The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 25: Antidote

It was one of those days where the air was light after a heavy rain. The soil of Wildhowl, abundantly swollen from absorbing too much gracious water, was resting in quiet lamentation. The aftermath of landslides was marked by the disarray of trees lying covered in mud and the bleeding of thin flows springing out from beaten-up slopes. Some debris was washed away by the flood, while others stayed to further hinder a pair of runaways. A tired mother accompanied by a very young girl was travelling through all this mess.

"Mother, when will we be there?" The kid asked.

"Be strong, we still have days to walk, but afterward we'll be in a safe place." The mother comforted her child.

The path would not have been easy to walk through even for experienced roamers, so for the little family it seemed as though it was paved with thorns and blades. They had to be careful, as the flowing water made their feet slip easily and the obstructing roots caused their legs to trip often. Once in a while water dripped off leaves, announcing that the next wave of tropical storms was due soon, as if trying to hurry up the mother and remind her that their pursuers could catch up at any time.

The woman was grasping tightly onto a little hand, her face shining with firm determination. She had been telling herself that she had handled many things in a wrong way, but at this moment as the person she had sworn to protect was right next to her, so all her regrets were replaced by strength and courage. She knew the circumstances would not allow the slightest hesitation.

After dodging some bothersome branches and helping the little girl through, the woman suddenly remembered she was still wearing something that she should have thrown away long ago. She lifted her daughter and put her on a higher ground so she could rest, then ripped off a decorative sigil from her dress. It was a delicately crafted emblem with the symbol of a bull-faced man in the middle, surrounded by patterns of small scythes. The emblem body was pressed out from a single metal frame, then detailed and polished by the hands of genius craftsmen. Surprisingly and yet unmistakably, this tiny object represented the highest rank of authority amongst the Soul Harvesters, and bestowed on its wearer a great deal of power. This emblem alone grants the ability to command a large number of guild members who are present in every city. However, at this very instant, she stared at it with more anger and remorse than she had ever felt.

"Camellia, why were you stupid enough to let yourself be associated with the Soul Harvesters? Why were you so easily drawn to their honey-cloaked false promises?"

The mother was certainly angry at herself for involving her daughter in this whole mess amidst a shadowy organization, but when she realized their true intention it was already too late to pull herself out. The Soul Harvesters were much like this unfathomable forest of Wildhowl: As the woods unavoidably took any little sparkle of life into their greenness, the mother found herself gradually absorbed in by the guild which was none other than an unstoppable and ever-growing machinery of men. It was impossible to describe how much power the guild held, how much influence it had on each city's governing body. As bold and injudicious as some of the guild's actions might be, its evident public presence in every city was the best proof that it was not to be defied easily. It was well-known that Soul Harvesters would without hesitation resort to any method to accomplish their mission, and in times of trouble, their neighbor Assassins from the Shelter of Silence in Night Tear would gladly lend a hand as long as enough shining metal was provided. Joining this sizable guild allowed people to obtain commodities, but it also came with rules and responsibilities. Although on the surface the Soul Harvesters had neither written commandments nor discipline enforcers, audacious acts were still quickly reprimanded, such as treasons and unjustified escapes like the one the little family was carrying out. The Soul Harvesters were also a highly disparate guild, while low level members were content with what the facilities and guild shops brought, the ones at the peak certainly had more ambitious goals in mind. In commoners' eyes, the guild was not to be feared nor avoided, their daily life plainly went on fine with or without them around. However, those who attempted to sniff out whatever the foxes were hiding in their holes met a pitiful fate, and actually few lived long enough to reveal anything significant. This was the tremendous force the pair was caught in and also the overpowering shadow they were running from.

Wildhowl's forest certainly had a mysterious air about it. Hardly scratched by human hands, the towering trees enjoyed magnificent growth. The greenness was said to settle between the Light and the Shadow, not picking a side in any of the conflicts the two were fated to suffer. It was some sort of spectator who witnessed the past in perfect silence and wished for the future with strong hopes. Humans and Shadow Beings both alike tended to stay away from this overflowing source of life by instinct, because in such a river of birth anyone could easily drown in this infinite green and see their own colors wane. The layer of huge evergreen leaves divided this peculiar part of the world in two, it acted as the mediator who fended off the blinding belief of the light from cleansing the soil of decay, it also played the pacifier who shut in the burning lust of the Shadow so it could never reach the sky high above. Animals and plants inhabited both sides of the coin, adapting themselves to live with whichever source was available to them. However, like birds eventually become tired of endless roaming and have to dive into the darkness for a change of scenery, jaguars look up every day at the covered sky and yearn for the illuminating grace that will never come.

