Cross woke up before daybreak. Lesedi had left a sweet roll out for him the night before and he chewed on it as he went over the map. The trail hadn't changed much. From here, it was almost a straight shot to where he needed to go. He left a few extra coins on the front desk before making his way into the foggy morning.
The air was colder than it was the day before and accompanied by a thick, heavy fog. It was not a biting cold yet, but the kind that settled on his skin and clung to his every breath. He rubbed his hands together and pulled up the hood on his coat, drawing it down tight against his head.
"It's going to rain. You can smell it in the air," Rudu said, pushing off against the side of the building and stepping in front of Cross. “It will make travel hard.”
"You're up early.”
"Early to bed, early to rise." Rudu crossed her arms over her chest. "So you're still going, then?
"Orders," Cross replied with a small shrug.
"Take the long way around."
"That's a long, long way."
"It's better than the forest."
"I'll be fine."
Rudu stared up at Cross for a long time before grabbing him in a tight hug. She held him for a long time, pressing her face against his chest, before finally saying, "I won't cry again. Even if you get really hurt."
Cross smiled and ruffled her hair. "I thought you didn't cry before?"
Rudu scowled as she let him go. “Just be careful.”
"I'll stop back through here on my way home, promise," Cross said as he started to walk away. He threw final glance over his shoulder. "Try not to give your grandfather a heart attack while I'm gone."
He chuckled softly as she stuck her tongue out at him before the fog quickly swallowed her up and he was left alone.
The journey to the forest was not particularly eventful and Cross was growing rather bored when a slight tug on his mind drew his eyes to two figures hiding just off the side of the road. Cross sighed and continued to walk passed them. He had an idea of what they were doing and he had no desire to deal with them at the moment.
He only made it a few more paces when one of them called out to him.
Cross came to a stop and slowly turned around to look at the pair. They were both in tattered traveling cloaks. The one who had called out to him was significantly taller than the other. He would call that one Stretch.
"Traveling alone?" Stretch repeated.
Cross lifted up a hand and silently pointed down the road.
Stretch narrowed his dull, brown eyes. "What for?"
"Dangerous to go that way. Must be for an important reason, eh?” Stretch asked, looking back the way Cross came.
Cross shrugged again.
"Are you mute?" Stretch grinned as the shorter one moved a few steps to the side, getting into a flanking position.
Cross sighed. He really didn't feel like dealing with this right now. He could probably pay them to leave him alone, but he also didn't feel like giving up any of his money. Even less so considering he had no idea how much Makina had managed to spend while he was gone.
Probably a lot.
Shortie had gotten almost all the way behind him now. He had a short sword poorly concealed beneath his cloak. If Cross had to guess, Stretch was carrying a knife.
"Let's make it simple, then. You give us your pack and any money you have and we'll let you go, no violence," Stretch said. He pulled his cloak back and exposed the thin knife that was strapped to his hip. Cross stared at it before lifting his eyes back up to Stretch.
"Is this really necessary?" Cross pushed his hood back and ran a hand through his hair. He didn't bother switching to Gori. He already knew the answer.
"Hurry up," Stretch said. He held out his hand expectantly.
"Right, then," Cross sighed and pulled off his pack. Stretch smiled and took a step towards Cross. Cross nodded and tossed the pack towards Stretch in a high arc. Stretch's eyes slowly lifted into the air, his hand lifting into the air to make the catch.
Exactly as Cross had expected.
Stepping forward, Cross slammed his right fist into Stretch’s throat. As the man’s hands came up to grasp at his suddenly constricted airway, Cross stripped the knife from his hip and spun.
As he came around he let the knife loose, sending it on a beeline towards Shortie who had just begun to fumble with his sword. The knife caught the unprepared thief in the shoulder and he screamed, falling onto his backside and grasping at the weapon.
Continuing with his spin, Cross cracked his elbow against the side of Stretch's head. Stretch dropped awkwardly to the ground and Cross gave him a boot to the side for good measure.
