12. (Un)successful Growth
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As predicted, most of the trip consisted of a long and boring walk, Becker and Erin silently trekking through the vegetation alongside each other, their gazes idly scanning their surroundings. The forest almost seemed peaceful, the trees swaying in a light breeze, their leaves starting to turn yellow and orange, some of the already falling off their trees, and the birds chirping from all around them. Fortunately, the first hours spent walking were relatively peaceful, as the Outskirts weren’t inhabited by that many monsters. Luckily for them, Erin and the professor didn’t cross any creature at all during that time, which allowed them to make good progress early on, despite the heavy weight of all their equipment jostling around in their backpacks. Erin’s new spell was definitely coming in handy, allowing her to increase her endurance in exchange for a minimal drain of her magical reserves. She was pretty confident she could keep it up for several hours at a time without even feeling the strain.

Early on during the trip, Erin took the time to shoot her parents a text message, explaining that she would be staying the next 2 days at a friend’s place, before turning her phone off. She knew the odds of them allowing her to be gone for the whole weekend would have been slim, and she had thus elected to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Unfortunately, that also meant she’d have to deal with the consequences, come Sunday evening.

After about an hour spent silently walking, Erin finally decided she should start questioning Becker. Once they made it deeper into the forest, they would have to be on guard, and thus may not have good opportunities to talk. Plus, if she waited any longer, Becker might also realize she didn’t plan on leaving him alone, as she would be too deep in the forest to do so.

Taking a quiet breath, Erin considered her situation. She needed to figure out if Becker knew anything about the nature of Sarah’s abilities, but she didn’t want Becker to know about her friend. Consequently, her best bet was to simply lie to him, and she and Sarah had spent a considerable amount of time thinking of an approach, before settling on a relatively simple story, which, while not perfect, would hopefully be enough to satisfy the professor.

“Becker,” She started, trying to sound as assertive as she could. “Do you know if there are people who can see magic ? Like, they’d be able to tell what a magical artifact is capable of just by looking at it ?”

Becker stayed silent, not acknowledging Erin’s question in any way. After half a minute, Erin wondered whether she’d have to remind him of her threat of abandoning him in the forest, before he finally spoke up.

“Your admittedly unclear description vaguely reminds me of a Seer, though I have never met one.” He simply stated. “Why ? Did anyone react oddly to your bracelet ?” He asked, turning his head to look at Erin with a raised eyebrow.

“I don’t think so,” She lied “I’m pretty sure I’m just getting a bit paranoid, but I want to be certain. It feels like everyone is constantly looking at me, so I want to know if people can tell it is magical, so I can prepare in consequence. I might be stuck with it for a while, after all.”

“I see,” he answered. “As I said, a Seer would be able to look at your bracelet and tell that it is magical, as anyone capable of magic could, like you and I. The difference is that Seers are much better when it comes to discerning magic. An experienced one can just glance at an artifact and gain a complex understanding of it. Likewise, if you were to cast a spell in front of them, they would very quickly know what you were trying to do. Fortunately, from what I have read, they are just as rare, if not more, than magic users.”

“Is there a way to spot one ?” Asked Erin.

“Not that I know of.” Answered Becker tersely. It seemed he didn’t want to keep the conversation going. Erin considered pushing for more, but decided against trying her luck. She was already surprised she’d gotten as much out of him with so little difficulty. He must have really needed her help, she thought.

Erin now had a lot to think about. Could Sarah be a Seer, and if she was, could they figure out a way to improve her abilities, get her more familiar with her skills ? She didn’t know, and figured she’d have to do some more research, as well as some tests. She decided to ponder all of this in silence while following Becker, who had slightly increased his pace.

A little bit after noon, they reached the end of the Outskirts, and made their way inside the Outer Ring. As such, their vigilance redoubled, as they knew this part of the forest to be more dangerous. The Outer Ring was also the largest part of the forest, and it thus would take them longer to go through. More importantly, it was very common to cross creatures there, and they might not stick to their territories as much as they used to, because of the energy wave that had rattled the entire forest a few days earlier.

Every time she’d set foot in the Outer Ring, Erin had been surprised to see how drastically the environment changed. Gone was the peaceful aura of the forest. The trees here grew closer, taller, and the canopy was much thicker, leaving the forest basking in an eternal shade. It wasn’t so bad as to require an additional source of light, but it definitely gave a gloomy atmosphere to their surroundings.

While the forest wasn’t completely silent, it was still eerily calm. They couldn’t hear the birds chirping anymore, but would sometimes hear creatures from further away, beyond their line of sight. The rest of the time, the only sound around them was due to the wind, the leaves rustling and the tree trunks creaking.

