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CHAPTER 54

BESMIRCHED HEARTS

Her steps were languid, yet she never stopped. Climbing up a spiraling slope made of white, jade stone, surrounded by ever-tall crimson red sumac trees, she felt an array of complex emotions that she could hardly express at the moment. At the very end of the slope was a round clearing, in its center a humble abode, half-spherical, barely a few meters tall off the ground. Surrounding it were two gardens of flowers, a small stream and a pond of crystal clear water. Birds weaved and chirped about, singing a song of tranquility that the whole of the place exuded. The courtyard was barren of people, but by the doors lied a wholly white wolf, his eyes starkly silver in hue, full of wisdom. He rested his head on his paws, seemingly asleep. He jolted all of a sudden, his ears perking up, his eyes wide open. He rose up to his feet and looked toward the entrance of the courtyard. A low whine escaped his maw, his snout jerking slightly, his eyes growing tender and moist. There stood a woman clad in shabby clothes, yet hardly any different from what he had remembered of her. Hair as golden as sun cascaded down her back, her eyes pure blue, ethereal. It was her, he realized. His feet moved forward slowly as he approached her, continuously sniffing loudly.

Ella stared at the all-too-familiar approaching figure; though he had grown quite a bit since she last saw him, he still had the same fur, the same eyes that were like moons. The same air, one full of wisdom and serenity, still surrounded him, swaying away dark thoughts in their wake. He came before her and stopped, looking up directly into her eyes. She smiled faintly, extending her hand forward and resting it on his head for a moment before caressing it warmly. A low cry bellowed out as the wolf heaved forward, leaping atop her chest and pushing her down, weaving his two front legs round her neck as though to hug her. He kept crying into her ear while nudging his snout into her face. Ella laughed peacefully, drawing lines over his silken fur. In the distance, the sound of the opening doors broke their little moment; through came two figures, a man and a woman, who both immediately locked their eyes onto the scene transpiring before them. The woman’s lips curled up in a warm smile while the man’s eyebrows furrowed slightly. Varren and Jade remained silent as the wolf whined lowly before coming off Ella and retreating back to Varren’s feet, sitting beside them. Ella got up slowly and dusted herself off before looking at the two people before her. Complex emotions once again assailed her eyes, conveying far more than words ever could.

“Let’s go inside.” Varren suddenly said, turning around. “She’s prepared your favorite.” he was the first one to walk inside, followed by the wolf. Jade kept standing, waiting for Ella to walk up before joining her in waltzing inside.

Unlike the courtyard, the inside of the house was rather simple; there were only a few rooms, decorated mainly by necessities, and only a few paintings hanging on the walls, one which caused Ella to nearly choke in tears; in the hallway extending from the entrance, at its far other end, there was a portrait of a young girl, roughly ten years old. She was exposing a beaming smile, her golden hair weaved into waves cascading downwards, blue eyes standing out against her pale skin. She wore adorned, golden dress and a tiara of precious gems and diamonds while holding an old-looking book in her hands.

“I’d say you haven’t changed at all,” Jade said as she realized Ella had stopped walking. “But you have.”

“...” Ella bit her lower lip, lowering her head in process as though ashamed, resuming the walk. It took but a moment till they reached the small, yet comfy room, with a single table and three chairs around it. Varren was already sitting on one of them, caressing the wolf by his feet. Atop the table were several plates of various cakes, all of Ella’s favorites. She sat meekly, avoiding the two and instead focusing on the wolf.

“You look well.” Jade said, leaning her head against her hands supported by the table, smiling. “Would you like some actual food before the cakes?”

“... n-no, it’s fine.” Ella said. “You... you guys look good, too. Where’s Drew?”

“Ah, you know him,” Jade said, sighing faintly. “He’s out there somewhere, proving something to someone. It’s only gotten worse after you’d left.”

“...” Ella drew an arc with her eyes around the room, feeling a wave of nostalgia assail her.

“We haven’t changed it one bit,” Jade said, noticing it. “Do you want us to call him back?”

“No, that’s fine,” Ella said. “He’d just yell at me, anyway.”

