When she woke up the next morning, Erin’s mood had thankfully gotten a bit better. She still felt terrible about her mistake from yesterday, but she was determined to make up for it. The worst thing she could do right now was to sink in despair and become even more useless than she already was.
Becker, similarly, seemed to have calmed down a bit. It was hard to tell, as the man was not the most expressive person there was, but he didn’t seem to be angry anymore, at the very least.
Once they’d packed their camping gear, Becker and Erin made their way towards their final destination, the Inner Ring. They weren’t very far away from it, but had still set their camp a considerable distance away, afraid of what creatures might lurk there.
When they were minutes away from entering the Inner Ring, Becker finally broke the silence. “Once we’re inside, don’t make any noise. No lights, either. Once we’re in the right spot, I’ll set my instruments up, and you’ll keep a concealment field around us. It should only take about an hour for me to get everything I need. Once we’re done, we’re leaving. Is that clear ?”
Erin nodded at that, but stayed quiet. They’d already gone several times over the plan in the past few days, but the professor probably just wanted to make sure she remembered. He probably didn’t trust her as much anymore because of the Typhon incident. No point to make a fuss over something so trivial, she thought. The only thing it would achieve would be to make Becker doubt her even more.
Just like when they’d made the transition between the Outskirts and the Outer Ring, the atmosphere of the forest shifted drastically the moment they neared the Inner Ring. Whereas the forest had been quiet before, it was almost completely silent now. Similarly, they couldn’t see further than a few meters ahead, as everything else was engulfed by darkness, with thick fog swirling at the edge of the obscurity. If Erin hadn’t known better, she would have thought it was still nighttime. Actually, she didn’t even want to imagine being inside this part of the forest at night. The thought was enough to send a shiver down her spine.
Erin found that the near complete silence was what got to her the most. It felt as if the forest was observing her, ready to pounce when she expected it the least. She knew it was just nerves, but she still couldn’t wait to get out of here and go back home, outside of the darkness.
After only half an hour, Becker abruptly stopped, before shrugging his backpack off and throwing a meaningful glance at Erin. Not needing any more instructions, Erin called forth her magic, feeling it awaken inside her, before skillfully weaving it into a spell. Once she was satisfied, she released her magic, feeling the energy settling in a circle around them.
That spell might not have looked very powerful, yet it actually was very useful. An imperceptible dome of magic now surrounded Erin and Becker, and it would make it harder for creatures to spot them. That part of the forest may have been inhabited by fewer creatures, but that was only because those that could survive there were extremely dangerous. The Typhon they’d met yesterday wouldn’t have lasted a minute inside the Inner Ring.
Erin didn’t really know how these creatures could live in this environment without making any sound or seeing further away than a few meters. but she really didn’t want to find out. If any monster spotted them, they wouldn’t be able to run away, let alone to fight back.
Fortunately, no monster seemed to be close to them, and an hour later Becker was ready to pack everything and leave. As Erin was helping him, she decided the dome of magic would be a good opportunity to ask him about his findings.
“Did you get what you needed ?” She asked hesitantly. She knew the odds of her getting anything significant out of Becker were low, but she thought she’d still give it a try. He’d been unusually talkative over the past few days, after all.
“Yes and no,” he answered. “I’ll need to look over everything, but it’s clear that something is happening inside of the forest. I’ve chosen this spot because we’re sitting right over a ley line, but it is acting up, which makes it hard to measure anything precisely. The magic flowing through it is erratic, and the output is much higher than it should be.”
Ley lines, Erin knew, were conduits of magic that ran underneath the ground. She didn’t know much more than that, but it didn’t take a lot of reflection to understand that them acting up was bad news.
Becker sighed, before taking his glasses off and rubbing his face. “I’ll be honest with you, I am completely lost. I can tell something is happening, but I have no way to tell what. All I can say is that the flow of magic gets more and more abnormal the closer we go to the center of the forest. If it gets bad enough, the monsters that inhabit it might flee, which, I don’t think I have to point out, would be a catastrophe. We may just have to plan a trip to the Core.”
“Didn’t you say you’ve never been there before ?” Asked Erin, now very anxious.
“Yes, because it was too dangerous before. Ironically enough, because every living creature that resides in the forest seems to be fleeing its center, it might soon become safe enough for us to wander in.” He answered, putting his glasses back on and resuming packing.
“But you can’t be certain about that,” Erin pointed out.
“No I can’t but what choice do we have ?” He asked wearily. “Do you remember our past trips into the Inner Ring ? Yes, it was utterly silent, but something would break the silence every now and then. Today ? Absolutely nothing, almost as if nothing was there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d all fled, or If they’d somehow all killed each other in their panic.”
