UNTIL DAWN (III)
The rained never ceased, persisting through the night. Dawn was still an hour away, but the gates had fallen. City of Mercenaries was overrun with spades of darkness and air of suffocation, dark clouds clotting high up in the sky endlessly. Walls were torn asunder, buildings razed, everything which once stood proudly defying the order was now in shambles, squashed to its chaotic form. Every corner was marked by dozen crimson-eyed demons, standing still like statues, watchful guardians. Along the streets corpses piled up groundlessly; there was no distinction between them, just that they were all dead. Still. Frozen forever in time, never to wake again. Crimson mingled with water, running streams bounding destroyed city, filling up small ponds at occasional crater-like lakes.
Dozens of miles away, on a mountain erected like a sword, halfway up, a group was sitting by the blazing flame, doused in heavy silence. From time to time, a pair of eyes would veer off flames into the distance, as though searching for something or someone, but the darkness of the night hardly allowed anything to be seen past the immediate distance. Among them, Aeala seemed the most dispirited, the life in her eyes flickering. Her clothes were torn from travel and her expression weary and dreary, hair messy. She sat in silence, focused on the crimson-gold fire before her, as though waiting for it to give some answers. Smite sat next to her, sighing heavily from time to time while paying her an occasional glance, worry littered over his expression. Opposite of them sat Kraval and Fish, former silent and still like a statue while the latter drank ceaselessly, seemingly never running out of bottles or gourds. In-between the two groups were Shaneine and Lucky, both withdrawn in shadows.
“... you guys are killing me,” Fish suddenly said, burping loudly. “O’course we’d lost, dam’t. We were outnumbered six to billion.”
“Told you we should have not allowed him to drink.” Lucky chimed in from the shadows.
“Y’ got a problem wit me drinkin’?!” Fish exclaimed somewhat angrily, trying to get up but stumbling and falling down instead.
“Nope. Otherwise, I’d have less material to make fun of you.” Lucky replied, sneering.
“What now?” Kraval asked in deep, seemingly emotionless tone.
“We gotta get out of the Kingdom,” Smite replied when he saw that Aeala was wholly disinterested in the affair. “Probably surrounding region as well. We head north as north we can go.”
“There’s nothing but snow and cold up there,” Aeala joined in finally. “I say we head east. While I was living in Endo Clan, I once chanced upon a map. A month away is a massive gulf almost cleaving the whole of land from north to south. Beyond, I’d read, is where Third Rate Sects are stationed.”
“... it’s a long journey.” Smite said. “We don’t have enough supplies.”
“Lady’s right,” Shaneine said in a matter-of-fact voice. “North, west, south... we’re perched at the corner. Anywhere we go, eventually we’ll run into ocean. East expands into a massive continent. Much easier to hide.”
“... alright. So we head east.” Smite sighed. “Where do we get the supplies?”
“We could circle the border-villages,” Kraval said. “Pick up what we can.”
“You mean rob?” Aeala asked, looking at him.
“...” Kraval stared back for a moment before replying. “Yes. Rob.”
“No.” Aeala replied without hesitation.
“No discussion on this!” she exclaimed, glaring at the group. “I didn’t get us together so we can pillage the innocent!”
“... better us than them, m’ Lady.” Shaneine joined.
“...” Aeala looked at the group for a moment before averting her gaze back onto the flame, falling silent.
“We do it once, we’ll do it whenever things get rough,” Smite broke the awkward silence. “We’re just laying the foundations for becoming bandits in the future.”
“M’ Lady,” Fish spoke up. “Do you think Endo Clan was raided after you escaped?”
“... what do you mean?” Aeala asked.
“I mean whether it was discovered by people,” he elaborated. “If it was not, there’s a chance the warehouses over there are full.”
“The Patriarch must have packed anything that matters before fleeing,” Aeala replied. “And it was all stored in this ring.” she pointed at her finger.
“Yeah, but he’d have packed, you know, treasures, heirlooms, cultivation methods and such,” Smite said, a hint of excitement in his voice. “And just enough food for the travel. He wouldn’t have packed the whole of warehouses.”
“... it’s possible.” Aeala said.
“So long as we avoid the Demons, we should be able to arrive there in a week at most.” Fish said.
“... so long we avoid them, huh?” Lucky muttered softly, but all both heard and understood her.
“It’s not the time to fight them, guys,” Smite said, sighing lightly. “You know the mantra? Live to fight another day?”
“That just sounds like giving up to me.” Kraval said, his brows tightening.
“We did all we could,” Aeala said. “Smite is right. For the time being, we shouldn’t incite any trouble unless absolutely necessary. We’ll break away before the dawn and move southeast. We’ll move through the day as Devil Qi is barely effective. Get some rest everyone. You deserve it.” Aeala said, breaking away from the group and leaning on the nearby tree, taking a deep breath. It wasn’t even a moment later that Smite joined her. “I thought I said you should get some rest.”
“We decided to take turns guarding you.” Smite replied, smiling.
“We or just you?”
“Alright, it was me. But, hey, they made me their representative. So it’s basically them.”
“... I should have listened to you.” she said solemnly.
