97. Alone and Back
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Damp air rushed past my face as we flew through the trees, but I paid little mind to it in my panic to stay mounted. My colg galloped as swiftly as an arrow through the undergrowth, even extending its feathery wings to glide small drops and spots of rough terrain. Given that, I found even the reins hard to keep a hold of, and I kept my head bowed against the wind while hoping that my colg could keep us on target.


Though given that it was my first time seeing the true potential of the war beast, I counted myself lucky that I was able to hold a grip at all.


A small yelp broke my lips as the colg took flight yet again to clear some log or trench, and I found myself cursing my decision to learn riding.


How the hell did soldiers ever get used to fighting on something like this? Or even keep in formation! 


And then, after what felt like an hour of riding, the colg suddenly slowed. 


I hesitated for a second, fearing that it would start up again if I opened my eyes. When nothing of the sort happened, however, I raised my head to find a completely unfamiliar forest around me.


I had read many times throughout my life descriptions of the great Forest of Claws, each one more fantastical and erie than the last. And try as I might to dispel such stories with a tour of the actual place, I couldn’t find much evidence that it was anything else.


Twisting trunks, both green grey and brown rose up like curling smoke plumes around me. They were tall and proud, though thin, trees, and after rising from the tangled mess of roots that slithered about the ground they tended to pick a skyward direction and shoot towards it. In their upper boughs, the trees entangled each other for support, combining their higher reaches with the closest others in a mess not much unlike a spider’s web. The various species seemed to all do this, such that the white leaves and the green intermixed in a grand canopy far overhead. 


Little light made it through the web overhead, but from what I could see I could make out a dark layer of stiff grey grasses and stubborn bushes leeching what nutrients they could from the soil. Small patches of muted flowers and bluish mushrooms grew where moonlight made it through the canopy. There was only the sound of a gentle wind in the air, that and the laboured breathing of my colg. It was silent, dark, and damp.


And of course, there was no sight of Auro or her pursuers.


“What’d you stop for?”


The beast snorted in response, obviously not interested in a conversation.


I looked around again as I tried to calm my fast beating heart, but nothing new met my eyes, nor could I hear the once loud cries that had accompanied our chase.


Realistically, I’d been on this mad sprint for almost an hour now, a true testament to the endurance of the colg. But while my colg had tried its best, I could only assume that we’d lost sight and hearing of Auro and the soldiers. Nor could I blame it too much given how I’d had my head buried in its feathers while I held on for dear life.


And now Auro was gone, and I was alone in a forest.


Not only Auro, I had no idea who was still alive at this point. At my most optimistic, only Auro, Breale, and Luis were among those I knew well. Most of the caravan was definitely dead, I’d seen Count Ephren die before my eyes, and Fredrick… 


I shut my eyes and shook my head violently. It was counterintuitive to worry about those I couldn’t save when there was still someone I could. And Fredrick had done a lot to make sure I even had the opportunity. I only had to not waste it.


“But where did she go?” I wondered aloud, silently panicking at the thought of losing my only lead.


The forest hummed silently in response, unwilling to yield up its secrets. 


I scoffed and looked up.


“What do you think, Si…”


I stared blankly at the empty space on my head where my dragon should’ve been.


Ah. I told him to follow Breale, didn’t I? Hopefully he'll be alright…


I frowned.


But without Silst to look around, how could I possibly find them? The forest was huge! I might search for months just in this quarter and not find head nor tail of them, and I had nowhere nearly as much time as that. What if I was too late, and Auro was captured?


Or even more likely, killed?


The knot in my stomach tightened again, and I urged the colg forward again despite its protests. I had to trust my colg that it’d kept us true as long as it had, otherwise I had no hope of finding them. I scanned my eyes over the undergrowth as we went, hoping for any sign that I could follow.