The pair of travelers had to run deep into the darkness of the forest in order to escape from the binding shadow of the Soul Harvesters. To them, the natural danger was largely outmatched by wicked human schemes. All of a sudden, the mother believed she heard the resonating bells of Lumina's chapels, only to quickly realize this was merely her own illusion. Even as deafening as they were, the sound of Lumina's bells was incapable of reaching this far in to the Wildhowl region. She secretly hoped the same for her pursuers and prayed for the benevolence of nature to keep her daughter from harm. She took a look at the little girl's fatigued face, slightly red from the long walk and undoubtedly begging for a rest. Camellia was a well-known character at the inner circle of the Soul Harvesters, her transcending rudeness and unmatched boldness marked every single man who worked with her, and yet it was also her fiery sharpness and decisive quickness that earned her one of the precious officer emblems. No matter how much she shined amongst the group of ambitious men, she was merely a mother before her little daughter right now. It would be outrageous to call her child weak because of the countless days of training she had been put through, but after days of stressed and difficult running the young body was definitely at its limit. At this early age, the daughter probably had little idea about the reason for their great escape, but the bond of blood was not to be severed by physical pains. She kept on enduring the hardship with all her tiny might, the last thing she wanted was to be called 'weakling' like how her mother used to label the runaway who fathered her.

After finally reaching an area less affected by the landslides, Camellia noticed something strange. Flame Orchids, one rare species in the Wildhowl forest, gave up their burning red color and withered upon her approach. The woman's face instantly turned pale, and her hands began to shake in anger. Being a specialist in botany and poison, she knew perfectly well the meaning of this sign, and about her mistake.

"Mother?" The daughter could read the worry on her mother' face.

"Dear, listen up." Camellia crouched to bring herself to the child's level, "What I'm going to do is very important, you must stay still and don't move an inch away from me, no matter what you see, what happens."

"Like that time?" The child was referring to a training she had received.

"Like that time. But make no mistake here, because things will get much more dangerous this time." Camellia was glad her daughter was a great disciple.

The little girl nodded firmly.

After seeing her child was ready, Camellia wasted no time. She swiftly picked out an empty vial, replenished the Charm container with fluorescent emerald liquid, then spilled the content in all direction. As the mysterious reagent rained on the ground, the vegetation avidly sucked it in and started glowing in the most splendid green it had ever been. The mother showed no hesitation, after letting the empty potion dissipate, she released another little glass vial containing grains of shining sand. As she lifted her hand to the sky, the daughter, with her eyes closed, was bathed in glittering dust like a faraway princess from a fairy tale. Such beauty, such innocence could be seen on this little creation of the Old Gods that the forest remained soundless for a second. Camellia held her breath and waited for the last grain of sand to reach the earth, then exhaled deeply to calm herself. The preparation was complete.

The pair stood immobile under a sky they could not see, silently waiting for whatever monstrosity was to come. What Camellia had prepared involved a great deal of danger, and she was immensely grateful to have her daughter trusting her perfectly without the need to explain. As the minutes ticked by, Camellia listened to her heart thumping in rhythm with her daughter's. She knew what was to come but she was anxious about the timing, as the curse would wipe her efforts away before long. Poisons had always been one of the most resilient things in the world, but nothing could ever defy the piercing glare of the Old Gods forever.

Then, the inevitable happened. A pair of glowing yellow eyes appeared next to some wild fungi, and a sensory-type chimera slowly revealed its dog-like body. The saliva drooling from its jaw showed no mistakes about its target.

"Restrain your summoned dogs, we need the girl alive!" A man warned from some distance.
"Over here!" Another one signaled.

While the mother was still motionless next to her child, she her eyebrows slightly frowned when she saw a group of eight adept Shamans followed by a mighty Inquisitor. Such a squad was usually used to 'negotiate' with a large group of rebellious farmers, like in times of conflict when they were difficult to handle due to bad seasons. Having such a group formed for only two fugitives proved how valuable they were.

The little family's unusually frozen movement was clear as day to the group of pursuers, but the leading Inquisitor did not hesitate. With each step, his dark leather boots cruelly pressed down the grass carpet, allowing no leaves to bounce back. He paid little attention to whatever trap Camellia had set up, marching up close to her while gazing into her purple eyes. His subordinates were unable to follow this dauntless act, and stayed out of the green zone.

"Sir!" One of the Shamans shouted, "Something is not right around her!"

The Inquisitor hardly looked back: "I'm not blind."

"But..." His follower was definitely worried.

The Inquisitor cared not to answer, and spoke to the lady instead: "Lady Camellia, what a nice welcome gift you have here for me."

The mother's eyes showed no sign of waving: "Still calling me 'Lady'? You were told to bring us back alive then."

"Well," The cold pursuer smiled, "Not exactly. We were only ordered not to harm your daughter. But if you hand her over peacefully, you are free to leave. Alive, of course."

The mother mocked: "Since you appear to have some idea about the thing on ground, you should know this can't end 'peacefully'."