“You told me the formation wouldn’t last until dawn and that we’d only be wasting the Qi Stones,” she glanced sideways at him. “But I didn’t listen. Remind me the next time that I’m the dumbest one in the group.”
“... ah, that.” Smite chuckled lightly. “You’re not the dumbest. You just chose to believe in him. There’s nothing wrong with believing in other people, Aeala.”
“... I’d risked your lives, the whole of the city, on the parting words me told me, Smite.” Aeala. “I’m acting like a love-bound girl whereas I should be acting like a leader.”
“Well, I’m not denying that there was definitely some favoritism going on there,” Aeala chuckled for a moment, shaking her head. “But it’d be strange if there wasn’t. You didn’t just believe his parting words... you believed him. A man who saved you whilst almost dying in the process. Someone you grew to care for. That there is a lot more than just trusting words.”
“... isn’t your agenda to turn me over from him?”
“Oh, definitely,” he said, taking out a bottle of water and drinking a gulp. “As the matter of fact, I’ll reluctantly admit that I was rather happy when I saw he didn’t show up. But, you’re in pain. Our little rivalry takes a backseat to that.”
“There’s no rivalry, Smite,” Aeala said. “A woman knows when she’s a replacement.”
“... then he’s an idiot.” Smite said. “About twenty years ago,” he continued after short silence. “I met this girl, Evelyn. I was just a teenage boy back then and I’d just learned from my dad that he’s a cultivator and that he’ll be teaching me all these magic tricks. So, to impress her, I performed one of the Martial Arts my dad taught me back then. That very night, a group of people broke into our house. My mom and sister were killed while my dad was left crippled. I never told him I recognized one of the girls he’d killed that night and that it was my fault.”
“...” Aeala stared for a moment at the solemn face full of pain, saying nothing.
“Point is, that’s what being quite dumb is,” Smite said, chuckling. “You pulled out before we were in danger. That’s all that matters. Qi Stones? We’ll get them back, in time.”
“... you’re strangely optimistic about this whole affair.”
“Because, believe it or not, I’d grown to understand you over the past few months,” Smite said, gazing deeply at her. “We all have. You’re a... remarkable person, Aeala. Stronger than anyone I’d ever met in my life, all of us here included and combined. I know that the only reason you seem dispirited is because you’re trying to tell us it’s fine to be the same. I’m fairly certain we all know that. We also know that the eastward journey wasn’t something you just came up with. Believe it or not, there’s no place in the world where I’d feel safer than here.”
“... you’re giving me too much credit.” Aeala smiled faintly. “I never planned on running out of Qi Stones... or going to war this early.”
“... perhaps. But you already plans if you had to. It’s alright to be humble... just, there’s no reason to sell yourself too short.”
“... keep it up and you might just win me over.” Aeala said, chuckling.
“Oh, is this the first affirmative sign? Could it be that I’m finally starting to beat out that kid?”
“You really have a strange obsession with him, you know that?” Aeala said, squinting her eyes.
“Hey, it’s your fault,” Smite replied, shrugging his shoulders. “You’ve mystified him to the point where he’s, well, a damn myth. I just want to meet this fifteen year old Core Realm boy who killed a Mythic Realm cultivator while warding of six peak Core Realm ones and with you in tow. Intrigue is strong.”
“... well, if we do ever get to meet him,” Aeala said, looking up at the sky. “I assure you that you won’t be disappointed. One look into his eyes will tell you everything.”
“... it always does.” Smite mumbled lowly, turning toward the direction of City of Mercenaries, stunned for a moment. “Eh? What’s that? Hey, Shaneine, do you see that?”
“I do.” a cold voice replied from the darkness as the rustling sounds of branches echoed out while Shaneine climbed the tree nimbly.
“What’s going on?” Lucky asked.
“Look toward the city.” Smite replied; a mere moment later, the whole group gathered around the fire, gazing off into the distance. “Shaneine?”
“... it’s fire and smoke.” she replied. “I can’t make out much else but it looks like someone’s fighting.”
“Who the hell---no, no way,” Smite said, sighing. “Right?” he glanced at Aeala.
“Don’t look at me,” she shrugged a reply. “I don’t know.”
“It’s your call, m’ Lady.” Kraval said, picking up his warhammer, eagerness painted on his face. “Should we go back in?”
“If we do,” Lucky said. “We’ll probably be encircled with no hope of escape.”
“If we don’t, on the ot’er hand,” Fish said, taking a gulp of his wine. “We’ll leave whoever that is to die. Or worse.”
“... how could it be any worse---you know what, forget I asked,” Smite said, rolling his eyes. “What will it be, Aeala?”
“...” though five expectant gazes landed on her, Aeala seemed unhindered by them, remaining calm, gazing off into the distance where smoke began to rising toward the high sky. “Do you trust me?”
“Always.” the five replied almost at the same time.
“We’re heading back.” she said. “Lucky and Shaneine, move roughly fifty paces ahead of us and scout. Fish, take the rear. Kraval, stay at the midway point between Smite and I and Lucky and Shaneine and be ready to assist either group. Let’s go and see what the hell’s going on, guys.”