As his pack came sailing down Cross reached out and deftly caught it. He positioned it back onto his back and looked down at Shortie who was whimpering as he tried to remove the knife stuck in his shoulder.
"Leave it," Cross said. Shortie froze and looked up at him with wide, fearful eyes. Cross rubbed at his temple. "Leave the blade in and go back to town. Get the doctor to take it out. If you rip it out you're going to do more damage. Understand?"
Shortie nodded feverishly.
"Good," Cross shook his head and turned away, pulling his hood back on. Behind him he heard Shortie yell at Stretch, trying to wake his partner up. Cross sighed and continued on his way, soon falling out of ear shot of the pair.
With the distraction passed, Cross made good time and the forest loomed over him in a matter minutes. He looked up at the impressive sight. A vast expanse of green that stretched far as they eye could see. The trees here were ancient, and in their old age they had grown to staggering heights, reaching so high it seemed they pierced the sky itself.
The forest itself was dark, with only the barest of light seeping down through the canopy. The thick greenery swallowed up the rest, leaving nothing more than shadows and specks.
The Dark Forest was an apt name for such a place.
"Right, then," Cross sighed as he rubbed at his wrists, his fingers massaging against the fabric of his coat. "Let's see if this goes better than last time."
He walked forward until he was just on the edge of the forest and the road came to an end. A trail had been long worn into the ground, but Cross could see roots and plants beginning to snake their way across the ground. Rudu had warned him the night before that travel through the area had become all but impossible.
While it wasn’t completely unusual for some to have trouble passing through the forest, Cross was a prime example of that, there were many more who had successfully traversed the forest, entering into Verla without so much as bug bite during their journey.
However, that hadn't been the case for the past two years. Rudu told Cross that no one was allowed to enter the forest anymore. Even those who had many time made the trip had been driven out.
This hadn't stopped a substantial amount from trying.
The stories of exactly what had driven them out were conflicting. Some claimed attacks by bears or wolves. Others said the trees themselves had attacked them. Still others were steadfast in their belief that it had been a shadow of vengeance that had rained arrows down upon them. The shade of a fallen solider that had taken refuge in the darkness of the evil forest.
Cross didn't believe any of that. While he truly had no idea what was causing the issue, he was sure it was much simpler than it was being made out to be.
It usually was.
Taking in a deep breath, he took a step forward and entered the forest.
Almost immediately he felt a temperature shift. Even though he was in the shadows, it was much warmer inside of the forest. Still, he kept his hood on as he moved forward, brushing branches out of his way as he walked. In only a few minutes the forest had swallowed him up entirely and he could no longer see the road behind him.
A rustle to his left made him freeze. He raised his hands up slightly, ready to react, but he was in no way prepared for the sight that met him.
Cross's eyes widened, but he did not move as a bear slowly ambled along the path in front of him.
To say the bear was massive would have been an understatement. It was easily the largest animal Cross had ever seen. His head barely made it up to the bear’s shoulder and its leg was nearly as thick as Cross's torso. The bear turned its great head to look at him. Its amber eyes bored into Cross as it took a step forward. Cross remained completely still as the bear stuck its impossibly large snout up to his face.
Cross knew he should formulate a plan of some sort, but nothing of use came to mind as the bear continued to stare at him, its hot breath washing across his skin.
What could he even do against a monster this large? It was laughable. Something this big shouldn’t have even be able to exist.
Cross nearly screamed when the bear suddenly let out a great huff, the noise causing him to flinch involuntarily. The bear paid him absolutely no mind as it pulled its head away and turned off to continue on its way.
Despite its great size, it moved almost silently, slowly making its way off the path and back into the greenery of the forest. In less than a breath it completely disappeared.
Cross let out a breath he didn't realize he had been holding in, his hand coming up to clutch at his chest. A very large part of him wanted to turn back around, right then and there, but with a shake of his head he steeled his nerves.
Walking with a somewhat more cautious gait, Cross made his way deeper into the forest, but only managed to walk for a few more minutes when he got the very distinct feeling he was being watched.
