The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 26: Mother

In a pitch blackness, a dying boy saw the continuation of his worst nightmare. Death was definitely coming after his soul, as his blood was dripping from the gaping wound in his chest. His hands had already used up their last strength, and he barely felt the cold thing he was holding. He knew somehow that what he was trying to cover was precious to him, but too much of his mind had already sunk into the darkness to understand what it really was.

Then in a final flashback, he remembered how villagers were mercilessly slaughtered by a knight on a silver mount, he recalled that he had thrown himself over a girl to protect her, and he tasted again the shrieking pain when the spear pierced through both him and the body below. Somehow he was glad that the imminent death was going to rescue him from this suffering, and he secretly wished to be reborn into a world with more fairness. Giving hope away was ultimately easier to do than clinging onto a life leading to nowhere. On the brink of disappearing, he welcomed death with hope in lieu of despair. Had he sinned, he would have prayed for forgiveness. However, his life was so short-lived that it was merely the few starting pages of a book, and no story can become enthralling and epic if it is not allowed to develop and reach its climax. At this point, he believed his life was merely a work scrapped by its creator, a story that needed to be rewritten all over.

Unfortunately, he had seen this nightmare before and he knew the cruel ending. Before the dominating numbness completely took over his mind, he would hear a female voice, and that was the very person who was about to extend his torturing dream of a life.

"Kid, kid! Don't die on me." The woman's voice was dry, as if she had been shedding tears all night long.

The dying body showed little reaction.

"Brat! Listen to me, you'll not die. You are not allowed to die." The woman were saying strange words, acting as if the boy was her own.

The young one only dived further away from the world of the living.

"If I let you die, then I must accept my daughter is going to die as well. Wake up! I'm Camellia, tell me your name." The woman kept speaking and nursing the injured with continuous releases of healing Charms.

As blue lights flashed over and over again on the tiny body, the boy was barely able to open his eyes: "Nik... kum..."

"That's good! You're doing great!" Camellia cried out in joy.

"Not me... Save my sister..." The boy cared little about himself.

After seeing her first patient more or less stabilized, she gently flipped the small body over to lay him on his back. Sadly, the unearthed girl's body had long lost her warmth. Tears uncontrollably started leaking out of her eyes and ran down her face once again. With her tender hands she released one heal spell to close up the large hole on the deceased body and prayed for her peaceful rest. She ignored whether she would be able of remain sane if this lost soul were her own daughter, so her mind tried hard to avoid imagining this gruesome scenario.

"Nikkum, is it? It breaks my heart to say... it's beyond my ability to bring your sister back to life..." Camellia intensely hoped she would no longer have to either say or hear those words.
"No... No!" It took super human strength for the boy to show such agitation in his devitalized body.

"Calm down. It's too late..." Camellia was unable to find the comforting words.

"It's not fair!" Nikkum turned the last spark of energy he had into that shout, and then passed out.

Camellia picked up the unconscious body, giving one last look around at the scene of massacre. As devastated inside as the village appeared to be, she was conscious she needed to move on if she did not want to share the same fate as this place. She had still a slim chance to see her daughter one day, but the boy in her arms was certainly never going to meet her sister again. After escaping from the night together with this boy, she had faith that they could live through the bright daylight, find a new purpose in their life, and ultimately be prepared for another trial.

Because the night was to fall again, inevitably.

While being carried along, young Nikkum's awareness was like a glinting torch in the rain, switched on and off every now and then. He had much to say, but his brittle body did not allow him to. He realized they were passing through the daunting woods of Wildhowl and entering the concealing mountains of Skyrift. He ignored the destination and the time, he was still able to tell Camellia's perseverance through her firm arms. He had forgotten the last time he felt a comforting hug, but now he was certainly feeling a mother's protective hands once again. As for Camellia, she had never cared this much for a child, even for her own. She did not try to find a replacement in the little boy, she merely needed a mirror, upon which she could reflect herself. She asked for no forgiveness, she searched for no salvation. To her, suffering would be a large part of her new life, and she was ready to swallow whatever pain came from punishing herself over her mistakes.

"Open your eyes, Brat." Camellia woke up the boy at their destination.

The little wooden house they were in was settled next to a limpid stream, surrounded by vigorous willows relaxing their slender branches and concealed by towering mountains. Simple, solid, warm, although it neither offered the extraordinary luxury of Inachis' merchant halls nor the incomparable divinity of Lumina's chapels, it secreted the pleasant smell of home. A thin layer of white mist hung suspended in air, rendering the remote place even more unworldly and inviting.

