VOLUME VII - BEYOND WEST
Southern wind blew gently across the grassy valley, swaying it ever so barely. Crickets sang within its depths as birds roamed the clear blue sky above. Valley stretched for miles on end, shaped somewhat like a strange boot if looked from above. At the spot where the heel ought to be, valley splintered sideways and gave way to a relatively small lake.
The lake itself hounded water from the waterfall falling off a nearly hundred meters tall cliff upon which a strange, green-colored river flew. The very green of the river spilled over into the lake, making it appear oddly exotic. Currently, by the edge of the lake, a woman was performing odd forms, occasionally striking with her hands and feet.
She had golden hair tied up into a ponytail and was wearing simple clothes, a tank-top cut beneath her breasts and shorts barely down to her knees. She had well refined facial features and chiseled jaw which spilled into extremely muscled body which would put almost any man who knew her to shame.
Her azure-colored eyes remained focused as she began kicking yet again, moving forward and backward in the process as though she was reenacting a rhythmic sort of a dance which was inspired by martial arts. She was quickly pulled out of her focus and slipped and fell as she heard some movement behind her. Lying down, she heaved her head back and angrily looked at the source only to see a familiar, smiling face hanging above her.
“Eh? H-hannah? What are you doing here?” she asked the newcomer. The latter had endearingly beautiful green eyes which seemed to shimmer under the cover of shade and a smile that could disarm nearly anyone. Strands of her seemingly unnatural crimson hair fell down with the rest being neatly tied back. She was wearing ornamental clothes, wide and baroque, a complete opposite of hers’.
“Shane told me you were training,” the woman said, smiling, as she sat down. “I wanted to see your progress.”
“... weren’t you supposed to be attending that ball or something?”
“Really Ally? You think I’d ever attend that crap?”
“... point taken.” Alison said, sitting up as well and taking out a towel from seemingly nowhere, wiping off sweat. “So, what do you think?”
“Crude.” Hannah said with a slight frown. “There’s no flow to it. You’re just kicking and hitting and forming sounds that ought to never leave woman’s mouth. You’ll never find a husband like this.”
“... yeah, I see you’re really here only to mess with me, aren’t you?”
“Oh, you’re finally getting it.” Hannah said, grinning.
“Couldn’t you have chosen someone else to mess around with? I mean, I’m not the only one here, you know?”
“Yeah, but the rest have tendency of crying,” Hannah suddenly sighed, as though she was lamenting over something grave. “It’s not fun that way.”
“Aren’t you the reason they’re crying?”
“Just because I say a thing or two doesn’t mean they should immediately burst out in tears.”
“I distinctly remember you telling Anton that you would rather literally let a goat impregnate you than ever let him touch you when he asked you for a spar.” Alison said with a tinge of anger in her voice.
“How’s that a reason for him to literally start bawling like a newborn?” Hannah rolled her eyes quickly. “I was merely testing his willpower.”
“Right... of course you were.”
“Are you saying that I wasn’t?”
“Yup, pretty much.”
“Ah, Ally... you used to be always on my side...” Hannah leaned sideways and rested her head on Alison’s shoulder. “Who brainwashed you to hate me so?”
“No, nobody, it was pretty much me realizing that my big sis wasn’t as cool as I thought she was. She was mostly just mean.” Alison replied, smiling lightly.
“... that hurt, you know?” Hannah mumbled, pouting as she glanced at Alison from the corner of her eyes.
“... pfft ha ha ha... yeah, I don’t think there’s anything or anyone who can actually hurt you.” Alison said in-between the laughter. “I used to envy that about you... still do, actually.”
“It’s not even a matter of being hurt,” Hannah said, sitting back up. Wind grazed her cheeks softly and lifted the few strands of her crimson hair backwards till it looked like she was bleeding from her temples. “It’s -- or at least it should be -- a matter of who’s trying to hurt you.”
“... and none of us are enough, huh?” Alison mumbled, looking away for a moment.
“Ow come on, you’re way too old to be still seeking my approval.” Hannah chuckled and gently ruffled Alison’s hair. “You’re the Chosen One now, Ally. It’s time to step outside my shadow.”
“... I don’t think I’ve earned it, though...” Alison said, glancing at Hannah with strange gaze. “It felt more like you let me... no, like you let everyone and stepped aside.”
“Is that so wrong?” Hannah asked, smirking. “Big sis letting the young ones shine, eh? She sounds like a rather nice person, if you ask me.”
“... you said yourself that I’m already old enough,” Alison said, keeping the serious tone in her voice. “Don’t I deserve at least a little bit honesty?”