The Inquisitor widened his smile to make it a laugh: "How can I not recognize Lady Camellia's infamous Stampede of Wilderness, which wiped out every single soul in a village in one cast."

One Shaman raised his voice about the improbable skill: "She wiped out a village single-handedly?"

"Yes," The leader assured his subordinate, "Foes and allies alike."

Camellia's expression showed a little trouble: "That was an accident."

"Sure, your little poison didn't even have a name back then. I guess you were simply eager to test your new discovery. Or was it still a work in progress?" The Inquisitor remembered, then explained to the Shaman initiates, "Anyway, the effect was so great that it wrapped up every living thing in that village. It was a hallucinating-type poison, the whole village was turned upside down because of screams and panic. The calm came back only once all were dead, except one."

All Shamans had one obvious question written all over their face: "Who?"

The Inquisitor resumed his explanation so his subordinates would not die in ignorance: "This lady is right about it being an accident, since she herself was caught up in the spell and badly affected by it as well. She would have been done for if Sir Duriuk hadn't reached the village in time. Later, it was also he who gave the name to the spell as he described it in his report: 'Hardly had I ever witnessed such chaos in a mere village. Panicked movements of all living things there were beyond words of description. 'Stampede of Wilderness', was the closest thing I had on my mind.'"

The other pursuers subconsciously took a few steps back.

The Inquisitor was displeased at his followers' cowardice: "Didn't I say the whole village was affected? We're as good as dead from the moment she triggers this. The distance matters little now."

Camellia was hardly bothered by the man's lengthy explanation, she was still waiting for an opening.

"However, I'm certain our lady is perfectly aware of the person who'll suffer the most in case she decides to carry out her injudicious act." The Inquisitor eyed the little girl, "And we all here don't want this to happen."

Camellia was getting slightly impatient: "If you are so knowledgeable about my poison, didn't it cross your mind to shut up and start running for your life? The accident was years ago, I have developed an antidote since then."

The leader suddenly turned, less amused: "Certainly I'm not as versed in poison as you are, Lady Camellia. But by your kindness, please allow me to remind you that, as an Inquisitor, my specialty is...?"

"Being a pompous buffoon?" Camellia guessed casually.

"No. Care to try again?"

"Enjoying your torturing acts like you're like an addict?" Camellia's words were filled with despise.

"Last chance?"

"Enough games already, if you think I'm bluffing, just say it." Camellia did not share the same passion of word plays as the man before her.

"My forte is seeing through lies, milady." The Inquisitor finally revealed the answer, "And yes, you're bluffing. If you had the antidote, you would've blown me up before I said any words. The fact I'm still standing here tells the obvious."

The mother was forced to hide her nervousness. Her hand tightly squeezed her offspring's, that was the last bond she had with her daughter, and she would not let it go in any situation. She watched the Shamans slowly closing in as well, convinced by their leader's confidence.

The Inquisitor, realizing the situation was getting tedious, tried to speed up the capture: "Lady Camellia, the outcome is pretty clear now. I know you won't set off your spell to send your daughter to her grave together with a nameless pawn such as myself. Sir Duriuk is waiting for my report, why don't we do this in a civilized way so I won't have to hurt a pretty mother and her kid?"

"Like you haven't done this before." Camellia glanced at the wretched man with anger, "Tell me one last thing, when did that darn Duriuk manage to apply a Snowflake Seal on me? I only realized this when I saw withered Flame Orchids."

The Inquisitor was quick to reply in order to end the discussion early: "You mean the odorless and colorless liquid distilled from Frost Orchids we used to track you? Not on you, Lady Camellia, it's on your daughter. She had this on the very first day upon entering the guild, you see, the Soul Harvesters can't afford to lose valuable things."

The mother was infuriated by the outright answer categorizing her daughter together with other lifeless materials: "She's not a thing! She doesn't belong to the guild!"

The Inquisitor marched up, thrusting out his arm: "Sorry to disappoint you, she does belong to us, just like you do."

At this very moment, all the summoned chimeras vaporized into yellow smoke, their time in this unforgivable reality was up. Contracts could bind bodies but not souls. Like slaves would eventually break free, ethereal beings were destined to return to their root, away from the world where they did not belong. As the Inquisitor was reaching for the fugitives, the mother suddenly smiled. Before he had the slightest idea about the reason, he heard the following.

"Sorry to disappoint you as well, I do have an antidote."

Then, a ring of heavenly emerald light rose from where the mother was standing, only to rapidly expand its radius in a huge burst. That sound was the last thing the pursuers heard before their minds went completely blank. Watching all of them suddenly degenerate into wild monkeys in a craze, the mother fell to her knees. She started to laugh violently, she was no longer in control of her facial muscles because the poison badly affected her as well. Thankfully she could still feel her arms, and with her trembling hands, held the little silver necklace she wore and released from it the antidote to the earlier spell. As intense green beams ran through her body, the madness messing up the beautiful woman's face finally dissipated.

