Chapter 245: Walking Catastrophe
“She really is a princess,” the balding bear of a man named Herrick muttered in a deep voice as he studied me intently.
“You’re making her uncomfortable you big oaf,” the girl called Nyphia berated.
“Sorry… I’ve just never seen a real princess before,” Herrick mumbled.
I held back a smile as I watched the two bicker before my eyes shifted to Madam Astera. She was talking to a thinner man—not much older than me—huddled over, hugging his knees as his entire body trembled. Jast had been here since we arrived, and judging by the condition he was in, I knew why; the guy was a mess.
Jast hadn’t said a word since we arrived, only muttering a string of incoherent words as he rocked back and forth.
“He had it the worst,” Nyphia commented, her steeled expression softening as she watched him. “He watched his entire unit slaughter each other in front of him.”
“Slaughter…each other?” I echoed, horrified.
Nyphia leaned close and whispered, “Yup. Even the girl we all knew he was ‘secretly’ dating.”
“Nyphia,” Madam Astera said, her voice sharp.
At the mention of her name, Nyphia’s body stiffened. “My apologies, Madam Astera.”
I watched as Nyphia scooted back over to where she was normally sitting. I found myself staring at her and Herrick, their bodies barely visible over the dim light artifact between us. While not as blatantly obvious as Jast’s state of mind, both Herrick and Nyphia were riddled with injuries.
Most notably, Herrick was missing his left hand, and by the blood spreading even over the thick bandages wrapped around his wrist, I could tell that the wound was fairly recent. Nyphia didn’t seem to have any injuries aside from the bloody gash running down the side of her face, but every time she moved her body, she would wince ever so slightly.
I felt a knot in my chest looking at them. On one hand, I pitied the state they were in, but on the other hand, I admired the fact that they were still able to smile despite their situation.
After Jast had fallen asleep with his head buried in his knees, Madam Astera walked over to the back of the cave where we were sitting around a dim light artifact.
She sat across from me, her gaze boring holes into my very soul. Both Nyphia and Herrick had stopped talking and it seemed like minutes until Madam Astera spoke again, and when she did, it wasn’t what I had expected her to say.
“F*ck!” she cursed, pounding the hard ground with her fist.
Nyphia, Herrick, and I were all taken aback by her sudden outburst. Combing back her bangs with her fingers, she stared at me and let out a sigh. “It doesn’t bode well to see you out here, Princess.”
That’s when I realized the reason for her outburst. I wasn’t hurt, but I was running away in disguise. My very presence all the way out here meant that something was very wrong, and she couldn’t have been more right.
I nodded. “You’re right, it doesn’t. But before I explain the situation out there, can you tell me what happened? To my knowledge, we were winning the battle at the Etistin bay shore.”
“We were and we weren’t,” she said cryptically. “My knowledge is filled with gaps since my unit was positioned towards the outskirts of the battle, but I’ll explain to the best of my abilities.”
And so, she told me what had happened while the rest of us silently listened.
The Bloodfrost Battle is what the soldiers had dubbed the massacre that occurred at the Etistin bay shore. During the time General Varay and Arthur were there, the battle was one-sided—Alacrya didn’t seem to have a chance. But as the battle progressed, it became more and more obvious that something was off.
The enemy soldiers threw themselves into battle without formation, fled or even begged for their lives, and sometimes, they’d even see soldiers sacrifice their comrades to save themselves.
Despite all of this, the higher ups continued the order to push forward. They wanted to take over the Alacryan ships docked at the other end of the ice field.
It was on the third day that the situation flipped. Madam Astera couldn’t tell me exactly how it had started, but it was when the new vanguard line that was supposed to relieve the current frontline’s position didn’t arrive that the soldiers knew something was wrong.
Then, Alacryan soldiers—actual soldiers in formation and tight teams that clearly knew what they were doing—came from behind. The majority of the Dicathen forces that were on the field were now suddenly pincered, and everyone could see the battle occurring above us in the sky.
General Varay was fighting an enemy capable of holding his own against the strongest lance. The Dicathen forces held strong though, and the reserves that had been fighting against the real Alacryan soldiers were slowly regaining their footing after their initial surprise.
Despite the major setback, once Lance Mica joined the battle, the Dicathians were hopeful to come out of this battle victorious… that was, until that man arrived.
