The entire forest was dying, and the areas of decay were plentiful. As we headed down the trail, they became more prevalent on either side. The humans in the group seemed to take it in stride, but it was clear that the elves in the group were deeply concerned with what they were seeing. Saria wore a contemplative worried expression on her face and even in Bala’s usually expressionless façade, there were cracks and a wrinkled brow.
“We’ll be reaching a fort soon.” The lead escort announced, sounding just as eager as we were to reach it.
I let my horse fall back to where Baba was sitting on the carriage. She’d never admit it, but the horses were all too large for her to ride without the help of someone larger. Once in awhile, she’d use me, but for the most part she preferred to stay in the carriage. My mother was sitting in the front, next to the guard that was driving it. Meanwhile, Baba was sitting in the rear, her feet out over the edge of the back. She glanced up at me while wearing a knowing look. She had a cup of hot tea she was sipping which hid her lips. She probably thought it looked mysterious.
“Is this biological or magical?” I asked.
“Biological?” She raised an eyebrow.
I made an irritated noise and shook my head. “Something pertaining to a disease. Something caused by bacter… hmmm…”
I noticed the expression on her face turning glassy as she lacked understanding. I realized that I wasn’t even entirely certain how much this world knew about things like disease. It was very possible that the concept of bacteria and viruses were completely foreign to them. How was I supposed to describe this? In the past, diseases like these were always assigned to magic. In a world with magic, that made things doubly complicated.
“As far as I can tell, there is no particular mana disturbance through the forest, although that’s a bit of a lie. The forest itself breaking down is, in fact, a mana disturbance.”
I nodded thoughtfully. I was trying to determine if there was some evil spell that had been cast causing the breakdown of the forest, or if someone had engineered a disease to wipe out the flora and fauna. If it was mana, it looked like Baba couldn’t detect it. The mere act of an enchanted forest dying created a disturbance of mana. Someone who knew that could have concealed a magical spell within that disruption or this could all just be my unknowing conjecture.
“Tell me, what would it take to do something like this magically.” I decided to rephrase my question.
Baba eyed me side-long. “I won’t ever do anything like this. It is an afront to nature. As a Grand Magus, it is one of my edicts to maintain balance and to not disrupt the flow. For example, I never could have created that army of undead as the beastkin did. It isn’t a matter of being strong enough. Leave it to the beastkin to upset nature in such a brutal and all-encompassing way.
“Taking it over… that was simply maintaining the status quo. And wiping the undead out was restoring the balance if anything. That was the reason I was willing to do those acts for you. Had you wished to continue to use that army for your purposes, I would have put a stop to it. These are simply a matter of my principles! Gah!”
I knocked her on the head, stopping her tirade before speaking. “You misunderstand me. Although you hold these ideals, other mages may not. What of these other Grand Magus? Could they, perhaps, create this unbalance?”
“You… always hitting me.” She mumbled about how violent I was while holding her head before responding to what I had suggested. “It’s out of the question. There are three with the title of Grand Magus in this world. We are all loyal to our edicts, and while they don’t match, they fold into each other and are essential for this world. The other Grand Magus aren’t exactly like me, but they must maintain the balance. They wouldn’t betray me or those of this world.”
“Not like you? So, they’re not the same species?”
This was the first time that I had ever asked Baba directly about what she was. It seemed like she had some connection directly to this world. It wasn’t abundantly clear, but she had some kind of edict she had to follow. Was it provided by that God? Either way, her desire was to maintain what she considered the balance.
“Hmph! Rude!” She snorted and looked away, but after a moment gave me a side-long look. “We are not the same. Each of us was created independent of the others.”
“Created by who?” I decided to ask directly.
“Hmm… you think you have the qualifications to learn that answer.” She asked, casually bringing her cup up to her mouth.
“Was it that flakey god with the long beard and the white robe?” I guessed the answer I thought most likely.
She suddenly spat out her drink, coughing and sputtering. “H-how do you know what God looks like?”
I frowned. “Isn’t that what every god looks like?”
If you pictured God, a long-bearded man in a white robe was probably what you pictured. However, I had also met the real guy, and he had given me a bad impression.
“No… you definitely spoke as if you’ve seen him! How have you seen him?”
“Do you have the qualification to learn that answer?” I replied back bitterly.
“Yes! I am more than qualified! Tell me!” She said demandingly.
She was as full of herself as always. I could only sigh.
“We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” I responded.
