The woodlands were one place Layette got tired of. She took part in many skirmishes with the local resistance during the Civil War: many battlefields were taken place in them. However, the Forest of Sorrows was something different. Nearby trees seemed to loom in menacingly, their roots killing the other competition. The grass swayed in an unusual motion and when she got close to them; their tips leaned to her direction, as if they begged for salvation. If it wasn’t creepy enough, the mist swirled in a lifelike matter, constantly covering the red peering eyes glaring from the darkness. The continuous screams of peril did not make light of the situation either.
Several shadowy-like wolves appeared in front of her, baring their teeth. They ran at ferocious speeds, revealing their sharpened fangs. For an average person, they would be their prey within a single second. Unfortunately for them, Layette was no average person, and she unleashed the powers of the Phoenix. The divine fire burned many of their brethren into ashes and seeing this, the survivors slowly returned to the fog. Their red eyes vanished, and she was alone once again.
“Not ordinary wolves for sure. Wolves made of shadows with red eyes… Red-eye Shadow Wolves! There might be more of them, so I have to be careful.”
While continuing to tread on the visible path, she saw streaks of red on the dirt ground: human blood. She followed where it led and eventually, bodies of people were all over the place. The rotten smell of corpses almost made Layette puke, though she got her act together before continuing on. Near one pile of dead bodies was a cloaked man wearing half of a lion mask. She noticed the cross pendant on his neck, shaking her head.
“A member of the Conclave is here? He must have fought a bunch of those things before going down.” She removed his mask to close his eyes, then clasped her hands in prayer. “I wish you a safe trip to the afterlife. Thank you for your service, brave Conclave. Saya bless you.”
Some distance from her was a clearing in the forest and there lied a sword stuck into the ground. She assumed it belonged to the dead Conclave member. Though it was a bit chipped, she took it with her and traveled deeper in. After wandering aimlessly for what seemed to be hours, Layette found herself in a predicament. She had seen the same tree again and again. Was she going around in circles or the thickness of the fog was hindering her sense of direction? Upon the fifteenth time seeing the same withered, scratched tree, she lied her back upon the trunk to take a breather.
Going alone into a mystical forest filled with man-eating monsters was a bad idea. It seems I am caught in some trap, Layette thought.
She pulled her hair, freaking out. “By the Gods, am I going to die like this?!”
Layette let out a sigh, taking out a small necklace from her front pocket. She opened it, revealing a golden carved rose. Whenever she was in a tight spot, this necklace gave her the resolve to push onward. The purpose and origin of this accessory were unknown to her, yet she always kept it in arms reach no matter where she went. Horrid flames and burning debris came to mind upon reflection, and she never understood why. Nevertheless, this locket reminded her what she needed to be: the next big Hero.
Bushes rustled in front of her. It seemed like the monsters have caught wind of her location and are coming to attack. Not knowing what else was within the Forest of Sorrows, she hid behind the withered tree, peering through a small hole. The shrubs shuddered violently. A young boy pushed himself through the thick vegetation and fell to the ground. He wore torn mage clothing and was covered in bloodied rags. Despite being in constant pain, he stood and pressed on in desperation.
“S-Senior, Senior! Captain?! Where’s everyone?! Please, I… I can’t do this alone! Anyone, help!” he cried out.
A Shadow Wolf manifested itself behind the mage, pouncing on him. The boy conjured a barrier to get the wolf away. The beast broke through and the lad held its mouth back with his staff while on the ground. It broke the weapon into two and its teeth sank into his arm. The wolf threw him to the side, and the boy slammed against a rock. Layette came out and thrust her newfound sword into the monster, making it dissipate into a black mist. She crouched and held him under her arms.
“Hey, are you all right? Hey!” She heard no response. More red eyes gleamed in the distance, so she picked him up and ran in one direction. “We need not fret, I will try to find a way out!”
Layette tried the best she could and despite her effort, she met the same old tree. She stomped her feet in resentment. “I hate this forest! I am going to KILL whoever is responsible for this magic!”
“The woman,” the boy muttered.
“What woman? What are you trying to say?!”
“She… saved me. Woman. In. White…”
The young wizard fainted, and a slip of sweat dropped from Layette’s forehead when the eerie cries of the monsters became louder. She paced around, trying to find this “woman-in-white.”
“Grr, what woman-in-white?! How am I supposed to find that person in this stupid forest?!”
Though it was faint, someone was trying to call out to her. She spun to the right and listened closely.
The trees returned to their normal, upright stance, revealing a path to safety. Layette was skeptical to follow the trail, hesitating to take action. More Shadow Wolves spawned near her and walked closer to their prey. They left her no choice but to go to the open path while carrying the mage over her shoulder.
“Well, whatever! If I die because of this kid, I will make sure he dies again in the afterlife!”
