“Wait up!” was all Dozzar had enough breath to say. The young dwarf simply wasn’t built for running uphill through a forest the way Ayla was.
“No, you hurry up! We can’t lose him again, and be quiet.” Ayla whispered furiously.
Winded and not entirely certain there was a point to their outing, he panted “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Ayla stared back at him through the underbrush. Her expression softened slightly when she saw the exhaustion on his face. “Fine. But keep an eye out in case he doubles back.” Dozzar silently agreed before Ayla returned to her quick pace.
Ayla continued to follow the winding trail through the forest for several minutes. Golden light from that shattered autumn moon filtered through the canopy and bathed the underbrush in dim shades of blue. Ayla’s eyes were keen and attuned to the slightest sign of her prey’s movement. She relied equally on instinct and training to suss out the tell tale marks of light feet moving quickly. The forest was full of life and activity deceptively hidden behind the vale of night and shadow. As she pressed on, Ayla thought of the many hunters too often content to simply wait upon their prey. Ayla was tired of waiting for an opportunity to show up, she was determined to make her own fortune tonight. Only the chase and eventual capture of her prey would satisfy her now.
The trees directly ahead were thinner but bunched much closer together. The brush along the forest floor was thick and clinging to every available surface. The terrain appeared grey in the shadows but she knew the forest around her was the deepest of green. The rich color would soon wither and fade as winter approached. In another life she would have enjoyed these woods and the beauty they held. She would have traveled slow and aimlessly among the blooming night. Ayla only let these thoughts in for a moment, it was all she would allow. She knew such revelries were meant for other realities and quickly focused her attention to the task at hand. Ayla could see the path led ahead through a copse of young oak trees. She followed the subtle signs until her path arrived at an actual small road journeying east to west.
She recognized it as the Camen Town Road. Why would he go through the woods just to get to this road? she wondered. For the briefest moment she feared her prey suspected he was being followed. She put the thought out of her mind. She had been careful to stay far enough back to avoid detection. Which way did he go?
The ground was well worn in both directions. Either path might be hiding the way to her prize. She searched vigorously for any hint of the direction her prey had gone. Ayla wasn’t ready to trust the whims of chance to lead her where she wanted to go. She thought for a moment, weighing her options carefully. These woods were somewhat familiar. The path westward led to the small village of Camen. The only thing special about Camen was its location. It was the closest settlement outside of Ithersund and the only place cadets could be certain neither officers or professors would be within earshot.
Faculty members and officers, unlike academy cadets, could freely explore the vast city of Ithersund. Academy rules were designed with the clear intention of keeping cadets out of any trouble that might occur within the sprawling city. Those same rules were also surprisingly neutral about what happened just beyond its borders. Due to its unique geography, the village of Camen was home to several establishments that thrived on the patronage of young cadets. The small town was an oasis for those desperate to get away from all things academy related. Oasis or not, access to the village was strictly off limits after curfew. Ayla thought that if she could catch him in the village and report it she may finally be rid of him. The academy curfew was well known in Camen. Most establishments would be closed by now. Finding him within the village without being detected herself would be another challenge to deal with.
The path toward the east led further into the woods and eventually to a small training camp where academy recruits were taught basic survival skills for E1 environments. The forest in that direction grew increasingly dangerous as it approached the wild lands. Ayla couldn’t imagine any reason he would go that direction. She was beginning to realize how helpful it would be if she knew what his motives for being out after curfew were. She wasn’t willing to risk her next move until she could get more information. The well worn road refused to give up any new information, so she would have to look elsewhere. I need to change my perspective and fast if I’m going to find him, she thought.
Ayla decided going up was her next best move. She quickly located a large tree along the edge of the old road. The branches began low and were strong enough to support her weight near the very top. She leapt to the second row of branches and climbed as quickly as her elven arms would carry her. Near the top she found a spot where she could see large sections of the path in both directions. The silver glow from the great moon was helpful more than ever now that she was attempting to see greater distances. She peered first toward Camen, looking for any sign of movement along the road. She could see dim light coming from the homes and businesses in the distance beyond the trees, but there was no sign of him along the path.
