Chapter 39:

Chapter 39: The Beautiful Ordeal of the Forest (Elly)

The Heir of the Dragon

Elly was relieved at how docile Blake was on the trip to Estval. There had been a mild fright early on, but after he came back he had sat quietly the whole rest of the ride there. Except for the times he was napping, of course.

She had been looking forward to this trip with a strange feeling of hopeful anxiety. Having only been on a train once before, traveling a full day and night was still a new experience for her. And although Melody and Wendy were in different groups, she was happy with the group she’d been placed in. Ark may have been antisocial, but Amy’s positive energy more than made up for that.

And she hadn’t expected to enjoy her half-brother’s company this much.

If someone had told her that day when the sky train pulled up to Starstorm that by the end of the quarter she would be staring into the prince’s bright eyes as he smiled at her and told her about books he’d been reading, she would have called that person a liar. But here she was. Maybe… if she hadn’t run away that day, maybe the trip to the Rem Magic Academy may have been like this.

She glanced at Blake’s sleeping face and decided that no, it was a good thing she’d ran. She never would have gotten to know Blake if she hadn’t. And while she still wasn’t that close to him, it was through Blake that she had gotten closer to Reed, and Reed had helped her find the strength that had been inside her all along.

She smiled, and stifled a yawn. It was getting so late. Blake had dozed off hours ago, and so had Lance. Amy was still awake, and talking up a storm, and Elly admired how much she obviously cared about her home. But it was dark, and Elly was tired, so she thanked Amy and snuggled up next to her brother, a small smile spreading across her face as she closed her eyes.

She was looking forward to when they got there. She wanted to build a new relationship with her half-brother, one piece at a time.

The jostle of the train as it landed pulled Elly out of her sleep and she sprung up, rubbing her eyes. She winced. They were supposed to be further from the sun than before, why was it so bright out? With a yawn, she noticed that Amy and Ark were already gathering their things, and Lance was just starting to wake up himself. Only Blake continued to sleep, but before she could wake him up, Lance caught his hand.

“It’s okay, he’s not going to hurt me,” she assured him, and gently shook Blake awake. He was still looking pretty groggy, his face scowling more than usual. But he trudged behind them as they exited the train, and soon all thoughts of Blake were blown from Elly’s mind.

The sight in front of her was astounding. It made the forest beside the Rem Magic Academy look like a tiny garden.

The trees were so much taller here, they stretched so high up that Elly had to raise her head and squint to try and see the tops. They were standing on a thin stretch of land on the edge of Estval, the train station set up in a small town. But the buildings were dwarfed by the grand forest they stood beside, looking like little doll houses in comparison.

Everywhere Elly looked, she saw one of two things. The sky behind her, or the forest in front of her. It was just… well, the stories didn’t do it justice. When her books described Estval as being a forest that spanned a whole island, they didn’t say it was anything like this! The trees practically glowed with life, their branches dancing in the strong winds like hands beckoning forward, tempting Elly to enter their warm canopy.

She wondered briefly if this was her elven blood speaking to her, causing her to react with such awe. There were no elves in Estval, but certainly this was the sort of place they could call home. She took one step closer, then another, and another. With each step the trees grew taller, throbbing larger and swelling like a heart pumping life through the forest itself, and that’s when she saw it.

The tree was larger than any other, pure white and so grand that she had not noticed it at first; it towered over everything as it reached towards the sky. Elly craned her head up, up, up, but she couldn’t see the top; its branches were hidden in the clouds.

“Elly? Are you coming?”

Elly gasped, snapping out of her daze, and turned to Lance. He had waited for her. She smiled sheepishly, nodding, and followed him to where the rest of the cohort was gathering. The professors had set up beside a rest area for tourists, the normal visitors off to the side to make room for the students.

At the front of the group, Professor Darkflame stood with Professor Salamandra and Nurse Leilandry. There were other teachers off to the side, including the chaperone for her group, Professor Saleigh. Miss Esterwind was notably absent though. As the professor began to explain about the different paths the groups would be taking and the safety protocols, Elly found her attention drifting back to the forest. It was just so wonderful, like something from a fairy tale…

She couldn’t wait for the professors to finish talking, so she could finally go inside herself.

A few hours into the hike, and the novelty was starting to wear off for Elly.

