The test started before sunrise, when the forest was still enveloped by the last vestiges of evening darkness and most of its inhabitants were preparing to retreat into their dens.
They were given three days to find the Yvela Blossoms—a short time for most to fulfill such a dangerous task. Thankfully, the special bracelets they were provided allowed them to request for help if the situation was dire.
Estella vowed never to use them, especially with how they plan to acquire the Blossoms.
The Headmaster sent them off in pairs with a riddle to help them locate the flowers: Yvela’s tears lead to her dying heart, where her dreams bloom for all to see. And it was a clever riddle, especially for those who didn’t know the story of Yvela.
Of course, Estella didn’t know, either. But Aldros had told her the exact location, so there was no need to research about that. She was more concerned with the beasts that the Forsaken Forest nurtured, and how she and Nox would defeat one they might encounter.
“Yvela’s story is actually good,” Nox began as they pressed onward through a dense underbrush. “Tragic and depressing, but good.”
Estella was in no mood for a tragic and depressing story considering where they were, but listening to it was probably better than entertaining thoughts of bloody fangs and tearing flesh.
And so Nox began a complex tale of love and tragedy spanning decades and involving the forest spirit Yvela falling in love with a demon. “Yvela died as she cried her heart out for the demon who sacrificed his life for her, hence the river called Yvela’s Tears. After her body is buried, flowers bloomed where she was laid to rest, a symbol of her dream of a life where she could be with her lover.”
“What’s the demon’s name?”
“No one knows. It was never recorded.”
The sun was high in the sky when they stopped for rest and a light snack. There was a tree whose bark was a darker shade of grey, almost black, even in broad daylight. Its branches were gnarled fingers reaching into the sky, and beneath were twisted roots that formed a small hollow where three people could feet.
It was a good place to hide from prying eyes, so they ate inside with relative comfort and ease, discussing the route they were taking next.
“We’ve already covered at least a quarter.” Estella studied the map while taking a bite from a wheat bread slathered with butter. “At this rate,we’ll reach it by evening.”
“But we won’t go there immediately.” Nox tapped the encircled location. “We’ll have to wait until daybreak so no one would get suspicious.”
Estella nodded. It was not just arousing suspicion that she was worried about but also the dangers that darkness possessed. Nox may be stronger in the evening and could protect them, but Estella didn’t want to take their chances in a forest that had claimed so many lives, even if it was deemed safe by its own creators.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. By noon they could already hear the gentle rush of Yvela’s Tears, and it was not long before the river came into view, snaking from south to north-west.
Following it would be unnecessary since they already knew the Blossoms’ location. Besides, this was a water source, and a water source attracts many creatures.
They didn’t fill up their waterskins either, even if the Caretakers had said that it was perfectly safe for consumption. They still had enough for three days, and if needed, Nox could just use his ice magic to replenish their stock.
The more they drew closer to the Blossoms, the more Estella grew anxious. She glanced in every direction ahead of them, expecting some terrifying monster to jump at them every minute.
What concerned her the most was the lack of activity. A forest this size, especially given its nature, should be filled with noises. Instead, despite straining her ears until she was sure they would burst, Estella couldn’t hear anything but their own breathing.
“They’ll come at night,” Nox said, scanning their surroundings with wary eyes. “Remember what we’ve read on the way here?”
Estella nodded. “Monsters are nocturnals here.” She glanced up, studying the forest canopy. “Still, I expected a few animals, even if they are just squirrels.”
“Some squirrels are nocturnals.”
Estella couldn’t refute that logic, but the worry never left her as the sun lowered. Light was starting to fade, so they had to find a camp site quickly.
They found an incline from which there was a hollow large enough that they could stand and also lay down next to each other. After confirming that it’s not a den of an unknown animal, they gathered enough firewood to last the night and started a small fire.
While Nox prepared dinner, Estella peered outside. Light was receding fast, and the trees surrounding the area seemed darker and foreboding. As the sun finally vanished, she heard a piercing cry; a creature welcoming the night.
And as if that was but merely a herald’s call, others began fill the forest with a cacophony of evening noises. Soon it was an orchestra of cries, shrieks, and even growls.
Estella retreated back into the hollow, shivering despite the fire. What was this place? They shouldn’t be here. They weren’t supposed to be here. They should return to the Academy and—
“Ella,” Nox said softly, his hand lending warmth to her shoulder. A warmth that spread through Estella’s entire being, banishing those dark thoughts from her mind.
She looked at him, and his gentle smile was a balm that eased her worries. She nodded and helped him ready their food.
Throughout their meal, Nox never ceased talking, telling her about his life back in his home, of the the days he would hunt in the forest. Estella knew it was his way of keeping her occupied, and thankfully, it was working. The sounds outside didn’t seem as terrifying as before.
When the fire died down and the calls of the beasts weren’t as loud as before, they readied for sleep. “I’ll take the first watch,” Estella announced, moving to the hollow’s opening. She had not gone more than a few feet when Nox grabbed her hand.
