Chapter 686: (*Spoilers : Title at End*)

After freeing the slaves at the encampment, Vahn proceeded to the location of the next fortress, wondering if Ina’s vision had been related to his earlier decision. Since it was something he likely would have done regardless, Vahn expected it was related to something else entirely. When he arrived above the next fortress, noticing it hadn’t been abandoned, Vahn released a small sigh and wondered what exactly the Rakia Kingdom might have tried. They had to have ‘something’ planned so, instead of just having Fafnir outright destroy the fortress, Vahn leaped down to investigate personally.

Having detected his arrival, as Fafnir and Khaos stood out quite a bit, the soldiers immediately attacked with incredible intensity. Unlike the small detachment watching over the slaves, these men were all battle-hardened warriors that had rotated around various border fortresses over the years. There were a little too many to simply disarm and disable so Vahn struck a pose with his left hand out, almost as if he were grabbing something while saying, “Gather, 9 spirits of ice, cut apart my enemy. Magic Arrows, Series of 9 Ice Arrows. Fixate. Seize. Load magic, ‘Armament’!” Nine crystallized ice arrows formed around his body before converging towards Vahn’s fist, causing his skin to shift into an onyx-black as icy blue tattoos spread across his body. Vahn’s hair became a similarly pale blue while growing marginally longer and taking on a spiky appearance. Most notably, at least for the terrified soldiers, was the fact that his eyes were like pristine ice that chilled them to the bone with a single glance…

Making use of his ice elementalization [Magia Erebea], Vahn used [Mellodia Bellax] to enhance his Agility before running around and striking each soldier he came across. Each hit accurately struck the black metallic breastplates of the soldiers, seemingly doing no damage as an icy white coating spread over the metal and caused them to drop to the ground. Considering they were cold-hearted individuals that had lived by exposing others to their cruelty, Vahn allowed them to experience what it really felt like to have their hearts frozen. He still intended to destroy the fortress but, after Ina’s behavior this morning, Vahn wanted to gather information before he took decisive action.

Without any major flair, Vahn managed to reach the area where the strongest three people in the fortress were located, each Level 3 with arrogant and proud looks on their faces. As he burst into the room, causing ice to spread along the reinforced stone surfaces of the fortress, Vahn looked toward the strongest amongst the three, somewhat surprised to see a woman with long blue hair and matching eyes. She had a cool and intelligent look at first glance but Vahn could see a cold depravity deep within her eyes, perfectly suiting the pitch black aura shrouding her body. Unlike the rest of the soldiers present, she wasn’t wearing the standard military uniform and instead had on a white overcoat with an ornate belt strapped to her waist. Without any discussion, she pulled out one of the small rapier-like swords at her waist and charged forward.

In the instant before they collided, Vahn started to realize that this woman likely hadn’t been the leader of the fortress and had likely been put here as a measure by Rakia Kingdom’s chain of command. He didn’t know her identity but Vahn noticed abnormal energy radiating from her thin sword as she cut towards his neck without hesitation, seemingly intending to end the fight with the first blow. Using his [Xuánwǔ Protector]s, Vahn received the blow before blinking away with [Shundo] almost immediately after the blade contacted the black armguards. Inspecting the part where her sword had contacted, Vahn saw a thin line and deduced that she must have some Innate that allows her attacks to pierce through her target’s defense. That must be why she used thin and light swords instead of more practical weapons. The fact that she carried four different rapiers seemed to emphasize this fact…

Brandishing two rapiers this time, the woman had an almost sensual smile on her face as she pointed one of her two blades towards him and said, “I’m impressed you were able to dodge that. Your speed seems to be beyo-” Vahn stepped forward with [Shundo], striking forward with both palms at the same time, even going so far as to use one of them to ‘catch’ the blade she had pointed in his direction. The woman’s eyes widened as she released her weapon and tried to step back, swiping in a diagonal motion with her second rapier while trying to draw one of her spares. Vahn, however, was quite a bit faster than she was, allowing his left palm to strike at the area above her left breast. She flew back like a cannonball, breaking through the reinforced wall on the other side of the room while Vahn pulled her rapier from his hand and threw it towards one of the other Level 3’s present, a petite woman with auburn hair and yellow eyes.

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Vahn had deduced that the man wearing the military garb was the actual Commander so he decided to deal with the ‘unknown’ elements first, likely a duo since their outfits were similar. The difference was, the auburn-haired woman had several daggers present all over her body. Her overcoat itself was lined with small throwing knives and, unlike anything he had ever seen before, she had cross-shaped pupils that seemed to contract as the rapier veered towards her body. Unexpectedly, she managed to twist her body in a limber fashion, completely evading the rapier while simultaneously throwing two daggers towards him.

