WAR OF THE MADMEN (II)
She remembered it as idyllic; stretches of limestone-paved road weaving in-between the gardens of roses and fields of grass, and streams cascading down the terraced layers of her home, and the lake surrounded by tall and colorful trees looming over the deathly still water like guardians. She remembered it as loud, yet strikingly melodic, the tunes of youth and expectations mingling together in a symphony of life. It was all gone now, she realized.
The lime-stone paved road lay crimsoned, bloodied in its cracks, and the gardens of roses were now tombs of listless and carved, and the fields of the grass were but dull, reddened weed, and the streams cried in bloody red as they carried onward the message of death, and the lake was entirely gone, only a corpse-filled crater left behind it.
Ava stared at the scenery before her with dulled mind and heavy heart. Though the loudness still remained, it was different; it was filled with the warcries, with agonizing wails of the last breaths, with the somber tethering of the broken hearts. Yet, she couldn’t remain dull forever; she was supposed to lead them out of the madness that had besieged them, not become overwhelmed by it.
“How’s our core?” she asked a middle-aged man standing next to her atop the highest tower within the sect’s grounds.
“Still standing,” the man replied with a solemn expression. “However... at this rate... we’ll be done in within a couple of hours...”
“... we’re out of Qi Stones?” Ava asked, frowning.
“Down to our last batch.”
“...” she couldn’t help but sigh as she glanced at the dome-like cyan screen wrapped around the sect’s ground -- the last bastion for all those within it. Outside, hell had already turned the world gray; Demons and Devils alike cackled and laughed as they bashed against the screen repeatedly, trying to break it. Ava had long since ceased counting their numbers, as it was entirely pointless.
“L-lady Ava... you can still make it...” the middle-aged man suddenly said. “If we take the remaining Qi Stones and activate the array, we should be able to transform you into the Empire’s Capital. Once there, you can ask for help.”
“... I’ve rejected it when we had abundance of them... what makes you think I’ll accept it now that we’re on our dying breath?” Ava glanced at him and smiled faintly.
“No buts,” Ava interrupted him quickly. “I’ve made my peace with it. I... only regret being unable to say goodbye to them...”
“Bring all the kids into the Shelter,” she commanded after taking a deep breath. “And give them each a single [Mortus Pill]. Tell them to eat it once we fall...”
“Lady Ava... yes.” seeing the determined gaze in her eyes, the man nodded and withdrew, leaving her alone.
She closed her eyes momentarily, enjoying the gentle caressing of the wind as it guided her long hair backward in a flutter. Ever since the battle begun, she knew they had no chance. Yet, she couldn’t leave; she knew she had to stay, even if she were to die in the end. She knew it wasn’t a grand sacrifice she would commit, nor would it be world-changing choice to make, but it resonated within her. As though a dam broke within, for the first time in her life she was able to sense it... the ever-elusive Will.
Her eyes suddenly jolted open, a brilliant glint flashing within their depths; she extended her right arm outwardly and called out a staff seemingly made out of gold. It streaked in brilliant colors even amidts the falling darkness of hell itself. She felt a surge of confidence overwhelm her, as though she could conquer the whole of the world so long as she had it in her hands. Even if she knew it was but a fool’s dream, she held onto the feeling. Though she may fall, she mused, she would make it a grand one, one she could proudly tell her ancestors.
She leapt off the tower and landed on a path passing through the entire sect before ending next to the front gates. Rather than avoiding it all, she decided to take it all in; to take in all the suffering, all the pain, all the death and all the anguish. She would entomb all the images inside her heart and will them into her staff. She, too, had underestimated the miseries of the war. Despite having witnessed it once on a smaller scale, she was never as near it as she was today.
To take a full breath meant to inhale the death itself. It was suffocating... yet eerily freeing, as though that chain wrapped around her heart which was holding her back had finally snapped, corroded by the torment itself. She walked calmly and slowly, and without even realizing it had gathered dozens -- and soon hundreds -- of followers. As though aware of her intent, they all wore unified expressions -- fearless, determined, angered.
It was an elect sort of a feeling which swells up once a person realizes their days are numbered... that no matter the struggle, death was inevitable. They’d all accepted it without even realizing it, merely following the footsteps of the woman who chose to remain by their side regardless of the outcome in spite of the fact she could have just as well chosen to leave them behind. They gathered courage behind those now bounding shoulders and marched.
By the time they’d reached the front gates, their numbers had swelled to thousands. They waited as the cracks across the shining, dome-like shield began sprawling. The light soon dimmed and the winds grew colder and sharper, and the air itself grew heavier, making it more difficult to breathe. Ava stood upfront, her legs slightly parted, holding onto the golden staff at her side, her eyes focused on the enormous black mass above her. There had to be hundreds of thousands of them, she mused... all accompanied by a Sin-Devil Variant, contemptuously staring at them from the high sky.
She wanted nothing more but to swirl into the sky and wipe that smirk off the Devil’s face, yet she knew she was not strong enough. Chances are that any of the numerous Elemental Devils present here could easily kill her. Yet, she had to try. She couldn’t topple over and fall without putting up a fight.
The cracks over the shield’s surface grew more pronounced, louder, heavier. Then, like glass, it shattered. The sound echoed within each heart standing inside it, yet it only served to steel their nerves further. Then, like an ocean, Demons of all sorts and kinds pushed onward. They rolled over the trees and toppled them, and crushed whatever stood beneath their hooves. It was beyond a ghastly sight, yet Ava didn’t flinch, defiantly welcoming the horde.
