Chapter 25 - No longer
From a distance, you could see the staircase of whirlwinds that led Zeristin higher into the sky. The wind heeded his call and gathered where he willed for it. It accumulated into small swirls that resembled miniature whirlwinds, which Zeristin used as stepping stones to push himself through the sky. With each step, the respective tornado unfurled itself, creating a small blast of wind that carried him forward.
The wind wasn't the only thing accelerating Zeristin's movements. If one were to pay close attention to his body, one could see the surfacing lights of lightning. As a master of lightning in the Inner Focus, he was capable of supporting his muscles through electricity. He forced them to contract far faster and stronger than they should be capable of. Only after arduous decades of training had he crafted his body into a construct strong enough to endure the enormous amount of stress this method of movement created.
Combining the two methods of fast travel, Zeristin darted through the sky. He spared no effort to reach the fastest speed he was capable of as he headed further east. It was the middle of the night when Zeristin stopped for the first time since he'd departed from Levestein. Standing on a platform of wind, high above the clouds, he basked in the moonlight of the three moons that shone in their full brilliance among the night sky littered with stars. Except for that breathtaking view, however, there was nothing to be found in these desolate heights.
Taking a last breath to gather his composure, he reached into his robe to pull out an emerald amulet. Shaped into a translucent circle, the amulet reflected the moonlight into green rays that filled his surroundings. Slowly, the amulet shone brighter the more it absorbed the moonlight, and with it, a sphere grew in size until it fully enveloped him. Zeristin then raised the amulet in front of him, so it completely overlapped with one of the moons in the sky.
But to his surprise, nothing happened. Whatever was supposed to occur didn't, and as a sense of worry rose within him, he shouted into the void.
“I'm Zeristin Wezlak!! I have come in peace, and I promise that I have no malicious intentions!”
There was no one answering him. Zeristin didn't know what else to say, but he refused to leave without even meeting anyone. He knew that they were well aware of his presence. Time passed, and as Zeristin began to rethink his approach, a voice resonated in his eardrums.
The voice exploded with a strength that rattled his mind. Struggling to not lose his focus, Zeristin prevented the wind beneath him from dispersing. After enduring the assault, he concentrated his mana around his mind to protect himself from the mental attack and continued with his plea.
“I'm here on account of my daughter! Disaster befell her, and her spirit is severely injured.”
“I said, leave!!”
Out of nowhere, Zeristin felt the force of a mountain clashing against his stomach that sent him flying into the distance. This single strike, he chose not to guard against, churned up his insides, and burned the outside of his robe with effortless ease. The stomach area, that had received the fist strike, lit up in a blinding white light that stuck onto him. It didn't burn him, and at first glance, seemed harmless, yet it clung onto him without disappearing.
“Be glad I didn't erase you from existence the moment you appeared before me and disappear from my sight!”
Zeristin looked up after recovering from the strike. In the distance, he saw the silhouette of a humanoid shadow that was darker than any black; As if someone had cut out a part of the world. Zeristin knew that the shadow didn't clad itself in darkness - It was darkness itself.
“I know full well that I'm not welcome here.” Zeristin straightened himself up again, ignoring the pain sprouting through his body from the pit in his stomach.
“And still, I came here before you. I beg of you to save my daughter Lea. Don't do it for my sake, but for Stella's.”
“Don't you dare disgrace her with that name!!” The shadow erupted, its furious shout traveling into the farthest reaches of the sky. A mountain of light appeared behind it and vibrated in accordance with its voice. The light grew in intensity, blinding Zeristin, who didn't dare to risk averting his gaze. Despite the brilliant light, the shadow remained as it was before.
“After all you have done, you come to me for help!? Don't be conceited, human!!”
The air shuddered as if it trembled in fear. Despite the vast distance between them, the booming shout of the enraged shadow forced Zeristin to take even more steps back. Finally, Zeristin lost his patience. He'd come all this way here, knowing how difficult this encounter would be, but this was outrageous. For Lea, he'd lower and scrape his head on the ground to beg for help, but his opponent didn't even want to listen to what he had to say.
“Your blood runs through her veins!” The spot of light on Zeristin's stomach was dispersed by the drops of blood that leaked out from his wounds. They mixed themselves into the light before washing it off to reveal the hollow injury that exposed his organs.
