The next morning, they didn’t stay for long before continuing their journey. Slight showers added with cool breezes made it a bit chilly, but it was not enough to affect them.
For Jade, who couldn’t sleep too well the previous night, the rain was much welcomed as it drove away her drowsiness. She didn’t ask the two about the shadows she had seen at night. Unwilling to believe something that absurd, she’d rather think that her eyes were fuzzy. Still, she looked up at the sky without meaning to. There was nothing but clouds, smog, and raindrops, and the sky was shrouded and barely visible as usual.
‘What’s wrong? Ya look quite tired?’ Hilde slowed her pace and walked besides Jade, wrapping her arm around Jade’s shoulders like close friends would.
‘Guess I’m not too used to travelling…’
‘No worries, we’ll be at our base by nightfall. Sleep all you like at ease tonight!’
Though not being used to travelling was indeed one of the reasons, Jade couldn’t bring herself to tell the cheerful and simple-minded Hilde her tangled thoughts that included the eerie shadows and troubling emotions about Andre.
Jade replied half-heartedly and shifted her sights forward. Andre was walking alone up ahead, not too far away. He walked slow enough for the two to follow but kept his distance, all while staying vigilant and performing his duties as the vanguard. His back looked reliable, so much that she felt her mind calm down a bit just from looking at it.
Before Jade knew, Hilde had hopped her way back and was next to Andre again. With a cheerful smile, she looked up at him, seemingly having thought of something amusing to share. Despite receiving a cold response from Andre whose expression never seemed to change, she still was enjoying herself by his side.
Jade recalled about the day she had been saved. Back when her consciousness was hazy and fading away, someone had asked her a question: ‘Even if it’s such a world, do you wish to live?’
She knew it was Andre who had asked, and it prompted her to think deeper. What would the two answer to such a question? Why did they choose to fight against the gods? Aren’t they afraid deep down? Looking at them, Jade was curious, but that curiosity only stayed within her mind.
Anyways, the three of them climbed up a hill and randomly picked a place to rest and have lunch. The speed they were travelling at was rather tough for Jade to keep up with, most likely because the group aimed to reach their base by dawn, but she kept it to herself and pushed herself to avoid causing any further trouble.
As they continued to tread back to base, the sun also gradually returned to its home beyond the horizon.
‘By the way—’
Much to their surprise, it was Andre who struck up a conversation. He stopped and looked around with a tense expression.
‘Don’t you two think it’s a bit strange?’
‘Mhm? What’s strange?’ Hilde surveyed their surroundings but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary..
‘Don’t tell me… It’s… It’s the gods again?’
‘Don’t worry, it’s not them,’ Andre said as he shook his head. ‘Not sure if it’s just me, but isn’t the smog getting a bit thicker?’
‘Eh? Now that you mention it, it really is quite thick… Ah, how uncomfortable.’
Perhaps because the two ladies didn’t notice the thickened smog before, they weren’t too affected by it. However, it felt a bit suffocating now that they realised it. Hilde swung her arms around in an attempt to dissipate the smog, but the turbulence only drew in more smog, driving her mad.
‘Hah! Ei!’ She shouted as she continued to fling her arms like a mad man.
‘So the smog’s thicker now…’
Jade covered her mouth and nose with her clothes. She had never experienced the pre-lightstone era, thus had no idea how thick the smog was before, but she had heard plenty of times that the smog was considerably thinner in the past few years.
‘Looks like we’ll have to place some more lightstone around.’
‘Ya, we’re quite near the base anyways.’ Hilde nodded in agreement. ‘But we don’t have a lot of ‘em left, no?’
‘Right, we’ll go and get some from the pit some time later then.’
Their discussion about smog and lightstone was not something Jade understood well; they were things handled by the adults back at the village. What she knew though, was that Hilde clearly mentioned that they were close to their destination.
‘We’re almost there?’
‘Ah, right! Just around the corner and you’ll see it!’