“No, I’ll take the first watch,” he said. “Rest. You’ll need it.”
“Are you sure?” Estella was still nervous with the darkness, but at least the sounds didn’t bother her anymore. She could do this much.
“I am. I’ll wake you up when it’s your turn.”
She hesitated at first then nodded with a smile and kissed him briefly. “Thank you,” she murmured.
Nox took a spot by the opening and sat, his back turned and Erebos in his lap. Estella laid down on her bedroll, gazing at Nox’s shoulders. It was just like in the Coltar Ruins, when they were trapped deep below the earth and they had to rest next to an underground river.
The memory brought back the terror in Estella’s heart, but she forced it down with a swallow. It wouldn’t be the same, she vowed. No one would get hurt; they were stronger now. And just like before, they would survive this. Together.
With that reassuring thought, Estella drifted off to sleep.
She woke with a start.
Estella’s heart pounded in her chest, her ears straining for any sound. She was sure she heard a growl.
The fire had died down during her sleep, plunging the hollow in a thick blanket of darkness. She didn’t dare make a light, so she sent her thought scouring for Nox.
He wasn’t in his spot, nor anywhere nearby.
Alarm shot through Estella and she bolted upright. Astra was already in her hand, illuminating the hollow with its silvery glow. The Resonance was still active, faint but strong.
Closing her eyes, Estella asked through their mental link, Where are you?
A minute passed, and Estella’s stomach twisted into knots. Another minute went by in silence. The growling had stopped, but there was no response from Nox. Assuming the worst, Estella crept toward the opening, holding Astra in a tight grip.
Then his answer came: Stay where you are, and wait until I return.
Estella stopped. Relief flooded her veins, but she grew wary when she sensed the concern in Nox’s mind. Taking a spot by the opening, she waited while scanning the trees outside.
It wasn’t long before she sensed his approach from the way the Resonance grew stronger. There was a rustle in the bushes ahead, and Nox stepped out, hurrying toward her on silent footsteps.
“Where did—“ Estella began.
Nox placed his index finger on his lips and glanced back immediately. Don’t talk. Just pack everything. We’re leaving now.
The urgency in his voice combined with her own rising apprehension forced pushed Estella into action. She swiftly worked while Nox stood guard outside. Questions whirled in her mind, but she refrained from asking them in favor of concentrating on her task.
When she finished, she joined him outside. The moon was full, but the interlocking branches of the trees formed a dense canopy from which only thin shafts of moonlight pierced through.
And the forest was quiet. Terrifyingly quiet. As if holding its breath.
They crept toward the tree line, eyes darting around. Whatever Nox had seen must be terrifying, for he never let go of her hand. Estella took comfort in his touch, and the hammering of her heart didn’t seem loud anymore.
They were heading in the direction of the Yvela Blossoms. The path was almost nonexistent, and the underbrush only made traversing even more difficult. Every few minutes, they would stop to listen. But there was no sound save for their own breaths.
Another ten minutes of silence, and Estella finally dared to ask, Nox, what really happened back there?
Without breaking his stride, Nox replied, I saw something. I’m not sure what, but it was big. And definitely not an animal.
Estella’s throat tightened. A Remnant?
Nox glanced at her briefly with a gentle gaze. Even a Remnant wouldn’t step foot here, Ella. He returned his attention to the path ahead. No, it wasn’t a Remnant. That much I can guarantee.
She didn’t press him for more information. It was clear in his thoughts that whatever it was, they needed to avoid it. Was that growl she had heard came from that monster?
An owl hooted, startling Estella. It was so unexpected that she nearly stumbled on a branch, but Nox steadied her before she could fall.
Yes. I was just startled.
Nox glanced at the trees. Another owl hooted, and they heard the chatter of squirrels fleeting from one branch to another. They are active again. That’s a good sign.
Estella nodded. The animals would grow silent when danger was near. But with all these sounds returning, her worries diminished. Perhaps the monster had—
A roar, followed by a shout in her mind: RUN!
Nox grabbed her hand, but Estella didn’t any encouragement. They burst through the forest in a frantic escape from whatever that monster was. Behind them she could hear crashes, and the ground shook. Something big was chasing them.
Don’t look back, Nox said through their connection. Keep running.
She didn’t need to be told twice. Her chest almost feel like it would explode from her pounding heart. Her legs were burning from sheer exertion of just trying to outrun the thing behind them. Her hand could barely grip Astra from the sweat coating her palm.
A terror worse than a Remnant… But no. A Remnant was the worst terror in the world, and yet Nox had survived fighting not one, but two. They had both survived an encounter with one. This monster should be nothing compared to what they had endured in the Coltar Ruins.
She glanced toward Nox, and he met her gaze, squeezing her hand. He knew. He understood. And he believed.
Together they spun and faced the monster.
Thank you for reading!