The white foggy veil was a gift from the mountains, it added a soothing mystery to the whole surroundings. The temperate sunlight was carelessly reflected by the transparent water, bouncing off various objects to give them a heavenly luster. The stream was flowing smoothly like a maiden's silver hair, producing relaxing music as it swirled around small pebbles. With birds chirping along, a blind listener would never believe that the rough rocks of Skyrift could seclude such a pearl of a hideout. Inhabitants of the elevated area only knew about their dizzying cathedral cliffs and perilous rocky steps, such a refined and blessed home was unheard of even to the veteran travelers of the mountain. On the stream, the wooden wheel of a large watermill tirelessly turned in a perfect rhythm, driven by an exquisite harmony unbound by time, as if untouchable by the Old Gods' might. This ideal gear had only a single law of endless rotation, and yet life cycled in it with timeless repetition.

"Make no mistake, you can't stay. I'll have you take your leave as soon as your wounds heal." Camellia obviously did not want new attachment.

Nikkum nodded slightly. He was used to being abandoned, discarded, ignored, and the woman had done more than enough for him already. He might have appeared outrageously lenient after fate had already betrayed him this much at such a young age, but he had learned to hold everything in. He thought his developing heart had to be able to keep all the hatred and the violence deep inside, since if he let the vices spill even once, he would have grown to be just another weak man. Iron-like willpower was not acquired overnight, as one traveled amidst the blizzard of miseries, one's skin was also toughened up to surpass even the facets of a diamond.

"After all, I planned this for my..." The woman suddenly remembered she was once a mother, and ended her sentence abruptly.

The child said nothing, at first he was confused at whether to express his gratitude or convey his anger for having his life saved. He had believed he would join his sister in the afterlife when the guard's spear went through his body, but he was also afraid that the end of one life was merely the beginning of another suffering. So, at present as he survived, his innocuous eyes had still some faint drops of thankfulness. Camellia certainly had overlooked the details, as her bewildered face was already showing regrets. Saving the child's life was not anything she would hesitate on, but she struggled to figure out how to keep her distance. Even if she refused to accept it, the replacement of her daughter had slightly stricken her.

Unfortunately, fate was such a guileful and deplorable creature that, when it fused one devastated soul to another, it only had more madness prepared up its sleeve.

One winter rushed by, hibernating creatures of nature were reawakening to active life and flowers were blooming with all their might. The little home was peaceful and still, with the watermill diligently carrying out its daily duty. Dawn was breaking and a boy was mindlessly gazing into the stream as melting snow was slowly taken away by the liquid of life. He wondered whether the underground source, signal of spring and of tranquility, would come to an end some day. Young Nikkum's wounds had closed up months ago, and he was far healthier than he ever had been back in his village. It was not like Camellia had taken great care of him, but the boy was simply able to forget about many unfortunate things in this reclusive place, and live a short moment of luxurious peace. Every morning he woke up a little worried about whether it was time to leave, but at dawn he saw the mother prepare two portions of a modest meal so he knew he would be with her for one more day. Happiness was not to be defined by words, it was like a cup of clear water being filled driblet by driblet, tasteless and odorless, and yet definitely touchable and sensible. Camellia was acting distant most of the time, she inquired little about the village incident and the child's past. She rarely talked about herself, even her specialty in botany. At times, her gentle caresses on unloved flowers were not gone unperceived by the boy, who could only vaguely guess she liked the beauties of nature because she was a woman. However, one important thing Camellia did teach the boy was the basic knowledge about Charms. Even though he was not able to release them properly yet, he had learned how to entrap items into animal bones. The entrapment ritual, commonly believed to be just a spell and as such reserved to those versed in magic, is actually nothing of the sort. It does indeed require a perfect focus, but the real key to success is a high level of empathy with the surroundings and the materials used. While mastering these skills are not a simple matter, the young boy was living proof that age did not matter when it came to feeling the beating life of these unfathomable tools through bare hands. Maybe the reason why the Old Gods had kept raining down misery on this poor soul was because they were jealous of that private link he shared with the earth. Camellia, who was used to teaching gifted children, had quickly noticed that spark and guided the young one to grasp the process with only a few hints.

Nikkum raised his eyes to follow the glinting light of a firefly. He had just lived another ordinary day, as fleeting as an insect's whole life. It was a few moments after the golden clouds hurried to their home behind the steep rocks, while the sky kept an aura of dim brown, refusing to retreat before the darkness. It was rather unusual for Camellia to be away this late. The boy was slightly worried, like a son unsure about his mother's whereabouts. He had this ominous itch that this might be the very end of his days in these mountains. While the thought of loneliness did not frighten him, he did want to say some last grateful words to the woman who had given him a second life. As he watched the firefly struggling to burn more fiercely while the night was drawing in, his heart seized when he saw Camellia showing herself from afar with a depressed and troubled look.

Upon noticing that the child had patiently waited for her return, the woman sped up her steps toward him: "Boy, listen to me good for this once. Was I kind?"