All in all, the Outer Ring was a strange cross between normal and mysterious. While most of their surroundings was just what one might expect of deep woods, there was still enough strangeness to put anyone on edge, and make them unconsciously realize everything wasn’t quite as it should have been.

Luckily for Becker and Erin, they were left alone for the most part. Becker had done a good job when planning their route, picking one that steered clear of any of the more dangerous creatures that inhabited these parts of the forest. They had to adapt their route a few times, when they could hear a creature coming their way, but everything went mostly well. Unfortunately, after a few hours of walking, their situation took a turn for the worse.

“Typhon.” Erin simply stated, abruptly stopping before looking to her left, her posture tense.

Nothing more needed to be said, as Becker knew exactly what she’d meant by that one word. Barely perceptible in the dark – the sun was starting to set, the shadows around them had gotten deeper – a creature was lurking. It wasn’t close enough to be completely visible yet, but Erin didn’t need to see it in its entirety to know what it was. The dull green of its scales as well as the deep rumbling it produced was enough.

Typhons were very rare creatures, and Erin was thankful she’d crossed path with one only once before. That is, until now. She could hardly remember what it had looked like, a sort of dragon crossed with a snake, slithering on an immense tail that ended in a point, sporting multiple sets of wings across its body, and arms that ended in mismatched maws. The most terrifying part had been when the creature had turned around. They had stared each other in the eyes, and Erin would never forget its hellish face, a lifeless visage that barely conveyed any emotion, and yet contained so much rage. She’d never been so terrified before.

It had been one of the first big monsters she’d seen up close, when Becker had first dragged her into the forest. She’d been barely 14 at the time, with almost no magical knowledge, and she had made the mistake of attracting the creature’s attention, even though Becker had explicitly told her to stay quiet. She had been so terrified of its appearance and closeness she’d screamed. That was one of the rare few times she’d seen the professor get truly angry. Once they’d finally gotten out of danger, after running for what felt like hours, he’d screamed and screamed at her, without relenting, until she’d burst into tears. It had been too much for her, the combination of the fear of the creature and Becker’s anger had scarred her to her core.

Seeing a Typhon again brought forth a torrent of memories and thoughts in Erin’s mind, and she quickly started to lose her composure. Her eyes were wide open, her breathing erratic, and she took a few unsteady steps back. She knew she had to be silent, she could remember Becker telling her Typhons had bad eyesight when she was 14, but she couldn’t control herself.

Fear swiftly made place for panic, and Erin started readying whichever first combat spell she could think of. Rationally, she knew it would be useless, taking down such a creature without thorough preparations was almost impossible, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to kill it, to get it away, to do something, anything !

Suddenly, the world started getting blurry. Her thoughts became jumbled, and she dimly felt all the magic she’d weaved into her spell dissipate. A few instants later, she was out cold.

-

When Erin came to, the first thing she saw was darkness. Sitting up, she quickly figured out she’d been gazing at the sky, the sun now gone, and the canopy lost in the dark. She’d been lying down inside her sleeping bag, a small light nearby barely illuminating her surroundings. Further away, Becker was sitting, and was now glaring at her.

“You panicked,” he said, his tone barely concealing his anger. “Again.”

Erin remained silent, ashamed of herself.

“I’ve brough you with me because I believed you would be an asset, that you could make yourself useful,” he continued. “Instead, you almost got us killed by a Typhon, again.

That last word had been filled with disdain, and Erin flinched averting her gaze. She didn’t know what to say.

“I had to carry you and your equipment for an hour, after I knocked you out, and now my reserves are almost depleted. We were in absolutely no danger, the Typhon was too far away to see us, and you almost went and attacked it !”

Becker took a deep breath, before continuing. “You’re lucky we weren’t far from our camping point. If we’d met the Typhon an hour earlier, I couldn’t have carried both you and the equipment all the way. I would have left you there, to get killed by your stupidity,” he spat.

“Tomorrow, we’ll reach the Inner Ring. I’ll do all the tests I need, and then we’ll leave. All I’ll need you to do is stand guard, and keep us hidden from the creatures around. Do not disappoint me again, Ryan.”

With that said, Becker laid his own sleeping bag on the ground, before cutting off the light, bathing both of them in the dark.

Erin felt beyond terrible. She could feel the tears rolling down her eyes, the feeling of shame was almost overwhelming, twisting her insides. After a few minutes, she laid backdown, sobbing quietly. She didn’t want Becker to hear her, lest he get angry again.

She’d been able to stand up for herself, get precious information from Becker, and even overcome nearly all the problems her bracelet had caused her, but it had all been for nothing.

In the end, no matter what she did, she would always be a failure.

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This chapter was really difficult to write, for some reason, and I feel like it isn't as good as it should be. Still, it might just be me, so I hope you'll like it !
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