Dying Fire (I)
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The newcomer's voice thundered in everyone's ears, making some of the disciples squirm in pain. However, the woman didn't seem to mind one bit. She continued facing Reynard with her eyes hidden behind her pitch-black hair and her pale lips pursed together in a thin line.

Reynard's body trembled as he made an incredible effort to turn his head an meet her gaze. Mirageclaw shook in his hands, making clinging noises as Reynard fought against the woman's suppression. With a ferocious expression on his face, the crystalline sword moved a little bit in the direction of the ice barrier that protected Jake Meyer.

Boom!

With a deafening sound, something smashed at Reynard's chest like an invisible hammer, sending him flying back. His ferocious expression turned into one of pure animosity and defiance as he twisted his body mid-air and landed on his feet. The ground below him rippled wildly, as if he had fallen on a soft mattress, cushioning the impact of the landing and helping him keep his balance.

His eyes were blazing with a silent rage, and he was about to blow up. The moment that woman appeared he lost his chance to kill Jake Meyer. He had failed. He turned his head, looking at the wretched Daniel Meyer that lied on the floor, unmoving. That damn bastard had managed it in the end. The main reason for his success, however…

Reynard turned to look at the Noan River Sect members. Almost all of them were helpless under the pressure the woman was weighing on them, with only one exception. Anna Hale raised her head, facing Reynard.

They were very distant, but they could still clearly see each other. Reynard could see every single strand of Anna's luxurious black hair subtly moving alongside her breathing. He could see how her breathing was somewhat irregular, just like his own. A clear sign of exhaustion. Most of all, behind the billowing mist that covered her expression, he could feel it. He could feel the gaze she was giving him, he could feel the smile full of disdain she had on her face. He clenched his fist as his expression suddenly turned blank. His eyes also lost all form of emotion as he faced his fiancée.

Watching those changes this, Anna couldn't help but feel cold. A shiver run down her back as Reynard looked at her with that blank expression. As she looked at his dark eyes, she felt as if she was being engulfed in an endless void, an infinite darkness permeated by a soul-chilling cold.

What she felt when looking at the young man in front of her was not the usual disdain, nor was it disgust over her fate or the begrudging respect she couldn't help but have for him. It was a more primal, instinctual emotion. For the first time, Reynard Stark scared her.

"I was very clear when I ordered you to stand down." The woman hovering in the air said in a cold voice. Her pale lips twitched in displeasure as she saw the defiance in Reynard's gaze. It made her even more displeased when he refused to take the fall and landed on his feet after she threw him back.

"I don't remember ever being under your command." Reynard said in an equally cold voice.

The woman's expression turned grim as Reynard's words reached her. A sudden gust of wind wrapped around her, making her hair whip about and blowing it away from her face. For the first time, people could see the pair of eyes hiding behind her hair.

The world seemed to come to a sudden halt, and Reynard felt as if he was being sucked away into a different dimension, akin to when he traveled through a spatial tunnel. The color of his surroundings slowly drained away, and the only thing he could clearly make sense of was a glistening pair of eyes fixated on him.

Looking at those eyes, he couldn't help but shiver. They were of a pale silver color and seemed to pulsate with a hypnotic light. What made his hair stand on end, however, was the fact that those eyes lacked pupils. They were like a pair of lifeless, ominous orbs that were slowly drawing him in.

Reynard gritted his teeth, struggling to maintain control over his thoughts. He closed his eyes, focusing solely on his divine sense as he fought back with everything he had. He felt his consciousness slowly slipping away into the illusion, even after all of his efforts to anchor himself to reality.

The woman scoffed as she saw Reynard finally turning silent. Still, a clear look of displeasure showed on her pale face. That young man was still resisting her, even if he couldn't break free of her illusion by himself. A deep frown made its way into her expression as dark lines creased her forehead.

She would have been pleasantly surprised by Reynard's resilience if the circumstances were different; after all, she had used enough strength to put people at the peak of Elemental Core into a trance. Seeing Reynard resisting her, however, only made her feel anger and a strange sense of ominous foreboding. Nevertheless, she couldn't do much more to him, lest the situation turn even worse.

With a swipe of her hand, the Roaring Mountain Sect disciples were blasted away, being thrown in a corner of the plaza. The pressure weighing down on the disciples of the Sacred Sects increased, holding them firmly in place, barely being able to make a sound.