The child nodded without hesitation; 'kindness' was a relative word.

The woman questioned further: "Do you wish to repay me?"

The child confirmed again.

"Then it's time for you to leave." Camellia followed up without waiting for the child's reaction, "Some people will come here soon, I need you listen to every word I'm about to say and do everything I'm going to ask you to do."

Nikkum had no choice but to nod again.

"From now I'm a complete stranger and you mustn't speak in front of these men..." Camellia could already hear the steps of the uninvited visitors, and wrapped up her sentence promptly, "Whatever happens, don't make a sound."

Nikkum had this urge to say so many things, but he had to suppress them unwillingly. A group of men made a bold entrance, stomping flat whatever life they walked on. As they came closer to the pair, Nikkum hopelessly witnessed the earlier firefly dancing through the air and landing on the leader's chest. The dying green lit up a strange patterned emblem with a bull-face, then was quickly squeezed out by the man's inexorable fingers. Thanks to the dark environment, the child was spared the sight of reprisal and lunacy on the man's face, which should have been as tortured as his actions. Before he even had the slightest grasp about the situation, he felt a sudden push from Camellia.

"Go away! I told you I won't give you any medicine to save your sister for free. Don't ever show up again if you have no money." The change in Camellia's attitude was even more sudden.

The poor child hardly understood the woman's real intention, and bleakly searched for truth in her eyes.

"Cold as ever, dear Camellia. Good to see you again." The man apparently tried to act as the lady's old acquaintance.

"Get out of here, brat." Camellia pushed the child again, "Don't you see I have visitors?"

Seeing that the young one was hardly moving, the lady's face built up a cloud of anxiety. Thankfully, the child did not miss the change.

"Good to see your wretched face again too." After Nikkum hesitatingly made out his first step, Camellia turned to the man, her voice was unexpectedly trembling with fear.

"Oh, speaking of wretchedness, I can hardly be compared to the man who carried out those nasty experiments on your daughter and had her killed in the end." The man's unpredictable expression made him a truly dreadful opponent, "The one who took your daughter in, remember?"

"You're wasting your breath. I heard this already in town today and don't expect me to believe it since you must be the one who spread the rumor." The saddened mother was fighting furiously to hold back her emotion.

"That's a pity." The man's voice changed to an almost sobbing tone, then was gradually filled with indignation, "I'm disappointed you don't trust me, Camellia. I'm being... inundated by sadness, hammered by anger. They are like two little creatures in my chest, they are... fighting to get out... or to get in, I don't know. But what I do know is they want to rip my heart in pieces, in strings."

Camellia was familiar with the man's uncontrollable sickness. She might know many different cures, but she had nothing for insanity. She attempted to interrupt: "Why don't you crawl back to your hole in Wildhowl? You may be..."

Before the lady finished her sentence, the man grabbed young Nikkum with one arm as he walked by, bursting a laugh: "Look what we've got here? A boy! As soon as the poor daughter dies, the mother's got a son! This is bad! Really awful! Even if I cry, I wouldn't feel any better. Then how about me breaking his neck, will she cry? No, she won't. She didn't cry for her daughter, she won't cry for her son. She won't... she won't!"

The mother cut short her words as the man's devilry was on rampage. She was as worried as any protective mother watching her child in great danger, but she was able to do what most of them could not. Despite the violent storms in her heart, Camellia was able to speak in a cold voice: "I have no business with this poor kid. He sought me out for medicine. Do whatever you want with him."

The man's laugh halted as suddenly as it came. His next words were said with such seriousness that no one thought he would be lying: "Then here goes his neck."

All the subordinates were almost strangers to their leader at that moment, they were simply spectating a mad show run by a single wicked man. Camellia was struggling to be one of the non-involved spectators, but she knew how hard it was to fixate her eyes on the little lamb at the mercy of a monstrosity. As the tension was building up in the air, the lady's determination faltered on whether she should keep her eternal vow after having parted with her daughter. The time she had spent with the boy was quite insignificant, and yet her heart would not bear to witness another child harmed in her presence. Her hands began to tremble in raging movements. She did not know how long it would take before she gave into her humanity and embraced the irrational.

However the man, agitated as he appeared, did not overlook the most minor changes in Camellia's behavior. After brutally pushing young Nikkum away and adding a savage kick on his back, he sought more reactions in the members of the unrelated family. The child stumbled forward, barely regaining his balance to not fall. He kept his promise like a grown-up, and did not let out any noticeable sound even though the burning pain on his back was hardly bearable. He turned his face to Camellia, tried to fake a smile to relieve her worries, only to hear the crazy man announce the crazier.

"Break her arms." The man ordered his followers.

