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CHAPTER 273

SANCTUARY (I)

A drifting landscape stretched beneath the clustered sky, gaps between thick and tall trees filled with shrubbery and dead, fallen branches. There was no clearly visible path in-between, just sunken in portions having been walked over by a myriad of local critters. The forest itself rested within a valley cut running in-between two mountains, shaded over with decrepit, long rock protrusions coming from the mountains’ sides, forming a maw-like shape and acting like an artificial roof.

Deep inside the forest, lunged around a faintly burning fire and one of the few clearings were roughly sixty people altogether, scattered within the trees and earth, each finding their own bits of paradise to lie on and sleep.

At the center, surrounding the fire itself, Evelyn felt the talisman inside her hand burn out and turn to ashes, causing her to sigh and glance sideways. A familiar yet eerily stranger’s face welcomed her, entirely expressionless. The four more that sat around the flames said nothing, merely staring at the blaze in silence.

“... he said he’ll be--”

“I heard what he said,” Althone interrupted Evelyn with a harsh tone. “I am sitting right here.”

“... I didn’t have a choice...” Evelyn mumbled weakly.

“You decided to trust a madman who murdered your Grandfather over me, your own Father.” Althone said. “You had a choice, Evelyn. And you made it, loud and clear.”

“--do you hear yourself?!” Evelyn, seemingly tired of the arguing, exclaimed softly. “You would rather condemn us all to death than have him help us?!”

“How can he help us?!!” Althone screamed out. “So what if he’s stronger than us?!! Majority of the fucking world is! You saw what I saw Evelyn -- entire cities... gone. Just like that. Within a single speck of light, entire cities vanishing in flames! We ran, aye, but at least we could have met our end half-decently. Instead, you chose to kiss behind of a man who murdered your own blood! How am I going to face my Ancestors?! How am I going to face my own Father, huh?!”

“... if he said he can help, it means he can help.” Evelyn calmed down, slowly making her way over to him and hugging him gently. “Don’t give up hope just yet.”

“...”

It wasn’t easy for her to reach out; after all, it hadn’t been all that long since she’d last seen him in the night and swore if she ever could she would kill him. She still felt the same, despite everything she told him; it wasn’t even the act of murder that bothered her as much, it was the not-knowing -- the why. She had gone through every one of her interactions with the strange beggar who caused her headaches for months, and lest her judgment had completely been compromised by him somehow, she was certain he wasn’t a murderer.

Reaching out to him for help took far more than she believed, yet, the moment she’d seen his face, something changed. He hadn’t looked all that different than she last saw him, but his eyes... his smile... she’d realized they lacked that eternal playfulness he carried around like a badge of honor. She’d saw genuine ache and pain in them, the listlessness she was all too familiar with; it’s an expression of someone who has many questions... but no answers.

Yet, even so, he didn’t hesitate to help her. When he’d handed her that talisman, she had planned on keeping it safe until she was confident enough in at the very least wounding him. Even today, when she took it out, she had to battle a thousand demons in order to light it up. And, even now, she still had to use all her strength to keep her emotions in check.

“... from what I recall,” an elderly man sitting across from Evelyn suddenly chimed in, drawing all attention onto himself. “Kvalend Tribe is stationed eastward, but not too deep in the Battlefield. If we hurry, it should take us less than a day to get there on foot.”

“The problem is the landscape following this valley,” Althone said. “It’s entirely open and exposed, just a huge stretch of desert as far as the eye can see. If they so much as glance in this direction, they’ll spot us.”

“... then we just have to bet on the fact that they won’t.” Evelyn said. “It’s not like there’s much else we can do.”

“...”

It was the rest spent in somber silence, atmosphere waning away at the sanity. Yet, they could do little other than just move and hope for the best; they’d made it out of the city, out of the Empire, not because they were clever or strong, but because innumerable soldiers sacrificed themselves. If they’d given up now, it would mean all their sacrifices were in vain.

Althone led the column, followed shortly by the other Elders of the Empire, then Evelyn and the Dukes as well as rest of the Empire’s Royalty. The rear was secured by the last few remaining Commanders of the army and the flanks were scoured by Althone’s and Evelyn’s personal guards.

They surged out of the valley within just a few hours, crossing over into an entirely different world -- one of sandy, hilly dunes. Yet, it wasn’t hot; rather, the temperature was hardly different than the one inside the forest. Looking up to the sky, they realized that the clouds didn’t clear up even this far into the ‘scorched land’; deciding not to question it, they simply pressed onward, deciding not to take any more breaks before reaching their destination.

