Chapter 158: Covert
Nico, Cecilia, and I remained silent, staring at the words printed on the fabric-like sheet of paper in our hands as we sat around the shoddy patio table.
“W-We got in,” I muttered, not taking my eyes off of my acceptance letter. “I can’t believe we got in.”
“Speak for yourself. The only one Cecilia and I were worried about was you, Grey,” Nico chortled, but even he couldn’t hide his excitement as his lips spread into a wide grin.
“I can’t believe it either,” Cecilia whispered, her voice trembling.
“Woah! Are you crying, Cecilia?”
“N-No. I just have something in my eye—that’s all.”
I finally pried my eyes from the acceptance letter in my hand to see Cecilia hurriedly wiping her eyes with the ends of her sleeves, her usual creamy cheeks flushed bright red.
“Congratulations, you three,” Headmaster Wilbeck’s clear voice sounded from the entrance to the backyard.
“Headmaster!” Nico exclaimed, proudly holding up his letter for her to see like a trophy.
“I’ll need to find some spare frames to hang those letters up,” she smiled as she walked toward us, giving each one of us a hug.
Looking at the gentle smile on her face, a pang of guilt struck my chest. She was the woman who raised me like a son since I could remember, yet I was selfishly going away to a distant city. “Headmaster… are you sure it’s okay for us to go? I can stay and help out at the orphanage! It’s no big deal. I’m no good at studying anyway like Nico and Cecilia; plus, it’s expensive and you’re getting old so—ouch!” I yelped, rubbing my stinging forehead.
“I’ll take you to the academy if I have to drag you in your underwear myself,” she scolded, her finger curled up, ready to flick me again. “All these years of raising a troublemaker like you has paid off and you want to what—stay here? Not on my watch.”
“<em>Nico</em> is the troublemaker. I just get dragged along!” I protested, raising my hands to protect my forehead from the assault.
“Then I guess Mr. Sever deserves one of these as well,” the headmaster declared, flicking my best friend’s forehead with the speed and accuracy of a trained soldier.
“Ow! Grey! What gives!” Nico cried, vigorously rubbing his forehead in pain.
I smirked victoriously, when I heard a soft giggle beside me. Nico and I both snapped our heads to see Cecilia smiling for the first time.
The two of us stared, wide-eyed and jaws agape, while even the headmaster was surprised.
“Did she finally break?” Nico whispered, leaning close to my ears.
I stabbed my friend in his side with my elbow, my eyes strangely glued to the sight of Cecilia laughing. My chest tightened and I felt my face getting hot, but it was only when Cecilia realized that we were all staring that I realized I was blushing, just like she was.
I quickly turned around and stood up to avoid her gaze, stretching for no reason other than to draw attention away from my face.
Headmaster Wilbeck must’ve seen through me because she gave me that devious grin that made her look ten years younger.
“I’d better head back inside, kids. School doesn’t start for a few weeks but make a list of things you’ll need so that you won’t forget anything when one of the volunteers takes you all to town.” The headmaster made her way back to the sliding door she’d come from, turning around once more before stepping inside. “And congratulations again, you three.”
<em>‘We’re drawing near the border,’</em> Sylvie’s voice rang in my head, pulling me out of my slumber. The white clouds, still blurry from my unaccustomed eyes, slowly came back into focus as I blinked. I peered down below and noticed that we’d just passed the Sehz Canal that flowed through Carn and Maybur City and into the western coast.
<em>How are you feeling?</em> I asked, stretching my sore neck and back as my legs dangled off the side of the base of my bond’s neck.
<em>‘I should ask you the same. I admit using my powers drained me more than I had expected but you definitely overexerted yourself,’</em> Sylvie chided, extending her large wings to slow our descent.