She took a deep breath and roared, her voice tearing apart the thunder that was the horde’s march. It eclipsed the cackling and demented laughter and it swayed the winds themselves away. Stirring the already boiling veins of others further, they followed her lead and roared. Like beasts, disregarding their lives, they followed her. Swords, axes, spears, polearms, staffs, hammers, fireballs, earthly mounds, lances of ice, streaks of thunder... like a rain of gods it all blasted in an arc and toward the horde.
Ava led charge with a tranquil heart and a demented expression; all the grief which had mounted her heart for the past three days had gushed out. She suddenly swiped her staff down, using it to vault into the sky as she suddenly chanted a low hum and clasped her free hand into a fist, striking downward. Her already tall leap suddenly accelerated as she propelled herself further into the sky. Just as she was about to lose momentum, she slashed her staff downward and used the recoil of it to bound further up, despite breaking several of bones in her arms in the process.
She was finally within the Devil’s reach, she realized. Just half a mile of distance between the two... the broken bones were worth it, she mused. While still in the upward trajectory, her muscles suddenly swelled as a torrent of Qi sprawled around her body like smoke, milky white in hue. Streaks of it slithered into the staff whose golden hue grew even more brilliant, almost like a sun in the boundless darkness of the gray clouds.
Behind her massive circles began appearing, arrays in the sky, each with more complex patterns than the previous, glistening in startling, silver hue. They almost seem to form a constellation in and of themselves, linked by thinnest of threads of Qi, barely visible to the naked eye. She roared once again, channeling whatever Qi she had within her now broken body into the staff before using her shredded muscles to swing the staff forth.
The arrays shuddered and trembled and cried in the ceaseless sky, their light eclipsing the darkness. Along with the staff’s forward motion, each array began spitting out a brilliant beam of milky white light, all converging into a singular point before exploding forth like a massive tidal wave, heading for the Devil. It was the most powerful attack she had ever unleashed in her life, one well beyond the capacity of her realm, which was why her body was now in true tatters.
The Devil, however, merely smirked; Ava saw the complete disregard in her eyes, the sort of contempt as though she was looking at the last struggle of an ant. The Devil suddenly reached for her waist and whipped out a ghastly-gray spear before throwing it toward the beam of light.
Under Ava’s heartbroken expression, the beam of light collapsed, barely putting up a fight. The spear pressed onward and reached Ava who couldn’t even put up a simple barrier in defense. Like a snake it pierced through her lower abdomen, the momentum of it suddenly barreling her down into the ground like a falling star. She streaked over and crashed into the ground, leaving behind a massive crater. Blood gushed out of every part of her body, her hair disheveled, clothes torn and tattered, and spirit all but broken.
Her dulled eyes were barely open, her sight but a faint blur of colors. Even so she was able to see that same Devil land in front of her, and was able to distinguish the smirk on the latter’s face. Ava wanted to get up, wanted to stretch her arm out and strangle the Devil... yet couldn’t. Not a single muscle in her body would listen to her.
“You’re quite a brave one, I’ll give you that.” a voice full of mockery soon entered Ava’s ears, grating her heart. “A mere Numinous kid daring to attack a Sin-Devil? Heh, it’s been a long while since I’d last seen it.”
“Oh, right. You probably can’t speak, ha ha ha, silly me.” even the laughter resembled swords piercing Ava’s heart further. “Sorry about that. I truly intended to finish in you in one blow. After all, unlike some of my friends, I don’t particularly enjoy torturing humans. Indeed, you lot break all too quickly. Anyway, seeing as you were brave enough to attack me, I’ll be courteous enough to send you off. Tell your ancestors with pride that you were felled by the hands of the Sin-Devil, he he he...”
Ava was unwilling; not because she would die, but because she couldn’t even scratch the Devil in front of her. No... she couldn’t even force her to use her full strength, Ava realized. She was merely a plaything, a small speck of dust. Just another weak human among probably thousands that the Devil in front of her had killed. It was pointless to struggle, she thought. At the very least, she mused, her end wouldn’t be the worst of sort.
The Devil took a step forward and slowly began walking toward Ava, whipping out another spear from seemingly out of nowhere, a seemingly exact replica of the one that struck Ava. The Devil’s expression was that of complete indifference, as though what she was doing was akin to taking an afternoon nap. Suddenly, however, her eyes widened as a streak of blood trailed down the corner of her full lips.
Though blurry, Ava could see something -- something falling from the sky like a star and slashing directly through the Devil’s chest. It was a massive sword, shining in faint cyan, that completely cleaved through. Dark, red blood gushed out in streams as the Devil gurgled a few times, choking on her own breath, trying to live, desperate to live. Yet, the sword didn’t care; it split right through her, turning one into two. Organs fell out one by one, splashing over onto the ground, the Devil dying with a confused, resentful, unwilling gaze in her eyes.
Ava’s eyes lifted off the Devil into the sky, her heart freezing for a moment. There, levitating above her, was a figure enshrouded in gold -- no, even through her faint vision, she could see that those were wings. A pair, each streaking at least ten meters across, glistening in beautiful golden, feathered at the far ends, and a figure in-between the two. Like a Guardian Angel, she mused... even believing for a moment it was a desperate dream conjured up by her broken mind on her last breath. Yes... just a dream... she thought, passing out.