Minutes soon turned to hours, the completely same scenery hardly inspiring confidence as it almost felt like they were moving in place; there was no distinction between one dune or another, one stretch of sand or the other -- it was all the same, seemingly just a small world stretching into an infinite loop.

It was just short of twenty hours of trek that they’d finally saw an anomaly -- a terraced rock standing in the middle of the desert, surrounded by thick and tall walls and manned to teeth with soldiers carrying bows and arrows. Evelyn’s lips stretched out into a smile before they suddenly flattened as she glanced back; well in the distance, far up in the sky, she saw several glimmers of light flickering.

“They’re onto us!!” she cried out, shoveling Qi into her feet and running toward the wall. “Run!!”

Meanwhile, atop the wall, Valkyria stood with a confused expression on her face; she’d long since noticed a massive entourage moving through the desert, heading toward the Tribe -- an entourage of the mainland’s most powerful figures at that. What’s more, they all looked like wet dogs -- even the revered Empress Evelyn and the Arch Emperor Althone.

And now they were sprinting toward the tribe as quickly as they could; she knew it wasn’t an act of aggression, but one of desperation -- they were hunted, hunted by someone or something they stood no chance against. Though she very much wanted to help, she hardly wished to endanger her own Clan in the process. Those sentiments, however, quickly changed as Evelyn’s voice, full of panic and hope, pierced into her ears.

“LINO SENT US!!!” Valkyria’s eyes flashed momentarily as she glanced up, managing to blend out the figures in the sky.

“Charge the formation,” she quickly ordered, extending her palm whereupon a crimson cloud appeared above it. “Everyone in positions! Prepare for the battle!!”

“Yes!!” no one even bothered questioning her decision as they all sped toward their stations while the surrounding air around the entire Clan’s land trembled, a faint, crimson fog rising from the ground.

“Let them in.” she added faintly before suddenly leaping into the sky and disappearing.

Evelyn, Althone and the rest charged as quickly as they could yet all suddenly felt their hearts freeze; a massive surge of Qi headed like a bolt of lighting at their backs, soon exploding into the sand like a cannonball, killing everyone in the rear. Propelled by the explosion, however, the rest spun forward quicker, screaming and crying out while passing the thin barrier outside the tall walls and passing through the gate while rolling on the ground.

A resonate laughter soon filled the sky as the flickers of light stopped, six figures in total emerging right in front of Valkyria who met them in the sky with an empty gaze that soon landed on their chest and the sigil. Momentarily flaring out in anger, she managed to calm down and recover her emotionless state.

“Ha ha ha, did you see that?!” the youth who spoke out seemed no older than twenty, Valkyria realized; he was rather handsome, donning a beautiful pair of azure eyes and golden hair. “They, ha ha ha, they rolled like complete idiots, ha ha ha, oh wow, that was priceless. Eh? Who’s this? Oh my, you sure are pretty. Just because your Elders sent someone so pretty to welcome us, we’re gonna spare you. Oh, but of course, we’re gonna need you guys to hand them over. And you, of course.”

“... dogs of Heaven,” Valkyria’s cold voice and her words startled all six of them, causing all laughter to stop. “You’re long ways from home.”

“... you know who we are?” the youth spoke out again with a somewhat serious expression. “That’s new. Who are you?”

“Judging from the fact you aren’t escorted by an Elder,” she ignored his question and continued. “I’m assuming you’re here of your own accord, breaking the Holy Treaty in the process -- quite spectacularly, if I may add.”

“... I’ve asked you a question bitch.” the youth growled. “And you better answer it.”

“... still as vain, prideful and moronic, I see.” Valkyria chuckled faintly. “Nothing ever changes with you lot, does it? As for your question,” she added, glancing down and seeing that the formation has finished charging. “It’s unimportant. Just consider me a messenger warning you -- if you don’t leave, you may never get a chance to.”

“... are you threatening us? Us?! Sons of Heaven?!”

“Threatening? I wouldn’t dare,” she chuckled, withdrawing into the formation. “But, I may know of someone who has no qualms about pissing off the world, and he should be on his way over. He won’t be very pleased to learn what you’ve been up to. From my calculations, it should take six of you roughly four days to break past the formation. The question is,” her chuckle turned eerie for a moment. “Will you bet on your speed... or his?”

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beddedOtaku

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

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