The major plaza of Hell's Keeper City turned uncharacteristically silent, as if time had stopped when the woman made her move.

She slowly descended to the ground, looking at the disciples of the Abyss Sect with a pained heart. Jake's body was filled with injuries of varying degrees. It looked like there was not a single inch of his body that did not bear an injury. He was making hissing sounds as he breathed heavily, and more than likely one of his lungs had been punctured.

Treating him would take months at best, and even so, she was not sure if he could return to his previous condition, even with all of the resources the Abyss Sect had available. Just like that, it was very possible his future would be cut short.

The woman quietly landed by Jake's side, putting a hand on his shoulder and sending a gentle stream of Qi into his body, suppressing his wounds. With her free hand, she took a white talisman that she promptly crushed, sending an emergency signal to the Medical Pavilion and to Natasha Barnes.

Malia and Skylar were somewhat fine and a few weeks of treatment would let them return to top shape. Orson was completely unhurt, but the same couldn't be said about Karen. The wound on her shoulder was awful, and she had lost too much blood. Even with Natasha Barne's skill, completely healing her would be hard.

She averted his gaze, and couldn't hide the pain in her eyes as she looked at the two stretched corpses near Jake. Evan had died an almost instantaneous death, lying motionlessly on a pool of his own blood, his body riddled with holes of all sizes. Abraham, on the other hand, had bled to death due to the injury that ripped his arm off. His expression was still full of shock and his intact hand was still firmly grasping held what was left of his injured arm. His lifeless eyes were wide open and she could see the fear he showed in his final moments.

Seeing this, she couldn't help but send the still immobile Reynard a look full of killing intent.

The woman gently swiped a discrete white ring in her left hand, producing a blood-red pill. It was the highest grade of medicine she carried with her, and the one of the few medicinal pills she possessed. Except for her sword and a few other possessions, she had long ago donated all she had to the sect, trying to keep it from falling further into an economic crisis.

All of the Protectors had done the same, barely sustaining the sect for a few years. Soon enough they would have to start selling their services to the other sects in order to cover the Abyss Sect's expenses. When that day came, she was not sure how she would handle it.

"My brother…" Jake managed to say through gasps as a bit of strength returned to him. The woman didn't seem to mind the fact that Jake didn't greet or even thank her properly. He couldn't bother with formalities now, and neither could she.

The woman raised a brow as she finally looked at Daniel's direction. He was still alive, but she could tell with a glance that he was done for. He was agonizing on the floor as a solid spike protruded from his abdomen, covered with dark blood. The spike that had impaled him had torn his stomach, liver, and parts of his intestines into shreds. Had he not tempered his body to the degree he had due to his father's backing at the time, he would have been dead long ago.

"He is done for." The woman spoke in an emotionless voice, but she couldn't hide the pity in her eyes as she looked at Daniel.

"Please…" Jake pleaded in a trembling voice.

The woman sighed gently, waving her hand. The earth spike piercing Daniel seemed to turn into dust, and with another wave of her hand, Daniel was gently tugged to her side. She placed a hand on his chest, forcefully stopping his bleeding and buying him a few minutes of life.

"The pill…" Jake said as he tried to lift his upper body and sit down.

The woman frowned. There was no way to heal Daniel's injuries. Medicine could only accelerate the healing speed of a person, not regenerate tissue. Her pill could stabilize Jake and prevent further complications, but it would have no effect on Daniel. She knew that, and so did Jake.

She lowered her gaze and saw Daniel's black eyes staring intently at her. No more words were necessary. She flicked her fingers, forcefully opening Jake's lips as the red pill flew directly into his mouth, melting into a bright liquid that soon went down his throat.

"I thank the First Protector." Daniel said with a genuine smile. He knew better than anyone else his condition, as well as the fact that his brother would never have accepted the pill in his stead.

The First Protector gave Daniel a silent nod, not really knowing what to say. Realizing what had happened, Jake's expression turned into one full of sorrow and misery as all that was left of his self-control finally crumbled and clear tears started falling from his eyes.

"Do you mind helping me a bit? There should be a pair of cups and a silver wineskin here…" Daniel asked slowly with a weary, almost inexistent voice as he looked at the First Protector. He weakly signaled at the Bottomless Pouch hanging from his waist.

