Chapter 27 can be read below the cut.
Nothing happened for the next ten kilometers. The forest remained incredibly still, but the hostility of the spirits died down significantly. No one saw any spirits or animals.
“Where do you think the missing Imperial soldier is?” Kiyaska asked. She still looked exhausted from the spells, but she wasn’t having trouble walking anymore.
“I don’t know,” said Lisel. “Sirilrhis, Hirúka, Nüwa, do you three have any ideas?”
“Nah,” said Sirilrhis flatly. Lisle assumed that he reflexively responded without thinking.
“All I smell right now are spirits,” said Hirúka.
“Is it possible that the Imperial is using a spell to make themselves invisible or not noticed?” Kiyaska asked. “Is that a thing that can happen?”
“Of course,” said Nüwa. “Those types of spells aren’t any more complex than the spells the other soldiers were carrying.”
Lisel frowned. “It seems unusual that only one soldier would have a spell that conceals their presence from the spirits so well that they are essentially invisible.”
“You were invisible earlier,” Kiyaska pointed out.
“That was elemental magic, not a spell,” said Lisel. “Invisibility is a combination of the air and darkness elemental magics that all elves have access to. No matter how educated or experienced or skilled a person is, they’ll never be able to write a spell that can recreate elemental magic.”
Kiyaska looked confused. “But you made exploding talismans.”
“It’s not the same as real fire,” said Sirilrhis.
“It’s possible to create fire through writing spells that instruct materials to heat up,” said Lisel. “But it isn’t possible to create fire out of nothing with a spell. The conditions for fire have to be there to begin with.”
Kiyaska looked disappointed. “So that Imperial can’t be using an invisibility spell. They just disappeared for no reason at all.”
“That’s what it seems like,” said Lisel. She sighed. “Sometimes one person in a group will escape and we won’t – uh, we weren’t able to find them. Ever. That might be what happened here.”
“Do you want me to look around for them?” Sirilrhis asked.
Lisel shook her head. “We’re about one hundred meters from the border. I don’t want to run the risk of someone seeing you,” she said.
Sirilrhis looked surprised. “What? We are?” he said.
“My house is about ten kilometers from the border with Shihun Province,” said Nüwa. “If you’re curious, I can show you exactly where the border is drawn.”
Kiyaska looked confused. “Drawn? You actually draw the border on the ground? With what, rocks?”
Nüwa chuckled. “It’s a figure of speech in our language. There are no physical lines on the ground. There is, however, a sign that tells you that you are entering Shihun Province. If you come from the other side, it says Símaqágu Province.”
Kiyaska looked skeptical. “Really? I never saw anything like that when we went through the borders of the other provinces,” she said.
“That’s because everyone knows where those borders are,” said Sirilrhis. “This one is on a road people don’t usually take. No one even lives around here, so you can’t ask a local for directions or a map.”
They walked for another hour, then stopped for lunch a little bit after noon. Four hours later, they were at least twenty five kilometers into Shihun Province. No one has seen a single trace of any Imperial soldier.
“Are we sure this theoretical soldier even knows we exist?” said Hirúka. “What if they got separated from their group and they’re just wandering around somewhere?”
“I think that might be what actually happened,” said Lisel. “Not that it bothers me, of course. The fewer threats we have to deal with, the better. But the further we get into Imperial territory…” She trailed off. “Nüwa, I have a question to ask of you.”
“What is it?” Nüwa asked.
“Is there any way you could…I don’t know, give me a glamour to change my appearance?” said Lisel.
Nüwa blinked, looking curious. “What would you need a glamour for?” she asked.
Lisel looked perturbed. “Haven’t you heard me talk about myself? I defected from my position in the Imperial Military as the Commander of the Firearms Division and killed a lot of my fellow soldiers. I’m the worst sort of traitor. I don’t need anyone recognizing me.”
“And you want me to make you look like a different person,” said Nüwa.
“Yes,” said Lisel.
Nüwa made some sort of waving gesture with her hands. “I cannot do that,” she said.
“That – what?” exclaimed Lisel. “What do you mean you can’t do that? You change your own form to a snake all the time.”
“It’s not a glamour,” said Nüwa. “I switch between two completely different forms that are still me.”
Lisel frowned. “Can you explain what that means?”
Nüwa scrunched up her face as she thought. “Ah, it’s a bit complicated,” she said.
“It’s the same thing that Hirúka and I do,” said Sirilrhis. “We dragons and tigers have access to two different forms, and we can switch between them whenever we wish.” He pulled up his sleeve to show his bare forearm. “Unless, of course, someone removes their ability to access that form with a spell.”
Lisel stared at Sirilrhis’s arm for a moment. “I don’t think I really understand how that works, but I guess I’m out of luck,” she said.
“Controlling other people’s perceptions isn’t something that’s possible with spells,” said Nüwa.
Lisel sighed and looked away. “I guess we’ll have to be extra careful.”
Kiyaska looked from Lisel to Sirilrhis. “We’ve been traveling through the wilderness. If we just keep staying out of the cities, we can get to the Capital just fine, right?”
