“Actually, it may have been a good thing that you ran away so suddenly.” said Runir.“What do you mean?” Lily asked.
“Well, shortly after you decided to take a stroll in the forest, the Celeste came to Fohil no doubt searching for you.” he replied.
I frowned. Was this Solaron’s doing? She couldn’t locate the Hero or the Demon Lord, but sensing me, her sister, was still possible. Could she have been tracking our group through me? And if so, did that mean that I should leave or at least, confront her?
I glanced over at Kai whose lips had turned up a little, like he was holding back a smile.
“The Celeste? What’s that?” said Lily, her eyebrows furrowed.
“You don’t know about the Celeste? Don’t tell me you didn’t know that the assassin that tried to kill you was from the Pandomin?” Runir said, incredulously.
Lily frowned. “No, I didn’t. Now stop being such a bitch and talk.”
“The Celeste and the Pandomin are the elite military units of the Holy Union and the Dusk Alliance, respectively.” said Kai, joining the conversation. “Their abilities are unquestionable but that is to be expected, considering the incredible prerequisites for joining. A group of Celeste or Pandomins is said to be able to fight the Hero and the Demon Lord on equal grounds. In fact, there are rumors suggesting that they have fought Heroes and Demon Lords and occasionally won.”
No one spoke for a few moments, reflecting on the information. The fact that Kai of all people had said this only lent more weight to it.
The Celeste and the Pandomins. They should not be a problem for me and it looks like the Demon Lord can take care of himself. Kai…will be fine. But I’ll need to protect Lily, look out for her.
I glanced at Lily, who seemed to be lost in thought.
“And they’re both after me…” Lily said, breaking the silence.
Kai nodded, Runir smiled and I moved to her and embraced her.
She was shocked for a second but then she pushed me away.
“You have to stop doing that. It hurts!” she said, gasping for breath.
“It will be okay. You have me.” I said, ignoring her.
“I’m not scared of some assassins or whatever, but…” her words trailed.
“But we’ll need to change the plan somewhat. Staying in the Light Kingdom probably isn’t the smartest thing to do at the moment so we’ll take a detour.” Runir continued.
“Right, we can take a detour through the Fire Kingdom. We’ll head West, cross the Vandrake mountains and stop over at Ashpoole city. From there we can either cross the desert to Beigo or hike across the mountains towards the Shrine.” Kai said.
Runir raised an eyebrow, possibly impressed by Kai’s geographical knowledge.
“Sounds good to me.” he said.
“I don’t know about those places at all, so I’ll trust you on this” for now. The unsaid words implied by her tone.
“It is a good plan but the Vandrake Mountains are very dangerous. Flocks of flying monsters roam the skies and roost on the mountaintops. Drakes, Wyverns, Dragons, there are many fearsome creatures in those lands.” I said.
Kai chuckled. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” He said, not elaborating further.
After planning the route in more detail and discussing a few defensive formations, we packed up and walked off into the wilderness.
I stuck close to Lily but I could tell that she was wary of me. She still didn’t trust me.
Although it was understandable, given the circumstances, it still hurt a little. She was the first person I’d opened up to in centuries yet she flinched whenever I drew too close to her.
She will come around eventually. I thought, resigning myself to the current situation.
Instead, I cast my gaze in front of us, staring at the shadows that were beginning to emerge in the distance.
Those shadows belonged to the hills that led up to the Vandrake mountains and eventually, the Fire Goddess’ Shrine.
To my shrine.
I felt a slight pain in my chest. I hadn’t seen these mountains in a long time. A little over 900 years, in fact. I’d been avoiding these mountains ever since Yunni died. Avoiding these mountains and the bitter memories that came with them.
But that was all in the past. For now, I had to protect Lily.
However, there was nothing to protect her from.
This place should have been full of ferocious beasts and vicious monsters who attacked anyone they saw. They didn’t care if you were stronger then them, they would charge at you regardless. In fact, they even attacked me, a Goddess!
Yet we hadn’t met a single monster at all. The journey had been peaceful, almost boring.
Runir was leading us up a rocky path, casually jumping across crevasses and climbing up ledges. We followed wordlessly. After planning the route a few days ago, we hadn’t talked much, creating a long silence that no one wanted to break.
But I was confused. Even though this mountain had been out of the way, Runir had insisted on coming here and Kai had stared at him for a long time before agreeing. Lily didn’t care so I hadn’t rejected it either, but this would delay us by a day at least. And that would give Solaron more time to think of a plan.
She would want the Hero back, or at least under her surveillance, but she couldn’t send the Celeste into the Vandrake mountains even if she could track us through her connection to me.