“What? I don’t agree to that! Hey! Where are you going?”
I decided to kick my horse and leave Baba even though she was yelling after me. Fortunately, her cries ended quickly when she realized she wasn’t going to get an answer. As for me, I returned my focus to the decaying forest. If these Grand Magus were as powerful as Baba, I wondered what would happen if one of them went rogue. She claimed they were bound by the edicts. It’d be really nice to know what those edicts were. I didn’t like that there were all-powerful beings potentially pulling strings I couldn’t see. In fact, I didn’t like the possibility that Baba was in some way manipulating me.
That was part of the reason I severed contact with her for the moment. She had seemingly traveled on this journey on a whim. I had thought that she had joined me because of some kind of imprinting, or hell, maybe she was just bored, but that didn’t explain why she was explicitly helping me. The alterative thought was considerably less pleasant. She was using me to accomplish some kind of goal she wanted to be fulfilled.
Then again, wasn’t I already a tool of that shitty god? That was why I was doing this all in the first place. He wanted me to subdue my sisters and take control of the country. I shook my head in irritation. It didn’t look like I was going to be free of these kinds of things any time soon. It was an unpleasant thought.
“There it is!” Saria called out, pointing.
It might not have been visible had the forest been more vibrant, but at the moment, there were numerous patches and holes in the forest canopy which allows us to see a distant stone tower. I made a noise of surprise. As I understood it, most elvish worked using timber or mud. To see a stone tower was definitely not something I expected.
“Fort Divine Path,” Saria said as if she could read the expression on my face. “It was built by humans during a war many many years ago. We naturally have repurposed it. It has remained a military hub for our country since. If we want answers about what is happening to the forest, this is the best place for it.
“A place to rest in peace for the night would also be appreciated.” Mother’s melodious voice sang out.
There was a slight tingle to her words that reminded me that I had promised to spend time with her as soon as we had a room to ourselves. I imagined that I’d be getting a room for two and mother would be joining me tonight. I could only let out a difficult sigh. Tonight was going to be a rough one.
We continued to approach the fort at a steady pace. The decay seemed to be particularly bad directly around the fort. This wasn’t necessarily a disadvantage, as it’d give people on the walls a clear view of the area around the fort and keep anyone from sneaking inside. As we approached though, the gate didn’t open, and there was no one outside the gate. They should have seen their own elvish scouts by now, yet the fort felt suspiciously empty.
In fact, the entire place had a foreboding atmosphere. The decay tied with the silent fort to give an oddly deathly feel to everything. I found myself frowning more and more the closer we got. Soon, we were standing in front of the massive doors, but there wasn’t a single indication that anyone acknowledged us or would be letting us in.
“Do you see anyone on the walls?” One of the elves asked, eyeing the fort suspiciously.
“There!” Bala pointed to a person darting down the wall.
It was an elf archer. He raced behind a stone wall, and then popped up with an arrow drawn on us.
“Soldier! We are border scouts! I’m returning with the princesses who visited the human territory of recent.” Called out the lead escort.
“Are you real?” The man made a demand.
“Excuse me?” the elf leader responded incredulously, “Of course, we are real! What is going on in this fort?”
“You… all of you! Show your faces! You in the carts! Get out.” He screamed down on us, his arrow visibly shaking even from this distance. “Do it, or I’ll fire. I mean it!”
The elvish archers removed their hoods. Baba jumped out of the back of the carriage and came around cautiously. Mother and the human guards stepped away from the carriage as well. We all stood so we could be visible to the archer, but I still had a bad feeling about the whole thing.
“You too!” He barked, his arrow on me.
That was the part I really wanted to avoid. I could only let out a sigh. Very slowly, I reached up and grabbed my hood.
“I am Prince David of the humans. Excuse me for-“ I pulled back my hood making my features clear to him.
“A devil! I knew it!” He shouted, ignoring my words.
Throng! He loosed his arrow. Despite his fear and shakiness, the arrow flew true. He was an elven archer, and they were renowned for their good aim. It cut through the air perfectly, the target was obviously me! I hadn’t expected it and my hands were still on my hood. I was like an animal in headlights. Dodging away didn’t even occur to me.
“David!” My mother cried out.
“Watch out!” Bala didn’t react in the same way, she leaped from her horse and shoved me off of mine.