His lead couldn't have been more than a few dozen meters when she came to the Camen road. The distance growing between them felt almost tangible as she feverishly watched for any sign of him. She jumped over and up one branch higher on the eastern side of the tree. She gazed intently back down the path towards the survival training camps. She continued to check both directions as the minutes continued to drag on. All of her efforts appeared to be fruitless, there was simply no sign of him anywhere.
Ayla was ready to curse herself for losing the trail so foolishly. She considered going back to the path to search for any clues she may have missed before. Such an effort would be more for show than anything else. The entire area was well worn due to regular traffic. Any clues would be indistinguishable in the moonlight. As she began to descend she looked back to the east for a moment and noticed a slight movement in the distance. A group of low forest shrubs was rustling in the night breeze. It mean nothing to her until the moment she realized there was no breeze this evening.
The disruption in the bushes was little more than a hundred meters away. It was certainly possible he could have made it that far while she searched for clues. Ayla couldn’t be sure that the disturbance in the bushes was anything other than an animal, but she decided it was still her best option. Ayla worked her way back down the tree at a speed second only to falling. Back on the path she scratched an arrow to indicate her direction for when Dozzar finally caught up. He was nearly useless any time distance running was involved.
Ayla thought it best to stay on the path until she was closer to where she hoped to pick up the trail again. When she had covered enough distance to be close to the bushes she saw from the tree top she slowed down and began searching for clues again. She had passed the main road back to Ithersund. This section of the path was much less traveled and much easier to see the most recent signs of use. It was only a few moments of close inspection when she found that first sign that someone had recently been going this direction. Finding the signs was much easier without a thick canopy over her head. Just ahead she could see several bent limbs where someone had ventured off the path through the thick undergrowth. Ayla doubted that Dozzar cared enough to notice a trail even this blatant. A quick second arrow scratched into the dirt should be enough to get his attention.
Just minutes after picking up the new trail, it led her to a group of bushes that matched what she had seen from above. Ayla’s excitement grew as she realized she must be on the right path again. The bushes were dense and covered with thick heavy foliage. Her trail followed along the side of bushes. A few extra foot prints indicated he had waited here for a moment. He and an animal had likely frightened one another as he was looking for a clear path to wherever he was going. His clumsiness would be his downfall this time. Ayla continued to follow the trail for several more minutes. After a few hundred meters she heard a voice in the distance. Ayla instinctively slowed her breathing to listen. She moved as stealthily as she could, which is essentially total silence for an elf in the woods.
She could see that the underbrush thinned out ahead in what looked like a small clearing. Creeping close to the edge, she caught sight of him for the first time since seeing him sneak out of the Academy dorms and over the city wall. She thought now what she thought then, What are you up to Biltix? His back was turned to her, so all she knew for certain was that she had caught him out past curfew. Ayla had believed he was sneaking out for months without any way to prove it to their commanding officer. Now she could prove it. She hoped that with a little luck she might even catch him doing something that would get him out of her life for good. She was confident there was no escape for him now that she was so close.
Several minutes passed without Ayla learning anything that would explain what he was doing in the middle of the woods. Biltix had yet to turn in her direction. He appeared content to wait in the clearing for whatever it was. He would occasionally pace a few steps before settling in to the same stance as before. Ayla was certain she had heard him speaking just before she arrived at the edge of the clearing, but she hadn’t seen anyone else. Ayla reasoned he was waiting for whoever he had been speaking with before to come back. His first big move since she arrived came when he stretched and then sat down with his back to her. As he did, she caught the faint glow of a datastone in his hand. He was apparently very occupied with the contents of the stone’s screen. The longer Ayla waited, the more her confidence in Biltix’s guilt and inevitable capture were bolstered. His attention on the datastone’s screen was important for two reasons. The first was that the sound of heavy lumbering steps behind her and the sudden whispered “Boo!” would go unnoticed. These rather annoying sounds indicated the late but inevitable arrival of Dozzar. The second benefit to Biltix’s preoccupation with his datastone was that Ayla could quietly raise an audio shield and discuss her next move with Dozzar without the quiet momentary pop of static alerting Biltix to their presence.