There it is,” Serena said.
The trio looked ahead. Even from the backs of the pegasi, they couldn’t see anything beyond the desert stretching outward.
“We should land,” Sylvie suggested. “Once we get into the desert the sun’ll be a real source of trouble. They’ll last longer if they aren’t expending energy flying.”
“True enough,” Inés said. “It’s gonna be hard enough on them to trot through.”
“Is there a way to keep them cool?” Serena asked.
“Well, I can somewhat block the sun with magic,” Sylvie said. “Bring a few dark clouds overhead. It won’t make a huge difference, but it’ll help mitigate the problem a little bit.”
“What about your water magic, Inés?” Serena asked.
Inés shook her head. “All I know are offensive spells. I can’t just summon a nice, temporary stream or something. Even if I could, I can’t control the temperature. The water would be as hot as the sand or close to it.”
“Make sure you study magic more seriously than she did when you’re in your second year,” Sylvie said. “Otherwise you’ll end up like her.”
“Hey, I can do plenty,” Inés said. “Just not all that much with magic.”
“Exactly the point,” Sylvie said.
The three of them had been travelling for days. They stopped to sup. Sylvie struggled to focus and maintain her cloud cover.
“Bad news,” Serena said. “We’re low on water.”
“I could try casting a water spell on something and you could scoop up what you can,” Inés suggested.
“Wait until night fall,” Sylvie said. “It… it’ll be cooler then… Otherwise the water’ll be… too hot to handle… Miss I can’t control my spells very well.”
“Are you doing okay?” Inés asked. “You look and sound awful.”
“Maintaining the spell every day… starting to get exhausting,” Sylvie said. “We’d better arrive in Malachi soon.”
“Oh, we’re still a good five days away,” Inés said. “I think.”
“You’ve never been here,”Sylvie said. “How would you…. even know?”
“I heard it somewhere,” Inés said.
“Was the person who said it reliable?” Serena asked.
“I can’t remember who said it,” Inés answered. She shrugged. “Maybe it won’t take that long.”
After a short respite, they continued. It was mid-afternoon when they encountered several wyrm corpses. Sliced open and left to rot in the sand.
“What could have done this?” Serena asked. “Do wyverns kill wyrms?”
“Sometimes,” Sylvie answered. “Not like this… They wouldn’t… leave the bodies… scattered around.”
“In other words,” Inés said. “Someone’s around here. Someone who was attacked and managed to fight them off, probably.”
“Doubtful,” Sylvie gasped. “Too many… Wyrms don’t… hunt in packs.”
“So, someone’s hunting them?” Serena asked.
Sylvie nodded. “I think so.”
“But why?” Inés asked. “There’s no point to it.”
“Poaching?” Serena suggested.
“Is there anything valuable in a wyrm’s body?” Inés wondered. She turned to Sylvie who shook her head.
They were interrupted by a loud crash behind them. They moved towards it. A wyvern’s body had crashed into the sand. A robed figure removed a sword from its neck and wiped blood off of it.
“Hey,” Inés said. “Are you responsible for this mess? And who wears a heavy cloak in the desert?”
The figure turned. Their face was in the shadows. Serena could see shining silver hair and she thought that she could make out the eyes a little. There was something odd about them, but she couldn’t see well enough to tell exactly what.
“Sylvie Fortunio and Inés,” the figure’s voice was soft and lyrical. “It has been years since I last beheld either of you.”
“You two know her?” Serena asked.
“I know the voice all right,” Inés responded. “He’s Michael Ryufan. The boy at the Academy that so many girls were curious about.”
“He?” Serena asked. “I’m so sorry.”
“It is nothing to be concerned over,” Michael said. “You are not the first person to make that error. In fact, it is quite frequent.”
“So, when did you leave the Academy?” Inés asked. “When did you learn swordplay and why are you killing things in the desert?”
“I completed my studies four months prior,” Michael answered. “I have been training in swordplay since. The deaths of these creatures, though unfortunate, is part of that training.”
“Why?” Sylvie asked. “Why… push yourself? Why not… stay and be a mage? I’m sure that Illyana… would love to have you… around.”
“My reasons are my own,” Michael answered. “I can not reveal them to you.”
“How did you kill that thing in mid-air and get down without any trouble?” Serena wondered.
“I’m curious about that too!” Inés declared. “Going by the wounds, it doesn’t look like you used magic.”
“You three are too eager to converse,” Michael said.
“Guess we won’t get anything else out of you,” Inés muttered. “We’ll be on our way.”
“Please wait,” Michael entreated. He glanced at Sylvie. “You seem to be suffering from exhaustion. I have shelter close to here. If you will come with me, I will permit you to rest and provide supplies for your continued trek. All six of you. There are, however, two conditions.”
“Conditions?” Inés asked. “And what are they?”
“You, Inés, must spar with me,” Michael said. “Alone and out of your companions’ visual range. That is the first condition. The second is that you must not reveal anything you learn about me during the match to anyone and I will have your vow on that.”
Inés studied Sylvie for a moment. “All right,” she agreed. “You’ll have your match and I give my word, as a priestess of Athena, that I won’t give away any of your secrets. But first, let’s drop these two off at this shelter of yours.”
“Agreed,” Michael said.
Serena pulled Inés’ arm. “Can we trust this guy?” she whispered.
“I think so,” Inés said. “He has no reason to want to hurt me and, as ar as I know, he’s never lied. He just refuses to answer when he doesn’t want something known.”
“He’s… Illyana’s best friend…” Sylvie added. “We can… trust him.”
“If you say so,” Serena said. Although she still harboured serious doubts.