HEART OF THE BROKEN
Lino’s anxiousness continued climbing until, at one point, he felt his blood freeze and heart even pause for a moment. Unable to endure it any longer, he spread his wings and took to the sky, unleashing his profound cultivation base to turn into a golden blur that arced through the sky, astonishing everyone who happened to take a look.
Still, even with that, it took him nearly two days till he reached the outskirts of Hope Town whereupon he landed, feeling something was amiss. He moved cautiously through the hilly region until his eyes finally landed upon the walls of Hope Town. From where he stood, it appeared nothing was wrong - at least on the surface. However, even a simpler, deeper look unveiled far more.
Lino couldn’t detect a single ounce of life energy within the city. What’s more, swaths of billowing, black smoke heaved toward the sky here and there. He could also spot more than a few demolished towers, and, to his greatest shock, quantity of Devil Qi that actually surpassed Gaia Qi! His anxiousness immediately spilled into outright madness as he disregarded everything and raced toward the city.
He scaled the walls and quickly entered only to be met with a sight more ghastly than the one he witnessed in the Eshen’s Necropolis. It reminded him back of the days when he had just begun cultivating, when he first departed on the adventure. Dried blood dyed the walls crimson, while mutilated, maimed, bloodied, sometimes wholly destroyed bodies littered the streets.
Young... old... weak... strong... it didn’t matter. Those few who kept whole corpses had looks of profound terror, desolation, utter, soul-wrenching despair, their eyes bulging like saucers, filled with grief and indignation that can hardly be put into words. Women, especially, were a sight that caused Lino to bend over and actually vomit; all were stark naked, without exception - regardless of their age - embellishing poses that had nothing to do with humane ways.
He walked along the streets, witnessing scene after scene which left him seething. Without even realizing it, he reached the orphanage and entered, whereupon he paused before suddenly flattening onto his knees, his expression black as his eyes danced like stars in the sky. There, in the familiar courtyard, dozens of familiar faces lay cold. He recognized them all... the images of their smiling faces penetrated his mind, their childish, innocent laughter echoing like rumble inside.
His entire body shook as tears cruised down his cheeks. Even further, he bent forth and vomited yet again - this time blood! He used his arms to hold himself from falling flat into the pool of blood beneath him. He wanted to scream out, yet his voice got trapped in his throat; he could barely breathe at this point. The only thing that kept him from spiraling into blind lunacy was a single thought: ‘They’re alive!’. It repeatedly circulated his mind, like a heartfelt prayer, a last straw of his fading determination.
He climbed onto his feet and turned around, his eyes bedeviled, red like the blood racing down the corners of his lips. He grit his teeth and strut forth, using his Divine Sense to scan every inch of the town. However, no matter how much he scanned, not a single trace of life came to be. He soon reached outside the town, facing the forest beyond which the Skydevil Basin was; there, the scene wasn’t as ghastly as inside. However, Lino felt coldness far surpassing what he felt inside the walls.
This was the place, he realized, where cultivators of the town made their last stand. After deeper inspection, he felt remnant traces of Kraval’s, Fish’s, Aeala’s, Lucky’s, Shaneine’s, Smite’s... and even Freya’s Qi! By now, his thoughts had turned entirely chaotic. All but that singular thought that kept him going ceased to exist. He madly used his Divine Sense, even overdrawing his cultivation base to expand it to nearly fifty miles before he finally caught a trace of a living aura!
As though possessed, he bolted toward it, unfurling his wings and almost breaking void around him in the process. It didn’t take even a full minute before he arrived at the source, tracing it further away to a small, underground cave besides a dried up lake. When his Divine Sense reached inside, he only saw two figures, causing his entire body to shake.
Landing in front of the cave, he ignored the simple spell formation placed around and stormed inside. Inside awaited him rather cramped space, barely enough to fit a few people. It was entirely dark, yet it didn’t prevent him from seeing it clearly; in one corner, battered, bruised, scarred and still bleeding body of Lucky was leaned against the wall. Though her breathing was low, he immediately realized she would survive even if he did nothing.