“Ha ha, yeah, he certainly would,” Jade said. “Hey, mute, your daughter is back after so many years. Maybe you ought to stop petting the damn beast and say hi to her?”

“...” Varren seemed to have froze for a moment as he let go of the wolf and looked up, meeting Ella’s eyes. His lips trembled for a moment as he swallowed a mouthful of spit and coughed to calm himself down. “Hello daughter. How... how do you do?”

“... really? ‘Hello daughter’? Ugh.” Jade grunted, gently slapping him over the head. “There’s only us here. Why are you still ashamed of getting up and hugging her? Geez, you and your machismo. It will kill you one day, you know?”

“...” Varren remained silent for a moment before suddenly getting up and walking over, grabbing Ella and heaving her off the chair, wounding his arms tightly round her back. Though startled for a moment, she relaxed almost immediately and hugged him back, taking in the warmth of his body, the familiarity that she had thought had disappeared a long, long time ago. “I’ve missed you...” she heard his gruff voice enter her ears, causing her to smile.

“... I’ve missed you too dad.” Ella said.

“Yeah?” she said, pulling back and sniffing for a moment. “Then why’d you never come to visit?”

“Hey!” Jade exclaimed, flashing him an angry glance.

“No mom, it’s fine,” Ella said, sighing. “Dad’s right.”

“... no, no I’m not. I’m sorry El’,” Varren said as he sat back down into his chair. “You’re a grown woman and you can live your life the way you want to. I’m... I’m just being selfish.”

“He’s right though,” Jade said. “An occasional letter would have been nice.”

“Hey! You can’t go and berate me and then do the exact same thing!” Varren cried out.

“Oh, cry me a river.” Jade rolled his eyes at him as Ella burst into short laughter, startling the two.

“Ha ha, ah, I’m, I’m sorry. It’s just... you guys are still the same, after so many years. It’s surprising. I was sure you’d have killed each other by now.”

“Oh, trust me, it isn’t for the lack of trying.” Jade said.

“... how long are you staying?” Varren suddenly asked, breaking the warm atmosphere and turning it frigid in a moment.

“Varren--”

“It’s okay mom,” Ella interrupted. “A day, at most. I have to go back.”

“... what did you and the Patriarch talk about?” Varren asked.

“... sorry, it was private.” Ella said.

“So private you can’t even share it with us?”

“Varren! Enough!” Jade exclaimed angrily. “Do you really want to spend today like this? Fighting? We haven’t seen her in thousands of years for crying out loud!! At the very least let me have this!”

“... sorry.” Varren said, looking away.

“... I want to tell you. I really do,” Ella said. “But... it involves certain things that only Patriarch knows. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine sweetie,” Jade said, grabbing her hand gently. “Don’t worry about it. I’m certain you haven’t traveled hundreds of thousands of miles just to borrow a book from him. You’ve got your own reasons for not telling us and, like civil adults we are,” she glanced at Varren. “We’re going to respect that. Right, Varren?”

“... yeah, right, respect. Sorry. So, uh, how’s the musclehead?”

“His name is still Eggor, dad.” Ella said.

“Never cared much.” he looked away.

“He’s still using the spear Eggor crafted for him, isn’t he?” Ella asked Jade who smiled immediately, ignoring Varren’s stern gaze.

“Yup. He practices with it every day. I swear, if it weren’t for me, he’d probably be sleeping with the damn thing.”

“And, to answer your question, he’s fine,” Ella said. “He should have escaped the Kingdom by now.”

“... you seem really happy, El’,” Jade said, smiling. “You two finally decided to have a kid?”

“... uh, no,” Ella’s cheeks flushed red for a moment as she looked away. “But, uhm, we, we sort of adopted one? I think?”

“Oh?” Varren arced his brows as he looked at her. “He must be pretty special to catch your guys’ eyes.”

“... special?” Ella said as Lino’s grinning face popped into her head. “Uh, sure, let’s say he’s special.”

“Well, tell us about him,” Jade said as she sliced three pieces off one cake and distributed them. “How old is he?”

“Should be sixteen.” Ella replied.

“Oh, wow, so he’s already a man, huh?” Varren said, stroking his chin. “Interesting.”