With a start, Erin realized the professor was right. They had heard the occasional noise the past previous expeditions, but not today. She’d been so tense the whole time she hadn’t even noticed.
“Ok, but then what are we supposed to do once we get there ? We don’t even know what we’re looking for !”
“And we won’t know until we go there.” Becker said with finality, ending the conversation.
Frustrated, Erin resumed packing in silence. Becker’s reasoning made some amount of sense, but it still seemed like his plan relied on a lot of assumptions. She didn’t have anything better to suggest, and thus decided to keep quiet. She’d have to think about all of this, maybe Sarah could help her sort her thoughts.
With everything packed, Becker and Erin carefully made their way back. Fortunately for them, nothing went wrong this time around, and they could see the border of the forest by the evening.
- - -
Once she’d dropped Becker off, Erin had steadily become more and more nervous. She hadn’t dared turn her phone back on, fearing the onslaught of messages she knew her parents must have sent her. Still, she couldn’t stay outside forever, and thus began the process of changing back.
Turning back into Ryan felt strange this time around. Whereas the first few times he’d become Erin had been disorienting and uncomfortable, it was now his male body that felt as if it didn’t fit correctly. His limbs felt too long, his chest too wide, his hair too short. It was probably because he’d never spent so much time as Erin, he thought. Although, that didn’t explain the pang of sadness he’d felt right after the transformation. Whatever, now wasn’t the time to think about that.
Not wanting to delay any further, Ryan unlocked the door, and made his way inside.
His parents were sitting down in the living room next to each other on the couch. The scene was all too familiar to the teenager, yet it also held a tinge of unfamiliarity. The television was off, for one thing, and their gaze didn’t hold the same disapproval they usually did, but actual anger instead.
“Where were you, Ryan ?” His father asked, almost growling.
“I told you, I was sleeping at a friend’s” He replied, doing his best to keep his annoyance out of his voice. He’d had a long weekend, and wanted nothing more than to be alone in his room, to rest. It had barely been minutes, but he already wanted to dispel his transformation and turn back into Erin. This body felt fake, like he was wearing a costume that didn’t fit.
“We never said that you could. And why didn’t you answer your phone, Ryan ?” His mother demanded, her voice cold, while his father kept glaring at him.
“I turned it off, I didn’t think it would be such a big deal.” Ryan was certain he’d let some irritation appear in his voice, but his patience was already wearing thin.
“This is unacceptable ! You’re grounded for the next month. The only reason you’ll be leaving the house is school. Is that clear, Ryan ?”
At that moment, Ryan couldn’t take any more. It had all been too much. The way Becker had talked to him during their expedition combined to the exhaustion he was feeling and the sensation of being in a body that wasn’t his made him lose his composure.
“Or what?” He asked, seething. “What are you going to do if I disobey? Are you going to take my phone? Here, you can have it” He said, before angrily pulling his phone out of his jean pocket and tossing it on the couch, ignoring his parents’ shocked expressions. “What else can you take away from me? My computer ? Go ahead, it’s in my room.
We never talk, never eat together, never do anything. My grades are more than excellent, I always look after myself, but I’m apparently not allowed to come back home late? I’m your so- your child, but you don’t even know anything about me.
I don’t have hobbies, there’s nothing you can do to punish me short of kicking me out, and even then the law won’t let you. I’ll keep going out whenever I want.”
His rant barely finished, Ryan stomped towards his room, knowing that if he stayed any longer he might say something he’d come to regret
His father abruptly stood up, his face beet red. “Come back here, Ryan ! We-“
“Shut up !” He screamed before running to his room and slamming the door shut. Locking himself inside, Ryan released his transformation spell, leaving Erin in his stead.
Exhausted, the teenager heavily sat down on her bed. She couldn’t hear her parents screaming, which meant she’d probably shocked them into silence. To be honest, she’d managed to shock herself. She never screamed, what had just happened ?
Slowly, as she calmed down, Erin found that her anger was tempered by regret. She shouldn’t have screamed, and she had only managed to further complicate her situation.
Seeing as it was almost 11 in the evening, Erin decided the best she could do for now was to rest. She had school tomorrow after all, and it’s not like she was going to leave her room after what had just happened. Plus, she wanted to be alone for now.
Soon enough she was asleep, her worries forgotten for a few hours.
I made a Patreon! It's still kind of empty, but I want to see if some people are interested in pledging before I develop it too much. I'd love to create a small Discord server and release chapters early there if that happens though. I've set up goals if you want to go check them out.
Teenagers, amirite ? Also, I'm very glad we're out of the forest. That passage was very difficult for me to write, and I think it could have been better. Still, expect Sarah next chapter <3