Which meant that something would be waiting for us at Ashpoole or maybe outside the Shrine itself.
While I debated the possibility of an ambush and questioned the effectiveness of the longer route we had adopted, a small shape began to emerge on the mountain peak in front of us.
Kai and Runir also seemed to have noticed it and Lily followed my gaze and eventually saw it as well.
Thin clouds streamed across the shape, shrouding it in their mists. Runir laughed as he saw it, a little relief detectable in his laughter.
Kai sighed as he looked at the shrouded shape in the distance but he didn’t say anything.
I, on the other hand, was shocked. After centuries of roaming around the world, I was sure that I had seen nearly everything on Erath but I had never expected something like this to be hidden right next to my own Shrine.
I’d never heard of anything being built so high up in the mountains and even if something could be built here, it would never be able to survive the inevitable aggression of the flying monsters in the region.
And yet here it was.
“What is that?” I murmured, unconsciously breaking the silence that had been lingering for several days.
“I don’t know.” Runir said cheerfully.
I frowned. “But isn’t that the reason we came all the way out here? I do not know about you but I would rather not waste time pursuing unknown shapes in the Vandrake Mountains, of all places.”
Runir thought for a moment. “Very well, I suppose I’ll have to tell you if we’re going to be working together from now on. But first, Kai, do you know why we’re going to the Fire Goddess’ shrine.”
“I suppose you intend to receive the Fire Goddess’ blessing.” he said, smiling cryptically.
Runir’s face remained expressionless but he was clenching his fists.
“That is partially correct. Lily will be able to receive the Goddess’ blessing and become stronger, but our true objective is to search for a way back to our world.”
“Our world?” Kai said, lifting an eyebrow.
“Yes. I was also summoned to this world, even though I am not the Hero.”
“I see. Well, I’m just tagging along for the story so please don’t mind me and answer Amy’s question.” he said, smiling.
Runir nodded and turned to me.
“Right, I suppose you already know but my Ability is called ‘Perfect Strategy.’ It allows me to make plans and strategies to reach any objective or goal that I formally choose to pursue and it gives me hints and suggestions regarding what I should do to achieve them.” He gestured towards the blurry shape on the mountaintop. “Ever since I set ‘reaching the Fire Goddess’ shrine as a sub-goal, I’ve been receiving strong hints to come up here for some reason and I’m sure that that is what I’ve been looking for.”
Well, that is what his ability is called but…
I frowned as I stared at his Status after using Appraisal, but I wasn’t looking at the Perfect Strategist Ability that seemed to be exactly as he had claimed. No, I was looking at his other ability.
Everyone born on Erath had only one ability. Even the Goddesses. But the Hero and the Demon Lord had two.
One was their innate Ability, which was bestowed upon them by Fate, just like everyone else’ Abilities. But they also had another ability, one that was unique to the Hero and the other possessed only by the Demon Lord.
And Runir was no exception and the thought made me uneasy since that Ability was ridiculously powerful.
I grit my teeth because I couldn’t tell Lily about this as it was still considered a part of their battle of wits.
“Do you know why you’re Ability was telling you to go there?” asked Lily.
“I have a hunch. You see, the Fire Goddess’ shrine is built on top of a large, active volcano and there is no way to reach it without someone at the top activating the Teleport Circle. The only problem is, the Goddess’ shrine has prerequisites for entry. First, only families are allowed. Second, that family must include a child under the legal age of adulthood in this world, which is 14 years old. As such, none of us would be able to enter the Shrine conventionally and we can only hope for a more unconventional entrance.”
“And this will help us find that unconventional entrance?” Lily asked, skeptically.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. All I know is that we need to find a way to reach the Fire Goddess’ shrine and this is our best bet.” Runir said, as he started hiking up the mountain again.
“I’m the Hero, can’t I just flash my Sacred Sword and ask her to let me in?” Lily said, running to catch up to him.
Runir shook his head. “Previous Heroes have tried that but the Fire Goddess is very strict with her requirements. She’s refused multiple Heroes in the past.”
Lily frowned. “That’s a stupid rule. What about people who don’t have a family? Or don’t have kids. Don’t they deserve to go to their Goddess’ shrine?”
“Well actually, the Fire Goddess’ Shrine is famous for being the easiest to get into. The requirements to enter the other Shrines are far higher. Some of them are just plain closed off.”
Well what you do if you kept being harassed by farmers with missing cows or lovers praying for a healthy marriage? A thousand years of this stuff is unbearable. I may have closed off my doors too if I had not left the Shrine.
We walked closer to the shape and we could finally make out its features.
