Chapter 238: Hidden in Sand
“Here! We have to land here!” Virion cried out as we hovered over the vast deserts of Darv.
“There’s nothing here though!” Bairon argued, his head turning left and right.
Even I looked around, shielding my eyes from the sharp gusts of wind, but below were just a few odd boulders and lots and lots of sand.
Back when we had been flying above the clouds, it was easy to spot our relative location using the various peaks of the Grand Mountains as our compass, but now it was impossible to see the range of mountains because of the thick sand-carrying winds.
Sylvie descended and I followed behind them until we landed on the soft ground.
“Flying through that was… tough,” Sylvie muttered after switching to her human form. She wore all black like she usually did, but her scales had turned her outfit into a thick shawl that covered most of her face and body to combat the harsh winds.
“You did well, Lady Sylvie,” Virion said as I quickly covered his body in a thick layer of mana. “Most aerial mana beasts can’t last against the winds this far south.”
“Well I’m not a mana beast,” Sylvie rebutted with a raised brow.
“Ah—My apologies…” Virion replied.
“Come on. Let’s find this refuge of yours,” I said to him, gesturing for him to take the lead.
Virion pointed at a tall boulder that looked almost like an ancient column of some sort. “We have to head over there.”
“That thing?” Bairon pointed, his expression muddled with confusion. “It’s a bit conspicuous for a top-secret refuge shelter, isn’t it?”
“That thing isn’t the shelter, it’s the landmark Buhnd had to make to keep track of the shelter’s location,” Virion corrected, walking forward.
The rest of us followed towards the giant pillar that was riddled with scars from the sand-infused winds that were so prevalent here.
“We start from here,” Virion stated, pointing to a deep gash in the center of the pillar. “With your heel against the pillar, we take 35,651 steps forward.”
Bairon, Sylvie, and I exchanged glances before looking back to Virion. “Really? This is the only way to find the shelter?”
“For now, yes,” Virion answered. “The shelter itself branches off into various tunnels that haven’t been explored, though, so I’m hoping that more entrances can pop up.”
Sylvie nodded in agreement. “If this is the only way to get to the shelter, it’ll be almost impossible to bring normal civilians here discreetly.”
Virion let out a sigh with downcast eyes. For him, this shelter was most likely his last chance in having any hope at redemption against the Alacryans. If this plan only amounted to us and a few others being able to make it to the shelter, there was no point.
“Well, we’ve come all this way. Let’s go to this shelter first before we come to any conclusions,” I interjected, putting on the most confident expression that I could muster.
And so we began our trek through the desert. Unable to fly or use any shortcuts with magic, Virion was forced to walk heel to toe while I kept count.
It was a rough journey that usually would’ve taken days of preparation to even try. However, in a group with two lances, a silver core mage, and an asura, we were able to get by.
Fresh water, that would’ve been impossible to come by, was extracted from the clouds every so often to replenish ourselves, and our near bottomless pit of mana was able to keep us safe from the cold desert air and sharp winds.
“I can take over from here, Commander,” Bairon said on step 10,968.
“No. Your foot sizes are different,” I cut in. “It’ll throw us off.”
Bairon shot me a quick glare in response to my curt interjection, but I ignored him and signalled Virion to continue walking. We travelled in silence and with my concentration solely focused on Virion, even Sylvie blocked her mental link so she wouldn’t have to hear me monotonously counting numbers in my head.
Our journey was a long and tedious one, but the counting helped my mind from wandering and overthinking. I focused on keeping track of our steps, slowing my pace to be just behind Virion’s heel-to-toe gait.
We did stop every now and then so that Virion and Bairon could stretch and rest. The two were still recovering and while their bodies had healed, the trek through the sands were still taxing for the two of them. With our feet sinking almost shin-deep with every step, it took a lot more strength to walk here than it did on flat ground.
Sylvie checked the state of their damaged mana cores every now and then to make sure they were okay, but it seemed like the only way they’d be able to recover would be by giving them time to rest.
Virion had come to terms with his injuries, but I would hear Bairon grunt in frustration every now and then after failing to use mana to the degree that he had grown used to. Virion could barely even coat his fist in mana, while Bairon was only able to shroud his body. Neither of them were able to utilize elemental magic.
After another ten thousand steps had gone by, I noticed that Virion had gotten slower. Looking up, I noticed that his body was shivering.
“Virion,” I called out, gripping his arm. I immediately sent a wave of heat and I could see blood rushing back to his pale face. “Let me know when you’re getting cold.”
“T-Thank you,” he replied with a weary smile. “And don’t worry, I’m okay.”
I watched as he walked on. His once broad shoulders seemed so narrow and weak as he hunched forward. For the first time, Virion actually appeared… old.
We continued marching through the desert, illuminated softly by the pale moon and stars. Afraid to even cast a light in the off chance that a scythe or retainer was nearby, we walked in darkness for hours on end until finally, I had reached the last number.