“I’m not letting you ‘discipline’ him,” Ella said almost immediately. “And, if I’m being honest, I don’t think even you could reel him in.”

“... oh wow, well, that’s just silly. I reeled you in, haven’t I?” Varren said.

“Yeah, but you’d probably have an aneurysm before actually reeling him in.” Ella said. “He has that sort of an influence on you.”

“A wordy brat, huh? I’d like the challenge. Most the kids these days in the Clan are so obedient I mostly sleep through my lessons.” Varren said.

“... you’d both like him and hate him, I think.” Ella said. “But, even if you do meet him one day, it won’t be any time soon.”

“I can live with that,” Varren said, faintly smiling. “So? He a cultivator too?”

“Uh, yeah. But, he’s more like Eggor,” Ella said. “Blacksmith first.”

“Tsk.”

“Hey! Don’t click your tongue!” Ella exclaimed. “There’s nothing wrong with being a blacksmith first!”

“Yeah, if you’re a complete hack at cultivation.”

“Ah, forget that,” Jade interjected before the conversation spiraled any further. “All that is secondary. Tell me: is he handsome?”

“... and that’s somehow important?” Ella asked, arcing her eyebrow.

“Well of course! All members of our little family dazzle people wherever we go! We can’t be breaking that tradition!”

“... oh, wow, I didn’t know my family was so vain.” Ella said. “What an eye-opener.”

“So he’s an, how do they call it, ‘acquired taste’?” Varren asked.

“... I’m not discussing how handsome he is with you guys,” Ella grunted lowly. “He’s... he’s a smart, witty kid.”

“Oh, right. So he’s as ugly as they come, right?”

“... Telly, bite him in the ass.” Ella looked at the wolf and said; the poor thing whined lowly as he glanced between Varren and Ella, unsure on what to do.

“Hey, leave him alone,” Jade said. “You know he can’t choose. He loves you, but he’s terrified of him. It’s an impossible choice.”

“... woooo.” the wolf cried out lowly before snuggling off into the corner, ignoring the trio.

“... so, what was that about Demons?” Varren asked as they finished up their pieces of the cake. “Do you need any help?”

“No,” Ella shook her head. “We should be fine.”

“You know that you can always ask us for anything, right?” Jade added.

“I... I know. Don’t worry. It hasn’t gotten so bad we can’t handle it on our own.”

“You’ve resumed your cultivation. Only recently, though.” Varren suddenly said. “Something to do with the kid?”

“... yeah,” Ella said, smiling faintly. “He’s... helped both of us, in his own little way. Helped us move on.”

“That’s good,” Jade said, caressing Ella’s hair gently. “Taking away your cultivation was a terrible thing to do in the first place.”

“No... grandfather was right to do it,” Ella said. “It set a perfect example: no matter whether you’re a normal member, or even the Maiden, no one is exempt from punishment. He already did me a favor by only taking it away and not crippling me entirely.”

“... he would have never done that,” Varren said. “Even if the entire Clan demanded it, he would have fought them before crippling you. He... he may have been more loyal to the Clan than anyone else in its history, but you trampled that loyalty. He loved you very much, almost as much as we do.”

“... yeah.” Ella said. “I know. Where is his tomb? I’d like to visit it to pay my respects before I leave.”

“It’s in the Ank’ars,” Jade said, smiling faintly. “Alongside his father’s. We’ll take you there before you leave.”

“Thanks. I’d like that.”

A long distance away, from atop of a mountain, a pair of crimson eyes stared at the distant compound, a pair full of resentment and deep-seethed fury. Crimson hair fluttered by the wind’s command, like trails of blood in the fresh sky. Though top of the mountain was covered in snow, the ground around the young man was entirely parched, blackened by crimson flames and suffocatingly hot air. His eyes suddenly widened as flames coiled around his feet. Before a blink of time was over, he disappeared from the top of the mountain, heaving through the sky like a falling meteorite, aiming for the peaceful courtyard in the distance.

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About the author

beddedOtaku

Bio: Bad writer, worse painter, terrible singer. Accumulation of all things gone wrong. Rather proud of it, actually.

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