This feeling was proven accurate as he heard a subtle 'twang' whisper out among the soft noises of the forest. He reacted out of instinct and stepped back as an arrow pierced the ground in front of him. Frowning, he reached down and picked it up, holding it up to the dim light that trickled into the forest.
The shaft was made of a black wood and fletched with what appeared to be leaves. The head of the arrow was also made of wood and, despite the irregular shape, appeared to be a single continuous piece with the shaft. He narrowed his eyes as he noted the sap-like substance that had been smeared on the tip.
Cross looked up into the canopy, but he could seen nothing among the leaves and branches. He dropped the arrow, took in a deep breath and closed his eyes.
He took a single step forward. There was another 'twang' and an arrow flew down from high up in the canopy, quickly followed by a second one. The first impacted with his right wrist and was immediately followed by a second one to his left.
Cross flicked his eyes back open and shrugged off his pack, letting it fall down to the ground. His fingers tightened into fists before he relaxed and took a single step forward. There was another 'twang' and an arrow flew down from high up in the canopy, quickly followed by a second. Cross's arms twisted as the arrows tore through his coat and struck with his wrists. He grunted as the force stumbled him back a step. He looked down at his wrists. The poison-tipped arrows were hanging limply from where they had torn through his coat. He grit his teeth and fell down to one knee.
The poison would course through his system and leave him unconscious, and that was if he was lucky. He struggled to lift his head up, but failed and slowly slid over to land face first in the dirt. With his eyes only open to slits he watched a dark figure drop down from the treetops and land lightly a few yards away from him, masked in the shadows of the trees. They carried a bow in their hands, with an arrow still nocked on the bowstring. The forest went still as they stared down at him, showing no intention of coming any closer.
Cross waited for almost a full minute before letting out a sigh and pushing himself up off the ground. He dusted off his coat and pulled the arrows free from his sleeves, taking a moment to check if they had done any damage to the bracers beneath. When none could be found he looked up at his attacker and grimaced.
"Didn't fall for my trick, huh?" Cross said. “That’s fair, it wasn’t a very good one.”
The archer didn't respond as they moved closer, stepping into a ray of light that had filtered through the trees. It was only then that Cross realized that his assailant was a female. A female that, if Cross had to describe her in a single word, would be green. From her remarkably emerald eyes, which focused on him with what could only be described as pure loathing, to her clothing that appeared to be made of leaves and vines, everything about her was green. Even her short, choppy black hair and fair skin seemed to hold a green hue to it.
"Guess that rules out the vengeful spirit or a ghost," Cross said, keeping a close eye on her bow. He had managed to avoid getting truly hit the first time with his Sight, but that trick only worked once, and it hadn't worked very well at all. "You're the one who has been attacking everyone, right?"
She didn't answer.
"I need to cross through this forest to get to Verla.” Cross tapped the leather pouch strapped to his hip. "I'm a Courier. You know what a Courier is?"
"Right, then. I was expecting… well honestly I don't know what I was expecting." Cross sighed as he reached down and slowly picked up his pack. Just as his fingers touched the strap, an arrow pierced through the fabric and pinned it to the ground. Cross slowly turned to look at Green. “That wasn’t very nice.”
"Leave." She finally spoke. Her voice was soft, like wind rustling through leaves, but it held a confident strength behind it.
"Can't, sorry Green," Cross said with a shrug. She wasn't wearing a quiver, which meant she was out of arrows. From the short, midriff baring shirt she was wearing, combined with the skirt, Cross doubted she was hiding any other weapons. For a moment, that bothered him. He couldn't quite place it, but it felt so very familiar.
"Leave. You will not get another warning." She dropped the bow and lowered her body slightly, taking a combative stance. She was a few heads shorter than Cross and far slighter, but he didn't put much stock in that. Lexi was downright puny compared to some of the people he had watched her demolish in a fight. Still, he liked his odds in a hand-to-hand fight better than he did being shot with another arrow.