Madam Astera’s expression darkened as she continued speaking, both Nyphia and Herrick trembling just at the mention of that person.
With the arrival of this new figure, the already-bloody battle had turned into a scene of hell. Scores of obsidian spikes shot out from the ground, skewering allies and enemies alike. Clouds of murky gray mist slowly spread, rendering affected troops into deranged monsters that attacked our own. But the worst were the black flames enveloping entire units of soldiers and growing larger despite the entire ground made of ice. In its wake laid only blood and soot.
It was just one man, but it was more accurate to call him a walking catastrophe. It only took several hours for the battle to be rendered into a graveyard.
“H-How did you guys survive that?” I asked, my voice coming out hoarse and shaken.
“Because the black fires, spikes, and smoke weren’t aimed but just spread randomly, Dicathians and Alacryans alike were affected. Those that hadn’t died from that deadly magic were able to escape since even the Alacryans were in a state of chaos,” Madam Astera explained, her gaze falling on where Herrick and Nyphia were. “There are definitely other survivors hiding out here if they hadn’t already gotten caught and captured, which is why we’ve been going on these runs—we’ve been trying to find more allies.”
“We found Jast as he was getting attacked and saved him yesterday,” she continued, taking a quick glance back at the sleeping teen curled into a ball before turning to us. “These two are what’s left of my unit, but there are a few more out there who were there when we first found you. We’ve worked out a system where one group comes back while the other circles around just in case we’re followed.”
I nodded, unable to come up with any sort of reply appropriate for this situation.
“How are your supplies looking?” I asked after a long pause.
“We can split the rations for four more days at the maximum between us five and the other three that’ll be here soon,” she said. “Besides sustenance, however, we have nothing. The emergency medical kit I was carrying in my dimension ring was used to patch up Herrick’s injury.”
At the reminder of his wound, the large soldier dipped his head, looking at the stump where his left hand used to be.
“Now, Princess. Tell us the situation out there. Is the war over? Have we lost?” Madam Astera asked, her large piercing eyes focused on me.
I shifted my gaze to Herrick and Nyphia; the two of them were staring back intently, hopeful—desperate.
I sat up and kept my expression stern and confident. “We lost this war, but it isn’t over.”
“Please elaborate,” Madam Astera insisted, leaning in closer.
And so, I showed them the medallion and told them about the refuge shelter that not even the Alacryans would be able to find, let alone break into. I told them that Commander Virion and General Bairon were both there, along with General Arthur, a powerful diviner, and even an emitter. I told them about how the diviner had prepared supplies in advance and that all the necessary components are there to sustain hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
But by the end of my hope-filled message, the three of them stared back at me with looks of indignation.
“So the outcome of this entire war had been predicted? We were doomed to lose from the start?” Nyphia muttered, horrified.
My heartbeat quickened. “What? N-No! I mean—”
“Did the Commander, General Arthur, and General Bairon run away from this battle to save themselves?” Madam Astera asked, her voice seething with controlled rage.
“Of course not! They had been attacked by a scythe at the Castle. They barely made it out of there alive,” I reasoned, not expecting this sort of reaction.
Madam Astera’s head sunk as she buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders bobbed up and down as she took deep breaths, until finally she looked back up with a hardened gaze.
“Last question, and please answer honestly,” she said, sending a chill down my spine. “Did they know?”
My brows furrowed. “Excuse me?”
“Commander Virion. General Arthur. General Bairon. Did these three people know what was going to happen here?”
“No!” I snapped. “No one but Elder Rinia, the diviner, knew! No one was more angry than those three for not being told about all of this. They blame themselves more than anyone for how this war ended, but they’re still there because they know it’s the only chance we have in taking back Dicathen!”
After long minutes of tortured silence, Madam Astera let out a breath. “I understand. So what’s the plan? Did you travel here because the diviner knew our location?”
I bit my lip, unable to answer. It was the opposite…I had snuck out here alone on this selfish quest to bring back my parents, only to fail and be chased away and found by Madam Astera’s group.
“I’ve come to find Dicathians and bring as many as I can back with me to the refuge shelter,” I lied.
The only consolation was seeing Herrick and Nyphia smile at each other, excited at the fact that they’d be safe once they were there. Even Jast raised his head, his gaze sober and hopeful.
