Chapter 9 - Refuge
I pulled on my favorite tank top and my usual black trousers. A new pile of neatly folded clothing sat beside my room door along with a pair of combat boots. Helia had so graciously given a spare pair and they were just the right size.
I looked out from the window in my room, as the sun shyly peeked out from the mountains, rays of sunlight flooded the land. The dawn has arrived, and it was time for us to leave. I breathed in the mountain air, savoring the scenery as I tied my hair up into a high ponytail.
I will definitely miss Mount Sigmora.
I thundered down the stone steps with ease, my backpack behind my back. I felt better than I’ve ever had before. Shiki was already waiting with Helia by his side. Helia looked different today, she had her messy hair tied neatly into a bun, making her look brighter and more energetic than usual.
“Good luck, fire girl,” she held out her arms to embrace me. I did not hesitate. Despite being her attitude being slightly cold and straightforward, the stone oracle had helped me out a lot with my training and had armed me with enough knowledge for my future endeavors. She had taken care of me during the lowest times of my life, and I will forever be in debt.
“Thank you so much, Helia,” I said, giving her a tight squeeze. I heard a few bones crack in her body and I moved away hastily, afraid that her bony figure might give way. She laughed like it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Before you leave, this is something you’ll need,” Helia’s grey eyes shone as she pressed something into my palm. “It was summoned along with your spirit weapon last night.”
It was a ring, with silver flames curling all around it, and had a small crimson pyrope gem set in the middle. It seemed to be made of the same material as Guren’s blades. I slid it onto my forefinger on my left hand and it fit perfectly.
“It is a contractual ring, it also helps you seal away your powers and presence. You don’t want to travel with everyone sensing your fiery Eshban presence miles away. Make sure you keep it safe, it is very important,” Helia advised with one bony finger held up, looking like a worried mother. “Be safe, the both of you,” she nodded at Shiki and he nodded back in gratitude.
“Shall we?” Shiki turned to me, gesturing for me to get on his back. I shivered. I don’t think I will ever get used to his deep voice.
We bade farewell to Helia for the last time and went on our way.
“This time since we’re heading down the mountain, make sure you hang on to me tightly alright?” Shiki said softly as he made his way towards the edge of the mountain where we first came from. “I’ll be using my powers to warp us between large spaces, it’ll save us more time and we’ll reach our destination faster,” he turned his eyes to me, waiting for my response.
“Alright,” I answered, and lowered myself onto his back like last time, bracing myself for his descent.
The mark on his forehead glowed softly, its glow was not as bright as I remembered, it probably looked dimmer because of the morning light.
The moment his feet left the edge, I nearly screamed. He was not aiming for the jutting rocks below him, we were not descending stone by stone like how we first climbed Mount Sigmora.
Shiki was leaping through space, freefalling down the mountain, his body was nearly entirely vertical and I hung on with all my strength. If I happened to lose my grip, I would be definitely be blown away by the strong wind.
Shiki’s darkness formed a barrier around us, holding us mid-air. It was a new experience for me, the darkness warped around us like a piece of sleek black fabric. It was as if I was blinking in slow motion, the scenery around us ever-changing. The only thing I could hear was the strong wind blowing against us. We were moving down with astounding speed.
“Land and Terron isn’t with us, so I don’t need to hold back on my speed,” Shiki had to shout over the sound of the roaring wind. “You’re handling it pretty well for a first-timer,” he sounded amused.
“Did you expect me to throw up or something?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could. Meanwhile I was holding on to him so tightly my knuckles were white and my palms and feet were cold with sweat.
Shiki roared with laughter as he went even faster.
“We will be landing in approximately 15 seconds,” he announced and I braced myself again, planting my hands deep into his fur.
Shiki landed without a sound. His darkness forming a carpet below him to ease his landing. They disappeared without a trace as Shiki bolted into the woods straightaway, not slowing down at the slightest.
Now all I hear was the leaves and sticks cracking under Shiki’s paws as he raced through the forest. He would leap pass fallen tree trunks and dodge large branches, they weren’t much of an obstacle to him. None of them seemed to slow him down either. Surprisingly, he seemed to be no stranger to forest terrain. Maybe his clam lives in the forest. Though I pictured him to be from somewhere rocky, like a mountain, or maybe a dark cave.
“We will be passing by the river first, then Suyoi and Gairon, you might want to be on a lookout for any Sovereign soldiers at Suyoi, hopefully news have not reached them yet,” Shiki growled, dodging another branch.
“We will be passing by both villages? We’re heading for the woods? I’ve heard it’s dangerous there,” I asked, slightly confused.
I was trying my best to remember the map of the Fourth Region but to no avail, I have always been bad at geography.
“My clan lives there, and yes, we are very dangerous,” Shiki chuckled. I guessed right, they did live in the forest.
