Her gaze wandered over to Sylin as they walked. Not only had his color improved, he had recovered his characteristic energetic nature. He had been resting for three, luckily uneventful, days. However, he’d refused her suggestion of waiting one extra day, even if for nothing but to give him opportunity to collect more light, insisting on removing the bandaging just to prove to her that he was fine. What she saw startled her. He really wasn’t lying when he said that he was capable of quick recovery. If she hadn’t seen his injuries and infection for herself, she probably wouldn’t have believed that he was on the brink of death merely a few days ago. Beyond minor bruising, still visible on his chest, there had been absolutely no hint of the suffering that he’d gone through.
She leaned into him, as they walked, though she wasn’t the slightest bit tired. Something had changed between them over the past few days. She felt his hand gently tighten reassuringly around hers, as she snuck hers into his palm. An unspoken change, but something reminiscent of their time together in school. Something that she couldn’t quite identify.
“I’ve been thinking.” Sylin said, breaking the silence without taking his attention off the darkness before them. His eyes silently searched the space, as his shoes quietly crunched on the leaves along their path, seemingly constantly on the look out for something. “Based on my recent infection, I’d say that the petrification worms have gotten a whole lot more dangerous.”
“But we haven’t seen any…” She started. “Are you suggesting that they could be caused by other creatures now too?”
“Kind of.” He answered, finally pausing his step to look at her. “But not entirely. You see, I believe that my infection was still caused by the worms, albeit not by conventional means.”
“But how are they granting other creatures their ability?” Xiyana asked, knitting her brow.
“I don’t think they are, per se.” He replied.
“You mean…” She began.
“Yes.” He answered. “I suspect that there are mutated variations of the species in this forest, and these mutations play a major role in what we’ve seen.”
“But don’t you think that it’d be a little hard to not notice a gigantic worm?” She asked. “Even if it were somehow able to cast an illusion, it’d be hard to create a convincing one for a moving object that large… And even if it were able to, wouldn’t that be extremely resource intensive?”
“But I don’t think an illusion is the only explanation for this phenomena.” He replied. “If I’m correct, I’d say that the mutated versions are smaller, and therefore weaker. I don’t think they can bite through skin like the larger ones can.”
“So then how are they more dangerous?” She asked.
“In a face-to-face encounter, they wouldn’t be.” He answered. “But remember my infection.”
“You think that they’re using other creatures, somehow?” She asked, trying to put the pieces together.
“Yes.” He answered. “We’ve both touched the bear-thing, but only I’ve been infected. Why do you think that is?”
She paused in thought. Could it be because of the differences in their races? But her brother had also been infected. He wouldn’t have survived so long if he wasn’t careful.
“Furthermore, the bears of the forest are known to be ferocious. How could they have been infected, while you walk away unharmed?” He prompted.
“Why?” She asked, unable to reach the conclusion.
“Bears in this area are known to fight one another. This means that they are often have scratches or worse. Likewise, I had an open wound when I was infected. This wound came into contact with the creature when we defeated it.” He revealed. “I suspect that they’ve formed some kind of relationship with the bears that allows them to either collaborate with those they’d infected or otherwise parasitize them and use them as host. These collaboration partners or hosts, would then grant them the ability to break skin. Without the skin breaking problem, they can then infect wounds by inserting their eggs via their saliva, as they usually do.”
“So they can practically infect through any animal with claws or teeth now?” She asked.
“If I am correct, then yes.” He answered.
“And that’s worse because?” She asked, struggling to follow.
“Because no one is aware of this new ability.” He finished.
“No wonder the infection rates are going up!” She shouted, her eyes widening in realization.
“Indeed. But as useful as their new relationship is, they were no match for you.” He added, with a grin. “If not for you, I would’ve passed my final days as one of their living egg incubators.”
“But if you already have all of this figured out, why are we still going to the center of the forest?” She asked.
“They’re still all unconfirmed theories. Besides, don’t you think it’s a little unlikely that the military would simply believe an unsubstantiated claim? Specifically, a claim made by a suspected warlock, who supposedly theorized all of this from a personal experience with petrification, no less?” He asked with a wry smile.
She opened her mouth, but bit back her response. As much as she wished to say otherwise, she couldn’t say he was wrong. Nine times out of ten, the citizens of their country associated anything magical and couldn’t be easily explained with warlocks. The state had, likewise, maintained a long standing distrust toward magical beings. In fact, she wouldn’t even be surprised if the state arrested him on the spot upon learning how he made his discovery. There was no chance that they would trust him, if they somehow thought he had some kind of magical association, much less take heed to any warning he gave. The only way that his discovery could help anyone was if he had hard evidence to support his claim.
“So what are your plans?” She asked.
“I’m going to catch one of those worms.” He answered.