Madam Astera nodded but I couldn’t read her expression. Regardless, they had agreed to go with me to Telmore City, where we’d either sneak in or fight our way to the teleportation gate there. All we had to do was wait for the rest of Madam Astera’s group to arrive.
An hour trickled by as we waited impatiently for more people to come, but no one did.
“They shouldn’t be out there for this long,” Madam Astera growled as she paced back and forth inside the cave. “I’ll go take a look alone. Stay here.”
“Wait,” I called out. “It’ll take too long if you go out and search for them by yourself, then come back. We travelled north to get here from where we were all at, if we go together and meet up with the rest of the group further down, it’ll be en route to Telmore City.”
“It will shave off at least half a day, depending on how fast we’re able to locate them,” Nyphia chimed in.
“I don’t like it, but you’re right. Princess, do you have any experience in tracking or scouting?” Madam Astera asked.
“I’ve had some training from my previous teacher on using wind magic for scouting but my actual experience is minimal,” I responded, tightening my leather boots.
“So you specialize in wind, good. That’ll be useful out there,” she replied, turning to Jast. “How do you feel? You had another one of your episodes again.”
The boy named Jast stood up slowly, slinging a sack over his shoulder. “I’m a bit better now. Thank you Madam Astera.”
“Then let’s get moving,” the leader said curtly.
We left the cave through the small entrance we had covered in foliage; from the outside, the little hideout was nothing more than a slope at the base of a hill.
Staying low and several yards apart from each other, we made our way south through the forest. The forest here weren’t nearly as dense or lush as the Elshire Forest—even the wildlife was scarce and timid.
I missed home, more than I ever did in the past. I had spent years in Sapin while I was at school, but the fact that I might not even have a home to go back to now really hit me.
Even if the castle that I grew up in was still there, what was the point? My parents were gone.
No. Not now, Tess. I swallowed and took a deep breath. I didn’t have the chance to properly mourn for my parents despite seeing their corpses put on display to send a message. Now, even their bodies were gone.
I took another breath, trying to calm myself. There would be a time to grieve once we’re all safe. For now, I needed to focus on getting everyone back to the shelter.
Distracting myself from my own thoughts by searching for the missing members of Madam Astera’s group, we continued backtracking our route.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but suddenly, Madam Astera let out a trilling whistle like a bird. This was her signal for all of us to stop and lay low.
It only took me a few seconds to catch on to what the leader had seen and heard—just a few yards southeast from our position was the shuffling of shrubs and snapping of twigs. It was too large to be a rodent or hare, and it seemed too clumsy to be a deer.
We waited for Madam Astera to slowly stalk whatever was there, barely catching the reflection of her thin sword. She moved with ease, as if gliding through the trees and foliage as her presence was barely detectable even as I was watching her.
Despite the situation we were in, I couldn’t help but admire her prowess. She would be a powerful ally that could help smuggle away more people away from the Alacryans once she got settled.
I continued waiting—observing—my entire body tensed, as Madam Astera was almost upon the thing, when she jolted to a stop and gestured for us to come.
With a sigh of relief, we all hurried over to where she was, only to see her crouched over a figure I couldn’t quite make out.
Getting closer, my eyes widened at the sight of the injured soldier. He was a mess with his armor and clothes basically dyed with his own blood.
Beside me, Nyphia let out a gasp. “That’s Abath.”
She ran towards the injured man and I followed until I got close enough to hear the last part of what he was saying. “…was killed…a boy.”
Before I could even get the chance to interpret what he had said, my beast will suddenly ignited and every fiber in my body stiffened.
It was as if a heavy blanket of this carnal and unabated bloodlust had fallen over me. I was barely able to remain on my feet. Both Herrick and Nyphia fell on their knees, trembling while Jast had curled up into a fetal position, shaking violently.
Desperate, I turned to Madam Astera, only to see her staring behind me, wide-eyed, and lips trembling as she muttered, “Y-You…in the battle.”
I knew—my entire body knew—that unlike at the city center, it was too late to run away this time. Willing myself to turn around, I saw a person that I hadn’t seen in years. A person that I thought had died and had almost forgotten, but a person that couldn’t be more familiar.
His name escaped my lips as I stared at him. “E-Elijah?”