Make no mistake; the forest was truly as wonderful as she had imagined when she saw it from a distance. Better, even. It was Autumn, and the leaves were just beginning to make their change from vibrant green to the beautiful browns, oranges, yellows, and reds that were the gem of the season. That crinkling sound of her first step into the forest was like music, her ears dancing with the sounds chirping sounds of fallen leaves and forest life.

It was so much more than she ever could have seen in her picture books. As beautiful as a drawing might be, it could never capture the vibrant feeling of life that a real forest could. Everywhere Elly looked there was movement. The birds flying overhead, a small rabbit dashing into the brush, even just the wind blowing through Professor Saleigh’s hair as she told them about Estval’s flora and fauna, it pained Elly that they would have to leave this beautiful place come nightfall.

But those joys had faded as the long hours of walking took their toll. While the forest was no less beautiful, her eyes had grown far more tired.

Elly was not an athletic person. She wasn’t like Amy, walking jauntily around rocks and branches, asking eager questions of the professor. Elly’s legs were made of clay, and each step she took it felt like she was slogging through mud. She had to keep telling herself to take one more step, praying it would be the last while sadly knowing otherwise.

She couldn’t believe people did this for fun. Sweat rolled down her face and her heart pounded in agony, and when the ground began to slope up she felt like she wanted to cry. As beautiful as the forest may have been, it would take someone with far more energy than Elly to truly enjoy it.

How much further could it possibly be? The towering white tree at the heart of the forest marked their destination, but it served as a poor guide. So wide that Elly couldn’t see around it, she had no idea if they were ten steps away from its base, or ten thousand.

“Elly! Come on!” Amy’s cheery voice called down to her. Elly glanced up to see that the others were at the top of the hill already, even Blake, who looked even worse than she felt, carrying on his back not only his dragon eggs, but that scary red sword of his. He’d looked listless and tired since she’d woken him up that morning, and Elly vowed that if he could make it, so could she.

Ignoring the blazing sunbeams searing her through the canopy, Elly sucked in a breath and nearly passed out from the pain. Her lungs were on fire! But she clenched her teeth and pushed past it, forcing her feet up the hill. She ignored Amy’s cheers and Lance’s worried calls, she blocked out everything in front of her. She focused only on her next step forward, her burning legs pumping out pain with each step until finally the ground evened out and she pitched forward.

“There, easy girl,” Amy said, catching Elly before she fell over. “Sheesh, don’t overdo it.” Elly felt Amy’s cool hand on her forehead, and she smiled a little.

Then, she felt really cool.

Amy’s smiling face had been replaced by Ark’s stoic one, the young boy gazing down at her with cold eyes as his even colder hand soothed her sweaty brow. She felt her heartbeat slowly returning to normal.

“Careful,” Ark muttered, his voice almost sounding kind.

Lance took hold of Elly next, his hands surprisingly gentle on her shoulders as he kept her upright.

“Are you okay?” Professor Saleigh asked, walking over to Elly as Lance helped her sit down on a rock.

“I’m just… not used to hiking,” Elly muttered, wincing at the stabbing feeling in her stomach.

“I see. Well, don’t worry, we’ve only got a little ways to go,” the professor assured her, her warm smile easing Elly’s soreness.

“How much longer?” Lance asked, his voice surprisingly harsh. Elly felt her heart leap. Was he worried about her?

“Not too much further,” the professor said, turning and staring at the wall of white before them. “Only another thirty minutes or so until we get Eldrasil’s roots.”

Hearing that made Elly’s stomach do the churning thing it did before she threw up.

“Don’t worry,” Professor Saleigh said, giving Elly another reassuring smile. “It’s just a little more walking, and this last stretch should be easy. It’s flat.”

Elly supposed that sounded reassuring, but all she heard was “more walking”. The professor stared at her for a few seconds; her brow furrowed, and then rose to her feet and turned to the others.

“I think this is a good time for a rest break,” Professor Saleigh declared, setting her pack on the ground and getting out some canteens of water. “We’ll finish the hike when we’ve all got our strength back! In the meantime, who wants to hear more about Estvalian prayer ceremonies?”

Elly tuned out the professor as she began her lecture. She was trying to regain her strength, not fall asleep.

Luckily, Elly only needed a few minutes to rest before she was back on her feet, ready to continue the hike. As she followed the professor down the path with her group, she felt like the tiredness she’d been feeling before was slipping away now.

