They ran north for a few minutes, skirting the left side of the forest and passing a station on the way. Once the group neared the target station indicated as number six on the crudely redrawn map on a large leaf, they paused and surveyed the surroundings. Seeing no one approaching with only the whisper of the trees echoing around them, they swiftly stalked up to the station. The circular structure was made of stone with three carved out entrances and no roof. A lone, square pedestal inhabited the center with approximately two meters separating it from the inner walls.
Their team leader, a sturdily built young man with short-cropped hair, urged the key holder to hurry with the activation as soon as the two entered. The rest of the group stayed outside to keep guard. The whole process took less than a minute, and they moved out immediately after completion.
"Whew, that was easier than I thought. My heart was pounding just now," commented one of their team members, a teenager who looked no older than fifteen with his small face and loose bowl cut.
"Shh! Keep quiet so that we don't alert any enemies nearby!" snapped their serious leader with a sharp glare.
"Sorry!" The boy apologized softly, hanging his head down slightly in the process.
An ashen brunette in the group rolled her eyes at the exchange. She thought that they were both taking this exercise too seriously. Whether or not they won was no big deal as long as they put up a suitable performance. And since she was part of the advanced class, she wasn't at all worried whether she could pick off the scrawny lower classes.
In silence, they traveled to station seven. It was only a couple minutes away, and like the previous, looked to be empty. Taking no chances as they were nearing the other side, one of their members scouted the area. After giving the clear signal, the others sprung out from behind the tree trunks toward the station. They secured ownership without a hitch and moved onto the next post, going west instead of north into enemy territory.
With this station, they would successfully have captured all of the perimeter posts on their side. Once that was accomplished, one of their members would report back to the secondary assault group. This station took longer to reach than the distance between the two previous. The coast was clear around station five, and they captured it seamlessly yet again.
But instead of feeling relieved or pleased with their accomplishments, Essairyn was perturbed. She looked warily around for a second before bending over to Darren on the other side of the station entrance. "Something's wrong. We haven't seen any movements of the other team, meaning they either bypassed us, or they're not crossing over onto our territory."
Darren wrinkled his brows in thought. "You think? They could just be doing what we're doing and capturing all of their own stations first."
The ebony-haired girl frowned, murmuring, "Perhaps... I just have a strange feeling about this..."
He peered at her face which had turned away and was now staring vacuously into the emptiness of the forest. Before he could say another word in reply, their key holder has finished the task and exited with their leader who gestured for everyone to move out.
As they began running toward the next station on the opponent's territory, Essairyn asked for the map from their second-in-command. They had designated this position if they ever needed to split into a smaller group. He nodded and carefully handed over a supple green leaf twice the size of a hand. For this exercise, they weren't allowed anything but the clothes on their back, a single map, and a basic weapon for each member. Thus, they had to be crafty and use the surrounding resources.
Nodding her thanks, she unfurled the leaf and traced over the engravings earnestly with her eyes. Essairyn couldn't get rid of her hunch, so she tried working it out by staring at the map and going through different tactics. Pausing on the opponent's side, a sudden spark flared in her mind. With her eyes wide, she whipped her head at Darren reflexively.
"They're placing one person at each station and moving separately."
Caught by surprise, Darren sputtered, "What? What do you mean?" His warm sepia chocolate eyes lifted in curiosity and mild alarm.
"Instead of forming teams like us, it's more efficient to move separately. It's risky, but effective if it pays off. That gives them more time to cross over to our side and spy on us." Her stern tone quickened with anticipation. A light seemed to fluoresce in the depths of her lavender orbs, a manifest sign to Darren that this girl was concocting something up in her mind.
He was silent for a second while considering her theory. Certainly, that would be the better tactic in the overall strategy of capturing the most stations. It made him wonder why no one pointed it out before. But if this was really the case, then it would explain why the forest was so hushed. At times, he did feel as if someone was watching him.
"Time-wise, they could beat us to the middle because we stopped to activate stations, but then we still should've encountered them while moving. Earlier even, so then how are they—" He abruptly stopped talking and jerked his head up sharply, realizing an absurd possibility. "The trees," he mumbled.
Essairyn looked up and gazed at the lofty forest ceiling with thick branches and foliage. Indeed, the cover was thick enough to hide and muffle any footsteps across the pathway of branches. And all the while, a bird's eye view allowed for almost unhindered access. It dawned on her that perhaps the Knights had chosen this forest for more reasons than originally thought. The sparse undergrowth allowed for great ease of movement while providing some coverage behind the trunks that could hide two people. It wasn't nearly as large as the trees in the Spirit-Demon Forest, but it was still a sizable woodland. "You think they're...?" She trailed off and peered at him from the corner of her eyes.