The First Protector hesitated for a moment, before sighing and reaching out to the Bottomless Pouch. She gently tapped it, producing two rough wooden cups and a shiny silver wineskin that looked very expensive.

Daniel made an incredible effort to prop himself up, being gently supported by the First Protector's hand as he weakly sat down. He slowly took the wineskin into his hands before clumsily pouring wine into the cups laying on the ground. Wine spilled everywhere as Daniel's arms trembled due to the effort, but he somehow managed to make it through.

"Daniel…" Jake called weakly as even more tears streamed down his face.

"Here." Seeing his brother's sorrow, Daniel forced himself to smile, offering him a cup.

Jake grasped it as firmly as he could, but he couldn't help the shaking of his hands.

"Cheers!" Daniel said with a smile, raising his cup in Jake's direction.

'Cluck!'

The cups lightly hit each other, and Daniel took a sip of the wine, slowly savoring its sweetness. Jake did his best to bring his cups to his lips, fighting against his trembling hands and barely being able to put some in his mouth.

"Cough, cough!" Jake promptly coughed, and the cup almost fell from his hands.

"Good stuff, right? Cost me an arm and a leg" Daniel joked with difficulty. Speaking was becoming harder and harder for him. Still, he couldn't hide his worry. He didn't know if his brother's cough was due to the bitterness of the wine or his brother's injuries.

"Yes, it is pretty good." Jake said in a weary voice, trying to force a smile.

"You can keep it." Daniel whispered, faltering. The warm stream of Qi being injected in his meridians helped him compose himself, but he could feel a chilling cold slowly creeping up his body.

"Daniel, please, don't go." Jake pleaded to him desperately.

"It's alright." Daniel answered. Death would come for all of those that failed to reach immortality. He could not be scared by it, because there was no way he would ever be able to escape it. He knew since long ago that, even if he was a cultivator, he was fated to die. If anything, he would choose how to go rather than when.

"I am glad I managed to do something for you." He said with a warm smile. He would have turned to properly hug his brother, but he was already losing the sensitivity of his limbs.

Jake propped himself forward, leaning with difficulty and hugging his brother.

"The Abyss Sect shall remember your deeds today." The First Protector finally broke her silence. Her tone was dull and stiff, almost as if she was following protocol.

Her words might have sounded comforting for any other person, but not for Daniel.

"I don't give a fuck about the sect." He answered, slightly enraged. He knew from the moment he attacked Reynard Stark that there was no way he would ever make it out alive. He had chosen this, and the Abyss Sect had never been on his mind.

He couldn't help but remember his conversation with the Guardian when he was stuck during his climb of the mountain. The helplessness he felt then, and the choice he had made. In truth, Daniel's choice to face Reynard had been made there, when he decided he would die as a cultivator.

Still, could he truly say he had no regrets over it?

Maybe the Guardian had been right, maybe Daniel truly could have been happy if he decided to give up cultivation and settle down on a peaceful life.

Daniel's eyes turned wistful as he contemplated the choice he made. At the time, he had been under too much pressure, and his denial of the truth had blinded him. His despair had blinded him.

The truth was that there had always been someone like him, someone with whom he could share such fate, someone that could escape from such a miserable way of life with him. There had always been someone that he could be happy with if he had ever had the courage to try. He had always known it, he simply never took the risk, afraid of what he could lose.

His vision started fading, and he felt his thoughts slipping away. He couldn't feel his body anymore, and a piercing chill was making its way to his very soul. Suddenly, in the middle of the darkness, he saw a flash of gold, and a beautiful pair of green eyes stared at him.

Yes, he had never been alone. The Guardian had indeed seen right through him, he had been absolutely right. Daniel had been too scared to face the truth, too scared to look inwards and accept what drove him.

Unknowingly, Daniel smiled. A name made its way to his mind, piercing through the darkness of his consciousness like a beacon of light and giving him some clarity of mind before the darkness fully took over.

Becca…

'Cluck!'

A wooden cup fell, spilling dark wine on the ground. Like blood, the wine slowly flowed outwards, soaking even more clothes that were already tainted with red. The man they belonged to didn't move anymore.

On the major plaza of Hell's Keeper City, the unabated silence was broken by Jake's sobs as he tightly hugged his brother's body.

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