“We’re here,” I announced skeptically. Around us was only sand, as far as my mana-enhanced vision could see.
Bairon, Sylvie and I all looked at Virion. Our commander was bent down, sweeping his arm that was holding a white pentagonal medallion etched with designs that I couldn’t make out from this far.
“What is that?” I asked, curious.
“I’m not sure exactly what it is, but we found several of these inside the Castle when we first discovered it. It seems to be a relic from the wise mages of the past,” Virion answered, not taking his eyes off the sandy ground.
Bairon let out a gasp. “You mean the same ancient mages that had built both the floating city of Xyrus as well as the Castle?”
Virion nodded as he continued to walk in circles, waving the white medallion in his hand as if it were a magnifying glass.
I raised a brow at Bairon’s unusual tone of admiration, but said nothing. I’d heard about the ancient mages now and again. Much of the previous artifacts that helped the Dicathen civilization grow came from the ancient mages. It’s safe to say that without the teleportation gates, and the mana-rich atmosphere of the floating city of Xyrus, much of Dicathen’s lands would’ve been untamed.
Across my readings back when I was a child in this world, artificers and researchers all believed that the ancient mages had either discovered the technology to transport themselves to another world, or had wiped themselves off the face of the world while conducting a large-scale experiment of some sort.
Based on the lack of evidence that suggested either of these two things, it seemed that the researchers of Dicathen had more or less given up on finding out what had happened to our ancestors and slapped on a reasonably logical conclusion.
After a subjective hour of searching, Virion let out a frustrated grunt. “It’s not here.”
“What do you mean it’s not here?” I asked. “You said that taking 35,651 steps straight while facing away from that gash on the boulder would lead us to the shelter.”
“I know what I said!” he snapped.
“Well, maybe the wind blew the boulder back from its original position,” Bairon suggested, impatience laced in his voice.
“Not likely.” Virion shook his head. “Buhnd exhausted almost all of his monstrous mana core to make sure the boulder was large enough and was buried deep enough so that the sand and wind wouldn’t shift its position.”
I scratched my head in frustration. “Then what do we do?”
“I don’t think we have a choice… but to start over again,” Virion muttered.
Frustration turned to anger as my patience reached its limit. “No. We just wasted the better half of a day counting our footsteps because you wanted to find this refuge shelter. There has to be another way to get in.”
“Well there isn’t !” he shot back, walking towards me with a piercing hot gaze. “You think I want to be out here after my entire family was taken from me? Huh? If it was solely up to my wants, I’d much rather march with my men, face a scythe and die in battle—then, at least I would feel like I’d done what I could to avenge them. But that’s not what a leader does, Arthur. When everyone else has given up, I’m the one that has to hold onto any semblance of hope and fight for the future!”
He stabbed a long, fragile finger into my chest as he snarled out his last words. “So don’t you dare say this is what I ‘want’.”
I stood there, speechless, as Virion walked weakly away. Bairon’s expression mirrored my own while even the howling winds quieted.
“Wait,” Sylvie said, breaking the silence. My bond turned to me. “I noticed this earlier but I couldn’t quite figure out what I was feeling. I think the artifact that Virion is holding influences… aether. Arthur, can you activate Realmheart?”
I did as she asked, thrilled at the prospect of not having to take this arduous hike again. Igniting Sylvia’s dragon will, I felt a sharp pain spread out of my core and through my body and limbs from the backlash of overusing my mana and even using aether arts during my battle with the scythe.
However, as my vision shifted to monochrome and specks of color began lighting up the world around me, my heart thumped in excitement. Amidst the tiny motes of yellow, green, blue, red, and purple, I found something in the distance.
We must’ve shifted off course during our hike here because just less than a mile to my left was a clump of purple that shone like a beacon.
I felt my lips curl up into a crazed grin. “I found it. I found it!”
Sylvie’s eyes brightened at my words and thoughts. She immediately transformed into her draconic form and plucked both Virion and Bairon from the ground with her front claws.
I flew ahead just above the ground, blasting a trail of sand behind me as Sylvie followed close behind.
With our destination locked in sight, it only took a matter of minutes to reach the circular array of purple motes that represented aether.
“It’s here,” I said, pointing directly to the center of the array.
Virion hurriedly scrambled to me, holding the artifact tightly in his hands. He arrived and immediately knelt down, placing the white artifact over the sand with an expression of relief.
“You’re right. This is the place,” he said, looking at the white medallion on top of the sand.
Bairon arrived too, his brow raised in doubt. “Nothing is happen—”
Cutting the lance off mid sentence, the medallion began to vibrate. Even more amazingly, its vibrations caused pulsating waves in the sand around it, spreading several yards out in all directions. The pulses got stronger until the rolling sand soon formed small waves.
Sylvie and I exchanged wary glances but before we could do any more, the ground below us sank until we fell through the sand.