The air is too quiet. The wind crawls through the spaces between hard barks of the trees, sending silent whispers into the depth of the never-ending forest. The leaves on the trees bow their heads down, following the paths of the cold breeze. The sun barely fits through the cracks between the thick branches, only small rays of light manage to find their way towards the ground.
The forest is quiet, and it is nothing what Liam expected it to be.
"You are qualified enough to get into the forest. But getting out is what matters, Payne." - The rough voice of the General sends echoes through the dimly lighted room. "Those people are pure animals, cold-blooded predators that will not hesitate to kill you with their bare hands. They are cannibals, mutants, misfits of the society. You were chosen by headquarters for a reason, we know you are one of our best soldiers, experienced in surviving on the land and in the seas. But remember - the second you step your feet into the forest will be the second you set the burden of your whole nation on your shoulders. You have to make sure you don't get killed by Animas. You have to gain their trust, find their weak spots to let us destroy them afterwards. Do you understand an order, soldier?"
"Yes, sir." - Liam jerks a nod.
"We've lost a few people in the woods." - The man says with a deep frown painted on his face. "We have no information about their lives, beliefs or traditions, only few facts we found out from the letters of our fallen soldiers. We have no idea how their society works, therefore we can not attack the unknown. You need to get close to the heart of their nation - the royal circle, especially the son of the King, they call him 'Zayn'. He is the weak spot of the whole nation. And we are going to use that against them."
"How do I find them?" - Liam dares to ask.
"You don't." - The General answers instantly. "The Animas will find you."
Liam's brows knit together from confusion, but he stays quiet.
"You are our only chance." - The General adds. He runs a hand through his grey hair and sighs quietly. "You are the faith our our nation. Don't forget it, Payne."
The forest is supposed to be scary, dark and cold. Instead, it's calm and quiet - something Liam hasn't witnessed in a while. The leaves scrunch underneath his heavy boots as he walks down the narrow paths set by the nature itself. It's been eighteen hours of him wondering around the forest, trying to find anything that would help him to find the forest nation. But he found nothing. The bag on his back is getting too heavy, he run out of water supplies almost an hour ago, his feet are hurting and eyes are burning from the lack of sleep, but he continues to walk. He's been through worse, at least that's what he tells himself.
The last rays of sunshine disappear into the trees and the forest drowns into the night. Liam stops for a moment and looks around before grabbing a small flashlight from his bag and lightening it up. It barely lights the way, but Liam still manages to walk through. That, until he steps on something hard and loses his balance, all at once. He stumbles and tries to catch his balance, but fails miserably and bolts forward, sending himself down the small hill he's been walking on. The stones and branches scratch his face, dirt gets into his eyes and mouth as the world spirals around him. He feels every bump while he falls down the hill. The heavy bags drugs him even more and Liam is sure he will end up with several broken bones.
He slams his head on something big and hard and suddenly he feels nothing at all. Everything drowns in blackness and the forest disappears.
Black and white dots dance in front of Liam's vision. He tries to tear his eyes open, unglue the eyelids but fails. He can't feel his limbs, or any other part of his body. Maybe this is what death feels like? An infinity spend in nothingness. The thought sends a bolting spark through Liam's mind and causes him to let out a quiet whine. His head is throbbing from the piercing pain and something weird and wet is placed on top of it.
Finally, Liam opens his eyes and blinks through the blur. The sky is bright. It alarms him, as he clearly remembers walking through the night. Liam blinks several times to finally get the numb feeling to disappear and tries to sit up. Bad idea. he realizes as the horrible pain shoots through his head. He lifts his hand to touch the material that touches his skin, but freezes when he hears a quiet voice behind him.
"Nolite Tangere. Est medicina. " - It says. The voice is silky and almost velvety, a weird language alarms Liam. All the Cineres talk the same way. Not this way. The creature seems to catch his confusion and continues talking on the mutual language.
"It's an Arbor leaf. It helps with healing a wound. You've had a nasty fall, the leaf will help with a cut on your forehead." - The voice adds with a strange accent.
Liam swallows hardly and tries to control his breathing. He hoped he would find an Anima soon, but he had no idea he would end up being found by them instead. Especially while being wounded and weak. He feels the way his heart starts beating like a crazy, but he chooses to ignore it. Instead, he manages to sit up properly and turns his head slowly to meet the creature that helped him.
The sight he's met with stones Liam. The boy, probably of Liam's age, is kneeled in front of him and is staring right at him. His almond-shaped eyes are deep brown. His face is covered in small freckles and his lips are the darkest shade of pink Liam has ever seen. The long, black hair is pulled back into the braid that reaches the boy's thin shoulders. He is wearing nothing but green leather pants, so Liam can observe the dozens of strange tattoos scattered all over the boy's body. Liam has never seen anyone so beautiful and strange at the same time.
The boy cocks his head to the side as he realizes Liam is staring at his body. Liam blushes violently and unglues his eyes off of the boy's torso.
"Who are you?" - The boy asks suddenly.
Liam shifts awkwardly under his swirling gaze and tries to collect his thoughts, but the boy's undeniable beauty confuses and messes with his head.
"I-I'm-I got lost." - Liam mumbles. "I was walking through the forest and-"
"Why were you alone out here?" - The boy presses. His eyes narrow and he crawls closer to Liam. His nose scrunches as he sniffs the air around Liam and the recognition flashes through his eyes.
