Saving Ourselves: Ch. 4: Harvest

Loren Howard

With the carts and horses left near the edge of the woods, all of them were forced to slow down in the forested terrain. Sound rarely startled creatures out in the smog, but the same couldn’t be said of motion. The trees were neither tall nor thick and not effective at hiding runners after the guarded crystal.

Thick curls of purple-black smoke wisped away from the gleaming edges of her barrier, and she could make out the outlines of Noyo’s warded sphere to the left easily. To see Dira on her right required her to focus. For now, she needed her attention on the path ahead. Some ferns persisted growing through the darkness, but nothing she had to worry about getting caught on. No, her concern was for any beast of the smoke she encountered. It would need to be defeated promptly before alerting any others. Rolling her steps from heel to toe over formerly cleared paths, Loren scanned through the dense darkness for their distorted figures.

The empty tank on her back remained steady through every fallen branch and careful step. The Union designed it to be compact enough not to be jostled when nearly anyone carried it. Had it been full, they’d have been saved the time and the detour… But griping to herself about it wouldn’t make either of those attainable. Keeping pace with the outline of Noyo’s barrier, Loren pushed on to the crystal site Dira reported ahead. Not too deep in the forest—or so he claimed. She’d yet to even sense it.

Instead, a dampening feeling rolled in from her left, recognized shortly as Noyo’s cloaking spell, and tipped Loren off to a creature’s approach. These beasts weren’t entirely consistent beyond their unsettling appearances, with discolored skin that glimmered unnaturally if any light managed to shine on them. She couldn’t see it fully between the trees and smoke, but a flat clawed foot did appear through swirls of darkness. The equivalent of its knee must have been eye level for her. Angling her shield upward, Loren pulled her sword closer to the edge and advanced. This creature would have incredible reach but being a smaller target would give her mobility.

A low hiss followed, and another foot slammed down on her shield. Before claws could curl around the edge and fling either her or the shield away, Loren swept her shortsword in an inward arc towards its limb. It was impossible to tell how deeply she cut it when it yanked that foot back, yet the surreal groan and wet slop of its blood gave enough away. Two bolts of lightning from above the beast made it drop and lay still in the heavy smog.

Had to be Dira.

“Look at us go,” he confirmed his involvement, not that it was necessary. He might be able to cast two spells at once with four arms but Noyo had no such ability.

Mages could coordinate easier with their practiced sensitivity to magic, or so the Union said, and Loren was glad that worked here. It may very well be the only way Noyo and Dira would cooperate smoothly.

Turning around a left corner through a narrow clearing in the forest, the faint thrum of the crystal that Dira mentioned finally reached Loren. He must have been incredibly attuned to such things, to have felt it only by passing near the woods before. Its soft tone didn’t prepare her how it resonated in her chest as if the vibration displaced everything else. To the crystal, her torso was a cavern waiting only to hold its echo. The feeling was jarring, and no amount of description would do it justice. Loren took a steady breath and another step even so. Being nothing but a sound, it still weighed on the air and seemed to resist her proceeding down the path.

“I hear it up ahead,” she shared in a loud whisper. The crystal’s guardians weren’t often reactive enough to hear speech, but there no sense in risking it.

“Good,” Noyo said in the smoke. “Trust your senses.”

Dira was oddly silent.


Another crackle of lightning broke through the smog, but it was dim. He was cloaking his own fight, then… Loren had only taken two steps in his direction when Noyo stopped her.

“He’ll handle it.”

Of course they could foresee her initial thoughts to go and help. And Noyo was right to stop Loren. He was a runner himself and plenty capable of fighting alone. An odd trait, since all runners she ever knew were on teams. Noyo’s theory that he wasn’t one at all seemed more plausible than ever. It still meant he didn’t need her to rescue him.

She would wait regardless. Loren scanned the smoke for the smaller outline of his barrier, waiting for his cloaking spell to drop and show he was alright. They only lasted for so long. That time had to be even shorter with his magic divided. It was a tense wait that let her imagination create scenarios for what might be happening where he was. So she smiled behind her mask when that barrier did return, faint but glittering in the dense, dark fog.