Actually, Jade couldn’t see anything in front apart from smog, so she could only nod in response. They’d lead the way anyways, so it wasn’t much of an issue.
‘I’ll introduce you to our buddies later, they’re all kind fellas!’
‘There’s others fighting the gods besides you two?’
‘Of course!’ Hilde hit her own chest proudly. ‘We’re a team of five… Ah, and two lil’ kids.’
‘Yup, two lil’ brats. They’re soooo cute but naughty as well.’
‘There’s kids in your team…’
‘Wait, wait, wait! We’re not making them fight, okay? Don’t think of us as some sort of villain! Though there’s five grownups, we’re usually the only two who hang out outside the base. Our abilities’ more suited for battle after all.’
‘I see…’ Jade nodded, but there was a particular term she felt confused about. ‘But, what do… your “abilities” mean?’
“Eh, about that. Abilities… are just abilities? I guess you could call it magic?” Hilde had a troubled look and couldn’t seem to find the right words to answer Jade. Thankfully, Andre walked over and lightly slapped Hilde on her head.
‘This is something too complicated for this dumbass to answer. After we get to the base, one of our companions will explain it in detail. There’s something important you must know of.’
‘Ah, alright…’ Having Andre speak to her made her a bit tense.
‘Hold up! I can’t let that pass, who’s the dumbass? Damn gloomy dude!’
Hilde let go of Andre’s arm and grabbed his collar, with her left hand reaching to the short sword on her back, threatening to pull the weapon out.
‘Ah… Please don’t… argue?’
‘This isn’t arguing! It’s just a game!’
‘…Getting mad over a single word, isn’t that exactly what a dumbass does?’ Without any intention of calming Hilde down, Andre only fanned the flames.
Unable to withstand the urge anymore, Hilde slowly unsheathed her sword.
‘This fella! Wah—!’
Before she could draw out her weapon, Andre pushed it back into its sheath and lifted her up by grabbing onto her armour. He carried Hilde on his shoulders like a sack.
‘Put me down already!’
Hilde’s entire upper body was dangling over Andre’s back, and her weapons were cleverly held into place by her captivator as well. She still had her iron claws, but it could barely scratch his armour.
‘Jade! Save me!’
‘Don’t mind her, it’s just a game.’
Jade was bemused by the situation; she even felt a bit dumb for thinking even for a moment that the two might actually fight.
‘You two must be close,’ Jade said with a wry smile.
‘Not! In! The! Slightest!’
Hilde continued her struggles for a while, but Andre showed no signs of putting her down, nor did he seem bothered by the additional ‘luggage’. He simply carried her and moved on.
After walking for a fair while, to the point that Jade started questioning how far away was the ‘corner’ Hilde had mentioned a while back, Andre came to a halt.
‘…Mhm?’ Hilde, who fell asleep on Andre’s shoulders after ceasing her pointless struggle, finally woke up.
‘Time to get down.’ Andre heartlessly dropped her down.
Despite shouting wildly as she fell, Hilde nimbly twisted her body and landed on the ground lightly like a cat. Her reflexes were indeed worthy of praise.
‘Head down first, you two. I’ll take a stroll.’
As Andre turned to leave, Hilde snapped a kick towards his butt, but the attack had been anticipated beforehand. He sidestepped to the left and her kick struck nothing but air. She even almost lost her balance and was very close to falling due to the inertia.
Hilde jokingly yelled a few insults at him before grabbing Jade’s arm and led her past the trees to a downward slope. They went down the path and soon arrived at the hidden entrance of the base.
‘Welcome to the Demon’s Lair!’ Hilde greeted Jade with a light bow and gestured her to head inside.
The name bothered her a bit. Still, she accepted the invitation and entered the lair. It was a lot smaller than underground villages and its design was fairly simple. After taking a turn past the corridor, she was met with a spacious common area.