Come on, come on… they had to leave some trace, right? I couldn’t imagine four colgs barreling through these bushes couldn’t pass so cleanly. There would definitely be signs of…


I froze as I found what I was looking for: a collection of trampled bushes and stamped grass. Without another thought I pulled the reins on, and the colg chirped happily as it pushed itself deeper into the forest.

Auro rolled against the rock face and went still, crying out at the burst of pain. 


It was an extraordinary, unbelievable pain to her, of a level she hadn’t ever faced before now. With every movement, her arm lit up with spikes of a feeling similar to how she imagined being flayed alive felt. Still, it was better than how it had felt on the colg riding and leaping through the forest. That had been so bad she couldn’t even remember the flight from the caravan, or how long it had been since then. Only the pain and the fear remained.


“It’s a real shame to kill one so young…” A first soldier said.


Two of her three pursuers stood only a few metres away with weapons drawn, and Auro could hear their quiet whispers as they discussed what to do with her. Her colg laid dead just a little bit behind them, pierced by arrows and smouldering with spellwork. It had fought valiantly after it’d been driven into this gully, but a simple colg was no match for three thaumaturges. The third had left to report back soon after it was obvious she was trapped, but Auro couldn’t imagine she could fight off even one, let alone two.


“We could always just let her go.” The first continued. “I don’t quite fancy the thought of having a girl like her in my conscience.”


The more grizzled soldier shook his head. He wore a shattered mask on a strap around his neck.


“You knew the terms when you accepted.”


Auro gasped out a few quick breaths as she sat back up. Her coat was soaked red on her right flank, and she felt sick at the sight of it.


Isn’t… Isn’t this too much blood? She wondered. 


Auro had never cared much for the medicinal sciences or restoration magicks, a fact she dearly regretted now. Still, it seemed to her that there was entirely too much of her outside where it should be. She felt lightheaded and sluggish, and silently she said a prayer to the White Star as she tried to calm her breathing.


Just when I was getting close, too! Auro thought. 


“She’s almost a kid, Captain.” The second man argued. “Surely they won’t know if we just leave?”


“She’s a rebel noble.” The captain replied instantly. “Leaving her here would be far from a mercy.”


“That’s true enough…” The first man said.


Auro weakly fumbled through her coat pockets with her left hand, looking for a familiar length of wood she’d hidden inside. Scenarios trickled through her mind as she imagined what she might even be able to do with it.


“We could drop her off at a village. It’s been too long since the battle ended; I’d get nothing but nightmares for this.”


“That would defeat the entire purpose of this.” The captain said. “Imagine how it would look if she made it to Ithin Sele after this.”


Her hands closed around a simple length of palewood not even half the length of a typical combat wand. A faint heat emanated from it, the remainder of the mana she’d infused into it upon receiving it a few weeks ago. If she were to pull it out, it would look the same as a small flute, and only a careful eye would notice that it wasn’t actually hollow. Auro knew that many nobles in the south had a similar object upon their person, though it was a rarity to ever see one pull it out. 


Which was understandable, for the possession of such an object was tantamount to treason itself.


The second man scratched the back of his neck, as if he were merely arguing about which meat they should have for dinner.


“All these plots and schemes… I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it.”


The captain nodded wearily and together they turned back to Auro. They lowered their spear staves, their eyes set. 


Auro began to pull the wand from her pocket.


Just then, a minor miracle fluttered down from the canopy in the form of a small bird. Its wings were translucent and blue, its eyes small pebbles of black like those in the stories of old. A sharp chirp broke from its beak as it flew in circles about them.


And it was made entirely of ice.


The three of them started at its coming, freezing to match their new visitor. The soldiers quailed, each taking a step back, but Auro just stared at it wide-eyed. To her, it was as if the Evenstar itself had just descended onto Elys.


“A demon?” The first soldier asked, a tone of fear in his voice. “Now?”


“It’s but a trick.” The captain said. “An illusion.”


The first soldier didn’t look so convinced, and he drew his spear away from Auro.


