Sylvia groggily opened her eyes.
It was barely the break of dawn yet no matter how much she wanted to, her body would not allow her to slumber any longer.
*Huwahh…* Making due with a tired yawn and lightly stretching her arms, she forced herself to sit up on the bed like she did every morning.
Squinting as silence persist through the room, she waited for her eyes to adjust before turning to the young girl sleeping next to her.
Her lips lethargically curved upward into an amused smile.
Anise had kicked her blanket to her feet and was now almost sleeping sideways. A lock of hair was stuck to the side of the girl’s face and the girl’s small right arm seem to have gotten pinned underneath her head.
“How did you even sleep like that in this cold?” Sylvia questioned aloud and reached
over to gently brush back the hair on Anise’s face. Carefully trying to free the young girl’s hand, she stopped as two circular objects around the girl’s neck caught her attention within the dimness of the room.
She had seen them numerous times before, but this time she could not look away.
One was undoubtedly the sleek black ring and the other, an almost dull silver ring. Both looked ordinary enough yet, ordinary they were not.
As she stared at them, ‘… Everything will be fine.’ A reassurance seems to echo from the rings, whispering with a calm, almost ethereal voice.
Sylvia stilled her hands.
Thinking back, she easily recalled the girl’s odd behavior on various occasions.
The many times she went looking for Anise, only to find the girl whispering to herself.
The sudden and awkward silence whenever she made her presence known, along with the girl’s unusual cheerfulness that were always seemingly out of nowhere at times.
‘It’s a secret.’
Remembering Anise’s reluctance upon her inquiry about the ring’s glow, a tinge of pain struck her from within. For the girl to have kept such a thing from her after all their time together, it had been quite a blow.
Slapping her cheeks, she swiftly discarded her thoughts and hesitation.
Looking at how peacefully Anise was sleeping she could not bring herself to blame the girl. She had seen why it was kept from her, and had personally stood witness as the darkness emerged from the black ring.
An unforgettable feeling of horrific terror, it had looked like the world itself was being swallowed by a never-ending night.
Yet as she clutched onto the girl’s small hand within the pitch-black abyss, instead of fear and panic, the dark embrace had been one of tranquility and calm. Of quiet solace and the knowledge that everything would be fine.
It was then that she had understood why the rings were always with the girl.
“You’re going to catch a cold.” She whispered, reaching down to the edge of the bed and pulling the blanket up over Anise. Carefully taking hold of the girl’s arm, she gently slid it out from under Anise’s head before getting up.
With a quick trip to her wardrobe for something warmer, she departed from her bedroom.
The silence pervading through the house was even more deafening than that of her own chamber and Sylvia shivered, feeling the icy touch of the morning through the thin blanket around her shoulders. The thought of going back for another pressed at her mind but the knowledge that she would soon be bathed in the warmth of glowing flames kept her legs from turning around. With light steps so as not to wake the others, she made her way down to the first floor and toward the kitchen as per her usual routine.
Her eyes perked up upon seeing that the kitchen was alight.
All their servants had gone home due to the events of the previous day, yet the sound of chopping could be heard coming from within.
Curiously approaching the broken kitchen door, a soft and familiar humming entered her ears.
“Adalina?” She called out upon spotting who it is.
“Good morning, Sylvia. Did I wake you?” The older woman greeted, turning around to face her.
With Lance strapped onto her back, Adalina was standing next to the counter and appeared to be in the middle of chopping something.
“Good morning.” She promptly greeted back and stepped into the kitchen.
There was already a fire going in the stove and on the counter next to Adalina, was half a bowl of peeled tubers and onions. To Adalina’s right were also three lamb shanks and a large pot. “I didn’t think anyone was awake yet.” Sylvia added with a sheepish smile.
“Is that so?” Adalina reciprocated her smile and turned around to resume chopping. “This child woke me and I just couldn’t go back to sleep after feeding him so I thought I would make breakfast. What about you?” Adalina questioned, making a show of the wide-eyed boy on her back.