The child was stupefied by the speed at which Charms were released by executioners, bewildered at the cruelty laid on a supposedly weak mother, and enraged by the fact Camellia did not move the slightest muscle to defend herself. She accepted all the punishment, brutality and madness willingly in silence. Only her bleeding gritting teeth showed how much pain she was going through. He was incapable of understanding why his feet was nailed to ground, why he did not throw himself before the mother to defend her. Perhaps the firm resolution in her eyes explained it all: she was trying to convince her child to abandon her, she was sacrificing her meager physical body to protect what was precious to her, she was merely being a mother.

"Hmph, what a despicable imp! He doesn't even cry." The man scoffed at young Nikkum's stoned face.

Suddenly, the boy realized the truth of what was happening once more around him, the truth of punishing and being punished. He dashed away with all his might. Not even the hazardous stone paths of the mountains could trip him, nor could the cutting branches of the woods slow him down. His eyes were blind in a night in which torture just fell, his ears were deaf in the torrent of pain that made no sound, his mouth was mute in a world that lent no compassion. For the first time since his birth, he tasted the absolute darkness.

So much rage was scorching in the child's chest that he could feel pain no more, so many tears were pouring out from the son's eyes that he could grieve no longer. Winter would not have been cold had there been no warmth, night would not have been dark had there been no light, and life would not have been cruel had there been no hope.

Uncountable chilling rocks were trampled on, innumerable invisible stars were left behind, the boy run as if he had to burn out his life force, even for the little he had. He had spent much of his time in the hideout, so he hardly knew the way he was charging. The more he rushed on the sloping path, the more familiar the final destination became. While he was not born at the peak of society, at this very moment he was definitely leaping into the abyss of humanity.

This night, a guiltless child's untainted heart died.

This night, a ruthless beast's untamed mind rose.

When young Nikkum finally regained consciousness, the one he lost from being utterly wasted and completely devastated, he slowly groped his way back to the hideout. At his arrival, the sickening party of deranged visitors was over. He found Camellia lying half bathed in the stream, dyeing the water red with her little remaining blood. She obviously did not fight the madness, her faintly smiling face indicated without doubt that she was on her last breath, ready to accept whatever death brought. At first she was surprised to see the boy's return, then she widened a little her smile as if she was relieved to see her child safe.

Accompanied with indescribable grief, the boy gently held the mother's hands. There was little warmth left but he had never came this near to Camellia's heart before.

"Why didn't you fight back? You never showed it to me but I know you could've handled these filthies." The boy wanted to cry, but there were no tears left.

"That... was a vow... I've sworn... to never use poisons again... After what happened to my daughter..." The lady could barely speak.

"But you hardly talked about your daughter. Don't die on me, I'll find her for you. Just don't die before I bring her to you." The boy was aware of how helpless he was.

Camellia forcefully smiled again, happy to hear about the boy's resolution: "Bother not... I'll see her soon..."

"You can't give up yet. What's her name? How does she look? Will she recognize if I say one of your sayings, like 'Always administer two poisons at a time if you can't afford failure'? You never taught me poisons but you did explain some of these things to me." The child kept talking, hoping he might keep the lady awake.

Relieved to see young Nikkum had remembered what she taught him, Camellia's eyes regained a very faint sparkle of hope: "May I... ask you again... Do you wish to repay me?"

"Sure! Certainly! If there's anything I can do, just say it. But promise me you'll wait till I pay off all my debt. Camellia, I'm really grateful to you..." The boy's dry weeping contained more sorrow than an outburst of cries.

"I'm sorry... for what I'm about... to put on you... My daughter... if she's still alive... will recognize this... But this is a curse... that'll never be lifted. Do you still wish..." Camellia's words were becoming fainter and fainter.

"Yes. Do whatever you want. I don't care about curses, I can live with them, I'll fight them. Just do what you've got to do, I'll find your daughter and avenge you." Young Nikkum grasped the lady's hands more tightly, but the mother did not appear to feel it.

"Don't... go near... the Soul Harvesters... They're too dangerous... Now come closer..." Camellia was endeavoring to raise her head up.

As young Nikkum approached her face, he received the first and last kiss on his forehead. Countless glowing green bolts came rushing out from Camellia's body, like thousands of surreal fireflies in their parting dance to the world, then entered a new and young vessel. The mother did not need the son to pay off his debt before letting out her last breath, because motherhood was all about selflessly giving after all.


***


Nikkum's look was fixated on Lily's eyes throughout his entire recount of the story. He sincerely wished he had truly conveyed the mother's strong feelings. He added some sticks to the campfire which was slowing dying out, then inhaled the humid night air heavily to adjust his saddened voice. Seeing the daughter now sobbing at the loss of her dear one, he then explained.

"That's how she poisoned my humanity."