No longer holding himself back, the wound on Zeristin's stomach repaired itself. Like the receding winter that made way for the spring wind, the ragged state of his body blossomed into its original strength. No longer displaying subservience, Zeristin changed his approach and let loose the accumulated fury that had broiled within him ever since learning of Lea's fate. He stood against the imposing might of the shadow and the mountain of light behind it. Compared to it, his own reserves of mana seemed laughable, but this alone wouldn't make him back down.
“Even if you don't want to admit it, she shares your ancestor's blood that you hold so dearly!!”
In response, the shadow fell silent, but the imposing flood of its aura didn't relent.
“I don't ask you to help me. Help your granddaughter. She has nothing to do with what I have done...” Still, there was no answer, and as Zeristin had expected, he had to let go of his ego once again. He had to come forth on his own to display his good intentions. Although he'd dreaded to do so until this point, this might be for the best.
“And if you help me rescue her... then I..." He closed his eyes, trying to suppress the last resistance of his doubts. Without realizing, he'd clutched his empty hands with all of his might, tightly holding onto something as if they refused to let go. "...will allow her to recognize her ancestral roots.
There was no response from the shadow, but Zeristin sensed the fluctuations around its 'frame'. The manner of the shadow changed, and it no longer threatened to overwhelm Zeristin with its might. Since the latter had said everything he wanted to, there was nothing else he could do but wait for an answer.
Before Zeristin knew it, an inconspicuous seed appeared in front of him. When he first caught sight of it, Zeristin narrowed his eyes in pain. The seed radiated with an incredible amount of mana that was concentrated into its tiny frame. It was the same radiance that resembled the mountain of light that towered behind the shadow into the sky.
“Have her swallow it. No matter what, she will recover.”
“...Many thanks.” Zeristin responded solemnly. He should have felt happy the moment he'd received their help, but his selfish heart couldn't bring itself to do so. He slightly bowed before the shadow, which gave him a cold snort in response before disappearing from his sight.
“Don't forget Zeristin. We will never forgive you for what you have done.”
Zeristin melancholically stood alone in the sky, subduing his body that involuntarily trembled in fear when confronted with the shadow. While holding onto the seed for dear life, he reminisced about the woman who had chosen to follow someone like him. She had supported him in his darkest times, during the lowest points of his life, but what had he ever done for her?
He'd ripped her away from her home and created a rift between them, he could never mend.
Away from Zeristin's sight, the shadow watched him leave, similarily reminiscing about the past. Letting out a heavy sigh, the shadow turned and slowly disappeared as it walked towards a moon.
When Zeristin arrived back in Levestein, the sun had already risen again. He didn't take any detours as he directly headed towards the academy. Instead of returning to his office, however, he walked downwards inside the same tower. Nothing obstructed him as he single-mindedly walked down the stairway that was off-limits to everyone else in the academy. The sign on its door depicted – NO ENTRY – and was the most fortified and restricted place in the entire city.
After he arrived at the bottom of the long stairway, he stepped through another door that led into a humongous hall. The tower was the center of the city that didn't only reach into the sky but also into the depths below. It was the sole foundation of the city, and the only way to access this cave of unimaginable size. A spherical cave that was wholly hollowed out, its size equal to the entire city with all of its districts. Right next to the large column, that was the tower, a crystal ball was inserted into the stone ground.
A cyan crystal that could encompass an entire house. From it, several tunnels crawled through the hollow cave like worms, connecting to the ceiling and the tower. Most striking, however, was the corpse within the crystal that sat on a wooden chair. It was maintained in a perfect condition, appearing to never rot regardless of how much time would pass. If it wasn't for the slit on its throat, the man could easily be mistaken to be merely asleep. He wore the garment of royalty, and on his head was a crown only fit to be worn by an emperor.
Within this marveling cave of human craftsmanship, a woman lay on a comfortable bed that appeared entirely out of place. Wearing a nightdress, she peacefully slept like an innocent girl, without any traces of the torment she had endured. Zeristin silently stood in front of her, caressing her head with a fond smile. He struggled to overcome the fear in his heart, but he knew he had to awaken her.
