Chapter 55 – Twilight Forest

An underground forest is an amazing and surreal sight. In an above-ground forest, the light source is above, and partially cut off by the canopy. In a subterranean forest, the light sources are everywhere, scattered throughout the foliage, and every plant has a faint glow, a byproduct of photosynthesis transformed into mana synthesis. The stronger sources  are in the blossoms and pods that plants hoped would attract insects and cause animals to eat them, to scatter their seeds in deposits of nutritious manure.

If our skin had been glowing weird colors, I would have thought there was black light somewhere nearby. The bioluminescence gave that sort of feel. But it was only the plant life that glowed, as we moved through the undergrowth with our eyes on high alert.

“Lady,” Bruna muttered, “Are we not going to use any light?”

I was surprised at first, before I had time to think about it. But Ceria spoke up before I could answer. “Bruna’s eyes aren’t any better than a human’s, Lady. If you don’t want me ‘wasting mana’…”

With a nod and a “yeah”, I activated my circlet.

“Tell me when it’s enough,” I told Bruna, and began gradually increasing it.

After several seconds, she said, “This is enough.”

Again, I was surprised, this time by how far I had turned it up. It took quite a while before I realized the combination of vampire sight, fairy sight and my normal eyesight was throwing off my perception of how much light there was. I had already begun to forget what human eyesight was like.

I could sense creatures in the distance, but they were the tiny ones that live out their life staying hidden. The forest had a weird, hushed quality, as if the larger monsters and animals had all run away.

“There was a horned rabbit a little bit ago,” Ceria said quietly. “If you want to get one for dinner, I’ll call the next one out.”

How can you be thinking about dinner in this situation? I wanted to retort, but realized she and Bruna might not be as spooked as I was. Lacking my fairy sense, they didn’t realize how empty this forest was.

“I saw it,” I sort of lied, since I had actually sensed it, “but I don’t want to hunt right now. You two have enough dry provisions to last you?”

“Yeah,” Bruna nodded. “But why not hunt? There’s probably loads of meat around us.”

“There isn’t,” I answered, as a flat rejection. “This forest is strange. That rabbit was one of the only critters we’ve encountered since we entered.”

“No way,” she answered, with a confident shake of the head. “They’re just hidden.”

Only allowed on

“I don’t know, Bruna,” Ceria replied. “Now that I think about it, I think she might be right. It’s really quiet, and I don’t smell many fresh scents. Like everything moved out days ago.”

“How far does that sense of yours extend, Lady?” Bruna asked me.

“Without standing and concentrating, I’m confident to about thirty paces. I can get about triple that if I work at it, but the picture I get isn’t as clear.”

Bruna stopped and said, “Do it.”

I halted, considered it, and nodded, “You’re right, we need to be sure. But I want Ceria to do a [Detect Presence] instead. At longer range it will be more reliable.”

Ceria nodded, planted her staff on the ground in front of her, and chanted, “Give heed to the pattern I seek / A hand moves unseen below us / Writing in inks of spirit pigment / [Inscribe Formation]!”

It shocked me. She was preparing the third-level version of the spell, not the usual second-level one. How much third-level magic did this woman know, anyway?

“Did she go to a magic academy?” I wondered as I felt the formation expand through the soil beneath our feet.

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Bruna answered, “Our mom went to Bray Academy. She taught Ceria her magic.”

“I though you two had different mothers?”

After a sour glance at me, she said, “Ceria’s mom, the saint of a woman  who took me in and raised me like her own after her cheating husband and my real mother got themselves killed while adventuring, went there.”

I sensed I had trodden on a sore spot, implying that the woman who had clearly earned Bruna’s loyalty wasn’t her ‘mom’. Having no idea how to respond, I just nodded.

Ceria then intoned, “I plead for knowledge beyond my sight / The mind’s eye opens and perceives / That which is revealed by the light unseen / [Detect Presence]!”

I felt something like a slight gust of wind on my skin, but that was my fairy sense responding to the pulse that she sent out. Ceria closed her eyes, reading the image that had come into her mind, then nodded.

“I sensed out a hundred paces, Lady. There’s a few things like horned rabbits and flying lizards here and there. Nothing like as much as should be.”

A radius of a hundred paces. A circle with a width triple the length of a football field. From the center, she would have been far into the seats at both ends of the stadium at that distance.

She should have been picking up all sorts of larger things, like fang deer, iron birds, creeping moss, maybe a shadow fox or a tree lynx or such. This wasn’t giant rat territory, but there were other large rodents that should have been showing up in an area of that size.

“Let’s hurry,” I said. “This place worries me.”

# # #

It was once I could tell the woods were coming to an end that I first began to feel something. It was out beyond the last trees, inside a muddy impression of mana and miasma, as if a strange fog had descended on my fairy senses. I cautioned the other two, and got my crossbow ready. Rather than loading it, I shoved two bolts into holes in the stock for keeping spare rounds. One was enchanted, the other was a regular type.

“So it’s a big one then?” Bruna asked in a quiet voice as we walked.

“I can’t tell if it’s big or not, but anything able to cloud my detection skill like this is dangerous,” I answered. Frankly, I couldn’t distinguish size, or quantity, or strength, at all. But as I had just said, that told me important things all by itself.

In front of us, when we cleared the brush, we should see whatever it was that had Graham stuck in place. According to my pendant, Ryuu would be far to the right, and Brigitte far to the left. But around Graham there appeared to be a cloud of unidentifiables. I had to assume they were enemies gathering to oppose us. Did they know it was me coming? Did they think it was Arken and Melione returning? I had no way of knowing, but given what had happened to Ryuu and company, I had to assume they knew what they were facing.

If we were on the surface, the edge of the woods would show up as a background of increasing light, evidence of the forest canopy ending. But this was the underground. It was equally twilight beyond the woods as in them. I heard Ceria chanting in a whisper; in my fairy sense I could see her staff becoming pre-loaded with multiple spells.

That raised my optimism just slightly. I already knew she was a lot more advanced as a mage than I had first assumed. Now she was demonstrating a skill that I had only see Arken and some the Royal Knight Order’s best Mage Knights practice. Preloading spells vastly increased a combat mage’s rate of fire, and it was the main reason combat mages preferred great staffs of wood for their focus rather than the little conductor’s batons one sees in peaceful settings and Harry Potter movies. One used the excess wood not needed for the channeling of mana as mass with which to hold the spells awaiting completion. But only truly adept mages can preload more than one spell at a time. I was feeling her set up at least four.

The forest had an abrupt end. Beyond was ground too rocky for anything other than occasional weeds to grow in. It meant that something here repelled the cave ants and the stone worms which would have chewed the gravel up into usable soil. It was likely something inside the massive stone outcropping in front of us, that rose up nearly ten paces above the cavern floor.

In front of us, I did not see Graham. I knew from the locator stone that he should be there, but he was somewhere behind the crowd. And it was a frightening crowd to behold.

- my thoughts:

I'm having fun writing the incantations for Ceria's spells. It's a little like writing Haiku.

Special note to readers: The changeover from the short-lived 'Prime' system to the new 'Legacy' system has opened all three of my formerly lock chapters up. I will be using the Legacy system to continue offering advance chapters, but I won't be re-locking the chapters that were locked. Three new chapters are available now, and I will keep three advance chapters always available to those who want to pay to read early. I may increase the number of advance chapters in the future.

Check out my other novel: Tales of the ESDF

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