The first thing Jade saw was a massive round table, half of it covered with maps, sheets of papers, and other miscellaneous items. A grey-haired man who seemed older than Andre had his head stuck in the documents, and it was the lady donned in armour and had a sword hung on her waist who first noticed the two. With lengthy black hair, she had intimidating eyes and seemed to be combat ready at all times; Jade felt nervous around her.
However, the first to welcome them was a mature woman who sat at another table in the corner. She appeared to be crafting something, but she immediately put down the tools and went to greet them.
‘Hilde!’ She sounded a bit surprised. ‘You’re finally back! Oh? You’ve made a new friend?’
Hilde let go of Jade’s hand and trotted over to hug the woman.
‘Big sis Geraldine! It’s been soooo long!’
‘Was the past three months tough? And where’s Andre? —Ah, let’s not forget the little miss over there, Hilde. She looks nervous.’
Geraldine, with dark green hair and a voluptuous body, gave off a mature charm in her tank top. From her looks, she was probably in her early thirties.
‘Screw that guy!’ Hilde tightly hugged Geraldine’s arm, unwilling to part with it. ‘Big sis, this is Jade Breive, the sole survivor of Village 12 in the South-east region. Jade, this is Geraldine, our general who supports us from the rear! Weapons, equipment, clothing, food—you name them, she makes them!’
‘Nice to meet you, Miss Geraldine.’
Jade’s heart tightened upon hearing the words ‘sole survivor’, but she still put on a forced smile and greeted Geraldine.
Despite Hilde’s attempt to make things less tense with her cheerful introductions, the effects seemed to be limited. Geraldine’s smile wavered for a moment before she went to hug Jade. It was rather unexpected, but Jade did not hate the warm embrace.
‘I won’t say things like “Don’t be sad”, just remember that everyone here will protect you.’
Such a nice and amiable person.
Geraldine’s warm words melted her heart. After hugging for a fair while, she unwillingly parted with Geraldine. It was then the man who was busily working on the paper stood up.
‘Sorry, Miss Jade… is that right?’ He was even taller and more buffed than Andre, looking almost like a gigantic bear. ‘I’m Prommel, a doctor.’
‘Eh? Ah, sorry.’
‘Hahaha!’ Prommel laughed heartily and dragged Andre, who was just sneaking into the base, over. ‘I sure look tougher than this fella and not quite like your ordinary doctor. It’s a shame, but fighting is not meant for me. All I do is stay here and treat everyone’s injuries.’
‘Fighting’s not meant for you? I can’t even beat you without using my powers.’
‘Ha, that’s just when we duel for fun. Anyways, it’s good to see you return without being covered in injuries,’ Prommel said as he patted Andre’s shoulders heavily. Jade felt a bit of pain just from looking.
‘Hmph, I’ll never receive a treatment like the last one if I could. Thought I was gonna die at your hands.’
‘Com’on, don’t make me sound so terrifying! It’ll scare our new friend!’
‘Am I wrong?’ Andre smirked. ‘Enough chattering, please give her a check up first. I fed her three brain cores; it was an emergency. I’m afraid there might be problems.’
‘What? Just how badly hurt was she? And you even managed to save her…’
‘Um? Ugh, wait!’
‘Hm?’ Andre and Prommel turned to look at Jade together.
‘Are you guys… talking about me?’
‘Right.’ Andre nodded.
‘Brain cores… What are they? My body, what happened to me?’
It was only then did Jade realise she had no idea what had happened that day. She was sure she was about to die back then, but encountering the gods and visiting the destroyed village made her forget temporarily why she was still alive.
‘Prommel, I’ll leave the explanations to you. Hilde, bring the spoils of battle. We’ll help Geraldine out.’
Andre gave out instructions to the two like a commander, yet he only waved at the lady sitting in the corner without saying anything. Her eyes had been glued onto Andre the moment he had returned, but Jade couldn’t discern the emotions in those eyes.
Acknowledging Andre’s wave, she slowly stood up. Instead of meeting up with Geraldine, she headed out of the base.