Lucas woke up after an extended nap, slumped lazily in his bed. He'd skipped dinner to recuperate. The morning training session had been hard, and the dissection in the afternoon was just as mentally draining. Several students from Block 1 had been absent due to exhaustion or complications. They had training sessions before, but this had been on another level. He was feeling hungry, but he wasn't ready to get up just yet. He welcomed the peace in the room after a hard day.
Za returned a little later.
“I didn’t see you. Did you eat?” Lucas said.
“No,” Za said.
"I think the cafeteria's still open." As Lucas forced himself to get up from the bed, he received a message on his phone. It was from Ya Nu.
His eyes had barely skimmed over the block of text when a knock at the door of their room disrupted his reading. Of course, Za ignored it so Lucas went to greet their late evening visitor. Without checking, he opened the door to find Ya Nu standing in the hall. She hurriedly stepped in without invitation and gestured for Lucas to shut the door behind her. She was visibly upset and he complied without delay.
Ya Nu lowered her volume and said, “Erina is gone.”
Lucas and even Za’s full attention was on her now.
“What do you mean, gone?” Lucas had to confirm.
Ya Nu walked over to Za’s bed and plopped down on the edge of the mattress. “She left. Cleared the room. I think she… deserted.” She leaned over and stared at her feet. “I’m the worst. She wasn’t sleeping well, you know. She wasn’t eating. Erina was having a hard time. I noticed. I should’ve talked to her." She raised her head and locked eyes with Lucas. "If the institute finds out, what will happen to her?”
Lucas looked away. He shuffled around the room with his arms crossed and a finger pressed to his lips deep in thought. He was in Block 1 with Marigold. She wasn’t in the afternoon lesson either. But her behavior during the presentation should have been a clue. He should have noticed something was wrong sooner. “Do we know where she’s going?” he asked.
Ya Nu shook her head then paused as a comment from a past night struck her. She said, “Lasius. I overheard.”
“Lasius? That’s in Formicidan,” Lucas said. West by the sea. A different country. Formicidan shared a border with Astradom. But Erina’s choice off destination was not a mystery for him to decipher. They had to decide what to do and quickly. He threw the question out there. “Do we follow her?”
As if she had been waiting for that comment all along, Ya Nu jumped to her feet. “She’s one of us. Maybe we can persuade her to return. I need to talk to her.”
Za didn’t offer a word and Lucas was hesitant despite asking the question. Chasing their team member would result in their unauthorized absence. But what if they were able to meet up with and convince Marigold, and she returned? She wouldn't be pinned for deserting. Waiting wouldn't resolve the issue. Time was important.
Ya Nu was looking at him with hope in her eyes, willing him to make the bold call. He couldn’t retract the idea without dashing her spirits. At least, he thought Erina’s departure was as much his fault as well.
Closing his eyes as if he could turn off all the doubts, he willfully said, “Let’s do it. We’re going after Marigold.”
It wasn’t going to be easy. Despite his declaration, he followed up with, “But how do we get out?” The gates of Hollyhock were closed for the night and guarded.
“I know a way,” Za said, breaking his silence.
One of his master’s rules upon entering an enclosed space was to find an escape route, preferably an exit other than the front and back entrance. It was one of the first things he did when entering Hollyhock.
A little after nightfall, the dorm manager came around for roll call. Ya Nu met her at the door and said with a forced smiled, “Erina’s in the bathroom.”
A strangely high-pitched voice shouted through the closed door, “Ow, ow, ow! My stomach hurts!”
Ya Nu laughed awkwardly.
The dorm manager barely glanced at her and moved on down the hall. As soon as they were clear, Ya Nu shut the door and said, “We’re good.”
Lucas emerged from the bathroom. Za stepped out of Ya Nu’s closet.
“You did better in practice,” Ya Nu said. “I can’t believe we pulled that off.”
“Isn’t your dorm manager just careless?” Lucas said.
Ya Nu silently agreed. She grabbed a small pack and threw a few essentials into it. Then she grabbed Erina’s Hollyhock issued phone that had been left behind. “I’m returning this to Erina,” she resolved. She turned to the boys and said, “We're good for tonight. Let’s go.”
Lucas and Ya Nu followed Za across the grounds, passed the East and South Building to the library. As the southernmost structure within the grounds, it was the closest building to the Ghoul Forest on the other side of the gate. They observed from the library’s flat roof that provided an overview of the area. A security guard passed in the distance and they waited. No one else was within sight.
