The anticipation hung over the Great Hall like a thick shroud.
Today was the announcement. Today, they would learn what the first part of the final exam would be about. The teachers had gathered in a raised platform reserved for such occasions, arrayed in a straight line, with the Headmaster standing to the front, his long flowing gray beard combed to perfection.
Estella held her breath. In her mind, she could feel Nox’s excitement mixing with her own. It was almost too much, so she raised her shields until his thoughts faded into faint murmurs.
The Headmaster began. “The first part of the final exam is thus: a journey to the Forsaken Forest in search of an Yvela Blossom. Each pair will be given three days to find it. You may roam freely in the outer circle where it grows aplenty, but do not, under any circumstances, go into the inner circle.” His eyes twinkled. “Even I will not be able to save. You have three days to prepare for our departure. That is all.”
Estella blinked, then she blinked again even as the Great Hall erupted into conversation. No. This couldn’t be happening. They were actually sending them to their deaths!
She clenched her hands. A light touch from Aldros made her flinch, and she glanced at him. He jerked his head toward the exit. “Let’s go. I think we have a lot to talk about.”
Wordlessly she followed, alerting Nox as well. He was somewhere near the center, next to his fellow second-years. But he was already approaching, and in a moment, Estella saw him pressing through the crowd with Erian behind him.
Why is Erian with you?
You’ll learn soon.
She frowned at that, and she glanced at Aldros suspiciously as they joined their squires and made their way outside the Great Hall. No one said a word, and any question from Estella was met with a curt response from Aldros.
Scowling at the lack of any meaningful answer, she resigned herself to following them. They took her to the dorms, and soon the familiar doors of her and Nox’s shared rooms greeted her. They filed inside, and as Nox closed the doors, Aldros faced her and spoke.
“I know where to find the Yvela Blossoms.”
Estella could have sworn that she felt her eyebrow fully disappear past her hairline. “I’m quite certain that everyone knows where to find those, Al. The Headmaster did say that as part of our test.”
He shook his head. “Not the exact location.”
“No,” Estella said slowly, her mind racing. “So you know?”
“Yes. Remember who my parents are?”
She blinked, then took a deep breath and released it in a controlled exhale. “Caretakers. Al, you know this could get us killed if someone discovers.”
“What are Caretakers?” Nox asked, perplexed.
It was Erian who answered. “They guard the Forsaken Forest.” His eyes shone with awe. “Master, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s not something I’m overly proud of,” Aldros said in a flat tone.
Nox frowned. “Why not?”
“Caretakers created the Forsaken Forest, Nox.” Estella paced around. “They guard its secrets, keep the threats from within from breaking out. Thus, they vowed an oath of silence.” She stopped and stared at Aldros intensely. “How did you know about the Yvela Blossoms?”
“I often watered them when I was a child.”
“Then you could lead us to where they grow?”
“Isn’t this against the rules?” Erian wrung his hands, wide-eyed with fear. “And it’s not… fair to the others.”
Estella met Aldros gaze. There was no guilt in him, no remorse. It wasn’t fair, true, but one of the things she had learned was to use every resources at her disposal.
She faced Erian. “Life isn’t fair, Erian. Besides, we’re not going to head there immediately. If the outer circle is safe as the Headmasters said, we could do a little, ah, sightseeing.” She shrugged.
“You said it wasn’t safe earlier,” Nox pointed out.
“Yes, I did. That’s why we’ll be careful.” She turned to Aldros. She trusted him, but the Forsaken Forest was treacherous still. “Al, if something happens to us, I swear I’ll kill you again in the afterlife.”
He smiled despite the threat. “I wouldn’t expect anything less, Ella. But on my honor as a Wielder, I won’t let anything happen.”
For the next three days, Estella learned everything she could about the Forsaken Forest.
Unlike Shadow magic, textbooks and research materials about the forest were easily accessible and were abundant in the library. It wasn’t an obscure topic due to its significance to the country, as well as the world at large, and she devoured every information she could find.
It was a daunting task. Even after finishing five tomes, Estella barely scratched the surface of the forest’s rich history. It was to be expected, she supposed—the Forsaken Forest was already ancient back when Faven wasn’t even founded yet. But that only proved how dangerous it was.
The days passed faster than Estella would have liked. It was as if she had only blinked, and soon it was the morning of their departure. She had packed everything already, but the two large bags, and two smaller ones, containing their supplies looked pitifully insufficient.
It will be fine, came Nox’s reassuring thought.
And Estella took comfort in that.
The journey was uneventful. It was a four-day ride on the same carriage they had used for their expedition to the Coltar Ruins, which didn’t help ease Estella’s nerves. To take her mind of her worries, at least temporarily, she continued researching about the Forsaken Forest.
“You really brought all of those books?” Nox stared at the tome in her lap and the pile next to her in the seat incredulously.
Without taking her eyes off the page she was reading, Estella nodded. “I don’t have much to do anyway.” She glanced at him briefly. “You should help me too.”
