Episode 155 – Leaving the shrine
The first one depicted a butterfly causing storms with a flap of its wings, fighting against a strange creature unlike any Nelaira had ever seen. It seemed to be a mix of all kinds of different species.
“A spiritbeast?” Nelaira guessed; the creature had some resemblance to the animal on Ruyle family’s crest.
The other scene that attracted her attention depicted a fluffball (a small vulpy perhaps?) fighting a furball (a baby lunar?). The two were locked in what looked like an epic battle. Their might imposing, overturning mountain and seas.
“Awww! How cute!” Nelaira couldn’t help but giggle. The two adorable round balls of fur simply didn’t have the majesty one would expect from divine beasts no matter how many mountains they upturned.
As her giggle echoed in the empty shrine, Nelaira’s eyes widened. She covered her mouth in a hurry, looking left and right in concern. Laughing wouldn’t be considered as sacrilege, right? Surely the gods wouldn’t take it against her?
Several seconds passed without any sign of incoming divine punishment, thus Nelaira once again relaxed and continued inspecting the images.
Among the different scenes there were several depicting the same flower that was growing in this shrine, none of which were helpful to her current plight. One showed the flower bleeding, or perhaps crying, another showed it being watered lovingly by a man.
When Nelaira was finally done looking through all of the images, the night had already fallen and she was no closer to figuring out how to return to where she was previously at.
She had touched everything that could be touched, pressed everything that could be pressed, stepped on everything that could be stepped on. Yet, nothing worked. There didn’t seem to be anything magical about the place, besides the flower, which she didn’t dare inspect with her mana sense in fear of tainting it with her mind.
Tired and out of ideas, Nelaira laid down on the cold stone floor and looked up at the star-filled sky. The vibrant nebulas colored the black night with various enticing wisps of color. In the world of white and black, they looked many times more stunning than they did back home. The two moons too were especially bright here in the Valley of Eternal Snow. The Valley was high up above the clouds so there was nothing to block their light.
Yet, the most brilliant thing was actually not the night sky, but the flower caught in her peripheral vision. It was glowing and glittering, scattering multicolored light all over the shrine, making the dull gray rocks look magical, almost alive.
She stared at the flower for a while, wishing she could enjoy this sight with Zel. How wonderful would that be? Just the two of them, under the stars…
“Are you lonely too?” Nelaira mused under her breath, glancing at the flower. “Do you miss your lover too?”
Unsurprisingly, what answered her was only silence.
Nelaira let out a heavy sigh tinged with melancholy, before slapping her cheeks once again. Nelaira, think! How did you come to this place? Why did you come to this place?
She could only remember fainting.
Perhaps if I faint again?
Nelaira was grasping at straws, but she didn’t know what else to do. As long as there was a single breath of life left in her, she should try her hardest to survive, to return. She would not give up and await her demise.
And so, out of alternative options, she decided to try her idea out.
Nelaira got up from the floor and turned towards the divine flower. She bowed deeply, clasping her hands in an azizia sign. She stayed in that position for a good while, before she straightened her back and returned to the place where she originally appeared at.
She laid down, curling up into the same position that she woke up in, and closed her eyes, preparing to fall asleep.
She laid there unmoving for several minutes, her mind too alert to fall asleep.
And then, she jolted and abruptly sat up.
What if this idea really worked and she returned back where she came from? What if it returned her back underground and she ended up suffocating in her sleep?
Goosebumps rose on Nelaira’s skin.
She better create some kind of sturdy cocoon around herself with plenty of air inside.
And what if the flower teleported her back above ground and the treacherous trio spotted her? She’d never wake up again!
Cold sweat drenched her back.
I better camouflage myself as a snow lump. Yes, create a snow cocoon filled with enough air, a living snowman.
Nelaira quickly made her way towards the snow, considering whether she should lie down on the snow and make herself into a snow lump, or if bringing the snow into the shrine in the place where she appeared would be a better idea.
The sound of her footsteps, as she walked across the stone platform, was the only sound in the quiet night, making it appear all the more ear piercing.
She walked to the edge of the stone platform and stepped down, her feet sinking into the soft crunchy snow.
Nelaira’s eyes widened in shock and she threw herself face-first into the snow!
With her heart racing, she leveled herself with the ground and Morphed a snow blanket to cover her body.
In the distance in front of her, as if out of thin air, appeared several moving figures!
Nelaira’s long ears perked up, and she carefully listened to any sign of movement in her surroundings.
There were no sounds of approaching footsteps, or anything else, for that matter. Everything was perfectly quiet and still.
Good. I reacted quickly. They probably haven’t spotted me. Even so, Nelaira didn’t dare to breathe out in relief. With her heart fluttering in excitement, she slowly, carefully, lifted her nose above the snow to see the distant figures.
Perhaps I didn’t just appear in the shrine by myself?