"Right, then." Cross rolled his shoulders and lifted up his hands. "You have a name, Green?"
Green didn't answer as she launched towards him, moving far faster than he had anticipated. In a blink she halved the distance between them, her right arm crossing across her chest. Thin vines worked their way from beneath her shirt and coiled down her right arm. A thick, spear-length thorn burst from the vine and into Green's waiting hands.
Eyes widening, Cross threw himself back as she moved into striking distance and thrust forward with the spear, aiming to impale him through the chest.
Green persude him, slashing horizontally. Cross blocked the brunt of the blow with his bracer, absorbing the shock of the attack before knocking it away. Green spun with the momentum shift and came around to attack again with a sweeping strike. Cross skipped back, but was a beat too slow and the tip of the thorn sheared through his clothing as though it wasn't there and left a thin, bloody line across his stomach.
Cross winced as he dropped his hand to his stomach, feeling the warm blood slowly weep from the shallow wound. Green bounced side-to-side, light on her feet as she prepared for the next attack. Cross ran his tongue over his dry lips and settled into a defensive position, his hands held out in front of him.
Green drove forward abruptly, extending the spear out to its full length. Cross seized the opportunity and stepped towards her, batting the spear to the side as he moved. Green’s eyes narrowed as she took a quick step back, but Cross matched her, knocking the spear aside a second time as she tried for another quick strike.
Green retreated back a few steps, faster than Cross could follow. Her eyes never leaving him, she spun the spear around her body and let it come to rest behind her neck, the tip hanging just over her left shoulder. She lifted up her left hand and a vine spread to her palm and the end blooming into an orange flower. She pressed the tip of the spear into the heart of the flower.
“This is your final chance. Leave this forest and do not return.”
A grim line set on his mouth. “Sorry Green, I wouldn’t be much of a Courier if I didn’t complete my requests.”
"This flower's nectar is highly poisonous. If this spear so much as scratches you, you will die." She held the spear out towards him with a single hand. “Prepare yourself.”
"This really feels like a disproportionate response to entering your forest," Cross grit out as Green charged him, thrusting the spear towards his head. Cross-sidestepped the attack before sliding forward, trying to get in range to strike back. Reading his movement, Green reversed the spear and tried to catch him with the butt end.
Cross was forced to step back to avoid the attack, giving Green another opening to stab at him, this time aiming for his chest. Cross dove to the side and managed to dodge, but just barely, as he felt the tip of the spear catch his coat and tear through the fabric.
Cross came up on one knee and spun to face Green. She had the spear poised to attack again. He lifted up his left arm and flicked his ring finger. A ball of fire discharged from his bracer, burning through the sleeve of his coat as it raced towards Green. With uncanny precision she stabbed forward and actually managed to skewer the miniscule the explosive on the tip of her weapon.
"Pathetic." Green sniffed as she held up the spear, the small ball of light flaring brilliantly on the end of her weapon.
"Bang," Cross muttered. He turned away just as the explosive detonated and sent sparks and fire in every direction. He heard Green cry out in surprise and pain, the attack momentarily stunning her, but despite the shock her composure did not break down enough for Cross to counterattack as she kept the spear aimed in his general direction and ready to strike. He took the reprieve to catch this breath and eject the spent cartridge.
"Clever," Green growled as her vision returned.
"I appreciate that," Cross said as he pulled a fresh cartridge from his belt and loaded it in. "That was a new one I've been working on. It's on a delayed timer." Cross lifted his arm towards her and flexed his ring finger. "Want to see what this one does?"
Green narrowed her eyes, focusing on Cross's wrist before cocking her arm back and throwing the spear at him with a single, smooth movement. Cross stumbled backwards to avoid the sudden attack, but not before the spear entered into the barrel of his bracer. He heard a metallic ping that he was more than sure meant something was broken. He didn’t have time to worry about that, though, as Green followed up the sudden attack by grabbing onto the end of the spear. Cross responded by grabbing it as well, using both hands to keep the poison tip firmly lodged in the barrel of his bracer. She tugged on the weapon experimentally, but Cross held fast before adjusting his grip and pulling as hard as he could.