However, when his Divine Sense scanned the other figure, he couldn’t help but tremble. Aeala’s state was ten - nay, a hundred times worse than Lucky’s; there wasn’t an inch of her body that wasn’t injured, and over half her organs were either entirely rotten or had completely stopped functioning. He couldn’t even begin to fathom as to how was there still a breadth of life inside of her.
Still shaking, he quickly approached her and sat beside her, pulling out a small, spherical object from his void world, using it to light up the entire cave. Aeala’s beautiful face was now marred with scars and wounds, turning her previous tender, pale skin entirely scarlet. One of her eyes was missing, and there was a bone-deep wound reaching from her lower abdomen all the way to her jaw, still spitting out blood.
Suddenly, as though she sensed something, her remaining eye flickered as it opened, looking at Lino. As her vision grew sharpened, and a familiar face came into her view, her entire body trembled as her eye grew moist. She somehow managed to actually pull up one of her arms, her hand landing on Lino’s face, as though fearful he was but an illusion. As she felt the familiar warmth of his skin, her lips trembled and curled up in a faint smile.
Lino’s entire being by this point was being doused in ice; he repeatedly tried to think of a way to help her, yet every time he did, his faint bits of hope would only crumble further. Perhaps, in some divine land far away, there were people and ways that could help her even at this point... but... here, and now, Lino realized, he had no way to save her. He was suddenly struck with that realization as he saw Aeala smile at him. Even while battered and bruised almost beyond recognition, that smile was beautiful.
It was filled with warmth, with care, even faint trace of relief, as though the last burden which upheld her soul from perishing was banished by the appearance of this young man. Lino suddenly bit his lower lip in an attempt to hold the tears back, but it was in vain. They streamed in droves, and there was nothing he could do to stop them.
“Hey you...” she mumbled weakly, yet, inside the silent cave, her voice turned into a crisp and clear stream that entered Lino’s ears.
“...” Lino was unable to utter a sound, merely staring at her, feeling the sensation of her enfeebled hand caressing his cheek.
“It’s... it’s good you’re okay...” she said, nodding faintly. “It’s good...”
“I...” he didn’t know what to say; to promise her he would save her? He couldn’t. To express something deeper? He didn’t know what.
“It’s okay,” her hand suddenly slipped as though she lost the last ounce of strength to hold it up. Lino, however, immediately reacted and caught it, tending to it gently, fearful it may crumble at any moment. “It’s all okay, Lino. You’re okay...”
“This... it isn’t a dream, is it?”
“No... no it isn’t...”
“Hmm... good... good. I endured...”
“... y-yeah... you... you did.”
“Your hand is warm.”
“It feels nice...”
“Take care of her...”
“I... I will... I promise...”
“Your hand is really warm...” Lino saw her one eye slowly close up, fear enshrouding him.
“H-hey, d-don’t go sleeping now. Hey, we’ve got a lot to chat about. How about I tell you what I did while away, huh?”
“... I’m tired...” she said, as though she hadn’t registered a single word he said. “Your hand... is really warm...”
“... y-yeah...” by now, Lino’s eyes were like waterfalls as he gnashed his teeth, making sure he didn’t cry out.
“... are you there?”
“I’m... I’m right here... right here...”
“Hm... you’re here...” her voice was turning softer and milder, almost like a whisper.
“I’ll always be here...”
“...” she remained silent for a few moments. “Are you here?”
“I’m right here.”
“I’m going... to sleep...”
“Y-yeah... you, you go and rest... I’ll be right here... r-right here...”
“Your hand... is...” even after waiting for an entire minute, not another sound came from her. Lino had already realized it, yet couldn’t face the reality of it.
He sat there numb, still holding onto the gentle hand, caressing it. He still waited, anticipated her voice to fill his mind yet again. However... the voice never appeared. Only silence hovered, bearing against his tender shoulders. Nothing before in his life, not even the day Ally left, impacted him quite as profoundly as this moment did. He simply continued sitting, unsure of anything beyond a single reality. He couldn’t scream out in pain, bellow out in anger and agony, couldn’t even cry out in somber release. Only sit there and listen to the sound of silence eternally eating away at his broken heart.