Za explained, “There are two security towers. One at the front gate. Second at the back gate. The guards make their rounds every hour. The only section they avoid is the Ghoul Forest. Once we pass over, we’re clear.”
Ya Nu pressed her lips together to avoid making a sound. She didn’t want to go anywhere near the forest. She knew the creepy stories. But if it was the only way, she’d grit her teeth and go along with the plan.
A single camera was conspicuously attached to the ledge of the library’s roof; the only lens pointed towards the section of the gate they were aiming to cross. It was secured on tight, but Lucas broke the piece of the ledge attached with the camera, and slowly and slightly shifted the view in a different direction away from their designated area.
They dropped to the ground and hurried to the gate, more like a solid wall that rose to twenty meters high. The physical barrier was a deep layer of magenta-colored bricks with black iron pickets completing the top. Despite its sheer size, the giant trees of the Ghoul Forest loomed even higher beyond the gate.
Ya Nu pulled out her picks and began the excruciating climb. She had strong arms and experience taught her that this feat was possible. Alongside her, Lucas was making his way up the gate as well. She concentrated on the task at hand and did not think about Za until, on her other side, he scaled the wall in a few leaps and was over in the blink of an eye. She was in awe. At the same time, she was envious. When they returned to Hollyhock, she would have him teach her how to do that.
In a short amount of time, she also reached the top. She cautiously glanced back and caught the shadowy figure of a security guard strolling towards the direction of the library. He hadn’t noticed her yet. Ya Nu squeezed through the iron pickets, gripped onto the bars, and rolled herself over the edge away from the Hollyhock grounds. Arms outstretched above her and hidden from view of the other side, she braced her feet against the bricks and held on. On this side of the gate, there was no source of light. The impenetrable Ghoul Forest behind her engulfed everything within proximity in shadows. She could not see below her. Dropping twenty meters in this condition could be fatal.
For seconds, her will was shaken and a shiver traveled down her spine. The haunting Ghoul Forest was this close. It could devour her.
But the taut muscles in her body shook her out of her frozen state. She took a chance, hoping the security guard was not looking their way. Gathering a spark of life force, her body grew instantly hot. Her veins glowed red, shining through her skin as she utilized her Attribute. Ya Nu murmured, “Bo, light up.” The Spirit stirred. She turned her head and a puff of flames ignited near her feet, temporarily illuminating the darkness before dying out just as quickly. But she had managed to glimpse Lucas holding to the brick wall near her right and Za on the ground below her.
This was it. No time to deliberate. “Catch me,” she said hoping Za understood her, and released her grip.
She fell. Twenty meters. Dropping into a void of black which seemed endless. This was a mistake. She prepared for impact against the ground. Then his arms closed around her mid fall, and he skidded down the rest of the brick wall until they landed soundly on their feet. So effortlessly that she was both winded and speechless. Realizing she had grasped his sleeve, she let go.
Za said to the darkness above them, “Lucas, jump.” Seconds later, Za deftly sprang up and also caught Lucas, before skidding down to the ground. Ya Nu felt much better about herself after that.
From here, Lucas took the lead. He said, “We move along the edge of the forest. Stay in the shadows. If there’s a break, run to the next cover. Don’t lose sight of each other.”
Moving onward cautiously, the group's senses strained to capture any movement in their surroundings. They kept an eye on the Ghoul Forest while also listening for any signs of chase, but no security guards came after them. Ya Nu was extra careful to keep as far away from the forest foliage as possible while still maintaining her cover.
Eventually, their wariness waned and their steps quickened.
By sunrise, they cleared the forest and were a good several miles out of Celaeno. Lucas called for a short break while they deliberated on their next move.
Traveling to Formicidan on foot was absurd. Hiring a driver across the country required a reasonable explanation and trusting in another individual. Anyone else that Lucas knew who could be of help without asking questions was too far and thus too late. The domestic rails system required them to switch up to five trains then walk the last several miles to reach the cross-border outpost. But they could not afford to be caught by going through the train station’s security. They had to operate with the caution that the institute would be searching for them.
Lucas decided, “We follow the trains. By estimate, it’ll take three days to reach Formicidan. But attempting an illegal crossing is too dangerous. We’ll have to pass through formally. I know someone who can get us the passes on short notice.”
Ya Nu and Za accepted Lucas’ plan, but Ya Nu tapped her head for alternatives. She did not want to fall too far behind Erina. Getting across Astradom was only the first of their worries. Once they reached Lasius, finding Erina was another issue that would cost them time.