Liam tries to get up on his feet, but fails miserable as the boy bolts up suddenly and in a blink of an eye grabs a bow and and arrow from the ground. The boy glares down at him and Liam lets out a gasp as a sharp end of an arrow almost touches his forehead. So much for trying not to die. Good job, Liam.
"You're a Cinere." - The boy hisses with a disgusted look in his eyes. "I can feel the smell of ashes on the air you breathe. Monstrifera malum!"
Liam opens his mouth to say something in protest, but boy pulls an arrow even more and it shuts Liam's mouth.
"What are you doing in our lands?!" - The boy snarls.
"I-Please, I'm not here to hurt you." - Liam pleads with a shaky voice and lifts his hands in defense. "I-I got lost."
"It is forbidden for a Cinere to walk into the lands of the forest." - The boy hisses. "Tell me what are you doing here or I won't hesitate to let this arrow pierce your head."
Liam's eyes grow wide from the panic.
"Look, I-My people kicked me out! Please, you have to believe me! I'm not here to hurt you! I-They sent me here to meet my death. I was a prisoner back in the City and this was my death penalty. The-The forest."
"And they were right - you will for sure meet your death in here." - The boy nods with a cold look in his eyes. "What did you do to deserve such a horrible punishment?!"
"I was teaching the kids about your nation in my basement." - Liam says quietly. "And-And that's forbidden in the City. We can't talk about you or anything related to you. But I wanted to let the kids know about your world. I-I wanted them to know that a beautiful nation exist somewhere in the woods. I didn't know I'd get caught."
Liam repeats the lines he's been learning for months. And it seems to work, because after a moment of hesitation, the boy lowers an arrow and a bow. His eyes are still glued at Liam when he takes a step back, away from him.
"Does it hurt?" - He nods towards Liam's head. Liam unconsciously touches his forehead before answering.
"Uh, a bit, yeah. It's fine, though. I'll be fine."
"Your story sounds absurd." - The boy tells Liam. "But your whole nation is absurd. I won't kill you, yet, but it doesn't mean I will let you go. I do not trust you, barbarus."
"Okay." - Liam replies quietly. He lifts his eyes to meet the boy's honey-colored ones. "I'm Liam, by the way."
"Leeyum." - The boy tries his name on his tongue and, for some reason, it sends shivers down Liam's spine. The boy approaches Liam in one long step and lifts his hand. Liam squeezes his eyes, as he has no idea what to expect, but opens them after a second when he feels a gentle touch on his temple. The boy puts two fingers on Liam's temple while staring at him. "Ego salutant vos, Liam. "
Liam blinks at the boy confused, trying to think of the meaning behind the words.
"It means I greet you ." - The boy adds as he notices Liam's confusion. His fingers trace the skin on Liam's temple softly. "This is how we greet each-other."
Oh. The boy's words shoot warmth through Liam's chest. He let Liam in. So easily, so quickly. The guilt eats Liam alive. He lifts his own fingers slowly and places them on boy's temple as well.
"Ego salutant vos,-" - Liam stops, as he realizes he doesn't know the boy's name yet.
"Zayn." - The boy finishes. "My name is Zayn."
Liam's breath hitches. Zayn. The son of the King. The weak spot of Animas nation. And now he gets why. This boy is everything that the prince should ever be. Gentle, beautiful, graceful, soft and pretty.
"Ego salutant vos, Zayn." - Liam repeats quietly. He lowers his hand and stops it in the space between him and Zayn, reaching it out for the boy to shake. "We shake hands back in the City. Here, I'll show you."
Zayn blinks down confused at the way Liam interlaces their hands together and shakes them gently. He stares at Liam's hands with his doe eyes captured with unbelievably long eyelashes and suddenly the corners of his mouth lift shyly as he tries to hide the forming smile.
"What a weird way to greet someone." - He giggles. Giggles.Liam wishes he could turn back time and never agree to this operation. But he knows the future of his nation is way more important than his feelings and thoughts. He smiles back at Zayn and shrugs.
"We never really knew any other way of doing it."
"Well, now you do." - Zayn tells him. His eyes stop on Liam's forehead and his brows knit together. "Let me take you to my village. We have a better medicine than the leaf I gave you. But if you try to do anything-"
"I won't." - Liam assures him. "I have nowhere else to go. Nobody wants me back at home."
Zayn stares at him for a moment, before jerking a nod. He puts the bow and arrow into the small bag striped to his shoulders and pulls out a small rope.
"I have to be sure you won't harm anyone. Until then, I have to tie your hands to protect my people. I apologize, I hope you understand."
Guilt is now nibbling on Liam's heart, eating it piece by piece. He lifts his hands and reaches them out.
"I get it." - He nods and gives the bot an assuring smile. Zayn gently ties his hands with his long fingers and steps aside.
"Follow me." - He tells Liam. "Don't look into anyone's eyes when we reach my village. Don't turn your back at the King if he greets us. And-"
"Yeah?" - Liam asks when Zayn stops talking and stares at him.
"Wipe that look away from your face. Don't be scared, Leeyum." - The boy smiles. "We're not monsters."
But I am Liam wants to scream. He doesn't. Instead, he follows Zayn as the boy starts walking through the woods. Liam thought he would be proud of this moment. But he feels nothing but emptiness in his souls. But it is worth it. His people, his world is worth it. He hopes.