“Honestly, I’ve had enough of the countryside for the rest of my life,” said Lisel. “And we’re late enough as it is. I don’t want to add more delays to this trip by straying from our route.”
Nüwa laughed lightly. “Still going on about your delays. We must only be two days behind schedule at the most,” she said.
“Do you really want to spend more time traveling?” Lisel said irritably. “Come on. We’re sticking to our original plan unless something drastic happens.”
Haruyéng sat in the courtyard of the military headquarters with a slate in his lap and a piece of chalk in his hand, humming lazily and tapping his foot against the ground. His squad was elsewhere and there was no one else in the courtyard. Things were nice and peaceful. The messages on his slate were from his higher-ups, detailing his assignments for the week. Everything was surprisingly simple, considering how they knew Tsensung’s group was heading here.
He heard a sound and looked out over the courtyard. It turned out to be some soldiers noisily walking into the courtyard. Haruyéng ignored them in favor of his own thoughts. No one had seen Lisel’s group ever since they entered the Forest of the Immortals. It was entirely possible that they were killed, but he doubted something like that would have happened to Tsensung.
There was another loud sound, and Haruyéng was snapped out of his reverie by realizing that it was the sound of someone calling his name.
“COMMANDER HARUYÉNG!” Lu yelled. “The Supreme Commander is calling an emergency meeting!” She, as well as Hayésu and Onnarré, stood at the edge of the courtyard.
Haruyéng cupped one of his hands around his mouth. “Where?” he yelled back.
“The normal meeting room!” shouted Lu.
About ten minutes later, Haruyéng sat in a meeting room with the other Division Commanders. Once again, the Heavenly Commander was late. With his chin in his hand, Haruyéng drummed his fingers on the table and stared off into space.
“He told one of my soldiers that I needed to be here immediately,” said Haruyéng with a glance at Yéngling. “Have you seen him at all?”
Yéngling nodded. “I ran into him. He told me to come here and then…disappeared.”
Haruyéng leaned back in his chair and sighed. “When will he start arriving to meetings on time, I wonder.”
The door opened a couple of minutes later. Heavenly Commander Hunyoung walked into the room, looking flustered as if he’d just run here. “Sorry about the delay,” he said. He didn’t even bother closing the door. Díhminlha, the closest, got up and shut it for him.
Hunyoung sat down in his usual chair at the head of the table. He clasped his hands together before looking up at them. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I gathered you here today. I know you’re all very busy, so I’ll get straight to the point. Lisel Tsensung was spotted in Nolinui this morning.”
Díhminlha raised her eyebrows. She looked stunned. “Tsensung’s alive? Holy shit. That’s incredible. She actually got past the border.”
Minnarré looked interested. “Is she still traveling with the same people? The tall man, tiger, and the Zarya Tel girl?”
“I think the tall man is actually a dragon,” said Hunyoung. “We haven’t seen him turn into a dragon, but that’s more likely than him being an exceptionally tall human.”
Yéngling crossed his arms. “They have a dragon with them? That’s not great for us.”
Díhminlha frowned. “What would a dragon even be doing with them? Dragons hate getting involved in this sort of thing. Did they offer him a lot of books, or whatever it is that dragons like?”
“That’s not what’s important,” said Hunyoung. “What is important is that there is a new person traveling with them. We’ve seen her talking to Tsensung and the other members of the group.”
“Her?” said Yéngling and Haruyéng at the same time.
“She’s a tiny woman in old-fashioned clothing. No one recognizes her or knows who she is,” said Hunyoung. “Maybe she’s a guard Tsensung hired.”
“Was she acting friendly with Tsensung and the others?” said Haruyéng. “Not just as a saleswoman or a tourist guide, but actually friendly? Like she knew them relatively well?”
“I don’t know,” said Hunyoung. “That wasn’t in any of our reports. What’s your reasoning, Commander Haruyéng?”
“I was thinking that if this woman was acting friendly and familiar to Tsensung, she’s probably a Rebel,” said Haruyéng. “Maybe they planned to meet up with her along the way to the Capital or something.”
Haruyéng had no idea what was going on. He hadn’t heard from Lisel’s group through Commander Kiyohu for more than half a month. And in that half month, they’d somehow gained a new group member. Just what had happened in the Forest of the Immortals?
Hunyoung rubbed his chin. “That may very well be the case. I’ll tell our spies to keep a close eye on Tsensung and that woman if they can,” he said. He stood up, seemed to realize something, then sat down again. “One last thing: you’ll be getting new assignments sometime later today. Ignore the ones you got this morning.”
Everyone groaned. “Oh, come on!” said Hunyoung. “Don’t do that. This has happened before and it will happen again. You should be used to it by now.”
“Is that a threat or a promise?” Yéngling muttered under his breath.
Hunyoung stood up and grabbed his folder, which he waved at all the Division Commanders. “You’re all dismissed. You’ll receive your new assignments in an hour or so.”