We reached the river in around 30 minutes. To my surprise, Shiki had chosen a shallow part of the river to cross. My impression on the fourth region river had always been of its dangerous current and I have never been to this part of the river before. I was glad we didn’t need to brace against the current to get pass the river, it would surely be exhausting for Shiki, and it would also be very cold if we did.
Clear river water flowed smoothly along the rocky surface of the river. Water splashed below his paws as Shiki stepped into the river with careful steps. He stopped for a while only to lap some water before going right back on track. Without a warning, a huge wave of water splashed me on my face.
“What was that for?” I spluttered, wiping the water off my face. Just when I thought we weren’t going to get wet.
“To lower your temperature,” he flung more water onto me with his tail, leaving me coughing. I punched his shoulder as I kneaded my watery eyes. He simply laughed and turned his playful amber eyes to me. His grin fell and he quickly turned his head back on track.
Was it me or was he embarrassed?
“Whoops, sorry,” he said gruffly, sounding like a child. “I had forgotten you were wearing white, pardon my manners,” he even sounded embarrassed.
For some reason, I didn’t feel ashamed though he could probably see through the fabric of my drenched top. “Oh are you embarrassed?” I teased, tickling his neck. My annoyance evaporated immediately.
He answered with a huff. “I’ll make you regret that later,” he said dangerously.
“I’ll look forward to that,” I replied with a grin.
“We’re passing by Suyoi now,” Shiki said gruffly, slowing down slightly so I could check if there were any Sovereign officers.
Beyond the trees I could recognize the charred land, now with no signs of life.
I scoffed under my breath. I never regretted what I did to my village.
“I don’t see or sense any Sovereign officers,” I told Shiki. His ears stood in attention and he sniffed the air silently.
“News haven’t reached them yet, good.”
Shiki was obviously taking a short cut to his home. I came to that conclusion because I could see the larger main roads that led to Gairon and Suyoi beyond the lush greenery. The foliage around us were wild and overgrown, this wasn’t a path that normal villagers would pass by, or notice.
The entire journey from Mount Sigmora’s peak to the woodlands took around 4 hours. I realized it had been around 2 hours since Shiki stopped for a rest and I started to get a little worried.
“Shiki, do you want to stop for a short while? Don’t you need some more water?” I asked softly, patting his shoulder.
“We’re almost there, I’ll rest after I’m home,” he replied shortly. “Thank you,” he glanced at me for just a moment before turning back to his rhythm.
Now I understood why he wanted to head out early, if we headed out late, the afternoon sun would be enough to scald the both of us, it could even gave us heat stroke at worse.
Meanwhile, the scenery around us gradually changed and I immediately knew we were reaching Oakwood. The trees in Oakwood had a greyish green tone, not a crisp green like normal forests. The trees were also older and larger, Shiki had to leap higher to avoid their large roots and branches. Even though the terrain was much tougher and challenging for him, I could feel his body relax as we advanced deeper into the woods. This was his territory, it must feel good to be home.
He gradually slowed down, taking in the beautiful scenery while breathing in the fresh forest air. His amber eyes radiated with a sense of peace.
“Welcome home,” I said softly, patting his head.
He let out a low chuckle. “Seraphina?” he turned his head to look at me.
“My people will be very surprised to see you,” his eyes shone playfully. “Don’t mind them.”
Before I could answer, Shiki took off again, catching me off guard. I struggled to regain my grip on him as he chuckled. Moments later, I caught a glimpse of a huge stone archway set in the middle of the forest. It looked very out of place in the undergrowth. Vines and moss had grown over the structure and it has obviously been here for a long period of time. Shiki’s smile seemed to widen at the sight of it.
As we approached the arch, I noticed there was a large curtain of vines covering what was behind the stone arch. From far, it was barely visible. Shiki walked through the veil slowly so I wouldn’t be slapped in the face by the long vines.
I had never seen so many hellhounds in a single place. Surprisingly, there were human females among the hounds. My guess what that the females had the privilege to stay in their human form so they could take care of the normal chores whereas the males hunt in their hound forms. Shiki’s home looked like a normal village, with huts and their people bustling about with their daily lives. A few hounds that were closer to the opening stopped their work when they saw Shiki, their eyes widening in surprise.
“P-Prince Zoltar?” one stammered, looking very nervous.
Did he just call Shiki a prince?
Shiki eyed them coldly as he passed through his village. He kept a steady pace, not slowing down at the impolite stares. I could even hear some maidens gasping and swooning in his presence. It didn’t seem to bother him at the slightest.
He was heading towards the largest house in the village. It was very eye-catching as it stood out from the rest due to its size. I guessed that it should belong to a village leader, since normally, the leaders stay in the largest houses in villages. Though this one was well-kept and surprisingly simple for a leader’s house.
I could feel the people staring at me. They were surprised, yes, but I feel a strong sense of jealousy and envy. What is going on?
“The price is back, but with a human?”