“I- I couldn’t sleep.” She lied, hiding a hint of embarrassment upon noticing the amount of preparations that were already completed.
“It’s probably the cold air. Lenard said they patched up what they could with wooden boards last evening, but it looks like some of the cracks are still allowing the morning chill inside. Why don’t you come stand by the fire?”
Seeing as her purpose for coming to the kitchen was already being fulfilled by someone more skillful, “Actually, I was wondering if you would like some help?” She asked, offering her assistance.
“Of course.” Adalina turned and there was a warm knowing smile on her face. “Can you finish dicing the onions and chop these up while I get started on the shanks?”
“Sure. What are we making?” Sylvia eagerly replied and walked over to take the knife from Adalina.
“I was thinking something thick and hearty for this cold weather.” The older woman answered, moving the empty pot onto the stove. “Something that we can let simmer until breakfast. What do you think?”
“Correct.” Adalina grinned and began ladling a spoonful of oil into the pot.
With knife in hand, she picked up one of the onions from the bowl and sliced it into halves before proceeding to dice them.
By the time she was done with the onions and the furuce tubers, Adalina had already finished deboning the shanks and was already cooking them in the pot.
Quietly watching as the older woman began adding the diced onions and a handful of seasonings while casually humming a soft tune, “Adalina…” Sylvia quietly spoke.
She had been trying not to think of it, but the events of the previous day had already made its way back into her thoughts.
“Do you… do you think my father really had something to do with what happened?” She asked, recalling what they had learned from the house guards upon returning home.
“I don’t.” An instant reply. Adalina had stopped humming and was looking back at her. “Your lord father would never do something like that to you all. Like your mother said last evening, it must be a misunderstanding.”
“Mother did say that, but deep down I know she’s scared as well. Her making a fuss about the arrest and yelling at the guards yesterday… I’ve never seen mother like that before.”
“Everyone deals with their worries differently. Her methods are just a little louder than others, so don’t let it bother you. Your mother means well.”
“But you’re not like that. You- you’re different.” She countered, watching as Adalina added a bowl of water to the pot before slowly stirring again.
“Different?” A curious smile crept onto the older woman’s face. “How so?”
“You are calm even in these situations. Are you not worried about Troyle?”
“Calm?” Adalina chuckled. “I am anything but calm right now, honey. It’s just that I’ve learned to live with my worries when it comes to Troyle. There were times in his mercenary days when I didn’t think he would ever return, and when he did, he would always be bloodied and in pain for days. Those times were much worse, and I’ve come to terms that he will do whatever he needs to do, no matter what I say.”
“Oh…” She quietly lowered her head as her unsettling mind wavered between Adalina’s words and her own doubts.
“It is perfectly normal to worry about those you care for, Sylvia.”
As if seeing through her woes, a hand gently pressed itself against the top of her head and she was soon in a warm embrace.
“I understand. It is hard not knowing, but sometimes… sometimes all we can really do is to trust and wait for them to return.”
She lifted her head and Adalina was smiling down at her.
“Preferably with something filling and delicious, of course.” Adalina supplemented, her motherly smile shining brightly.
“You’re strong.” The words came out of her mouth like a whisper. “You know. My father always says that Troyle is the strongest guard he’s ever had. That he’s thankful to have a friend like Troyle watching out for him, but I think- I think you are much stronger.” Sylvia returned an awkward smile.
“Well of course.” Adalina asserted matter-of-factly while raising her nose haughtily in jest.
Seeing the display. “Hehehe. Thanks, Adalina.”
“You’re welcome, honey.” Releasing her from the embrace, Adalina stepped back to the stove.
“Hey, Adalina?” She called out again as something else probed at her curiosity.
“I um… I wanted to ask you about something.”
“What is it?”
Two rings slowly phased into her thoughts. One black, the other silver.
“Do you know about Anise’s rings and what they can do?” She questioned, looking carefully at Adalina.
An astonished expression appeared on Adalina’s face, followed by a reluctant half smile. “… I do.”
The southern forests.