“It’s come to defend her! We’d be bringing the forest’s wrath down on us now!”


The captain paused for only a moment before he shook his head.


“Nonsense. Let’s finish this.” 


The bird landed on Auro’s chest and chirped cheerfully at her face. She could see now that there was nothing inside the body of the thing either, and she wondered how it lived without any organs.


Auro opened and closed her fingers over the wand as the soldiers kept arguing, wondering if she might bleed out before they finished. Then, finally, the captain broke from the other and repointed his spear towards her.


“I’ll do it myself then!” He called. “Miti-


Auro watched as he opened his mouth to cast, only for it to die in his throat with an accompanying ‘thunk’. His eyes went wide, and he looked down at the sudden spear of ice protruding from his throat.


“The he-” The other soldier began.


Before the captain had even hit the ground, Auro’s wand flew out of her pocket towards the second soldier, and a blast of orange flame leapt from its tip. The blast bloomed against his shield like smoke on glass,  and a second later the sound of shattering glass met Auro’s ears.


The second soldier stumbled forward through the smoke, a thin shard of ice buried in his back. He fell to the ground just a few metres away from her, convulsing and gurgling every few seconds.


Auro found herself staring blankly at the growing pools of blood around their bodies, the scene etching itself into her memory.


Wasn’t this too much…




Auro looked up in horror at her name, only to see a shining angel atop a colg galloping out of the treeline. A glass-like crown sat on the back of her head, and her cloak fluttered in the wind. In her right hand, she waved a spear in greeting, it’s head glowing blue.


Auro took one more look at the encroaching figure and at the bodies before slumping over backwards, exhausted.

“So we have one colg, no allies, and only the barest knowledge of where the hell we are.” I said. “Great.”


Auro, the surviving colg, and myself huddled around a campfire underneath the roots of some huge tree. The soldier’s beasts had run away with the deaths of their owners, and so we’d been forced to both ride mine while we looked for a more secretive location to hold up for the rest of the night. Auro had only just recently woken up, and she still gripped her bandaged arm with a pained look.


Thankfully, the wound had looked worse than it really was. The only fear from that now would be infection.


Given the cold temperatures, the fire was an unfortunate necessity for Auro, especially given her condition. Thankfully, I’d noticed that the whiter leaves seemed to burn with much less smoke, but it still set my nerves on edge to see the light flicker and crack in the dim silence of the forest.


I stared into the fire, wondering how we were supposed to get out of a situation like this.


Best possible scenario: Fredrick and the rest of the caravan had survived the assault and met back up with Luis and Breale. In that case it would just be a simple matter of going back to the road and meeting back up. Us on a colg would still be faster than the caravan, so even if they decided to just book it straight to Ithin Sele we’d probably still be able to catch up with them. In that case we’d then decide together whether we wanted to continue with the mission without our chief diplomat or head back.


The problem with that, however, was that I was nowhere near optimistic enough to believe in it.


In the worst case scenario, Fredrick and the last defenders were killed, Breale and Silst were lost, and Luis and his wagon had been intercepted en-route to Ithin Sele. If that was true then taking the road was more akin to suicide than anything else and it would be better to forge our own path onwards. It might even come out that Fangpeak had secretly ordered the ambush itself, and so going onwards to its capital might just be throwing ourselves into some dungeon.


I leaned back against the tree root. If Silst was here he’d probably suggest continuing on to Fangpeak’s capital as the safest option, but I couldn’t help but worry. Going back to Minua was the way to go if we wanted to avoid detection by royalists, after all.


“But we can’t really just go back to Minua either.” I muttered. 


Auro stirred at that and peeked over at me.


“Why’s that?”


“Because of you, of course.” I said immediately. “We can’t very well just take on a huge journey back with your arm like that.”


Nor did we have the rations, the blankets for Auro, or, hell, knowledge of where the path even was. 


Auro cringed.


