Chapter 213: Enemy Territory III
I ran. It seemed all I had been doing these days was running through this cursed forest. Low-hanging branches scraped my cheeks and arms while thorny shrubs tore through my clothes and legs.
I sprinted in the direction my magic guided me. Without it, I was blind. Even if there was a moon tonight, I doubted its pale rays would be able to penetrate the dense canopy and fog above.
Every so often, I would see flashes of light from Maeve’s magic behind me, illuminating the trees and casting eerie shadows on the forest ground.
Maeve. Cole. Please make it out safely, I prayed to Vritra without breaking stride.
I continued to run, making sure to lift my knees high and step with my heel first while kicking off with the ball of my feet. This was the best way to run in the uneven terrain filled with broken branches and knotted roots.
Running until the magical flashes of battle were barely visible, I skidded to a stop and crouched beside a thick shrub. The thorns and prickly leaves pressing against me gave me comfort from the open. I covered my mouth as I gasped for breath, afraid that I’d be heard.
Paranoia had long since set in, filling my mind with endless doubts and hopelessness. Choking back sobs, I tried to calm myself.
You’re okay, Circe. You’re doing great. I wiped away at the stream of tears that didn’t stop flowing.
I have to survive. For my brother. For Seth. I recited this over and over. It was my mantra. It was what was keeping me going.
After finally catching my breath, I ignited my crest. Immediately, I could sense the location of the closest three-point array I had formed. Unfortunately, it was farther away than I hoped.
Unable to even curse aloud, I grit my teeth in frustration. With this much distance between the rest of the arrays, just using mana wasn’t enough.
Digging a small hole in the soft ground with my hand, I bit down on my thumb until blood was drawn. Carefully, I let my blood drip into the hole while instilling the mana from my crest.
It was by pure luck that I had found out that using my blood as a medium for mana would amplify the effects of the array. Perhaps finding out why might even one day evolve my crest into an emblem.
After my mana-infused blood had seeped into the small hole I had made, I covered it up and moved onto a nearby tree.
Taking out the small knife that Fane had practically forced me to keep, I began carving a small hole underneath a low branch.
I was about to put my bleeding thumb up against the hole when a sharp snap made me whirl around. I held the knife with both hands, pointing it toward the source of the sound as I activated my first crest.
My senses expanded, covering a twenty-yard radius, only to sense that it was just a small forest critter. I lowered my knife, frustrated at my own pathetic self. I was trembling, my back up against the tree, with tears in my eyes.
All I wanted was to curl up and cry, but unfortunately, I didn’t have such luxury. Not if I wanted to live.
I knew that the noise had been caused by an animal but I couldn’t focus. I was wasting time, but for some odd reason, I really didn’t want someone to kill me from behind. It was odd to think, but I’d rather look at my killer as I died.
After several minutes trickled by, I let out a sigh and turned back to my task.
If someone was here, they would’ve killed me already, I said to myself. It wasn’t a very comforting thought, but it was true.
I was a sentry. Widely respected and valuable but severely defenseless compared to strikers like Fane, casters like Maeve, and even shields like Cole.
After the second point had been finished, I moved to the final tree to finish the three-point array. I knew that using blood as a medium for the array would take its toll, but I was still surprised by how weak I felt after the final point had been finished. Despite the brisk winter air that seemed even colder within this fog, I was sweating and my knees were close to giving out.
Got to move. Almost there, I said to my legs. Without bothering to mask my mana trail, I moved on to the next point.
Fortunately, with the three-point array imprint that I had just finished, I wouldn’t have to use my blood again. I just needed to make sure I didn’t set the next imprint too far away.
I managed a half-jog while panting. I didn’t think it was possible, but the forest seemed to be getting even darker. The low hanging branches snagged at my tattered clothes. Without the strength to just shrug them off, I had to stop and pull off the branches, costing me precious time.
I stumbled more times than I could count on the roots and tree limbs that seemed to be growing more in numbers, but I finally made it.
This location should be okay.