“What’s the hold up?”

“Oh, I’m waiting on a teammate.” Loren teased, glancing to Noyo moving ahead of them. They did prefer to scout ahead and report back if needed. Noyo made thinking ahead look effortless.

“Heh.” Dira started walking, his barrier moving ahead and arching in toward the crystal and their meeting point. She kept pace with him, just in case. “Aren’t you sweet?”

They arrived at the clearing holding the crystal together. It loomed over Noyo and Dira both, and here, the thrumming had all but vanished. She did wonder why the crystals themselves, buried in the earth and standing taller than a shed, were the source of repellant energy while not warding off smoke effectively themselves. It was thinner, that much she had to admit, but shouldn’t it have been pushed back to some extent? Why did filtering it through sigils and barrier generators make it so much more powerful? All answers her brother would know, if she could have asked him. Loren got the feeling the Union would not be willing to explain it to a non-mage on the grounds of curiosity. Especially not since they apparently had factions within that were kidnapping runners that strayed from their team.

“Loren,” Noyo ordered, hands outstretched for the tank on her back.

“Yes,” she answered and slipped her shoulders from the straps. She’d only just passed it to Noyo when Dira took a few steps back towards the smoke and the woods. His tail flicked back and forth, swirling the fog in its wake.

“I’ll keep watch for—”

“You stay.”

True to form, Noyo didn’t wait for an answer. They twisted the valve on the tank that would automatically draw energy from the crystal into the tank.

“Guess I’m staying, then.” Dira glanced from Loren to the woods beyond, perhaps considering going out anyway. When he turned back to her with a nod, she was honestly relieved. He would be hard to find in the heavy smoke with his reduced barrier. Noyo might be comfortable leaving him to fend for himself but Loren wasn’t. Better that he stayed with them as long as they were in the wall of smog that had descended on Brook Mills and prompted the evacuation to other city-states in the first place.

Despite being magical, the tank was designed not to call on magical spells to function—in case the worst came to pass and the mage on a team of runners didn’t survive a run for supplies. As threads of light slowly flowed from the crystal and illuminated the meter on the tank to show its progress, Dira looked over his shoulder again.

“We’re safer together.”

“Hm?” He tensed when she spoke, his lower set of arms crossed tight. “Ah, right you are. Only habit, I guess.”

“Is there trouble?” Noyo stood by the crystal’s base, cast in its fading purple light. It looked more lilac as it was drained into the tank by their feet. For Loren, it made them look ominous with that critical gaze and waning glow. There was a distinct difference between Noyo’s disappointment and their distrust, and now Loren unfortunately knew it by appearance.

“None at all.” Dira forced that out and didn’t seem to notice their skepticism in the slightest. He looked quite preoccupied for someone standing still. His skin lost its color as they waited and he let out a shuddering breath through his nose, his mouth set in a thin line. The cloudy blue-grey tone of skin drained from his face to a pale grey. His freckles stood out unnervingly and as the tank reached three-quarters full, he wavered on his feet.

“Dira?” Loren walked over to stand in front of him, holding a bracing hand up for him to hold onto. He staggered forward instead, forcing her to clumsily catch him more than anything. “Noyo! I can’t—”

“’M fine,” he breathed, his head falling forward while she struggled to support him. He was too tall for this and with his tail and second set of arms too, Loren couldn’t quite figure out how best to keep him from falling over.

“Almost there,” Noyo promised, their hand resting on the valve. There was no point in sacrificing the crystal energy for Dira. Harvesting it would have to continue again later, and it would lead to this happening all over again. Whatever this even was. No mage was so attuned to crystals that they matched its state of being. He wasn’t dying, that was all she could tell. Although he was weakened and barely able to stand on his feet, his heart only beat faster.

“Out,” Dira muttered, “run, Stephen.”

Her brother’s name was not rare, exactly, but Loren lost her chance to ask what he meant when Dira slipped from her grip. He collapsed the rest of the way to the forest floor as the tank finished storing the crystalline energy.

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