"Well, wouldn't you do something like that?" he asked with a somewhat joking tone.
She widened her eyes and blinked back up at the trees. "I would..."
Then with a gasp, she sprinted a second's distance toward their leader and announced, "I'm going back. I think they passed us." And without even looking to see his reaction much less hear his response, Essairyn pivoted and dashed off in the opposite direction.
Darren automatically slowed his steps in reaction to her decision and the wind that flew by as she passed him. With barely a heartbeat's hesitation, he joined her after waving to the bewildered leader that he too would leave.
"W-wait! You two—!!" Their leader's stifled shouts barely reached their ears as they ran away faster than when they were with the group.
The forest flew by, and they intermittently looked up at the trees for signs of movement. Instead of returning to station five, she headed for seven. From her deductions, it was more likely that the opponent would target station seven instead of five because if they had been watching them, they would go after the second to last deserted station nearest to the midpoint. It also gave them more time to distance themselves from the departing team when they did move to station five after seven.
"The only question is, how would they communicate through the treetops? Even on the ground, it would be difficult to get around quickly enough to act as messengers," said Essairyn, thinking out loud.
"Then again, who would ever think to look up? They could have several spies running around, and we would never hear them due to the sound of our own running and the distance between us." Darren pointed out.
However, while on the right track, Darren's guess was incorrect. When station seven almost came within eyesight, they saw people departing from that direction. Immediately, they softened and slowed their steps, shifting more to the left as they moved in order to stay out of the enemies' line of sight. With careful movements, they approached the station and observed it from the westernmost point. After detecting no activity within the station or above them, Essairyn slipped inside with Darren close behind on the lookout.
Immediately, she saw that the owner of the station had changed. Ten minutes had not passed since their assault team had left it.
"They have the device with them." Essairyn turned toward Darren with a sly grin.
His eyes flew toward the yellow neon stripe around the top of the pedestal. It glowed with the color of the opposition. He smiled. "Bingo."
Essairyn returned his smile knowingly, and they nodded at one another in silent agreement. They would clinch this game that was barely even a quarter of an hour begun. With harmonized motions, they raced in pursuit of the enemy. As far as Essairyn was concerned, she would have no trouble dealing with the group of people. Despite her external magic being bound, her physical abilities augmented by magic was more than enough to deal with them. Darren was also aware of this and while he couldn't boast the same, he was confident and eager enough to test out his limits. The magic binding had little to no effect on a 'non-magical' human like him.
"Darren, what do you think about distracting them from the left while I come from the right?"
"So that it looks like I'm coming from our base instead of from their side?"
She nodded, glad that he understood her intention perfectly. "Okay, let's split!" The two diverged and encircled the opponent from opposite directions and timing. Essairyn let Darren get ahead in order to approach them first.
In the meantime, she flexed her hands, letting the current of magic build in her palm. Unfortunately, she felt a hindrance to the magical energy collected. Sure enough, the magic binding made the summoning of her sword too inefficient. Even if it was more lax, she still wouldn't reveal her abilities to summon magical weapons. From the lectures she had received so far, it wasn't something common.
In fact, it was a unique trait of Knight-Mages, the magical warriors that the Academy had been named after besides referring to the founders who were the first of its class. Only Mage-Knights, the reverse wording, could exhibit similar traces of the skill. Instead of creating the weapons directly, they could tamper with the flow of magic in existing weapons and items. It was different and more versatile than the fixed, pre-inputted abilities of a wand or amulet that could amplify spells or physical strength. Therefore, she was glad that she had kept it a secret. Akari's words had run true yet again about keeping the extent of her magic hidden.
So, she redirected the energy back throughout her body and into her steel sword. The moment was fast approaching. She heard the cries of the startled enemies and burst forth from their back, catching them off-guard. Darren had done well and was currently exchanging blows with the second nearest opponent after knocking down the first from his surprise attack. Essairyn whirled into the heart of the group, slicing three people in her path. They gasped at the unexpected pain, and in her own confusion at their pain, Essairyn paused her assault, trying to figure out why the knights had allowed the trainees to inflict injury on one another. From what she remembered, the bracelets were supposed to neutralize injuries.
In her momentary hesitation, she was struck from the back but parried it with a swift swing of her sword while dodging. However, the movement had cost her balance and resulted in a cut on her arm from another enemy. The stinging slash reverberated in her nerves. Essairyn snapped her head in the direction of the pain. But opposite of expectations, there was no external injury. So, it just allows us to feel the pain without actually damaging our bodies? Her thoughts cried out in astonishment. What the heck, that's actually sorta messed up! She grimaced. Deciding it was better to end this fight as quickly as possible, she opted to deplete the "life points" of each opponent in one shot.