I felt myself pushed away from the path of the arrow as I fell from my saddle. When I struck the ground, the air had been completely knocked out of me. Above me, Bala was leaned over my saddle, one foot on my stirrup, looking down at me. The arrow slammed into her side. At this point, the action startled the horse, who leaped forward. Bala rolled off the end of the horse and then slammed to the ground at my feet.
“Sister!” Saria screamed, running toward Bala, even as the escort tried to stop her.
The man on the wall wasn’t drawing another arrow though. Rather, he had his mouth open and he seemed stunned. I forced myself up as my Mother also raced toward me, grabbing me and checking my body.
“Are you okay?” She cried tearfully.
I pushed mom off me and knelt next to Saria. “Bala!”
Saria had managed to roll her over, but the arrow had embedded itself into her back on the side. The arrow was deep in her side. The wound was bleeding profusely. When Bala opened her mouth, blood suddenly spurted out.
“No… no… no…” Saria screamed, shaking her head while grabbing Bala tightly.
She turned and reached for the arrow. I smacked her hand.
“Leave the arrow in!”
“It needs to come out!” She cried, hitting me angrily as I stopped her from grabbing the arrow, “It’s killing her!”
“You’ll cause more damage pulling it out than it did going in. That’s how arrows are designed. We need a surgeon. It needs to be cut out carefully. Quick, put clothes around the wound, we need to stop the bleeding.”
“I can heal her…” Saria said, and then less certainly. “A bit…”
“Well, if you kill her getting the arrow out, then you can’t save her after!” I said back.
Saria stared at me for a moment while blinking, but then nodded and started wrapping the wound. She didn’t try to take the arrow out again. As for my mother, once attaining I was alright, she ran back to the cart and started grabbing some medical supplies.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The elf escort shouted. “You shot the princess!”
“It’s… accident… it’s an accident…” The man said, shaking his head desperately.
Bala’s eyes closed and her body grew paler. If that arrow had hit an organ, no matter how good Saria’s healing, she could still certainly die. I reached up and checked her mouth, and gave a breath of relief. She wasn’t coughing up blood. She had bit her tongue when she was flung from the horse. It was still a bad wound, but nothing that would kill her. It didn’t help the situation that she was bleeding out any though.
I stood up and shot a look at the man on the top of the wall, still shaking his head as if he could deny everything that was happening. A surge of rage and anger shot through me.
“Hey!” I screamed. “Let us in immediately! Open the damned door. I swear to every God you believe in I will tear down this door and burn everyone in-“
Before my threat was even finished, the sudden sound of the door latch being undone sounded from the inside. I stepped back, but a furious look was still on my face. Part of the reason was that as much as he claimed in an accident, he had loosed that arrow on me with the intent to kill. The other reason was that Bala’s current predicament was completely my fault. Had I been able to react properly and utilize my will, I could have dodged that arrow. I had the ability, but in a moment of inattentiveness, I almost lost someone…
I bit my lip as the door opened. Almost two dozen elf guards came pouring out. However, they all had their bows drawn. They quickly surrounded the caravan. The human guards drew their swords, but I held up a hand to stop them. As for the elvish scouts, they seemed confused and remained standing where they were.
“Drop your weapons!” An elf woman with white hair, a scar on her cheek and a limp walked out and demanded. “All of them!”
The elvish scouts did this instantly. The humans looked at me and I could only give them a nod. I pulled my own sword from my belt and threw it to the ground, feeling extremely frustrated.
“Are you real?” The white-haired woman demanded.
“Don’t we look real!” I snarled back.
“A devilkin!” She snarled back. “I knew one of you would show up after everything that has happened.”
“I’m Prince David. Human realm!” I shot back. “And tread very carefully with me right now. You shot your own princess. As far as I’m concerned, you’re all traitors to the throne. Both human and elf. Think very carefully what you choose to do next, because based on those choices I may bring a hell upon you that you will never recover from!”
“What princesses?” She seemed to ignore my threat and looked to the side, seeing Saria bent over Bala.
Immediately, she let out a noise. “Saria? Ah, Bala! Men, get a stretcher immediately!”
I blinked at how suddenly the atmosphere changed. The animosity the woman had disappeared like smoke. Suddenly, she had concern on her face, and I could even see tears in her eyes as she approached the two women. I thought to block her way, but she had a sword out and she gave me the feeling that she’d cut me down if I tried.
“Saria… what is going on?” The woman demanded, a strangely concerned look on her face.
Saria shakily stood up, her dress covered in the blood of her unconscious sister. “I should ask the same thing, Aunt Ayda.”