She stood at the train station, waiting for the next car to arrive. The sun’s rays were starting to peak over the edges of the shelter, where the structure opened to the sky above. She had departed from the hospital soon after dawn, leaving behind but a single letter for her still sleeping brother, to explain her intentions. Although Sylin agreed to let her speak with her brother about her change of plans, leaving her soon after their discussion to pack for the trip, in the end, she couldn’t muster the courage to confront Xev face-to-face. With his recent unwillingness to hear her out, she didn’t doubt the possibility of her brother doing everything in his power to prevent her from going, upon learning the truth. She couldn’t risk the having Sylin going alone. At least, not to a place with unknown dangers; not to a place outside the range of cellular reception and a means of communication. The thought of losing him. She shook her head, to clear the thoughts.
Sylin had agreed to meet up with her at the station. Though he didn’t exactly specify a time range, under normal circumstances and judging from his typical sleep schedule, he would be arriving soon. A whistle resounded from the distance, just before a train shot into view, pushing air aside and into the awaiting crowd standing with her on the platform. With a hiss, the locomotive came to a stop and the doors slid open. Raising her heels and standing on the tips of her toes, she scanned the growing crowd as passengers flooded out, trying to make out if Sylin was among them. His silver hair normally stood out, given that it was uniform in color, unlike natural greys. And with the color’s association with old age, it wasn’t exactly a popular dye color either. Though, as far as she could tell, it probably was his natural hair color. Since meeting him, she’s never seen him colored in a different shade. But thinking about it, recent events proved to her that despite their decade long friendship, there was still so much she didn’t know about him.
Smack. Something flat struck the top of her head from behind her. She turned to find Sylin standing behind her, smiling with a paper map in his hand, a single backpack on his shoulders. “Looking for something?” He asked, amused.
“That’s all you packed?” She asked. “You said that we might be gone for days.”
“Are you implying an intention to spend days alone with me?” He asked huskily, smile widening, as he leaned forward until his face was nearly level with hers.
“You-“ She responded, looking away as her face flushed. “You should know what I mean.”
“We’d better get going or we’ll miss the next train.” He laughed, taking her arm and pulling her along with him, as he walked toward the stairs leading to the next platform.
“Is that really all we’re bringing?” She asked, after they boarded.
“I only brought things absolutely needed for survival.” He responded, patting the hiking backpack. “Unless…” He continued suggestively, intentionally slurring his words. “You had something else in mind…”
She turned away from him, just in time to see a girl standing next to him giggle at the implication. She felt her cheeks redden. There were too many people aboard. Too many people crowded within hearing range. Although she didn’t regret joining him, his apparent nonchalance left her questioning whether she had been too hasty in assessing the situation.
Sylin looked down at Xiyana, who snuggled against him, asleep. She looked so peaceful. He smiled, briefly watching her, before turning to look out the window. Though it was dangerous, he was strangely comforted by her decision to join him. He’d let her sleep while she could. Their next stop would be their destination. It would be a while before she would have the luxury to rest so defenselessly again.
“Wakey, wakey.” A voice whispered, intentionally letting his breath blow against her face as he spoke.
Her eyes shot open, finding Sylin craning toward her, his face only inches away from hers. She immediately pulled her head off his arm and sat up, having unintentionally leaned onto his shoulder in her sleep. He laughed, straightening himself and turning to face forward. She looked around, scanning their environment. They were at their stop. Sitting at the seat open toward the walkway, she flushed, standing as she realized that she was blocking the exit. He followed her out, laughing the entire walk out of the train.
Xev crushed the paper in his hand. Xiyana. How could she? He threw down the phone. He’d been calling all morning since he’s read the letter to no avail. He reached for his crutches, and pulled himself up. He needed to recover as soon as possible. He had told her not to enlist for a reason! He had thought the message was clear.
He strained toward the door. Who knew what that warlock had in mind, encouraging her to go, when she could barely defend herself? For all he knew this could be a ploy. Perhaps the warlock was behind the recent petrification occurrences. There was no telling what a warlock’s magic could do.
He strained again, pushing himself. He needed reach her if he could. If she was still in the hospital. Just a few more steps. He just needed to see if she was still there. She liked balconies. She might be there. He needed to talk to her personally. Breath haggard, he took another step, but a misplaced crutch and the weakness that found its way back into his legs left him collapsed flat on the floor.
“Xiyana.” He whispered, shedding a tear as he clenched his fist. He needed to pull himself together. She left a letter. It was unlikely she’d still be outside. He struggled toward the phone. He needed to reach his supervisor and his unit, even if the message took a few days to reach them. At least, they could keep a look out. For now, he needed to focus on recovering as soon as possible, and pray that he wouldn’t be too late.