After he sent a jolt through her neck, Lea slowly opened her eyes. Filled with confusion, they remained unmoving before suddenly tearing wide open in terror. The stammering returned, and she paid no care to the change in her surroundings. Not wasting another second, Zeristin held her still and forced her to swallow the seed.
Soon after, for the first time in a long while during the time she was awake, Lea calmed down. Her eyes no longer focused on the ceiling, and much to Zeristin's relieve, the stammering and cries died down as Lea fell into a trance.
She remained in a state of being half-asleep and half-awake as the energy within the seed filled every fiber of her being. Like the rising sun, a light traveled through her body and grew stronger with each passing minute. The unforgettable memories that had occupied all of her thoughts were slowly replaced by a wonderful feeling of vitality and warmth. Her tired mind indulged in this warmth that reminded her of the mother she'd never met.
This light continued to embrace her. It lulled her into a state of peacefulness - a paradise where nothing and no one could ever harm her. The wind within her own body carried her through the serene skies of her mind, mending the landscape that had been irreversibly damaged. At first, the wind and the light avoided each other. However, as the light grew stronger, it eventually absorbed the wind element that she was born with.
Zeristin watched all of this unfold as Lea shone with a bright luster that resembled that of the seed itself. He watched the green tints in her hair turn into blonde before containing traces of white. It made him realize that there was no turning back.
He dreaded it. Since before her birth, he had sought ways to suppress it. When Lea was born with a mutation that resulted in her alignment with the wind element, he couldn't have been happier. Being born half-human and half-eledyn, Lea's more powerful bloodline was diluted. All eledyn were attuned to light, but Lea was half-human. Zeristin had guessed that she retained the characteristic of 'having an alignment' from her eledyn-blood but with a different part of the world because it couldn't be light. As a human, she was only allowed access to the five elements, and thus she gained her alignment with the wind. At least that was the theory Zeristin had come up with. There weren't many cases to study since the several races rarely propagated with another.
But all of this was coming to an end.
While Zeristin was occupied with his worries, Lea continued her transformation. At this point, she began resembling the depiction of a holy angel that was the center of light within this little world below. Her skin turned into the purest white that resembled the same light that was contained in the seed. She retained the appearance of a human, but everything else had changed. Within her veins, there would no longer flow the same red blood, and her entire existence was renewed as the human half of her resigned to the flood of light and slowly disappeared. Half an hour later, the reborn Lea opened her eyes that revealed her pupils that shone with the intensity of the sun. She looked around in confusion, but there were no more traces of the earlier damage to her mind.
“Lea, are you alright?” Zeristin said, his eyes containing a slight glimmer of hope.
“Aien, why didn't you just kill me...” She said the first thing that came to her mind that was in great turmoil. Various thoughts and memories conflicted with each other, ringing for supremity and causing her mind to descend into chaos. Memories of an unforgettable past trauma contradicted with the happy times she had with the person she'd held dearly. On the verge of relapsing into her helpless state of mind that couldn't confront the torment, a voice echoed through her soul and brought her relief.
This ethereal voice guided her through the disturbances in her mind. She confronted each memory with calmness and accepted them as the past that had already happened. A past that she could forget. The gentle voice came from the depths of her soul and connected her with the world at large. She knew she could entrust her everything to it.
Her surroundings became crystal clear in her mind, and she could make out the smallest of details, no matter how faint they appeared in her vision. No matter where she would be, light would follow her and illuminate her surroundings as she had become light itself.
“I... I have to go.” Lea said, not once turning to look at her father. “I have to return home.”
With that, she stood up and disappeared within a ray of light. The blinding light burned Zeristin's eyes, but he didn't avert his gaze. This might be the last time he'd ever see his daughter, and she didn't even recognize him.
In that regard, nothing had changed from before her treatment.
Zeristin watched all of this happening, his heart sinking within his chest. He'd prepared himself for this. He knew this would happen. He knew that the person who would awaken might no longer be Lea. But experiencing it was a different matter altogether.
He knew it was the only way to save her. She was alive and healthy, and her future was filled with boundless prosperity - that was all that mattered. He repeatedly told himself so. Nonetheless, it left him empty.
Because he knew.
He no longer had a child he could call his daughter, and he no longer had a daughter that would recognize him as her father.