First we saw a fence. A broken, rotting, wooden fence.
Then came the muddy field that was full of weeds.
And finally, the chilly mists gave way to a dilapidated old shack.
This is the reason we came all the way here? I frowned and looked over at Runir.
Runir stared at the shack for a moment before muttering something under his breath and walking towards it.
Kai hummed a tune as he followed him while Lily’s eyes kept darting in all directions as she presumably planned an escape route.
The door creaked as Runir opened it, also making splintering noises and sending a cloud of dust into the air.
The shack was dark, dusty and empty, which was quite anticlimactic.
“Something’s not right…” Runir said, walking inside the shack. “But they should be right around…here!” He stopped over a seemingly random floorboard.
He reached for the board and pulled it off, revealing damp, brown soil underneath. Not hesitating at all, he began to dig with his hands.
“Um, Runir. What are you doing?” asked Lily, giving him a weird look.
“Just a little further…there!” he said, his hands stopping.
He pulled out his muddy arm and gazed at his fist, his lips curled into a wide smile.
“Um, Runir. Why are you staring at a bunch of dirt?” Lily said, confused.
Runir looked at her with a deadpan expression. “This isn’t dirt. This is a-”
“Oi! Whacha doin ere? Get outta ma house!” An angry voice came from behind us.
We turned around and stared at the owner of the voice.
He was an old elf with wilting brown ears and a pudgy nose along with broken teeth. He was wearing dirty yellow clothes that I wasn’t quite sure had started out yellow and they gave off a foul odor that reached us all the way where we stood.
“Um, sorry. We didn’t know someone was living here.” Lily said, wrinkling her nose.
“Well now ya do. So scram!” the old elf grunted, spit flying out of his mouth.
“Er-actually, the real owner of this place sent us to get something that belonged to them. Just give us a minute and we’ll-” Runir said, walking out of the shack.
“Waddaya mean real owner? This is ma house! Been livin ere fer fifty years.” the old elf shouted angrily.
“But this house belonged to someone else before right? It’s obviously been around for more than fifty years.” Runir replied, calmly.
“Does that matter? No one was usin it so it’s mine! Now get out before I knock ya out.”
“Look just give us a minute and we’ll be gone. Besides, we still need to fix up-” he turned towards the inside of the shack, gesturing towards the hole in the floor.
But he froze. There was no hole.
I looked at the floor, stunned. The hole had been there moments ago and now it was like it had never been there at all. Then I noticed Runir’s hands and my mind went blank.
His hands were clean.
“Ah, kind sir. We were just about to leave. We apologize for disturbing you, thank you for your hospitality.” said Kai as he casually walked forward and smiled at the old elf before walking out of the shack.
His words jolted me from my shock.
Did he do this? I thought, staring at his back as he started walking down the hill.
Runir and Lily recovered soon after and we began following Kai. I was sure that we all had the same question, but none of us was willing to ask.
“Oi! Wait a minute!”
We turned around.
“It’s gettin late so ye can stick around fer the night. But don’t come ta me looking fer food! Hard enough ta feed myself these days.” said the old elf, turning his back on us and shutting the door to the shack.
We looked at Kai and he shrugged. We decided to stay the night on the mountaintop, mostly because Lily had wanted to see the sunset from up here.
We made camp and sat down to watch the rays of light dancing around the skies, bouncing off the thin clouds and mists and painting the already beautiful mountain scenery with brilliant hues of red and gold.
The grumpy old elf ended up joining us at night after he caught the scent of Kai’s cooking.
Kai took out some wine from his storage, at which point the elf’s eyes started glittering and we all started drinking while sitting outside the old shack.
We ended up chatting with the elf for hours. He told us some of the stories from his younger days and we told him some of ours. He waved us goodbye and went inside the shack while we settled down for the night.
I looked over at Lily, whose head had rolled out of the sleeping bag while she slept.
I felt a lot of things as I stared at her face. I wanted to protect her, to guard her, to keep her safe.
Because for better or for worse, I cared about her. She already seemed like family to me. A little sister, just like…Yunni.
I looked over at Runir, who was curled up into a ball due to the cold, mountain air.
My gaze drifted to Kai, who was lying on his back next to the campfire, just like he always did.
This time I felt confused because I’d felt something again. Despite knowing that Runir was the Demon Lord and that Kai was ominously mysterious, I’d felt the urge to protect them too.
Did I think of them as family? Were they like little brothers to me, the way Jeffi had been? Did I…care?
I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions so I closed my eyes and lay down the way Kai always did.
It was surprisingly helpful.
Yes, I believe I do.