Looking at the overgrowth of dense vegetation before them, “Are you sure this is the same path we took?” Vick questioned, turning to a lanky and dark-haired man beside him.
“As sure as balls on a breeding bull.” The man replied, stepping before the wall of green. “But you are definitely correct in thinking that these bushes and plants weren’t here before.” The man stated and slowly forced his way into the undergrowth. “Come. There is something you need to see.”
“Come on!” The man shouted back, his tone sounding uneasy as he ventured deeper.
Following the man into the unnatural garden of green, they soon came to a stop. “What is it?” Vick questioned, seeing that the man had turned to look back at him.
“Look at this.” Stepping aside, the man named Slek revealed a waist high plant with sparse and thin forking leaves. “This is a kanelia sapling. It is a fruit tree native to the forests surrounding Anjoul, a small port town on the east coast. You can tell by the forked tips of its thin leaves and how they curl upward, instead of slanting down like other leaves.”
“Okay… what’s the problem then?” Vick questioned, squatting down beside the man to get a closer look at the sapling.
“It wasn’t here the last time we came by. And judging by its size, this sapling is at least a year old.” The man looked to Vick and there was confusion in his eyes.
“How can that be? Are you sure we’re not lost? Or maybe we just missed it before?” Vick queried as a cold chill began to crawl along his arms and up to his shoulders. Standing back up, he quickly glanced around at their surroundings once more.
“I am certain we are on the right track. Also, it’s not just this one. Look over there, and there, and beside that tree.” The man reflexively replied, pointing to a number of other kanelia saplings. “I personally scouted and plotted this path with Yoriig as a secondary escape route. There is no way we could have missed something this out of place, not to mention everything else around here right now. None of these plants were here when we last came through.”
“I don’t like this…” Vick cautiously stepped away from the sapling. “If you are correct and we were just here barely a fortnight ago, then this area here… everything around us should be nothing but wet moss and decaying foliage. How is this even possible?”
“I… I don’t know… I’ve never seen anything like this in my twenty-seven years as a tracker.”
Vick looked to the man. “You said Yoriig went in deeper to investigate?”
“Yes.” Slek fretfully replied, his eyes now darting nervously around them.
“Then let’s go back. We need to stop the group and find a place to rest while we figure out a different route.” Turning around, Vick began trampling through the undergrowth and back the way they came.
“W-wait. What about Yoriig?”
“We find a place to rest first.” Vick shot back. “If there is something unnatural about this part of the woods, I don’t want any of the villagers coming near here. We’ll come search for Yoriig if he doesn’t return by midday, but for now, our priorities are the hundreds of lives that are struggling behind us.”
Following his own tracks back, “What in the world is happening here?” Vick grumbled to himself, having seen the anomaly that the forward scouts were talking about.
It was as if the forest that had shed itself in preparation for the cold of Rinol was suddenly in bloom again, growing even denser and greener than before.
With a short hike, he soon ran into a trail of people.
Intertwining along the forest and stretching far into the distance, there were at least three hundred altogether. Consisting of elders, men, women, and children, they were the villagers who had stayed behind in the Esperen camp with Solio’s team.
One of the scouts swiftly ran over to him as he rejoined the group. A hunter, the man was one of the handful that had come with them from the other group. “Did you see it?”
“I did.” Vick answered, keeping his voice low.
“What are we going to do, Vick?”
“You said you guys took a look around its perimeters. How large was the affected area?”
“No idea.” The scout bluntly replied. “We spent all morning walking along its perimeters but the growth just kept going. Yoriig called us to report back to you before we even found any indication of how far it extended.”
“Haa… fuck.” Vick cursed, remembering how eerie and unnatural that part of forest had felt. “Send words down the line. For now, tell them something has come up and that we’re taking an early lunch break. Hopefully that’ll buy us enough time to come up with a different plan.”
“And Jonns.” Vick stopped the man. “The supplies have been dwindling. If we have to go around whatever is up ahead, we are going to need-”
“I understand.” The scout replied without waiting for him to finish. “I will talk to a few of the others. We will look for game while you guys figure this out.”
