WAR OF THE MADMEN (IV)
The first thing she’d heard was the shuffling of clothes and distant shouts ringing one over another. Forcing her eyes open despite the pain and seeming tiredness, Ava was assailed by blinding light for a moment, forcing her to repeatedly blink to adjust herself to it. It was then that her entire body began screaming in pain, yet she held the cry inside her lungs, merely letting out a low groan.
She’d quickly realized she was entirely wrapped in bandages and that she was unable to move even a single one of her muscles. Yet, despite all of this, she was most shocked about the fact that she was still alive; as her memory before she passed out was quite blurry and indistinct, she was unable to recall as to what exactly happened and why was she still alive and -- all things considered -- even well, and why are there so many people shouting.
“Aah!” a low cry came from nearby yet she was unable to look sideways at its source despite trying. “L-lady is awake!! Lady Ava is awake!!” the woman’s voice rung out again, this time accompanied by even more fervent shouts as swath of people quickly filled up the room.
“Ah, L-lady, you’re awake!!” a familiar face leaned over the bed, one she was able to recognize -- Patriarch Shen, her Father’s longtime friend. “Thank the gods!! Sisters, quick, bring the Lady some [Purified Dew] to drink! And you lot, get out! You’re making the room stuffy!!”
“Out, out!” more cries came following.
“It’s good that she’s awake...”
“She’ll be fine...”
“Ha ha, she is Lady Ava after all! Not even death could conquer her!”
“Indeed, indeed, ha ha ha...”
Ava listened to the distancing voices as warmth swelled within her heart, corners of her eyes turning moist, her cheeks growing hotter. She’d recognized some of those voices as those of the kids she’d sent into the Sect’s depths just before the final battle. If they were still alive, she realized, it meant that they had won... at that moment, she didn’t even care how or why, she was just glad that they were safe.
“Patriarch, here’s the dew!” a feminine voice that first rang true in the room quickly cried out again.
“Ah, thanks Patty,” Shen grasped at the glass gently and laid it on the bedside table. “Can you help me sit the Lady up?”
As though she were made of glass, the two held her as loosely as possible as they helped her sit up and lean against a rather comfortable and fluffy pillow. The whole of the room -- and not just the ceiling -- came into her view. It was her own room within the Sect’s grounds, decorated largely with paintings and books scattered over numerous tables and shelves. The difference, though, was that the wall that was supposed to be there opposite of her bed was now gone, replaced by a sprawling terrace, fenced off faintly at the edges.
“Here, Lady Ava.” Patriarch Shen brought the glass closely to Ava’s lips and leaned it over. She took a couple of sips before he withdrew it, placing it back on the table. The water was quite cool and refreshing, seemingly awakening Ava’s slumbering muscles and organs, perishing her drowsiness. “H-how are you feeling?”
“... l-like a mountain... fell on top of me...” she managed to weakly mumble out, yet still felt her strength returning bit by bit with every passed second.
“Ha ha, so long as you can joke, it’s good.” the Patriarch heaved a sigh of relief as he sat down. “Patty, go inform everyone that Lady’s still in recovery and that they shouldn’t bother her for a while.”
“Yes, right away!” the woman called Patty skipped away with a beaming smile on her face, glancing once or twice at the lying Ava before leaving the room.
“... h-how long... was I out?” Ava asked weakly.
“Three days,” the Patriarch quickly replied. “We were really worried, you know? You looked--ah, never-mind. All that matters is that you’re alright.”
“Heh... I-I wouldn’t say... I’m alright...” even without inspecting her body with Qi -- as she was unable to even sense it -- she knew very well just how broken it was.
“... yes, I’m sorry.” the Patriarch quickly lowered his head. “But, the Lord has said you will make a full recovery! It will indeed take some years, but, you’ll be back to where you were sooner rather than later!”
“The Lord?” Ava’s eyelashes perched. “Is Andrew here?”
“Ah, forgive me -- no. I didn’t mean Lord Andrew,” the Patriarch said. “I meant the Lord who came to our rescue.”
“R-right... c-can you tell me... what happened?” though slightly disappointed, Ava quickly recovered and asked the burning question in her mind.
“I... I’m not too sure myself,” the Patriarch smiled bitterly as he scratched his head. “In one moment, we were losing terribly... and in the next, he showed up out of nowhere. He first killed the Sin-Devil that had wounded you before... before eliminating the rest of the enemy’s Army...”
“... ha ha, I’m quite the same, Lady Ava... even though I’d seen it with my very own eyes, I still have a hard time accepting it. Such a massive army... gone... just like that... oh, right! He told me to inform him when you woke up!”
“...” before Ava had a chance to ask any more questions, the Patriarch quickly bolted out of the room, leaving her alone. A faint image returned to her mind, the world blended in blur, the golden light hovering in the sky like a majestic sun. Though she was fairly certain it was merely a mirage, she couldn’t help but long to see it one more time.
It didn’t take long for the Patriarch to return, this time leading with him another figure. Ava’s eyes quickly landed on the youth, her heart thumping furiously for a moment. It wasn’t a mirage, she realized. The last image before she passed out sharpened, and she could see them... a pair of magnificent wings fluttering in the sky, the sword that came out of nowhere and cleaved the Devil in two, the light that appeared more holy than anything else she’d seen in her life. It was all real.
“Ho ho, finally awake?” Lino chuckled faintly as he came and sat on the bed, smiling widely. “You sure took a sweet nap, didn’t you? I’m actually kind of jealous.... aaah...”
“I-I’ll leave you two to it.” the Patriarch awkwardly said, then as though remembering something, returned just as quickly as he left. “Right, Lord Lino, your sword--”
“Keep it,” Lino said dismissively. “Consider it my gift for keeping her safe.”
