, knowing that you’re safe.” He offered, voice neutral.
“Then who will grant me peace of mind, when you’re putting yourself in danger?” She countered.
“You’re right.” He acknowledged, after a pause. Then looking up at her, his pupils definitely slitted this time. “But promise me that if I tell you to run, you’ll run. I’m not sure what’s out there. There might be things that I can’t handle. I need you to be able to follow my directions, so that we can both make it out alive in event of emergency.”
“I promise.” She agreed, thankful that Sylin was easier to reason with than her brother. I’m sorry Xev. She stared into his inhuman eyes. Regardless of whatever her brother thought. She wasn’t abandoning Sylin.