Falling forward on my knees, I got to work once more. Igniting my crest, I began trickling mana into the first point of the array when something crashed into me from the side.
Without even the chance to be surprised, I was suddenly looking at Fane, who was on top of me. Fane wasn’t looking at me, but out in the distance—his face contorted into a fearsome scowl. It was dark but even then I could make out how bloody he was.
“Can you run?” he asked, pulling me up to my feet. His eyes were still surveying our surroundings, searching for something.
“I think so,” I stuttered, my gaze shifting down at a glimmering arrow buried in the ground… right where I used to be.
Fane ignited his emblem. His entire body glowed and visible gusts of wind surrounded him, lifting him off his feet. In his hand was a spear, its length about twice my height with a sharp point that spun like a drill, sending gales around us. “Then run. I’ll hold them off.”
Without even the chance to greet my teammate, I turned and ran. I didn’t know who the ‘him’ that Fane was referring to was but from the way he had immediately ignited his emblem to its full power, I knew he couldn’t be good.
It wasn’t long before I could hear the echoes of battle behind me. The ground shook and the trees seemed to shudder in sorrow and pain for their brethren caught in the fight. More than once I was almost blown off my feet by the gales but even then, I resisted the temptation to look behind me. I could only pray to Vritra that Fane would be okay. <br>
Again, I ran. I continued to run in this forsaken forest until my legs felt like lead. Every step seemed harder and harder to make, as if I was wading in a pool of tar.
No matter how desperately I wanted to keep moving, my body had had enough. Barely able to lift my feet off the ground, my toes got caught on a gnarled root.
I toppled forward and I soon tasted the dirt and foliage of the forest in my mouth.
Fane’s silver chestplate kept me on the ground like an anchor. Giving up on the thought of getting back up, I rolled to my side and ignited my crest. With the distance I had gone, I knew it was safer to strengthen the array with blood.
The wound on my thumb had already scabbed over, but as I wiped my mouth of the dirt, I was able to make out a streak of red.
What my sleep-deprived and crazed brain conceived as ‘fortunate’ was the fact that the fall to my face had torn open a wound on my lip.
Perhaps the most unladylike action I had performed in my entire life, I spat a mouthful of blood on the ground and dipped my fingers in it to imbue mana.
If I can’t run, I might as well create one more imprint for the army waiting. Maybe this will be close enough for them. Maybe they’ll still save Seth.
The crest on my back began burning—a telltale sign that I was overexerting myself. It didn’t matter. My legs couldn’t even carry my weight. I was prepared to die.
“Idiot! Didn’t I tell you to keep running?” I never thought Fane’s rough voice would sound so pleasant, but I was wrong.
I spotted Fane’s figure rushing toward me with a sphere of wind surrounding him. Without stopping, he picked me up by the chestplate and held me under his armpit. That’s when I saw it.
“Fane. Y-Your arm!” I huffed, wide-eyed.
“Not important,” he snapped. “I need you to focus on guiding me.”
I had so many questions for Fane, but now wasn’t the time. Pointing in the direction that True Sense had shown me, I directed the veteran striker through the fog-infested forest.
Fortunately, the sun was coming back up. We had been running non-stop throughout the whole night and it was evident that Fane was close to collapsing. He had concentrated much of his mana on the stub where his left arm used to be in order to keep blood from spilling out. The rest of his mana was spent on maximizing our speed.
“We’re almost there!” I said excitedly, pointing at an opening in the woods a few dozen yards away.
“Just a bit more, and you need to focus everything you have on the three-point array. Do that and our mission is a success,” Fane huffed. “Can you do that?”
We skidded to a stop and Fane dropped me on the ground. I assumed that the striker wanted me to start on the array—I was only half right.
I could see Fane’s emblem glowing brightly underneath his shirt as he stood in front of me. The spear once again formed in Fane’s hand as he aimed it at the elf slowly approaching us.
Even at first glance, I knew who he was. It was the same elf that had spotted us up on the tree. It was the same elf that Maeve and Cole had stayed behind to fight against.