“...” a faint smile still hung on Hannah’s lips as she returned Alison’s gaze. “I was never meant to participate in the Holy War, Alison,” she spoke only after nearly a minute of silence. “I only happened to be the best they’ve got. However, luckily, we were quickly blessed by generations far more talented than I’ll ever be. And you, sweetcakes, took the throne by a goddamn mile!” lapsing from a somewhat serious to completely exaggerated tone was something Hannah did often, Alison realized as she felt an arm wrap around her shoulder and pull her into Hannah’s chest. “I mean, it was like a frickin’ bolt from the sky, you know? Put the rest of us to real shame.”
“... ugh, can you stop being so touchy all the time?” Alison quickly wiggled herself out of Hannah’s arms and stepped back further. “You should really find a husband and stop harassing everyone around.”
“What if I want a wife instead?” Hannah winked at her.
“Then find one!” Alison exclaimed, seemingly lost with the undertones. “Besides, what happened to that boy you used to visit?” Hannah’s eyes suddenly shone in a rather strange light, but she recovered before Alison noticed the difference.
“Oh, him?” Hannah said with a playful tone. “Haah, I’m afraid he’d grown too tired of me and ran away. I haven’t been able to find him... for a long time now...”
“Humph, serves you right! Didn’t you learn the lesson?”
“Yeah... I did...”
“I--I didn’t mean it like that--”
“Ha ha, what are you getting so flustered over?” Hannah laughed quickly as she patted Alison’s head gently, getting up.
“Where are you going?”
“To harass someone else,” Hannah replied as she began walking away. “Your form... it’s good. It’s too fast, though. <Nature’s Heed> isn’t about speed or power or bedazzling of the eyes, Ally. It’s about steadiness, indomitable will, unbending heart cleansed of worldly desires. That’s where I faltered, you know?” she stopped for a moment and turned toward Alison, smiling faintly. “I could never whisk away hi--- what made me who I am. You’re almost there, Ally. Keep at it.”
Alison watched the fading figure for a moment before her expression mellowed. After all, since she knew of who she were and what the world was, Hannah was with her. She taught her everything she knew, and would always patiently answer Alison’s inquiries regardless of how relentless the latter got with them. Alison had long since learned why Hannah stepped down from the spot of the Holy Maiden for the upcoming Holy War shortly after Alison began cultivating, but she always thought she didn’t do it out of desire. Today, however, she learned she was wrong. There was no regret, at least to Alison’s spotting abilities. Only strange peace.
Meanwhile, in a tower looming over the entire valley and the surrounding landscapes, within a room locked away from the eyes of the world, a man and a woman were sitting on simple, wooden chairs, drinking red-colored tea and observing Alison in the distance. The two’s expression turned somewhat reluctant as their eyes veered over to Hannah who was on her way out of the valley.
“... is there really no hope?” the man asked.
“I suppose there’s always hope in everything...” the woman replied weakly with a sigh. “She chose her own life, Alfred. Leave her be.”
“... it’s just such a shame.” the man called Alfred said, shaking his head lightly. “But, as you’ve said... leave her be. What about Alison? Is everything fine?”
“Yeah,” the woman nodded, smiling lightly. “The ritual went without a hiccup. She’s completely forgotten him.”
“It’s really like seeing two completely different people,” the man commented after a few moments of silence. “Just how big part of her that boy actually was?”
“... it’s better this way.” the woman said. “She’s really like any other youth, now. Oh, right, what of the rumors?” the man’s brows furrowed almost immediately upon hearing the question, his hands reaching over toward the table as he put the cup down.
“Wasn’t able to confirm them or deny them.”
“... that’s new.” the woman commented.
“It indeed is.” the man sighed, taking a deep breath afterwards. “However, it’s not really that strange; if an Empyrean really appeared, do you think he’d be found that easily? Especially this early on in his growth cycle?”
“You have a point...” the woman mumbled. “Should we start planning ahead in case the rumors are true?”
“... I don’t know Anna.” the man sighed yet again. “I’d go with rather safe than sorry... but, will it even make a difference?”
“... we can at least remove some seals from the teleportation arrays connected to the other Holy Grounds,” Anna said. “Would make it easier to contact them in case he shows up someday.”
“... I’ll talk with the Elders. Let’s just hope we’re not the target of a grudge this time around as well...”
“... a gamble always taken, huh?...” Anna faintly mumbled as her eyes veered toward the sky. She secretly mused that it wouldn’t be all that bad if the Empyrean really came into existence. His appearance would pretty much freeze all the current Holy Wars and unite the Seven Holy Lands for at least a few centuries. Then again, it only ever works out for the Holy Grounds that remained unaffected directly by the conflict. Seventy-six, is it? Let’s hope we aren’t seventy-seventh, then...