“Ah, sorry…”


“Eh, it's not really your fault!” I said quickly. “We can’t just leave Luis and the Maverick’s either! Or Silst!”


Auro did have a lot to do with it, really, but that probably wasn’t the most tactful thing to say now that I thought about it. It wouldn’t do to be travelling with someone who was both injured and felt guilty. I could already see that leading to her taking off on her own in the middle of the night or something equally foolish.


And really… I almost felt kind of glad she had pulled me away from the caravan. I’d faced death quite a few times by now, but even if I acted calm in the moment the thought of falling with the rest of them in the caravan shook me. Was it cowardice to be glad I had a reason to leave them? Was it possible that I could’ve saved them if I had stayed?


I shook my head again to clear it. There was no point in thinking about things like that. For all I know they won that skirmish, in any case. Right now was the time to be strong for Auro’s benefit.


“Do… Do you think they made it then?”


Auro stared at me with a mixture of hope and fear, and I found myself nodding despite myself.


“Of course I do.” I lied. “The only thing I’ve seen beat Fredrick was a Phoenix Knight, and none of those guys looked anything like that.”


Well, there was the demon in Minua as well, but it’d look bad if I started listing off everything now.


Auro nodded to herself, as if that outcome really was as obvious as I said it was.


“So that means we just have to make it to Ithin Sele to meet up with them.” I continued. “We’ll make them worry if we’re the last ones to arrive!”


The colg chirped in agreement, and I gave it a pat on its beak in thanks.


“But how will we do that?”


Ah, the hard question. I hated those.


“Well, I suppose we’ll just have to find the road again.” I said slowly. “Retrace our steps and gallop back before our supplies run out!”


With the supplies on my colg and the ones we got from Auro’s old saddlebags, we probably had enough for under a week, maybe two if we wanted to suffer a little. Assuming that we could forage at least something on the way, we might have enough to make it to Ithin Sele still standing.


“And if they’re on the roads?” Auro asked.


“We’ll just join up with them I guess.”


“Not our people. The King’s men.” 


“I mean…”


“I… I appreciate it, Saphry, but… but you don’t have to coddle me.” Auro said quietly. “I’m not that afraid.”


We matched eyes, and I could see that she wasn’t tricked by my attitude. I sighed.


“I’m not sure, to be honest.” I said after a moment. “Taking the road is risky as hell, but we’re just as likely to get lost if we abandon it. Neither of us have been around here, after all.”


“...I’ll pray extra hard tonight…”


I chuckled and returned my gaze to the fire.


If I was by myself, I knew I wouldn’t feel any restraint from just sprinting off through the forest towards Ithin Sele to complete our mission. I could be stealthy when I wanted to, after all. But with an injured Auro? It got much harder.


“Hey Saphry…” Auro began.




“Why don’t we just go through that town? The ruined one those villagers talked about?”


I thought back to the village and the town they’d told us about. I’d been able to convince Ephren to take us close to it so we weren’t far, but I couldn’t quite see why it’d be a better option than the roads.


“It’s infested with spirits, isn’t it?” Auro explained once I voiced my misgivings. “I’m… I’m not too afraid of such stories to baulk at walking there, but it might scare the soldiers away, right?”


Given the wavering in her voice, I figured she was a bit more afraid of it than she let on. 


Still… they said there was a Lmenli hidden somewhere under that town, right? If so, wouldn’t it just be the perfect opportunity to knock out two birds with one stone? I could look for skysteel while avoiding the road at the same time! Silst might even be impressed with such a plan.


“The only problem with that is that we don’t know where that is.” I said after thinking it over. “So unless you-”


“I know which way it is.” Auro said instantly.


I raised my eyebrows.


“You do?”


“I mean it’s at the base of Mount Narnil, isn’t it?” Auro pointed to a peak just barely visible through the canopy above. “And Luis told me that’s it right there.”


I studied the mountain for a moment before smiling.


“Then Ithin Narnil it is.”