It surprised her. The further they went, the more energy she seemed to have. Maybe those physical training classes were starting to come in handy! But Elly didn’t think that was the case. No, it was something about this place, this forest that was soothing to her. It reminded her of that feeling during the Chess Games, when Meghra boosted her mana using that paint magic.

That’s what it was! The air was filled with mana! Elly took a deep breath, and felt it flow into her. She wondered how she possibly could have missed it before. She took another huff, her lungs filling with the soothing scent of the forest.

“Well, it seems our Elly likes this place quite a bit,” Professor Saleigh called, laughing. Elly felt her face grow hot with embarrassment.

“S-Sorry,” she mumbled, shifting in place. “I just…”

“Oh, don’t apologize,” the professor laughed. “It’s normal!” She took a deep breath herself. “Do the rest of you smell that?”

Amy sniffed the air, her face brightening. “Yeah! It smells really good! What is it?”

“It’s mana,” the professor explained. “Estval is a land that’s very abundant with mana! That’s why so many people mine orica here; because it forms in such great quantities the closer you get to Eldrasil, the Sacred Tree!”

Eldrasil, that was the name of the white tree they were walking to, Elly remembered that now!

“You see, the Estvalians believe that Eldrasil is the creator of life,” Professor Saleigh continued her explanation as she walked. “Eldrasil’s roots run deep into the island, and the energy flowing through them nurtures the entire forest. It has so much mana inside of it that it seeps out into the leylines and forms a large reservoir of mana that serves as the center of the ecosystem! Imagine, all that mana, gathered in one place. That’s the benefit of the Sacred Arm!”

Lance narrowed his eyes. “Sacred Arm?”

The professor nodded. “Eldrasil, the Sacred Arm,” she explained. “It’s a sword that’s said to contain the power of the Sacred Tree, hidden away deep within the tree itself, fueling it, giving it life. All that mana packed together so tightly it seeps into the air itself. The closer you get to Eldrasil, the denser the concentration of mana gets, whether it’s in the trees, the air, the water, even the soil itself!”

Elly’s mother had always told her that elves could circulate mana through breathing, but Elly had never tried it herself. Maybe this was what it was like? She took another sniff, and it made her feel all warm and tingly. She was so lost in the hazy sensations of mana blending with the rush of the river and the other sounds of the forest that she didn’t even realize they were there.

And Elly had thought Eldrasil was large BEFORE.

Standing in front of it, staring up at the mighty tree, all her prior thoughts about the forest washed away.

It… It… Elly was at a loss for words.

“It’s ginormous!” Amy gasped, and Elly found that to be a suitable description. It was less of a tree, and more of a giant wall. No matter where she turned, all she saw was white. Stretching up into the sky, and as far around as she could see. The forest ended at a giant wall of white. She approached the tree, stunned at how beautiful it was. She laid a hand on one of the roots and marveled at the sensation; it was not only larger around than she was, but it was as smooth as marble! It dug deep into the ground, curling around her with countless others just like it, forming a twisted jumble of knots and pathways that looked just tall enough to walk through.

“Elly! Don’t get lost!” Lance called. Elly turned to see the others had gathered a few feet away, right beside the first river Elly had ever seen. It was a bit of a letdown. Normally the river would have looked giant to Elly’s eyes, but beside this tree it seemed like a small little creek. It twisted its way deep into the tangle of roots, and Elly felt the temptation to go in after it, but she resisted, moving to join her group instead.

As she walked over to them, maneuvering her way through the twisted roots, she found her thoughts kept drifting back to the big tree, and how beautiful it was. How soft and warm and welcoming.

She was so lost in awe that she almost missed the branch, twisted into a sharp point, surging right for Blake’s back.

“Blake!” She shouted, throwing herself in front of the wooden spear and casting her barrier. The screen of light stopped the wood, but only briefly. Just enough for Blake to grab her and pull her away before it shattered. The long shaft plunged into the ground.

“What the hell was that?!” Amy shouted, her head whipping around frantically. Elly’s heart was racing as she scanned the trees desperately, looking for…

She didn’t know what she was looking for. But that attack had been no accident. It was magic!

“Elly!” Elly whipped around to see Lance running towards her, his face pale and stricken with fear. “Elly, watch—aaargh!”

The shaft of an arrow erupted from Lance’s shoulder blade, flinging blood onto Elly’s face.

And then Elly screamed.

Real Aire