Chapter 208: Enemy Territory II
“Please… Maeve! I need a break,” I begged the caster in between ragged breaths.
Looking behind me, I saw Cole just a few paces away running desperately to keep up with us. Suddenly, Maeve, who had been pulling me by the arm, stopped. I barely managed to avoid colliding with her when she let go of me and pointed up at large tree. “Let’s take cover here.”
Fatigue weighing down my body, Maeve hoisted me up the tree while Cole barely managed to push himself up onto the lowest branch. The strenuous task of climbing up high enough on the tree to stay hidden took the better half of an hour.
Finally satisfied, Cole leaned back against the trunk of the tree, her legs dangling in the air. I peeled out of Fane’s oversized silver breastplate so that my sweat-drenched shirt could dry off a little.
The three of us remained silent, each doing whatever task they deemed more important to them. After eating a few strips of dried meat, Cole immediately set a barrier around us while Maeve cycled mana.
As for me, I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead I turned to where Cole and Maeve were and asked hesitantly. “D-Do you think Fane made it out?”
Maeve opened one eye—just one eye—but the anger that exuded out of that eye made me wince. Cole shuffled over and sat between Maeve and I so we weren’t in direct eye contact of each other. “Circe. Focus on the mission. Can you use True Sense yet?”
Cole’s voice was soft and gentle, yet his expression had hardened to a point where he looked like a different person compared to when I had first met him back in Alacrya.
I nodded my head and prepared myself, but when I closed my eyes, the scene from earlier today still flashed like it was still happening right now.
It was all my fault. If I hadn’t gone off from the camp.
There was no one there when I checked. I just wanted to wash my clothes in the stream.
I rattled on more reasons in my head. The stream we had passed by was less than a hundred yards from where we were hiding. I double—no, triple—checked using my crest to make sure there was no one within my heightened range of awareness. Throughout our journey, our whole group made extra precautions to hide our trail. We had even dug holes into the ground every time we did our ‘business’ and covered it back up with dirt and foliage.
So, how? How did I get caught on my way back to the camp?
If I hadn’t kept my crest active, I would’ve led the elves straight to where the rest of the group was hiding.
I thought that I was in the clear after throwing them off. I ran for over an hour in the opposite direction before circling back to where Fane, Maeve, and Cole were.
Still, by the expression on everyone’s expression after I had told them what happened, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that.
Fane immediately ripped off my outer robe and gave me his silver chestplate for me to wear. Maeve cursed and turned away while Cole slumped, crestfallen.
I didn’t know what was happening back then. It was only Fane that gave me a gentle smile and said goodbye. The same Fane that had the personality of a poked snake tousled my hair and told Maeve and Cole to protect me.
Draping my robe over his shoulders, he dropped down from the tree we were hiding in and ran off.
Confused, I had almost called out after the veteran striker of our team, only to have Maeve cover my mouth with her hand. ‘We can’t have the elves suspecting that someone is out there. Do you understand? That’s why Fane has to go pretend to be you,’ Maeve had hissed into my ear.
I snapped back to reality when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Cole mustered a smile and mouthed for me to hurry.
Gritting my teeth and praying that Fane would survive, I closed my eyes again and ignited my emblem. For a split second, as I felt my consciousness leaving my body, I was tempted to focus my limited time in this form to search for Fane.
Snap out of it, Circe. The mission. Focus on the mission.
I navigated through the perception-debilitating fog that was native to this area using True Sense and locked in on multiple elements this time.
My heart thumped at the sight of the rich ambient mana particles in the distance.
We’re almost there!
Unable to keep True Sense active for much longer, I released the spell and let out a deep breath. Slowly opening my eyes, I saw both Cole and Maeve staring at me intently.
Despite the guilt and fatigue pressing down on me, I allowed a small grin. “We’re almost there. Just a few more days away at our pace now.”
With my words boosting the overall morale of our small team, we decided to make haste. I put Fane’s silver chestplate back on despite its weight restricting my speed. Without Fane with us as our vanguard, I knew I’d need every advantage I can get. After all, I’ve been drilled enough by my team members to know that everything we’ve done so far would’ve been for naught if I were to die.
Still, dangerous thoughts of assuming that another sentry would succeed invaded my mind. I wasn’t a hero. I wasn’t like Fane or Maeve that had trained for years to handle these sort of situations. Even Cole, while only a few years older than me, had quite a bit of experience hunting beasts in the scouting teams back in Alacrya.
Me? I had barely graduated before I was recruited for this mission. A few weeks ago, before stepping through that highly unstable portal into this continent, I was still packing up my belongings in my assigned school housing so I could go back home to my blood.
Stumbling on a tree root snapped me out of my thoughts. Thankfully, Maeve was able to grab my arm and stop me from actually falling flat on my face on the ground.
The caster shot me a glare but didn’t say anything. We weren’t running particularly fast and the sun had yet to go down so she knew I just wasn’t paying attention.