Xiyana looked up as they passed under a canopy of trees. She couldn’t remember the last time she was in a forest. The way that only tiny bits of light passed through the barrier of leaves above, creating tiny pockets of light every here and there, made her want to look up every single time they passed through anything that wasn’t perfectly shaded. Sylin had been quietly leading the path since the morning, surprisingly without any remarks and without any explanation on how he knew where he was going.
“Are you hungry?” Sylin suddenly turned to ask. It was nearly evening, and after leaving the train and stopping by a local shop for food, they haven’t eaten anything since around noon.
“Yeah.” She responded, as he set down his pack, opening it for the first time since they’ve met up. She stole a glance inside, and found that it was significantly less full than she assumed. “It’s mostly empty?” She thought aloud without realizing it.
Sylin looked up at her and laughed. “You’d be surprised what I have in here.” He answered, before picking out a small cube. Placing it on the ground, the cube quickly expanded from roughly the size of an average board game dice into the size of a crate. “All of the cubes in here are compression units.” He explained. “The even surface makes magically compressing it simpler. All the green ones are food, and I’ve set the spell to automatically resize the cube once is settled flat on vegetation. This way, you should be able to trigger the effect as well.”
She peered into the crate, finding a wide selection of dried goods. She looked up at him in question.
He shrugged, as he searched the area for twigs. “Anything else would’ve been too heavy, and probably wouldn’t last as long as we might need.”
“What about water?” She asked.
“The blue crates should have something.” He answered, without looking up. “I didn’t fill those up all the way, so you should be able to lift them without much difficulty.”
“You could’ve just told me this earlier.” She stated indignantly.
“And miss the fun?” He asked, finally looking up at her, grinning. “Or…” He continued, still amused and lowering his tone into almost a purr. “Did you actually have something else in mind?”
“So where exactly are we going anyways?” She asked, changing the subject as she looked away from him.
“As you already know, petrification worms rarely make an appearance in the forest outskirts, closer to the city.” He answered, smile fading and focusing on piling up the twigs. “Attacks, given our country’s defenses, have always occurred a few miles into the forest. But even so, troops normally and scouts normally don’t go beyond a specified radius outside the country’s parameters. As far as we know, no one has ever seen their breeding grounds, nests, or homes. So finding anything that might be affecting their population and behavior would require us to search deeper into the forest. Worst-case, we’ll need to reach the most secluded part, the forest’s heart.”
Kestyn lifted his sinking head, blinking his eyes open. He was nodding off while on duty again, something that he did everytime he was stationed at the gates to the camp. Rarely did anyone or anything pass by around here. Beyond the daily communication vehicles, there was nothing else to entertain him. Not even animals passed through this part of the forest. He looked up, assessing the time. It was around time that the communication truck would arrive. He straightened, yawning.
Wouldn’t be good to be caught sleeping on duty again. The country was short on men, so they couldn’t exactly fire or discharge him as a company might do to their workers. Every helping hand mattered. Instead, they’d probably reassign him, positioning him at an even more undesirable position. Likely positions that while important and must be done, neither draftees nor volunteers were interested in. At least, despite the regular boredom, he currently worked guard duty at a main camp.
His assignment meant that he’d likely be first into consideration when the military forces needed more men on the field. That was the reason he’d joined after all. Though he came from a rather destitute background, being an orphan, as long as he could remember, and no family that he could ever think of, he’d been training with the sword for as long as he could remember. If there wasn’t a price associated with getting his level assessed, from what he could tell, he’d at least be equivalent, in skill and familiarity with the weapon, to some of the commanders in the rank.
He sighed. But that probably meant little in actual combat. Even one of the few highly ranked officials willing to befriend him, Xev, had been put out of action, before he even got to tell the man his interest in joining the battlefield. The man had been a supreme tier too. Still, a man could dream.
A motor could be heard approaching. The mail was finally here for the day. The one break he had from staring into the forest before him. He stepped forward, as the vehicle came into sight. After confirming the driver’s identity, he opened the gates and waved him in.
Yawning, he leaned into the gate, waiting. He needed to be alert until the mail truck left, at the very least.
“XEV IS AWAKE?!” The head commander shouted so loudly, that Kestyn internally questioned how the man was able to keep military secrets under a lid, given his tendency to exclaim anything that shocked him. Still, he leaned in to hear more. Waking from petrification was rare. Even when it did happen, it was always just a few days before a victim died. Perhaps, Xev would be able to report the cause of his petrification. A supreme tier didn’t fall easily. Such information could be invaluable.