Green resisted for a moment before allowing him to yank her forward with no resistance, even pushing off at the last second to gain a touch more momentum that she used to launched herself into a knee strike Unable to block the attack without risking losing control of the weapon between them, Cross set his feet and accepted the blow. He grunted in pain as Green’s knee crashed into his chest and sent them both stumbling until his back slammed against a tree trunk.
Green landed lightly in front of him and thrust out her left hand. A short thorn burst from the vine tightly wrapped around her arm. Cross pulled his right hand free of the spear and grasped her by the wrist, keeping her from impaling him with the newly formed weapon.
Green bared her teeth at him, a small amount of saliva dribbling over her lips as she growled like a feral animal, but Cross did not lessen his grip as he fought to keep control of the two weapons that Green was hell bent on impaling him with.
However, even as he was able to keep her from freely moving either of the thorns, he was unable to stop the vines that suddenly began to move from her arm and snake over onto his. Noticing the danger a moment too late, he tried to fire off his flashbang, but the vines were already tightly coiled around his hands, locking his fingers in place, leaving him unable to trigger the firing mechanism. A sense of dread welled in his stomach as the vines slithered up to his shoulders, a few creeping further and brushing against his neck. His fingers quickly went numb as the vines began to contract.
As he felt his fingers go limp, he desperately lashed out with his foot but Green easily blocked it with her own leg before sliding backwards, slipping free from his weakened grip. He tried to kick her again, but she delivered two quick thrusts with the smaller thorn, piecing each of his legs high in the thigh. Blood poured from the wound and his legs gave out. He would have fallen had Green's vines not held him aloft.
"This is the end," Green said. She had grown eerily calm. Cross watched helplessly as she pulled the poisoned spear free from his the barrel before calmly thrusting forward.
It was a clean strike, directly to his chest, though mercifully she only allowed the thorn to pierce an inch or so before pulling it free.
Still, it was more than enough to deliver the poison into Cross's bloodstream.
The vines released Cross and he dropped down to his knees, arms limply falling to his sides. His wounds throbbed, but it wasn't anywhere close to the worst pain he had felt. It didn't matter though, not with the poison already coursing through his veins. He looked up at Green who watched him with what he would almost categorize as regret.
"I am sorry," she said softly as the vines wound their way back under her shirt. "I take no joy in ending your life, but you brought this upon yourself. I will return your body to the edge of the forest. May you pass peacefully to the next life."
Cross sighed and closed his eyes. The poison would take effect any second now. He hadn't known what his goal had been when he came here. Just to know who, or what, had attacked him back then, and why? Maybe for revenge? It was the only job he had ever failed. Was he really going to die over such a petty thing?
He sighed again.
The poison was taking a long time. Much longer than he had expected. He actually felt perfectly fine, the minor injuries aside. Honestly…
"…Huh." Cross opened his eyes and looked down at the puncture wound on his chest that had already stopped bleeding. He looked up at Green who was watching him with widening eyes. Cross coughed. "So, I don’t think the poison is working. Get the wrong flower, Green?"
Without hesitation she flipped the spear around and smacked Cross hard across the side of the head with the butt end. With the smallest of groans he dropped face first into the dirt, unconscious.
Green stared down at him for a long time before finally rolling him over with her foot and pressing the end of the spear against his throat. Taking in a deep breath, she prepared to deliver the fatal blow when a rustle caught her attention. Looking to the side, she watched as a monstrous black bear slowly appeared from the forest. It looked at her before walking over to Cross. With one great claw it reached out and carefully pulled the hood free from his head. Green's eyes went wide and the spear went limp at her side before dropping to the ground.
It took her only a moment to regain her composure.
"Very well. I will deal with this," she said, bowing her head.
The bear let out a huff and disappeared back into the forest.
Green looked back down at the unconscious Cross and scowled as it started to rain.