It didn’t take much convincing for Nox to grab the book on top of the pile, and for the rest of the day they read the various notes and anecdotes that travelers, researchers, scholars, military commanders, and even common peasants had compiled during the centuries.
All the records told the same thing; the Forsaken Forest was dangerous.
Whenever she weren’t studying with Nox, Estella would sit quietly by the window and watch the landscape pass by. Flatlands rose to hills and mountains, until it melted into a vast forest that spanned for miles.
But it wasn’t their destination yet. The trees were green, and the trunks as thick as the ones in the academy. And yet Estella knew they were close; she could feel the air thrumming with power.
The paved road was well-maintained, and the ride smooth and swift. The sun was beginning to sink low in the distant mountains when the trees gradually rose, their trunks widening to a great girth, and their branches and leaves forming a ceiling of gray and gold.
The carriages stopped. Estella looked out the window and saw a blue lake, its farthest shore possibly a mile across. Next to it rose a five-story inn, illuminated by red lanterns.
Nox joined her. “Huh. An inn within the Forsaken Forest?”
“We’re still just in the outskirts, I think.” But Estella was not sure. As they disembarked the carriages with their belongings and made their way to the inn’s entrance, she glanced at the surrounding trees. In the semi-darkness, they seemed uninviting, almost unfriendly.
Dangerous. Ancient beyond count.
She shivered despite the lack of wind, following the congregation into the brass gates under an elegant archway. The arch was engraved with twisting vines and a line of runes that she couldn’t read.
“The Forsaken Inn,” Nox muttered. “Wonderful name. Really inviting.”
Estella stared at him, surprised. “You could read Ancient Runes?”
His eyebrows rose. “You can’t?” He chuckled as she smacked his shoulder lightly. “Hey, I was just making you smile. You seem tense.”
“I am tense,” she grumbled.
Half a dozen people greeted them by the entrance. They all wore flowing robes, and differently colored rings on each of their slim fingers. Two were women, the rest were men, their faces were timeless and almost glowing in the darkness.
Estella’s breath hitched. Around her the others were murmuring.
Varthui. Immortal humans from a long-forgotten civilization.
The one in the lead, taller than the rest of his companions, bowed deeply. “Welcome to the Forsaken Forest, Headmaster Garion, Lady Lyris. And the students of the Favenian Academy of War and Magic.” He spread his arms wide. “Welcome, all of you.”
Headmaster Garion dipped his head, smiling. “My sincerest gratitude for accommodating us, Vathi Deson. And my deepest apologies for imposing this upon the Caretakers.”
The Varthui shook his head. “Not at all, Headmaster. We are glad that we could help nurture the next generation of Wielders of Faven.” He swept his gaze over them. “I trust the journey has been pleasant?”
“As smooth as my beard. But I believe that the young ones require rest.”
“Of course. If you would please follow us? Zathu Ira, kindly inform the dinner hall that our guests have arrived.”
One of the women bowed and left the group. As the other Caretakers took the lead, Nox leaned toward Estella and whispered, “If Sir Aldros’s parents are Caretakers, does that mean he’s also…”
Estella shook her head. “No. Immortality can’t be passed down through their children.”
The inn was built of solid wood, but of trees that were unknown to Estella. The floorboards were smooth and polished like marble, yet sturdy and dense like regular wood. Golden lanterns suffused the interior with a warm glow, warding off the evening chill.
They soon emerged into a wide lobby. A long counter spanned one wall, flanked by a door on each side that led to the east and west wings, respectively. Estella glanced up and was greeted with a balcony that ringed the second floor, from which guests could look down.
Zathu Ira returned just as they reached the counter where another Caretaker stood. She spoke something to Vathi Deson, who nodded and smiled as he turned to face them. “Dinner will be ready in an hour. In the meantime, would you like to see the rooms first?”
Estella had expected a setup where students would be grouped into several family-sized rooms, like most of their previous trips, but it quickly became apparent that the inn had no such amenities.
The room they had been assigned to was large enough… until she saw the two beds next to each other.
“A Knight and a Squire will share a room together,” she heard Vathi Deson say. “These are the only accommodations we can give, I’m afraid. This inn hasn’t been built for very long.”
Estella glanced at Nox. He took one look at the interior and shrugged before stepping inside to set their bags on the floor.
Could be worse, he said through their connection.
Yes, it could be worse. At least they had their own beds. Estella didn’t mind sharing a room with Nox, and she wouldn’t deny that she had been entertaining the thought of progressing their relationship further. But now was not the time.
There was a window set on the wall ahead near the beds, offering a view of the forest. Estella strode toward it. A wall of gray trees, almost black in the encroaching darkness, spanned the view everywhere she looked. Beyond it, she knew, lay their objective.
She was about to turn away when she saw it; two points of light that glowed bright yellow. Her breath hitched, and she took a closer look, hoping that it was just a figment of her troubled mind.
It was gone.
Nox must have sensed her worry. “Anything wrong?” She felt his touch light on her shoulder.
“No… Nothing. It’s fine.” Estella smiled at him and turned away from the window.
At least, she hoped it was nothing.
Thank you for reading!