Unfortunately, even though she had gone through the efforts to sneakily toss a third dagger along the same trajectory, Vahn had bypassed them completely with [Shundo] as he grabbed the woman’s neck and pinned her against the wall in the next instant. Spiderweb cracks spread out as she desperately resisted the cold energy spreading through her neck while kicking forward, burying two concealed daggers from her boots into Vahn’s liver and lower abdomen. She seemed to be the type that used lots of sneak attacks in her combat style but, using the immortality Vahn possessed through [Magia Erebea], such attacks were almost meaningless. Other than a fair amount of pain, Vahn wasn’t affected at all, much to the girl’s terror as she began to tear up and claw at his arm while simultaneously trying to stab him int he neck with a blade concealed in her palm.

Before she was able to complete the attack, Vahn converged his domain on the girl’s mind, causing her to instantly lose consciousness as choking sounds escaped her throat. Without being able to proactively resist the energy spreading through her body, she quickly succumbed to the icy chill of Vahn’s hand as he dropped her to the ground. There was a palm-shaped icy handprint on the girl’s neck as a black bruise slowly spread from the area. If not treated within the next few minutes, she would end up dying as a result of frostbite settling in and making it impossible for her to breathe. Vahn was somewhat curious about the identity of the two girls so he turned to the man, who had hefted a battleax without ever making a move to attack. He had a pale complexion on his face as he said, “You’re a monster…”

Vahn couldn’t help but raise his left brow in confusion, wondering how a man with such a malicious aura could call someone else a monster. However, instead of inquiring about that, Vahn shook his head slightly and asked, “Tell me, why didn’t you retreat after I gave my warning? Who are these two girls?” The man scoffed in return, even though he was still pale and trembling slightly while cradling his battleax as if it were the only thing grounding him to the world. With a sneer on his face, he said, “You think we’re just gonna abandon our borders because some snot-nosed brat tells us to? We’d rather lose a thousand fortresses than back down to a monster like you!” Seemingly finding strength from his own words, the man charged forward with his battleax high. Vahn, however, just pulled out a spear and stabbed it into the man’s gut, pinning him to the ceiling above since the fool actually jumped towards him while they were indoors.

The once-arrogant Commander had a look of disbelief on his face as he powerlessly tried to remove the spear that had pierced through his heart. Unfortunately, he would never get the opportunity as the light faded from his eyes and he began to slump downwards moments later. Vahn shook his head, releasing another sigh as he turned to the girl on the ground and contemplated if he should spare her for the time being. His question, though internalized, seemed to have triggered some kind of flag, however, as the blue-haired woman walked through the hole she had created earlier. There was blood dripping from her lips while only a single one of her rapiers remained intact. Seeing her companion on the ground, not that Vahn knew what their relationship was, her eyes turned even colder as she brandished her rapier and asked, “You killed her…?”

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Vahn blinked slowly, calmly stating, “She is still alive, though I can’t say for how much longer. The wound on her neck will take her life if she isn’t treated soon.” Hearing this, though the cold light in her eyes didn’t fade away, the woman seemed to relax slightly. Vahn, using this momentary lapse in her mental acuity, asked, “Who are you? What is Rakia Kingdom planning? Tell me and I will treat her…” When she heard his words, the woman seemed to regain her previous intensity but, as if she had remembered their last collision, hesitated after taking a step forward. For several seconds, she seemed to contemplate her action until Vahn squinted his eyes and began to converge his aura onto her body.

Feeling the mountain-like pressure weighing down on her, the cold woman stumbled slightly before swallowing hard before saying, “We are members of the Gynaikothoinas, women handpicked and trained by our god to serve the Kingdom…” Much like the Commander, the woman seemed to be inspired by her own words as, instead of continuing, she brandished her rapier and lunged forward. For what felt like the tenth time today, Vahn released a sigh while allowing her rapier to pierce into his extended hand once again. This time, as if she had expected such a thing to happen, the woman pulled out a small pouch and tossed it towards his face. Instead of allowing it to hit him, however, Vahn vanished from her sight as she watched in terror as the bag full of irritant impacted against the far wall. The next moment, all the woman saw was darkness as an icy chill passed through her body. Her only regret in this life, other than not reaching the peak of her strength, was failing to protect her only friend in this cold world…

Vahn pulled his hand out of the woman’s back, allowing her to slump to the ground as the blood staining his hand was frozen solid. It slowly flaked away as a result of the golden aura surrounding his body expelled all foreign matter and magic particles. Vahn gave the woman her last rites, putting his palms together in a short prayer before moving over to the unconscious woman on the ground. They both had very dark auras while the ‘stench’ of death lingered around their body, something Vahn was somewhat perceptive to. Even if they were beautiful girls with seemingly interesting Innates, Vahn wasn’t going to show them any leniency. However, this didn’t mean he couldn’t spare them mercy and make their deaths ‘relatively’ painless…

Unable to obtain any additional information, Vahn inspected the state of the prison with his domain and once again found several slaves that had been horribly tortured. Previously, he had taken the lives of such prisoners because there was little chance they would ever have a good life. However, after saving the large group of slaves just twenty minutes prior, Vahn decided to at least leave the choice to them. He went on a small rampage, killing any soldier that barred his passage while allowing those that fled quickly to escape. It was necessary for there to be some survivors to spread the information so Vahn allowed a few to escape from Fafnir’s [Sagitta Magicka] barrage.