I let out a sigh that got swept away by the rushing wind. <em>I know. It seems I have a ways to go if I want to actually go head to head with a scythe.</em>
<em>‘We’re both young; time is a luxury that we are fortunate to have. We just need to remain careful and not doing anything rash… like trying to go </em>against<em> a retainer alone.’</em>
<em>I promise not to let that happen again, and besides, you saved the day there at the end,</em> I comforted, patting her scaled neck.
My bond didn’t reply, instead responding with a wave of frustration and helplessness that I could only chuckle at.
We landed on the unsettled land just above the border leading into the Kingdom of Darv. The once damp soil of the forest turned dry and hard with cracks lining every inch. The trade route that the dwarves and humans used to exchange goods was near the eastern corner of Darv, by the Grand Mountains, so there were no visible roads this far out toward the coast.
“It’s still cold,” I grumbled as my cloak billowed in the wind.
<em>‘You should grow scales like me,’</em> Sylvie joked as she lowered her body to let me down.
“I’m just glad I’m still able to muster up enough mana to keep from freezing.” I slowly raised my leg and brought it around my bond’s neck, but as soon as my legs touched the ground a sharp pain coursing up my entire lower body sent me crumbling to the ground.
<em>‘The injuries in your legs aren’t getting better.’</em> Sylvie’s voice was wrapped in concern and guilt, as if she was the one responsible for the pain. <em>‘Maybe it’d be best if you keep riding me.’</em>
“No,” I gasped, willing more mana into my legs as a temporary solution. “If my suspicions are correct, we’re going to need to lay low, and we’ve already taken the risk of being exposed by riding this far down.”
<em>‘Very well.’</em> Sylvie’s large body began glowing as she shifted back into her fox-like form. Rather than ride on top of me like usual, she trotted beside me.
“Looks like Lady Myre’s prediction was right,” I said, taking careful steps. “Even after being healed with the vivum aether art, my lower body feels like it did when I was a newborn.”
<em>‘Grandmother’s control and knowledge of aether in the </em>vivum<em> path is much greater than mine. Maybe if she was here…’</em> Another wave of guilt washed over me from my bond as her pointed ears drooped.
<em>Stop with the sulking,</em> I chided, picking up the pace as we ventured into the dwarven territory. <em>Your grandmother’s warning was rather vague but I think with some rest and the help of my assimilated body, I should be fine.</em>
I tried to hide how unconfident I was with my own words but it was obvious that my emotions had leaked onto her. Because of how intensive the explosions of mana were on each of my muscles, I should be thankful that I’m even able to walk, but I couldn’t help but be frustrated at how weak my body was. Using Burst Step twice had left me with shattered bones and shredded muscles almost irreparable if it wasn’t for Sylvie. I winced at the mere thought of my mother’s expression if she were to see the state I was in… would she or any emitter have been able to heal me?
Swallowing down the dispiriting thoughts, I surveyed the area. Ahead of me was a vast expanse of varying shades of brown and yellow. The few plantlife scattered around consisted of either broken branches and shrubs carried by the wind from the forest or weeds sprouting out from between the cracks on the ground. I noted the large boulders spread about in case we needed to hide or take cover from the harsh winds, but so far, there were no signs of activity.
The jagged plains dipped and rose to form ravines. From the books that I’d read and what Elijah had told me, many of the gullies and ravines strewn all across the Kingdom of Darv had hidden entrances into the underground cities where the dwarves actually lived.
I let out a deep breath. “Let’s get started.”
Reaching into the depths of my mana core to where Sylvia’s beast will resided, I activated Realmheart once more.
As the familiar sensation washed over me once more, my body immediately protested. I quickly lurched over to the side and retched out the remains of whatever partially-digested food I had in my stomach and when that was all gone, I spewed a dark bile.
My chest heaved and the world span around me but, fortunately, I was still able to maintain Realmheart which was a crucial for this task.