The boy shot up, yelling until he was out of breath. He gasped for air and put his hand over his heart. He inspected himself, noticing his body was no longer wrapped in bloodied cloth. The starry sky was above him and besides the sound of the crackling fire, it was silent. Upon seeing the small bonfire next to him, he realized it was no ordinary fire. A flaming bird was laying down on top of burning wood, shifting its head to greet the confused boy.
“Be at ease. You are hurt, so do not get up so quickly.”
A woman was gazing at him with her crimson eyes and smiled with tender lips. She stroked the small, flaming bird and twirled her red braided ponytail. He blushed, relishing the sight of the beautiful woman. It took him a moment before he stopped staring, turning away in embarrassment.
“I think we are safe here. The trees are being trees for once and I do not see any of those wolves around. There was no woman-in-white, but I did hear a voice. Led me here so… here we are.”
“T-Thank you for saving me, Miss! I am M-Merlin Ambrosius, mage training in the A-Academy!” he exclaimed.
“An Academy newbie, huh? My name is Layette Hawkwood. Nice to meet you, Merlin.”
Merlin blinked twice and his hands trembled. He was astonished to find out that the Phoenix of Damore would be his rescuer. As his eyes sparkled in amazement, Layette grabbed a stick from the pile beside her and handed it to the bird. The critter placed the twig under its belly and after a peck, the branch was set ablaze.
“Sorry if my healing is not the best. Compared to the priests back at the Capital, my Faith magic is pretty much subpar.”
“It’s okay, Miss Hawkwood! To be frank, I don’t feel any pain at all.”
“A reliever, that is. Guess I can be decent healer!” Layette flailed her arms around, expressing her frustration. The sudden change frightened Merlin. “Gah, I cannot believe I got myself in this mess! Uncle is gonna kill me for worrying him. Wait, my record! It is gonna be affected cause’ I did not follow orders! Stupid, so stupid of me!”
A drop of sweat fell from Merlin’s forehead. “U-Uh, Miss Hawkwood?”
She took a deep breath, calming down. “It is okay. I am okay and you are too. Ah, so much better after ranting it away! Thanks Merlin!”
Merlin smiled awkwardly. “Right… You’re welcome?”
“Now that is out of the way, may you explain how and why you got in this horrible place?”
And so he explained everything. He told Layette about his assigned task from the Academy, about Aren, the Captain pursuing Aren into the Forest of Sorrows, how Senior saved him from those shadowy beasts, and now. After he was done, Layette lowered her eyes as the fire cracked the firewood into two.
“I see… Looks like the situation is more grim than I thought. And we all thought Captain Rogers was crazy.”
“C-Captain is alive?!”
“Yes, he is. He came in two days ago and reported to Commander Morrison about this incident. Apparently that Aren guy came in contact with him like two weeks ago.” Merlin blinked several times, and she gazed at him with suspicious eyes. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He flung his hands around. “N-No, sorry, don’t take it like that way! It’s just… it’s been like three days at least!”
“What, are you sure?”
“Y-Yes, for sure! I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but I am sure it must’ve been!”
Layette narrowed her eyes. “If you are right, then that means time goes faster the longer we stay here. We have to leave at dawn and not waste any more time.”
“Right…” Merlin paused, then spoke up again. “H-Hey, Miss Hawkwood. D-Did you see a Conclave—”
“Yes, I did. He… did not make it.”
He made a fist as tears streamed from his face. “N-No… It’s all my fault. Senior’s dead because of me. Only if I didn’t pester him to come here! I’m such an idiot! I’m so weak, I should’ve died, not him!”
“Should, huh? This might sound messed up, but take your losses and move on. Those people sacrificed themselves for you to live.” She pointed a stick at his face. “You saying you should have died is a spit at their grave. Stop being an idiot and be wishing that on yourself: cherish your second chance at living.”
Merlin’s eyes widened. “Miss Hawkwood…”
“Stop calling me Miss Hawkwood. Layette’s fine.” She gave another stick to the bird. It accepted her donation with a chirp. “If it is going to keep you up at night, just look at it that way. The pain will still be there but at least it is not as bad as it was before. Take it from me who…”
Layette shook her head and turned away, embarrassed. “A-Anyway, we should rest up and leave as soon as possible. Go to sleep or else these fists will make you!”
Merlin smiled awkwardly and nodded in approval. “I-I will take my rest, M-Madam!”
He quickly fell asleep, snoring louder than a moaning cow. Layette’s eye twitched. Eventually he stopped wheezing, which eased her mind. It was a constant battle to keep her eyes from closing, though she was unable to resist the urge. She turned to the bird and it tilted its head, waiting for a command.
“If you see something, wake me up, okay?”
She stroked its back and it sang a gleeful tune. It raised its head and waited for any signs of danger to emerge from the darkness. Layette yawned and stared at the night sky. There was one star that shined brighter than the rest. Her hand stretched out, reaching to touch the glowing light. The Wishing Star? Father said if you wish upon it you will… That is just some myth, anyway, she thought. Well, might as well give it a shot since it appeared.
The wind carried her desire above the clouds and to the stars. The heavens listened and a yellow light twinkled in the distance.