I practiced some more on the way, guided by Deirdre, and told her (and showed her) some of Light. Time passed as smoothly as did the path beneath our horses. And with it, our surroundings. The light green ceiling faded to a darker green, the trees, once covered with moss, were almost grey here. Bushes were thicker and darker, casting shadows on the ground that made it even gloomier. Dried twigs, abundantly present, snagged beneath the hooves, punctuating the otherwise rich silence. Ironically, this area was named the Dead Heart of Runewald, misplaced though that term might be. For it was in this part, as I understood it, that the forest was most alive. On the surface, this area was dried and void of life, but beneath the surface, in the trees and behind bushes there was said to be more creatures and spirits than anywhere else in the forest. Because humans felt this place spiced with death, they stayed away.
For a moment I wondered if there were places in the mountains and desert that were like this, but different.
Deirdre spoke softly, just after another twig sharply broke. "It's so quiet here."
"Yes, this is the Dead Heart, didn't you travel through this?"
She looked at me slightly hesitantly. "If-if I'm honest the days when I escaped are nothing but a blur. I really can't remember that much specifically..." She took a deep breath. "It was almost like being drunk, I remember vague moments that pushed me on and on."
I thought about it for a moment. "Maybe you were. If the spirits protected you, maybe they kept you enchanted not to make you too aware of it?"
She blinked. "I hadn't thought of that. Can they do that?"
I shrugged. "I don't know, it was just a thought. Too many fairy tales in books may have tainted my mind." I winked at her and smiled.
She smiled back. "Perhaps, but you sometimes speak truths you hardly realize."
It was getting late, actually. The sun hadn't set yet and, ideally, we'd ride to just before nightfall. But part of me told me that this would be a good place to be. Despite how gloomy it looked, we would be safe here. Deirdre looked like she felt the same. She looked around curiously with not even a hint of fright. Even the silence was more like a blanket than a shroud once you got used to it. The other thing that had me slightly worried though was the possibility of bad weather. I didn't have much with me to protect us, and it would be quite some time before we had anything to shelter us. I suppose we'd have to be lucky then.
Deirdre voiced my thoughts. "Stay here for the night?"
I nodded. "Yes." I looked around again. "I wonder if they knew we were heading north, and if they did, how much they knew."
She looked at me. "The spirits?"
"Yeah, kind of curious how we got an invitation to meet the Queen just before we head here the same day?"
She smiled. "You've got a point. But shall we make camp first and create conspiracy theories later?"
I laughed. "Alright, alright. I'll stop thinking for a moment."
Deirdre laughed as well. We rode on a bit more until we saw a small glade between the trees off the path. It was large enough to put our horses to graze with a bit of leeway and sleep safely. We could even make a fire in the middle but we did it very carefully, gathering some rocks first and digging a little down to make sure that no fire would spread. It took us a while to start a fire, but soon we had a small contained fire burning that would keep us safer for the night. The forest was completely silent but the crackling of the flames now. The horses quietly fed on the leaves and me and Deirdre just busied ourselves with getting ready for the night.
Then there were the letters.
Deirdre held her comments inside when I retrieved them from my bag and started working on them. A combination of fire and Light made my trusty penknife warm enough to open them after enough patience. In fact, the fire did make it somewhat easier, but I had to be careful. I was really curious and not completely at ease with all of this as the feeling inside of me grew more and more that things weren't right. There was also guilt. The Masters had trained me and given me a lot of my current life, this slight betrayal wasn't easy. It felt a lot easier when it was the letters from another town, Masters I didn't know. But these... These were written by those I used to follow as teachers.
The first letter was the smaller of the two, filled with practical details that weren't really interesting to me. Numbers of students gained and appointed, quality of studies lately and other stuff that wasn't relevant. There was one name that sprung out to me though, Oliver Brandt. It made me wonder if he was a relative of Sir Brandt. As I couldn't recall him studying lately. I resealed the first letter again with care, after telling Deirdre about it. She wasn't interested in it either.
The second letter, was a lot longer, apparently folded up twice inside. I carefully unfolded it, making sure not to create any more creases in it, and prepared to read.
But there wasn't that much to read. What I expected to be a story of some length was a mere single paragraph in the center of the page. Parchment wasn't that hard to come by, surely, but to see it squandered like this was very rare. Also, the contents were not as informative as I'd hoped.
Research is going well, but results vary. Impact of crystals on students has been proved and is worth trying on a larger scale. Scry crystal research still failing, though worrying rumors arrive from the Dark Castle. Go forward with the placement.
No sign, no name. The handwriting wasn't even recognizable. There was something else too, a strange odour around the letter, wafting up. It wasn't something I recognized immediately, kind of flowery, sweet and soft. Immediately I held it away from me, as if it was dangerous. But I mentally checked myself and felt no ill effects. Then another, much simpler and less adventurous thought entered my head:
Perhaps this was the signature...