This emptiness was soon filled with the only emotion left that wrecked havoc inside of him. He knew the cause of all of this. The one who was responsible for this. He no longer focused the blame on himself as his wrath was targeted to the concrete image of a young man. The young man who had caused the rest of his small family to fall apart and he'd never forgive him for this.
Rampaging out of the hollow cave and through the tower, Zeristin stormed to the prison cell he'd thrown Aien in. He ignored the horrified looks of teachers and students that desperately called out to him, as only one thought was on his mind.
“Where is he!?!?” Zeristin howled when he found the empty prison cell. The guards in the hallway had been put out of commission, but Zeristin didn't bother to check whether they were alive or not.
“Thank the Gods! Headmaster, you are finally here!!” A teacher hurried down into the basement of the tower after he'd caught a glimpse of the headmaster rushing down.
“What do you want!?” Zeristin lost his composure and had no intention to keep up appearances. The teacher, on the other hand, almost soiled his pants when he was confronted with the blood-shot eyes of the headmaster. He viciously stared at the teacher with a bloodlust that rivaled demonic beasts.
“T-T-The... City!! U-Under. Attack!!” The teacher was barely able to stutter before sinking to his knees.
Hearing this shocked Zeristin out of his frenzied state for a moment. Closing his eyes to connect with the dome of sentries, he saw nothing on the outside. But when he turned his vision inside, to look at the entire city, he was left speechless, before his earlier wrath multiplied by tenfold. Ignoring the teacher who had already passed out, Zeristin appeared within the sky of the city that he'd built from the ground up over decades of his life.
Screams of terror and the painful shouts of agony filled the entire city. The ordinary people ran for their lives, accumulating at the boundary that trapped them inside this hell. The magi were no exception as they valiantly fought and tried to protect the common people. It was to no avail as they kept getting pushed back and were struggling to keep themselves safe.
Their hands were tied when matched against the flood of magical plants that ravaged through the city.
“Why are you trapping us!? Let us out!?”
A man of common background shouted terrified, trapped by the very wall that was supposed to protect them. He squirmed and hammered against the sentries, but they didn't budge an inch. Panicked, he turned around to see the vines slithering on the ground like a snake that closed in on its prey. He had seen what it had done to the others, and it left him terrified to the point where he was rendered motionless.
The thin vine welcomed its no longer struggling prey. With the thinness of a human hair, it entered an orifice of the man who watched powerlessly as certain death came closer. At long last, he pathetically grabbed after the vine in a vain attempt. But no matter how strong his grip was, it smoothly slithered through as if nothing was in its way.
Soon terrified cries and begging escaped his lips, his eyes staring at the wall that had trapped him. He couldn't understand what was happening. Why this was happening. Why was the headmaster trapping them inside? Did he plot to kill all of them? No matter how much he thought about it, it didn't matter anyway as they were the last thoughts he'd ever have.
The life drained from his eyes, and his body slowly shriveled up until the vine crawled out in satisfaction. It grew significantly larger, to the size of a finger's width, before it searched for its next prey.
Everywhere within this city, people suffered the same fate. The magi were better off, but the regular humans were powerless against this threat. Vines that lusted after their blood. Spores that grew out of their bodies and turned them into their hosts. Walking, carnivorous plants that swallowed humans whole. Regardless of what plant they met, the people were fated to meet a horrible demise. Groups of magi were able to keep the plants at bay in the beginning, but as time passed on, the number of plants only grew more substantial. With each human that nourished them, they grew in size and multiplied at a speed the magi couldn't keep up with.
No one knew where they were coming from or why they had suddenly appeared. The lack of preparation allowed the initial assault enough time to grow, and the missing headmaster, who had seemingly trapped them, was a tremendous blow to their morale as well.
Zeristin Wezlak watched all of the terror unfolding before him; His mind also unable to process what was happening. Innocent people screamed out his name and cursed him in the name of the Gods. They blamed him for what was happening and prayed for his demise. The city was left intact by the flood of plants, but it overwhelmed the populace with each passing second. And the cause for all of this was...
“AIIEEEN!!!” Zeristin roared with all of his might, his bellow shaking the heavens and the earth. His wrath and pain reaching the utmost limits of what his frail human heart was capable of enduring as he set off to look for the rat who had brought this plague.