"Always administer two poisons at a time if you can't afford failure, hum?" Camellia told herself, "I used to teach her that. Guess some poisons could be at exception."

As soon as Camellia felt she could cast another round of healing, she could not help but be surprised at her daughter's condition. While standing right next to ground zero of the poison outbreak, the girl was the least affected. It was obvious the benediction did not come from the sand she had cast earlier, as the glinting grains could only slightly delay harmful effects from spreading through the body, by no means could they dampen a highly potent poison such as Stampede of Wilderness. The little girl's resistance to poison was undoubtedly a result of her long years of work, the unachievable dream of poison immunity. She first reached out for the Soul Harvesters because of her yearning for access to their vast amounts of plants and reagents. Soon after ascending to the position of officer, she was able to carry out all the experiments she wished as the availability of resources was simply unlimited. Even for a strong woman such as Camellia, she could not withhold a few tears of fulfillment. She was indescribably proud to see the signs of the success of her life's work shine in her daughter.

Slightly relieved to see her precious one was weakened but certainly not in a critical condition, Camellia steadily cast the antidote on her daughter. Strangely, the green light turned pale as it made contact with the little body, and bounced away. Unsure of what had happened, the mother tried to cast another round. To her horror, the girl showed no signs of recovering from her weakness, and instead her breath was coming shorter and harder. After several more failed castings, the mother was certain the antidote was not to blame. After having discovered Stampede of Wilderness by chance, her first priority was to search for a reliable antidote. Not only because she barely survived thanks to her experienced reactions to unknown poisons and another's man help, but as a poison master she knew that any poison is useless without an antidote. Then, one terrible idea struck her like thunder. As much as her daughter acquired poison resistance, she had probably developed a similar resistance to antidotes and remedies. And that was the last thing the mother wanted to admit.

The more attempts she made, the closer her inner world edged to the verge of collapse. Blood was rushing crazily in her veins, not because of a certain poison no longer present, but because of her inability to save the one she was destined to protect. She madly groped for a solution in her immense recollection of poisons; she could have ended this torture by letting her mind go blank like the others around, but she would not despair yet. She had a strong faith that, no matter how minute, all trials had the possibility of being solved. Humans would come up with a solution to whatever problem the Old Gods imposed to them. However, Camellia's heart was definitely sliding towards the depths of hell as she watched her daughter struggling to breathe. She wondered if devils would have conceived problems in the same fair way.

A few moments of vain efforts later, Camellia heard a familiar voice: "Look what you've done to this little poor soul, all this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't run away."

"You!" The powerless mother cried out in rage, and yet her body was too weak to fight, "You caused all this, you wanted my girl. I hope you die in hell!"

The man shook his head, disappointed: "That's all you've to say to someone who has saved you and who is about to save your daughter?"

The mother was undoubtedly diving into despair: "You could save me back there because the poison was in its birth form, but what she has is something I've perfected since then! And she's resisting whatever cure I apply, you won't be able to do anything!"

The man walked closer: "I let my men show up first, because I knew you would use your perfected poison and you had the antidote. You always did whatever pleases you, you are such a confident woman and yet you are so blind. Now it's my turn to stand in front of you and tell you I'm able to save your daughter. I'm confident too, but only because of this."

As Camellia looked up, she saw a godly mass of sapphire liquid swirling on the man's palm. She was so fixated on its radiant elegance that all her troubles were cast aside for a brief instant. The movement of the water, driven by an invisible energy, was such a graceful sight.

The man moved the supreme beauty before the lady's eyes: "Guess what it is."

Camellia murmured subconsciously: "Don't tell me it is a Shard..."

"Of Eternity. Yes. This can create the real antidote to the poison in your daughter. To any poison, for what matters. Now, I have to ask you to leave in peace and never look back. You won't be back in the Soul Harvesters, and you'd better not be seen near if you wish good to your daughter. You're lucky enough that you know your daughter will live. If you think separation is hard, then think about death, which one is harder? From this day on, I am Lily's father."



***


"And my mother never looked back." Next to the flitting campfire, Lily finished retelling her last memory of the woman who gave birth to her, "I hardly remember what happened next, the only thing I know for sure is I was healed somehow. Nikkum, please be nice just for once, tell me how you become acquainted with my mother and where she is now."

Nikkum's look moved away from the shapeless sky, and descended on the earthly girl with an unusual kindness: "I'll only be able to tell you what I know of her..."

Lily's purple eyes reflected the fire of hope, excited about the warrior's unexpected obedience. However, before she thought she could relax and hear the news about the woman she missed so much, Nikkum ended his sentence with a bitter truth:

"Before her death."