Taking a deep breath, Vick watched at as the man began relaying his instructions to the others.
Stop. Don’t go. Turn back. Voices whispered in his head, reminding him of children’s stories and old wives’ tales. Mainly lore’s of nefarious phraes that would entrance and lure human children into the depths of the forest, only to be preyed upon.
Mindfully disregarding the childish thoughts, the tracker Yoriig slowly made his way toward the opening that he had spotted through the trees.
There was neither fatigue nor hunger in his body and he could not recall how long he had been slogging through the unnatural undergrowth, but he did not care. Something had caused the drastic change to the forest and he was determined to find out what.
The sky opened up before him and muffling his approach, Yoriig quickly hid himself behind a large overhanging tree that was leafing out of season.
As he surveyed the clearing, it quickly became apparent that the spacious opening was circular in design and extremely unnatural. There were no stumps, no fallen or decaying trees, or any indication that it used to be a forest.
Instead, it looked like something had plucked out all the trees from within and replaced it with a garden of various plants including shrubs, sprouts, flowers, and weeds, all blooming beautifully and evenly across the clearing.
Even more unnerving, was the fact that the he could not hear the sound of a single insect or animal coming from within such a lush environment.
It is not safe. Leave.
His gut feelings wisped around his mind, but he quickly shut them off.
Narrowing his eyes for a more focused look, “What is that?” Yoriig whispered to himself, spotting what appears to be the top of a large spherical object within the amalgam of vegetation. Before he could even think about it, his legs were already moving toward the object.
Stop. Turn back now. He is waking.
‘He?’ The word struck him and Yoriig immediately froze. The voices he thought to be his own had just cautioned him a warning.
The Destroyer. He will wake soon.
More voices echoed in his mind and he could hear the sound of his heart beating frantically upon realizing that he was not alone.
A bout of fear suddenly rippled through his body and with all his might, he fearfully and instinctively turned his gaze toward the clearing.
The dark spherical object was now glowing. Pulsing softly like a heartbeat, it was becoming brighter and brighter as whatever was covering it began peeling off.
As if it had been waiting, “RAAAUUURR!” A piercing roar shattered the unnerving silence, shredding through the area with a powerful shockwave.
From within the serene garden, hundreds of thin green vines erupted into the air and shot toward the glowing sphere, quickly wrapping around it and blotting out its light.
“W-w-wha-” Yoriig stammered as he stumbled backward onto the ground, having been abandoned by any semblance of a coherent word.
The displaced voice of a child’s shrill cry resounded loudly in his ears and without taking a second glance at what was happening in the clearing, he fled.
‘You are beholden. You WILL find me. I WILL be FREED.’
The words echoed loudly throughout his body as if they were a part of him.
Heart racing uncontrollably, he willed his eyes to open.
‘No. No. NO. NO! NO!’
The entity formerly known as Rhultal screamed.
Forced awake from his slumber and the transient dream, he was back within the ocean of darkness and floating amongst loss and empty regrets.
‘How?! This is not real! I cannot be here!’
He shouted again but in here, he had no voice.
‘Get your swords.’
He blinked within the darkness and an image of a red-haired man swinging two swords slowly disintegrated before his eyes.
He turned toward the voice and glimpsed a tender smile before it faded into the darkness amidst an aroma of nostalgia.
As the childish voice reverberated through his incorporeal body, he could not help but feel emotions welling up from within.
Everything was vanishing into the empty void. The brief life he had lived, memories of the dream.
‘No… there is one more. Please! Please…’
He begged, unable to bring himself to recall who it was that he was trying to remember.
‘Did you think you can escape me, Son of ***?’
A different voice spoke from within the abyss. Resounding loudly through the darkness, the voice gripped at his heart, crushing it.
‘You are MINE.’
Though he could no longer envision the fleeting dream, the new voice was one he could never forget.
One of death, it was a voice that had been born of a broken pact.
The voice, of an old enemy.