“AND HE’S COMING BACK?!” The commander continued, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Kestyn straightened. How could a paralyzed person return to war? And a paralyzed person on the brink of death, no less? Brows knitted in thought, he couldn’t help but wonder if this was Xev’s tendency of overestimating himself at play. The man always pushed himself to his limits. In fact, no one realized that the man had been petrified, until he literally fell into a coma from bark crystallizing in his organs.
He shook his head, as he watched the delivery truck leave. Xev would always be Xev. At the very least, he had the some chance of seeing his friend again. He let out a breath, looking up at the sky. Perhaps this time, he would share his intention to join the combat forces.
“Duck!” Sylin shouted, launching a blade of light in her direction mid-dash. His inhuman eyes squinting in the light, trying to make out the scene behind her.
Clenching the hilt of her sword, she turned to face whatever might be there. They had been wandering the forest for weeks now. Given the initial lull, she had been starting to suspect that Sylin had been wrong about the petrifying worms. Only over the past few days did the strange encounters begin. Though they weren’t quite petrifying worms, but not quite the normal fauna in the region either.
Keeping an eye on the creature, she backed toward Sylin, who had proven over the past few days, to be a better fighter than she was. Though, she had to admit, his lack of need for a physical weapon slightly irked her. He’d brought several swords, including her own, but they’d always remained sheathed in each of their past conflicts. The bear-like creature roared, looking more angered than injured, before charging at them.
Sylin straightened, launching a series of consecutive blades of light at the creature. It flinched with each contact, but otherwise looked unharmed. Keeping up his barrage of light blades, the creature eventually turned to leave, realizing that it wouldn’t be getting an easy meal. Sylin let out a breath, looking visibly relieved. Without further ado, he sat back onto the log that he occupied prior to the creature’s appearance.
Reaching his hands toward the fire, as though trying to warm himself despite the climate’s warm temperature, he closed his eyes. She’d learned over the past few weeks that he didn’t need to eat often. Most of the time, he either conjured a small ball of light near himself, which he explained functioned to help him generate energy, or he seemed to rely on the fire to do something similar. Besides regular water consumption, he seemed to only need food, in the normal sense, once on a weekly basis. Although, the fight with the creature must have taken more out of him than he let on, given his normal tendency to occupy himself with either food preparation or watching her as she ate.
After a moment, he opened his eyes, and looked down at her. “You’re not going to eat?” He asked, his golden inhuman eyes poring into hers. After confirming with her that their natural appearance didn’t bother her, he simply dropped the illusion on his eyes, claiming that it was more comfortable to him. Nothing else about his appearance changed, as far as she could tell.
Why an illusion over his eyes would bother him more than illusions that hid the length of his hair or the style of his clothes was beyond her. Any inquiries she made on the matter was only met with the responses explaining that illusions required effort or further attempts to tease her. She’d eventually concluded that it was probably comparable to contact lens sensitivity, where the placement within the eye functioned as the source of discomfort.
“I was just giving myself some time to unwind.” She lied, turning away and breaking eye contact. It wasn’t totally a lie, but she wasn’t about to tell him that she hadn’t realized how long she’s been watching him. She reached toward the fire, grabbing the stick holding the bird that was roasting over it. Since expressing her preference against dried foods, he had started to hunt local fauna to add to her diet. Though, he always limited himself to the dried fruits whenever he did actually eat. It was no wonder she didn’t have any recollection of him eating, despite their years of friendship.
He reached into the backpack between them, pulled out the green cube and set it onto the ground beside them. “Just eating meat isn’t enough nutrition, you know.” He said, pushing the cube toward her, and watching her intensely. Though he had a tendency of flustering her whenever he had the chance, despite the many opportunities presented by the privacy of the forest, he never went beyond a hug or cuddle. That is, in addition to the little problem he seemed to have with generally eyeing her or verbally teasing her. Peering up at him, as she ate, she found him smiling. There was a purity in his gaze. One that had been absent over the past few days, since the attacks began. Something had been on his mind then, distracting him. Though he never shared, she could tell that he’d visibly relaxed since the encounter with the bear-creature.
Suddenly, he yanked his attention off her. Tensing, he stared off into the trees. The green crate shrunk down to its collapsed size, behind him, as he reached for his sword, squinting. An unmistakable growl came from beyond what she could see. Sylin’s ball of light appeared, shining brighter than usual above them. They were surrounded.