Chapter 205: Enemy Territory
“How much longer?” Fane hissed, his head constantly darting left and right. His voice was hardly louder than a whisper. None of us dared to be any louder than that.
I held up two fingers, turning my focus back on the tree in front of me. The crest on my back flared as I grit my teeth to keep my powers under control while mana coursed through my arms and into the tree itself.
“My veiling barrier isn’t going to last much longer on such a wide range,” Cole muttered through gritted teeth.
I wiped a bead of sweat running down my cheek. “Done.”
Maeve grabbed my arm and we were already on the move. I turned back one last time to make sure the three-point array I had just finished was in place.
It’s in place. I allowed myself a breath of relief as we began making our way through this forsaken forest.
We traveled at a frustratingly slow pace with Maeve and myself in the front. Only by using my crest did my senses extend to about thirty yards—much too restricted than I was comfortable with. It didn’t help that, because of this mysterious fog that only seemed to exist in this forest, I was the only one that could see past a few feet around us.
“Do you see anyone around us, Circe?” Fane asked for the fifth time.
I whipped my head back and shot him a glare. “I said I’ll tell you if I see anything out of the ordinary.”
He narrowed his eyes, discontent, but didn’t say anything further.
After about an hour of practically crawling through the fog-laden forest, I signaled for everyone to stop. “We need to place another array.”
Everyone got into position. Maeve hopped onto a nearby tree with her hands poised to fire. Cole stuck beside me and enveloped the area in a veil to help mask mana fluctuations while I worked. Fane circled the perimeter with wary eyes as our first line of defense.
After everyone was in place, I continued in our most important—and quite likely our last—mission.
Activating my crest once again, I began setting up the first part of the three-point array. With my control as a mid-tier sentry, it wasn’t hard setting it up. The tricky part was making sure it was all but undetectable until I finally activated it. There could be no trace, no leakage, of mana or the elves lurking around the forest will sense it. If any of the arrays that I had made were discovered, the whole plan was ruined.
Pushing aside the burden weighing down on me, I controlled the mana coalesced in the tip of my fingers as it began seeping into the first tree. A rustle sounded to my left and I jerked.
Were we discovered?
By the time I turned my head in the direction of the sound, Fane was already there. He shook his head, holding up a rodent whose neck had been cleanly broken.
As expected of a veteran emblem holder. The striker’s attitude was foul, but he was a reliable teammate to have.
Turning my focus back on the old tree, I controlled the passage of my instilled mana until it buried itself deep into the core of the tree. After it was in place, I had to cover the tracks and the mana fluctuation at the site of the ‘wound’.
For this moment, my attention had to be concentrated. I wasn’t able to afford to spread my senses around us in case an elf sneaked up on us.
Minutes crawled at the pace of hours as I blinked away the tears trying to get inside my eyes. The mana imprint left by my spell had to be manually obscured with surgical precision so that no one could sense that magic was used in the area.
Done, I mouthed at my teammates before moving onto the next point.
Kneeling down on the ground a few feet away from the tree, I repeated the process until finally I was on the last part on a tree on the other side of the array I had made on the ground.
After this three-point array had been completed, we were once again on the move. Luckily, Cole’s veil barrier didn’t leave any mana fluctuations. Neither did Fane or Maeve’s magic.
Truly a team specialized for this mission, I thought, feeling out of place. Afterall, I was a sentry. I wasn’t built or trained for this.
My only source of comfort was that we weren’t the only team.
Maybe one of the other teams have already succeeded in securing a route, I hoped, knowing how unlikely it was. Out of all the other teams, I knew that we were the most likely to succeed… because of my newly acquired emblem.
Suddenly, an arm shot out, stopping me in my tracks. It was Maeve.
She locked gazes with me and then looked down. Hidden underneath the fog was a small ditch with spikes of wood.
My heart thumped at the close call.
“The spikes weren’t sharpened, it was twisted into this shape,” Maeve informed in a whisper.
“Plant magic,” I breathed. My heart dropped at what this meant.
“We’ll have to find another route,” Fane said from behind, still on the lookout.
“Then we’ll have to stop in a bit for me to scout another route,” I replied, disheartened.
With a solemn nod from Maeve, we continued our hellish march.
My legs throbbed in pain and my sore back made me feel older than my grandma, but I continued on without complaint until the sun was about an hour from setting.
“Merciful Vritra,” I mumbled as we finally settled down for the night on the thick branches of a tree.
Cole passed around strips of salted dried meat and a candied root to each of us.
Tearing smaller pieces from the dried meat, I let it sit in my mouth so my saliva would soften it before I chewed it down. The four of us ate silently, relishing the first small break in two days.
After sucking the sugar off of the candied root, and taking a sip from my flask, I got back to work.
Igniting my hard-earned emblem, I activated True Sense. The unsettling sensation of my consciousness leaving my body felt as if I was undressing amidst a snowstorm, but I endured through it by relishing the breathtaking sight of the forest beneath me.