“But--but I didn’t do--”
“Hey man, when someone’s giving you a gift, just take it. Especially if it’s as awesome as that sword, got it? Don’t ever act all humble-dumber in those situations!” Lino rolled his eyes at the Patriarch, causing the latter to smile awkwardly before once again leaving the room. “Hey,” turning his eyes back onto Ava, he smiled once again and grabbed her hand gently. “How are you feeling?”
“...” words were stuck in Ava’s throat; despite the fact she knew it was real, she still had trouble accepting the reality -- the boy whom she was ready to protect due to his immense talent in crafting... grew into a man that she still couldn’t see the depths of. Even back in the Ruins, she suspected Lino was by far the strongest individual there... and now she realized she’d underestimated him quite terribly. To fell a Sin-Devil in a single strike... she wondered even if her own Father could do it.
“Haii, I know that I’m the handsomest man you’ve ever seen, but there’s no need to stare so intensely. I might lose my inhibitions and just go to town, you know?”
“... t-thank you...” Ava mumbled weakly as tears began streaming down her cheeks, her lips quaintly trembling. “T-hank you for saving them... thank you... thank you... thank you...” repeatedly mumbling ‘thank you’, Ava truly didn’t know what else to say. She had neither the intention nor the desire to ask Lino as to why and how he’d gotten so strong, nor to inquire how he knew she needed his help. It was all irrelevant, in the end.
“... sorry,” Lino smiled faintly, caressing her hair for a moment. “I was a tad bit late.”
“N-no... no... t-thank you...”
“Well, as much as I’d love to hoard you all to myself,” Lino chuckled as he got off the bed. “There are a few people who are quite keen on seeing you. It even took bribery from a special someone for me to be here first.”
“E-eh?” Ava mumbled in confusion.
“We’ll have to put our promise on hold... again...” Lino said as he began walking toward the room’s exit. “But, as the say, Fate binds us,” he stopped for a moment and glanced at her with a faint smile. “We’ll meet again.” just as Lino left the room and as Ava was about to call for him, thundering footsteps echoed as several kids suddenly stormed into the room, the youngest being fifteen with the oldest being nearly thirty, yet all with crocodile tears in their eyes.
“You’re really awake!!”
Outside the room, Lino stared at the face of a man he’d met yesterday -- Ava’s husband, Andrew. He was quite handsome, Lino mused, despite the occasional wrinkle on his face. Clear, violet-colored eyes coupled with sharp facial features and striking, silver hair truly made him appear somewhat ethereal. Yet, despite that, all Lino saw was a man succumbing to the tears of joy. The two stared at each other for a moment before the man suddenly leaped forward and wound his arms around Lino, burying his head into the latter’s chest, his entire body trembling.
“T-thank you... again... so... so much... thank you...” while it was a perfect moment to make quite a few jokes, Lino held back, merely patting the man’s back.
“Shouldn’t you go and hug your wife now, though?” in the end, however, Lino was still Lino.
“If you ever need anything -- anything!! -- even my life -- I’ll do it. Whatever it is. I... I don’t know how else to repay you...” Andrew said, slowly letting go of Lino, uncaring of his disposition.
“... just go and be with your family man,” Lino said, smiling lightly. “It’s a beautiful thing to have.”
Lino didn’t stay and observe the joyful family reunion. He walked slowly through the familiar corridors, returning to his temporary residence rather quickly. As happy as he was that he made it in time -- sort of -- he was even more worried about what the attack itself meant in the grand scheme of things. The Devils, who usually operated in the open once they gathered their forces, ensured that the attack on the Sect wouldn’t be known.
If Lino hadn’t sent Non by accident, and if the latter was unable to bring him news in time, and if Grim hadn’t literally torn itself apart flying faster than ever before, Lino knew he wouldn’t have made it. Lucky timings are beyond rare in this world, he knew, which was why he never tried relying on luck when he did things. The battle from three days ago reinforced that belief even more than before.
He suddenly reached into the void world and took the Dimensional Pouch, summoning both Non and Grim. The latter immediately lied onto the floor, still gravely injured and exhausted. The light in the bird’s eyes had dimmed quite considerably. Non scurried over and licked the bird’s comb gently, whining in a low tone with a quite pitiful look in his eyes.
“... you two really saved me this time around,” Lino crouched as he took hundreds of Qi Stones from his void world and put them down in front of the two creatures. “I don’t have your favorites on hand at the moment, but... I promise you, I’ll get so much both of you will go fat from them.” he extended both his arms out and petted the dog and the bird gently.
“Woof, woof!” Non quickly gobbled up a couple of Qi Stones, but rather than devouring them himself, he walked over and used his paws to open Grim’s beak before shoving the stones inside. He then repeated the actions several times before taking a few for himself, contently lying next to Grim and snuffling against the latter’s feathers.
“Caw!” Grim cried out as the energy within the Qi Stones began swelling up inside its belly, quickly replenishing the dried reserves. “Caw, caw!!”
“Ha ha, alright, alright,” Lino sat down onto the floor and leaned against the Grim’s other side, admitting inwardly that it was indeed extremely comfortable. “I’ll get you a whole ocean of [Two-headed Herrings], I promise!”
“Right, right, I’ll also hunt herds of Plains Buffalo for you, don’t worry...”
“... w-what do you mean right away?!” Lino cried out as he felt his eyelids closing down on their own. “Fuck that noise. Let me rest guys... I’ve been up for nearly four full days... I deserve some goddamn rest...” it wasn’t too long before the trio found themselves in their own respective dreamlands, whisked away on the journeys only their minds could ever conjure up.