Perhaps there were other people, these people, that brought me here!
Nelaira’s heart thumped hard inside her chest to the point that she was sure that the distant figures could hear it too.
Or maybe, they are here to pray in the shrine?
It made sense, the shrine was too well preserved for something so old. Either it had been preserved due to divine power, or someone has been taking care of it all this while. Wanting to confirm her suspicions, Nelaira slowly turned towards the shrine to inspect it for signs of mortal caretaking.
However, before her head could fully turn, her whole body stiffened.
Behind her, there was no shrine!
As if it had never been there!
No. Nelaira rubbed her eyes in disbelief. It wasn’t the shrine that vanished but rather…
…she had returned to the same place she was previously at!
Behind her stood two towering peaks, creating a path out of the Valley.
Which means… Nelaira squinted her eyes towards the distant figures. Sure enough. The figures moving in the snow were not the survivors but the treacherous trio.
They hadn’t left yet!
Nelaira lowered her head back down again. Since it was the trio, she needn’t worry about tainting innocent people, she could just use her mana sense to inspect them.
Her previous wide area of effect Morph spell had disappeared, probably ran out of mana. Thus, Scotty was once again able to use his own Morph to scout the surroundings, and the trio could safely land on the ground. Which was exactly what he and they were currently doing.
While waiting for Scotty’s verdict, Lorafiel was looking around, his eyes squinting, trying to catch any sign of movement within the white snow. Grass, on the other hand, was levitating an ice platform upon which lay the scattered body parts, which Nelaira recognized as the remaining members of their team.
The auras around the bodies had long dissipated, however, Nelaira could tell what they were due to the chilling darkness that stung her mind as it touched the lumps. Clearly, the body parts had been tainted.
Unlike Nelaira who could clearly feel the sting of Ink as her mind touched it, the trio didn’t feel Nelaira’s mind sweeping over them at all.
After all, minds of others weren’t something mortals could feel.
Even if those minds were tainted.
Unfortunately, Nelaira couldn’t tell whether her actions had ended up spreading the Ink onto them so just for good measure she continued sweeping her mind over them several times. Surely, if she touched them with all parts of her mind, the Ink would end up spreading to them. She couldn’t touch their minds with her own, but she could touch their mana, and then, perhaps the Ink would travel from her mind into their mana and finally taint them.
And the best part was that they wouldn’t feel the subtle touch of Ink anyway. Perhaps they wouldn’t even realize they had been tainted until they lost their ability to use magic.
No. Nelaira shook her head. They would probably realize they had been tainted when their bodies manifest physical signs of taint. After all, physical signs were much more noticeable than something subtle as changes in mental state.
Still, Nelaira took strange pleasure at the prospect of spreading her own taint onto them. Retribution is a b*tch. She chuckled darkly.
Well, at least they have enough conscience left in them to remember to recover the bodies of our fallen brothers and sisters. Nelaira’s eyes scanned the pile of flesh with her emotions darkening by the minute.
Luki and Aurel weren’t there.
It didn’t come as a surprise to her. The trio didn’t dare descend into the pit to look for them.
Nelaira felt blood rush into her head, the veins on her forehead pulsating in fury. Almost instantly both her vision and mind blurred.
She clenched her teeth hard and shook her head clumsily.
It had been a while since she felt the Ink clouding her consciousness.
Why did it have to strike again with such impeccable timing?
It had already waited for hours, so why couldn’t it wait for few more minutes?
With her vision turning dark, Nelaira’s sense of hearing became extraordinarily sensitive. Her long ears twitched, catching bits and pieces of their conversation.
“How long… continue to search?!”
“…tired of this…!”
“…must find the diary…”
“…probably dead and buried…”
“… should go back!”
Not good! Nelaira’s heart dropped into her stomach. If they decided to teleport right now, she wouldn’t be able to reach them in time. Technically, her body could handle the acceleration needed to cover that distance in several seconds, however, whether her boots were able to achieve the necessary acceleration was the issue.
As her vision cleared once again, Nelaira turned to look at her boots, checking whether there was enough mana left in the mana crystals to allow her to get to them in time.
F*ck! Nelaira’s face fell. She had forgotten an important fact.
She took a bath in Ink.
She was lucky enough that the enchantment on her boots lasted as long as it did, allowing her to escape via her tunnel.
As for now, several hours later, there was simply nothing of the enchantment left! Even the mana crystal that had once been translucent vibrant red was now misty black and filled with cracks. Forget about flying with the boots, them not falling apart on her feet was impressive enough.
What to do, what to do? Nelaira stared at the trio, noticing that Lorafiel was about to take out the Beacon.
Out of time! Quickly, she sent her mana into the snow and air around her, casting a crude large scale Morph spell. She twirled it around and around, kicking up what looked like a snowstorm.
Covered up by the whirling snow she darted into a sprint towards the trio.