“N-No. That can’t be…” I muttered as the elf named Albold continued closing the distance between us. He looked injured and tired, but he was alive. And if he was alive, that meant…
I heard a faint whistle but before my brain could process what that noise meant, Fane’s wind spear had already moved. The arrow that was meant to take my life lay on the ground.
“Damn it, there’s more of them. We need to run,” Fane hissed. “Now!”
Fane lifted me up to my feet and pushed me back. “Go!”
Even with the strength I gathered while Fane had held me in his arm, I could only manage an awkward stagger. Fane continued to push me towards the opening in the woods, towards what I assumed to be one of the entrances to the elven kingdom.
I tensed every time I heard a sharp whistle but by the fact that none of the arrows had managed to hit me, I knew Fane was doing his job.
I still had to finish mine.
Igniting my crest mid-stride, the imprints of the three-point arrays lit up like a map in my head. The closest one I had imprinted was too far away though. I needed time, which was something we didn’t have.
“We’re close enough. Set up the array!” Fane groaned behind me.
I dropped to my knees and began setting up the first point in the array. While doing so, I took a peek behind me.
Fane towered over me just a few steps behind with shafts of multiple arrows jutting out from his body. A trail of blood leaked down the corner of his mouth.
“Array!” he snapped without looking back.
I nodded frantically and ripped open another wound on my thumb.
The muted hum of weapons clashing startled me, but I refused to look back.
Another whistle from behind.
Fane let out a groan.
My hands trembled as I started the array.
Damn it! It’s not strong enough.
I tried to imbue more mana but, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the trees around us swaying.
Another pained grunt resounded from behind, but it wasn’t Fane’s voice.
The sharp pain radiating from my crest grew more and more unbearable as I imbued more mana into the small pool of blood that had gathered on the ground in front of me.
I heard another whistle but almost immediately after, I was knocked down as a pain shot up my arm like fire. My head exploded with a blinding whiteness. I could barely get back up to my knees, dizziness overwhelming me.
Despite my brain screaming at me not to, I looked at my injured arm. It was mangled beyond recognition.
“The… array,” Fane’s voice croaked from behind.
“I… I can’t,” I mustered. I couldn’t even think straight as it felt like every inch of my right arm had been jammed through the skin with serrated blades.
I watched, dazed, as blood began to pool beneath me.
I knew it wouldn’t be long now until I died. I almost wanted to die, but in this near-dead state, I couldn’t help but think of Seth. He was waiting back in Alacrya in a hospital bed. <br> <br> He was almost dead as well. Even if I couldn’t live, shouldn’t he be able to?
Through sheer willpower, I got back up to my feet. Blood continued to flow freely out of my mangled arm but it was okay. I knew what I had to do.
“I hope you can forgive your sister… for not being able to make it back home,” I mumbled.
I took a step to the side, creating a trail with my blood. The pain was beginning to subside a little as my arm grew numb, which was good.
Fane came into view, but he was barely standing as well. He was dripping almost as much blood as I was.
With neither of us able to even muster a word, Fane continued to protect me as I made the array, strengthening it with the sheer amounts of blood I was spilling.
I took another step, but I must’ve lost consciousness because I found the world turned on its side. Fane was still on his feet, holding off Albold and another elf.
I crawled, dragging my maimed arm on the ground to continue the bloody trail, but the loss of blood must have affected my vision.
An entire row of trees had moved and bent out of the way to reveal a towering wall. And on the top of the wall were hundreds of elves, each armed with either staves or bows. The staves were glowing in all sorts of colors, some green, some yellow, others blu—
“Circe!” Fane screamed, snapping me out of my daze.
A desperate scream tore out from my throat as I ignited every ounce of mana I had left through my crest. My vision blurred and I fell to my side, but I didn’t care. I knew it had worked.
Every imprint I had left in the forest was now connected and displayed to every sentry waiting outside the forest. I had created the trail for our army.
I managed to crack a smile as I faced the wave of spells and arrows almost upon us. I hoped they could see me my expression so they’d know…
Even this damned forest won’t keep you safe anymore.
The Alacryan army is coming for you.