<em>‘Maybe we should come back next time. With my lineage, I’m almost positive that I’ll inherit Realmheart once my powers fully develop. We can come back then and both of us can search—’</em>
I shook my head. <em>It doesn’t work that way. By then, the mana fluctuations in the atmosphere caused by the soldiers and the retainer will have equilibrated. The search has to be done now.</em>
<em>The mana in the atmosphere will return to its original state,</em> I explained, turning my attention back to the particles of mana in the vicinity for any signs of abnormalities.
When I had first experienced this perspective while in Realmheart, the particles appeared chaotic, like specs of dust pushed and pulled by even the slightest breeze, but that wasn’t the case. During the short period I had with Lady Myre, she explained to me how mana and aether behaved in their natural state.
Each element of atmospheric mana behaved in their own pattern. Earth attribute mana remained near the ground, faintly shifting like fine sand rolling down a hill. Water and wind attribute mana moved similarly, but water particles were much more scarce. Fire attribute mana were scattered throughout, throbbing and pulsing, almost as if it was giving life to the planet.
Aether, however, behaved as if each particle had its own consciousness. Some moved alongside the particles of earth while others congregated around the wind and water attribute mana, herding them as if they were sheep. What Lady Myre said about aether being the glass that held the liquid—this force seemed to interact with mana in a special way.
Because of the sheer number of Alacryan soldiers that had somehow snuck into the Kingdom of Sapin, I had hoped that there would be some lingering trails of mana fluctuation but the task of actually singling out minute discrepancies in the endless sky of particles proved even harder than it sounded.
To make this task even harder (because it was already much too easy), I had to limit my use of mana to only strengthen my body. Even the very act of absorbing mana would create fluctuations that would interfere; I wouldn’t be able to tell my mana use apart from the Alacryan’s.
Taking long strides, Sylvie and I skirted one rock formation along the border that separated Sapin and Darv. Luckily, the soldiers weren’t able to hide their trail in the forest. Sylvie was able to find where they had traversed, but in this rocky desert where the wind constantly wiped all traces of activity, I was left with the cumbersome task of locating traces of mana fluctuations.
After an hour had passed, Sylvie finally lost her patience.
<em>‘Shouldn’t we be making our way toward the coast for signs of </em>Alacryan<em> ships? I don’t understand why we’re wasting time here. If anything, you should be getting rest, not wandering through this miserable desert.’</em>
<em>I thought you were able to read my mind,</em> I quipped, turning my head away from a rather strong blast of sandy wind.
<em>‘That’s not how it works. It’s mostly emotions that come through and very basic thoughts. Right now I only feel a strong sense of suspicion coming from you but other than that—’</em>
<em>I found something,</em> I nearly said aloud as I came to an abrupt halt. I had been looking at the sky this whole time but I hadn’t noticed anything odd until I spotted a dark spot on the ground. Even with a thin layer of dry sand covering it, there was a small but undeniable puddle of moist earth.
Dropping to my knees, I rubbed the wet dirt between my fingers just to make sure. I looked up at the sky once more and finally spotted what was missing. There was a faint lack of water attribute mana in the vicinity where the most soil was.
<em>‘What’s going on?’</em> Sylvie chimed, staring at the dirt in my hand.
<em>Looks like someone got thirsty,</em> I replied.
Surveying the area, I found more areas where the atmosphere was void of water attribute mana. Following the faint trail, we headed southeast, away from the coast, until we arrived at the edge of a narrow ravine.
<em>Come on. Let’s go down.</em>
We slowly climbed down the steep slope, the whistling wind masking all other sounds. Once we were at the bottom of the ravine, the faint trail of missing water attribute mana disappeared but it didn’t matter.
“Damn it,” I muttered softly, peering down the cliff. “I was actually hoping I’d be wrong.”
<em>‘Your suspicion… don’t tell me…’</em> A wave of realization exuded from my bond as she felt the rumble of the hollow ground beneath us.
<em>Yup. After this, I’m still only eighty percent sure but I suspect that the Alacryan army we fought got into Dicathen with the dwarves’ help.</em>