Gnashing my teeth together, I did my best to push away any useless thoughts as we hastened our pace in the direction I was leading them.
I have to survive. For my younger brother.
I repeated those words in my mind like a mantra. The great Vritra will be able to save my brother and bless him with magic so that he could lead a prosperous life if I succeed.
A mental ring that notified me whenever a new presence entered my range of perception roused me out of my reverie. I stopped in my tracks and held out an arm with two fingers to stop Maeve and Cole as well.
They immediately understood the signal and we immediately climbed up the closest tree. Unable to strengthen my body like Cole and Maeve, I scrambled for the lowest branch. In my rush, my foot slipped on a moss-covered root.
My head hit the trunk with a dull thud that sounded like an explosion within this quiet forest. I didn’t even care about the pain. The huge blunder that I had caused made my heart drop.
Did they hear that? Is it over?
A thousand more thoughts flashed through my mind until I finally noticed the translucent tint around me and the blurred view on the other side of Cole’s barrier.
Great Vritra, that was close! I breathed, making a mental note to thank Cole for the nice save.
“Hurry!” Maeve urged while Cole focused on reinforcing his barrier.
I quickly grabbed the caster’s outstretched hand and used her help to pull myself up onto the branch. My heart felt as if it were about to break out of my ribcage as my breathing grew more erratic, but I didn’t have the time or luxury to gather myself.
Maeve had already climbed up a few feet higher. I followed close, using the same handholds and footholds she had used to climb up the tree while Cole took the rear.
The three of us had to be extra careful as we traversed up the giant tree. Going too fast meant that we might shake leaves off the branches which might give away our position.
My arms ached and my legs trembled, half out of fatigue and half out of fear. I desperately wished my mark had allowed some form of body enhancement but I knew hoping for that now was stupid.
Finally, Maeve stopped at a particular branch and helped me up. The branches this high up were too thin for all of us to be on one altogether, so we each sat on our own tree limb and hugged the trunk in order to lessen the burden on our seats.
Cole, who was about to strengthen his barrier stopped on my signal.
“I’ll tell you when they’re close enough,” I whispered. We needed his barrier at its full power if they got near.
The two presences were heading toward us but were still a few hundred feet away. I narrowed the focus of my second crest and with it, I was able to faintly hear the two elves talking.
“We should head back, Albold. We’ve already strayed far enough from our survey route,” one voice said.
“Just a second,” the second voice, Albold, replied lightheartedly.
“You probably just heard a forest hare or something,” the first voice said.
“It wasn’t really a sound,” the elf named Albold said as he continued approaching where we were hiding. “It was more like an inkling.”
“I swear, if you weren’t a Chaffer, I would’ve just left,” the first said. “Either way, it’s good to have you back—quirks and all.”
“Thanks. Double thanks for promising not to tell our head about this little ‘detour’,” Albold said with a soft chuckle as he continued to lead his partner closer to our location.
“We can only afford a little detour,” the partner stressed. “That damned Alacryan is still on the loose. How are they even this far up north, anyway?”
I bit down on my lips but a smile still managed to escape. He’s alive!
“If I knew, we wouldn’t be out here like this,” Albold scoffed.
Prying myself away from the perceptions of my crest, I turned to Cole and nodded. He nodded back and tightened his veiling barrier to barely encompass the three of us. Tightening the area of effect strengthened his magic allowed him the spare mana to add two more layers of barriers
I ignited my crest once more and focused my entire magic on the two elves approaching. They were less than fifty feet away now.
Please, Vritra, let them just pass like the other scouts.
I wiped away the sweat rolling down my face every several seconds in fear that the drops might fall down and wet the ground.
I held my breath as well. I knew it wasn’t necessary. I knew the barrier would mask most of the noises made but even Cole and Maeve were as still as the tree we were perched on.
Holding up both my hands, I mouthed ‘ten feet’ to my teammates. Cole swallowed hard and Maeve’s expression turned even more fierce.
I looked down at the base of the tree, hoping—praying for them to not to come into view.
The snap of a twig nearby made stiffen. I looked at Cole and Maeve but both of them were focused intently on the ground below us.
Then we saw them. The two elves. One had long hair tied tightly behind his neck while the other one had cropped hair and ears slightly longer than his comrade. Unlike the long-haired elf that was looking around aimlessly, the short-haired one kept his head down as he walked.
The latter slowed his pace, his head still dipped down like he had lost a coin on the ground.
Please, just keep walking.
He was now adjacent to the tree we were on.
I let out a sigh when suddenly, the elf’s head jerked left. He looked at the base of the tree.
More accurately, he was looking at the moss on the root. The moss that I had stepped and slipped on.
The fear that I had been pushing down bubbled up, threatening to swallow me.
The short-haired elf stopped walking and his head turned up until I could make out his face… and his eyes… that seemed to be looking directly at me.