“Who is she for the prince to carry her?”
I looked at Shiki, utterly confused, but he didn’t spare a glance. Before he could reach the house, the door swung open with such force I could feel the wind in my face.
“My son is home!” a jolly voice boomed.
To my surprise, Shiki’s father was human, adding more conflict to my confusion. Curly dark brown hair and warm gold eyes. A thick moustache curled above his lip, he was well-built and strong, muscles rippled all across his body as he laughed. He was wearing a fur coat on top of his clothing that seemed to be made of animal hide. When he saw me, his eyes showed only surprise. Shiki let me down and I hastily jumped to the ground, landing without as much of a sound. I already got used to clambering on and off Shiki back at Helia’s.
Shiki’s father lumbered over to him, threw an arm over him and rubbed his head forcefully with his fist. Shiki had a stupid grin plastered on his face as he wrestled his father to the ground. A tall willowy figure emerged from the doorway. The woman had an air of elegance and superiority, her jet black hair made her blue eyes stand out. She turned to me first.
“Please don’t mind them, they haven’t seen each other for some time,” she said softly, smiling to me. She sashayed to my side and took my hand.
“My son had never brought a woman home before, may I ask for your name my dear?” her blue eyes met mine. They were of a slightly darker tone compared to the sky. Her voice was warm and welcoming. “Ah where are my manners, my name is Layla Xantara, I’m Zoltar’s mother, such a pleasure to meet you!”
“Greetings, my name is Seraphina, it is my pleasure,” I returned her smile, trying to sound as proper as I can. She gave me one last squeeze before turning to her husband and son who had now clambered to their feet.
“Mother,” Shiki bumped his head into her embrace and she hugged him, proceeding to kiss him on his forehead.
“Now, now, shouldn’t you introduce this lady to us?” his father punched him in the shoulder. He extended a large hand to me and I took it, giving it a firm squeeze.
“Zeno,” his grin was infectious.
“Seraphina,” I returned, bowing my head slightly.
“Is it that unbelievable for me to bring a woman home?” Shiki asked helplessly and his parents chuckled. Should I be calling him Zoltar now?
“I have more important news for you, I’ll leave Seraphina’s introduction for later,” Shiki came to my side. His parents looked at him, waiting. I also turned to him, he had not told me anything about this ‘important news’.
“I’m intending to accept the leadership status,” he said solemnly. His father’s mouth dropped open and his mother looked equally surprised.
Before his father could say anything, Shiki continued.
“Don’t be too happy just yet, I will only do so provided that you agree to my terms.” His father recovered and folded his arms, looking baffled.
“Terms regarding?” he raised an eyebrow.
“Rebellion,” Shiki said quietly. “Can I have a meeting later at night with the council?”
“We will look forward to what you have to say then,” his father’s frown deepened.
“As usual, all business,” his mother shrugged at the father and son.
“Who is this girl, Zoltar?” A shrill voice interrupted. And we turned to face a woman around my age, maybe a few years older. She had brown hair with streaks of blonde, her eyes reminded me of Terron’s, brown laced with some green. She looked very angry and she was staring daggers at me.
“This is Seraphina, and she is none of your business,” Shiki answered monotonously, standing in front of me.
“Someone that’s going to steal you away from me?” she screamed, wiggling a finger at me. I raised an eyebrow as my flame started to rise. I was already quite mad that Shiki had not been completely honest with me about his background.
“She doesn’t even need to steal me away,” Shiki turned to me, gesturing for me to enter the house. He looked very annoyed. “I was never yours in the first place.”
“Oh don’t you dare move, girl!” she stomped her way towards me. “Who do you think you are? You even had the guts to sit on the prince’s back, unforgivable!” she proceeded to scream in my face.
“Shiki?” I called softly, trying my best to swallow my anger. He pushed the girl away from me with his tail, almost knocking her off her feet, but it only aggravated her even more.
“You bitch! Do you know who I am? As the eldest daughter of one of the high-ranked council members, I am the one who’s supposed to marry the prince,” she looked really proud of herself. “You should be punished for treating Zoltar with such disrespect! Did your parents not teach you to be respectful towards nobles?” she screeched.
Something in me snapped.
On instinct, I grabbed her collar and pulled her to me, she nearly tripped over her own feet from the sudden movement. The audience that had gathered around us gasped in horror.
“Say that again, I dare you,” I hissed softly, my eyes boring into hers. “Do you know who I am?” I echoed her words.
“If you want to pick a fight, fight me in the ring and I will destroy you.”
I could barely recognize my own voice.
“You can insult me any day, but don’t you dare, insult my parents,” I allowed my statement to sink. She was near tears when I released her, allowing her to crash into to the ground. I didn’t care who she was or whoever’s watching. The worse I’ll need to do is burn down everything and everyone again.
I made my way into the house without as much looking back at the girl and Shiki followed me without a word.