Lily leaned against a tree, taking bites out part of a grilled rabbit. Tate knelt a few meters away from her, tending the spit while nibbling at a rabbit leg. Prei sat a few meters away, looking at the cooked rabbit in her hand with dissatisfaction. On their trek, they had very quickly discovered that Prei preferred her meat raw. Still, Lily refused to let her have her way, out of fear that she might fall sick. Despite initial protests, Prei had eventually given in and agreed to eat cooked food. Standing on the other side of the tree that Lily had claimed as a backrest was Iris, keeping an eye on their surroundings. Lily bit down on the rabbit’s leg and pulled away a good amount of the meat.
Ever since Lily had realised she could use <<Extension>> to capture prey, the party had been eating regularly, so they were starting to look healthy again. When she realised how she could use <<Probe>> to detect the presence of living animals by seeking out areas without a response, she had felt like slamming her head against a hard object. After spending so much time in the company of Iris, Prei and Tate – who all could not be detected by her <<Probe>> – she had grown so used to there being gaps in her net that she stopped paying attention to them. A similar situation had occurred on the ship, where she had not realised that her <<Probe>> was not activated. Lily had chastised herself when she had realised that animals did not show on her <<Probe>>, ashamed of her complacency. Still, after pinpointing concealed or faraway prey, it had been a simple matter to either direct Prei to skewer them with a magical spell, or for Lily herself to manipulate the surrounding vegetation to entrap the prey.
As they ate, Lily took the time to assess the party’s physical appearances. Their clothes were in tatters, thoroughly stained and discoloured, with holes and patches showing across the surface of the clothing. Despite Prei being able to conjure up clear water for laundry and shower purposes, their clothes were beginning to wear thin.
Lily’s idle fingers fiddled with the braided green hair that draped over her shoulder. Iris had helped her tie up and braid her long hair after Lily complained about how it was constantly getting stuck in tree branches. Similarly, Prei had tied up her hair in a ponytail as it grew slightly longer over the month that they had been journeying. Lily had briefly considered cutting it, but decided against it. She had grown used to the feeling of her hair draping around her. Furthermore, back when she had first returned, Iris had mentioned that she liked Lily’s long hair. Lily found that somehow, she considered that reason enough to keep her hair long despite the annoyances it brought. She would have to cut it if it ever reached her ankles, though: that was too long to be practical.
Iris, naturally, looked exactly like she did when they had started the journey. Lily found herself stifling a tinge of jealousy at Iris’ self-maintenance functions that kept her clean. Lily licked clean the rabbit bone in her hand and tossed it aside. Seeing that Prei and Tate were both done with their meals, Lily had Prei put out the cooking fire with a torrent of water, then had Iris vaporise the firewood and branches they had been using as a spit. Lily waited for Tate to shoulder her large pack – which she refused to let anyone else carry – and the party began to move through the forest again.
Silence suffused uncomfortably through the party as they moved. The small talk and idle banter that had filled the air during the first few weeks of their trek had slowly dwindled into nothingness. As the days passed and they seemed no closer to their final destination, the mental fatigue of the journey was beginning to show on the faces of Tate and Prei. Iris did not experience fatigue, while Lily had been conditioned due to the long trek she had undertaken back in the Wasteland, before she met Iris. Tate and Prei, however, were not used to walking for such long distances, for so long, with an unknown destination. Physical capabilities aside, it was taking a toll on their minds. In particular, Lily worried that it might be too much of a burden for Prei, easily the youngest member of their party. Unfortunately, the girl was too proud to complain, and having come this far, the only way they could go was forward. Still, Lily fervently hoped they would reach their destination soon, before it became truly too much for the two younger girls to handle.
Then the forest ended. Without warning, the thick vegetation thinned out, opening onto a meadow of rolling hills. Looking to the side, Lily noted that the edge of the forest ran around the hills in a wide, circular fashion. She tensed up and focused on the hills in front of her.
She remembered the maps of Jin-Asalys she had seen, back in Azoria. In the centre of the continent was Azoria. Ringing Azoria was a series of hills, which made travel difficult for merchants with wagons. Surrounding the hills on the West side was a dense forest, which stretched all the way to the coast.
Lily gulped, suddenly nervous. Without warning, without indication, they had arrived. Once they crested the hilly plain in front of them, Azoria would be in sight. Lily’s hands shook. Iris immediately took hold of her left hand, interlocking their fingers and squeezing tight. Lily stood frozen. Once they crested this hill, she would learn the answer. Would she see a destroyed Azoria? Would she see an Azoria overrun by demons? Would she see an Azoria just as she left it, waiting to welcome her home? She bit her lip and took a small step forward. Then another. Then another. Slowly, mechanically, she ascended the hill, Iris’ hand in hers, Tate and Prei following with concerned looks.
Just as she was about to reach the top, the highest point of the city came into view: the guild building stood proud and tall. Eyes widening, she scrambled to the top of the hill, seeing the city in its entirety.
The city was gone.
The guild building was still there, yes, but the city surrounding was nowhere to be found. The proud walls of the city still stood tall, but where she should have seen rows upon rows of houses, schools and shops, all she could see were short, orderly, grey buildings that stood upon the bared foundations of the shops she had frequented in her childhood. Various moving figures, too far away for Lily to see clearly, littered the grounds within the walls, standing around in the empty spaces between the grey buildings. Some stood apart from the rest as solitary dots, but the majority were neatly grouped together in various square formations. Lily directed her gaze to where her house should be, finding only flat ground where a group of the small figures was moving about. A tear gathered at the edge of her eye, threatening to fall. She turned to Iris, who then returned Lily’s gaze, the inorganic girl’s face a mask of sympathy and pain.
“…They’re demons. Soldiers.”
Lily shut her eyes tight.
The tear fell.
Lily turned and ran.