Seeing the prisoners in person was much more difficult than just feeling their presence through his domain. Most of the men that were captured trying to cross the border were killed on the spot, meaning all the prisoners were women and children. Vahn didn’t even want to imagine exactly what they had suffered through so he just opened all the cells while explaining he was saving them. After what they had experienced, most of them had dead eyes that didn’t seem to believe his words. However, after he started healing some of their wounds and fixing their broken bones, they started helping each other group up to receive treatment.

Vahn nearly broke down into tears when a mother, barely able to walk as a result of the damage to her lower body, brought what looked like a 5-6-year-old girl that had clearly visible signs of sexual trauma. Though he didn’t make use of it often these days, Vahn activated his [Wounds Transfer] while clenching his teeth to resist the pain. Strangely, it was far more tolerable to suffer a momentary agony than it was to continue seeing someone so small having such terrible wounds. After talking to the mother, Vahn got her permission to remove the memories of the young girl. It wouldn’t be easy but, seeing that the mother had the light of hope in her eyes, Vahn believed they could one day find happiness once again…

Unlike when he had freed the slaves at the previous encampment, many of the prisoners thanked him for his assistance, especially those that had children. They didn’t know how he did it, nor did they ask, but they knew Vahn was using some kind of strange technique to help their children. For their wounds, he used powerful healing magic, salves, and other means to help them recover. However, for the children, they ended up being completely healed after an instant while the boy that saved them always had a face of anguish. For those that were still very young, much like the girl, the mothers had Vahn erase their memories. It was better to have their children’s mental state regress than have them live a life haunted by the traumas they had experienced.

Though he was tempted to escort them to safety, Vahn still had other people to save and, after discussing it with the former prisoners, they were already very happy with the assistance they had already received. Thus, after giving them enough supplies to help them in their journey, Vahn moved them to a safe distance and erected a powerful barrier around them. Moments later, the group of women and children watched as a beam of light rained down from the sky, almost like divine judgment. They felt a flood of emotions as the place that had become the source of their greatest nightmare was completely erased from the world. It was at this point that many of them broke down crying, unable to resist the great relief that spread through their body after the realization that their nightmare had come to an end…

After seeing them off for a short while, Vahn was once again on Fafnir’s back as they made their way to the next fortress, this time a bit slower than before. Vahn was starting to think that the Rakia Kingdom hadn’t actually come up with some clever scheme to deal with him. Instead, it seemed like his nature of helping people would be the source of the sadness Ina had seen. However, Vahn didn’t regret it for a moment and, even though it felt like his heart was going to break, Vahn tolerated the pain while recalling the faces of gratitude displayed by the prisoners, especially those with young children. Realizing there were most likely many others like them, all currently waiting for his arrival, Vahn took a deep breath before tapping on Fafnir’s back and saying, “Let’s speed things up…there are people waiting for us…” Vahn was simultaneously thinking of the prisoners locked away in the various fortresses while the faces of each girl at the Manor revolved through his mind…

A trip that was initially only supposed to take a few hours ended up taking Vahn nearly forty, the result of saving every prisoner he came across and gearing them up for their journey to the south. In total, he destroyed 53 fortresses and, on his return trip to the north, passed along the borders of the Iron Hills as he had previously intended. They were in an alert state after receiving information about the attacks on Rakia’s border but, likely as a result of those same rumors, the Dwarves didn’t take any action against him. Vahn just looked down on them from above as they slowly made their way through the area before picking up speed for their return trip, this time with the Hearth Manor as his destination.

Vahn didn’t care about the details but this day would be marked down in History as the first decisive action taken by the Sage Aldrnari against the forces of evil and oppression in the world. The path taken by the various refugees he had saved would one day become a road that several pilgrims walked, paying homage to those brave few that held on to hope until the very end, finding salvation waiting for them when all else seemed lost. Along the way, there were several grave markers that denoted those that hadn’t made it, including some that were much smaller than many could bear. However, at the end of that trail, a large village could be found and, contrary to the ill-fated origin of the residents, only smiles could be seen upon their faces. At the village’s entrance, there was a large wooden sign denoting the name of the village, supported on each side by two carved statues reminiscent of dragons. At the very center, in bold lettering that seemed to shout out against all the darkness of the world, a single word could be seen, the true embodiment of what Vahn’s actions returned to the people…HOPE.

Title: Hope

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