Like a ghost floating through the sky, unabated, I narrowed my True Sense to lock in on a single element. My head, figuratively speaking since my actual body was sitting comatose below on a tree branch, throbbed terribly.
I’ve read that true mastery of this ability will come when my mind is able to see all four elemental mana particles in the atmosphere. If that’s the case, I still have a long way to go.
Despite the numbing pain, I was soon rewarded as particles of ambient mana lit up green. Hurriedly, I scanned throughout the horizon, desperately searching for large clusters of ambient wind mana that would lead us to the hidden kingdom of the elves.
As I extended my True Sense, the throbbing grew unbearable.
Just a little long—there!
Immediately my non-physical form was sucked back into my body that had been anchored by the powerful emblem. The last twinkle of green flickered out of my vision as I returned to my physical visage with a gasp.
“Were you successful, Circe?” Fane immediately asked, true to his impatience.
My body still felt cold, like I had gotten into a fresh set of sheets, but my lips curled into a smile. “The kingdom is still too far away, but I was able to find a larger area of mana fluctuations about a day’s travel from here.”
“Larger?” Maeve echoed with a twinkle in her eye. “That means it’s a bigger settlement, or maybe even a town.”
Cole let out a sigh. “At least we’re going the right way. Nice to know all of this so far wasn’t for nothing.”
“As expected from a member of the Milview blood. Your skills as a sentry hold true,” Fane complimented as he tore off a piece of his dried meat.
Accepting his rare praise, I continued. “I won’t be able to use my emblem for another day but after I’ve fully recovered, I’ll want to do another scan honing in on water attribute mana.”
“Smart,” Maeve agreed. “From our reports, these elves are adept mostly in either water or wind.”
After finishing our modest meal, we got as comfortable as we could within the branches of the ancient tree deep within enemy territory. Either Cole or I had to be on watch in case something approached but since I had just expended a lot of my mana activating my emblem, Cole and Maeve took first watch.
The weathered shield about the age of my father shot me a smile before erecting a small veiling barrier around us while Fane and I slept.
Despite the cold and hard branch pressed against my back and the fear of falling down—even after tying ourselves to the tree—I soon fell asleep.
I must’ve barely closed my eyes when I was already shaken awake by Maeve.
“It’s been two hours,” she whispered, signaling me to take over before waking up Fane.
There’s no way it’s been two hours already, I groaned internally.
Noticing that I was awake, Cole extinguished his spell before rolling up his cloak and using it as a makeshift pillow to sleep on.
Even with the ever-looming threat of being discovered and killed, I still had to pinch my cheeks to fully wake myself up. Coursing mana into my second crest, the one that I had received after fully comprehending the spell while it was still just a mark, my awareness spread to a forty-yard radius around us. Normally, I’d be able to stretch my sphere of awareness to over a hundred yards no matter what the terrain, but the mysterious magic encompassing this endless forest restricted everyone’s senses.
If our trek during the day seemed to be going slow, the night on watch was endless. I entertained myself by focusing on a nocturnal bird feeding its newborn blood a dozen yard away when I felt bodies enter the scope of my range.
I whipped my head and locked gazes with Fane. Before I even mouthed the word, he seemed to know something was wrong by my expression.
‘How many?’ Fane mouthed.
I held up three fingers and pointed in the direction they were coming from.
With a nod, the two of us quickly shook Maeve and Cole awake, covering their mouths while doing so in case they made a sound.
After being caught up, Cole quickly erected a two-layered barrier that dampened sounds and veiled our presence. After erecting barriers all day and barely getting any sleep, the shield was struggling to maintain his spells but he endured. He had to.
“About a dozen yards away,” I whispered solemnly.
“If we’re lucky, they’ll pass by or go a different way. If they suspect something near us, I’ll take Circe while Maeve and Cole hold them off,” Fane declared.
My eyes widened in panic. “We can all stay and fight. We outnumber them!”
Cole rubbed his stubbled chin. “Even if we stay and fight, we’ll have to do so with magic that’ll leave traces. It’s too risky.”
“Cole is right,” Maeve added. “We’re expendable in this mission. You’re not.”
The gravity of her words shook me but I knew it was true. Out of all the teams trying to create a route to the elven kingdom, I was the only sentry with an emblem powerful enough to navigate effectively in the Elshire Forest. Still, the thought of abandoning my teammates sickened me.
“W-What if we ambush them and take one as a hostage? We can use the elf to—”
“You know what happened to the other team that tried that,” Fane interrupted harshly.
I nodded. The captured elf had killed himself and the team was tracked down by its brethren.
“Luckily, they were close to the southern border of the forest and it didn’t happen long after the initial beast raid, or else they would’ve become suspicious,” Maeve muttered.
The four of us stopped whispering, afraid the elves might hear us even with the two-layered barrier around us.
By the time the footsteps below us were audible to our bare ears, we were holding our breaths. I clamped my mouth shut with my hands, praying that they’d just keep walking.