Counter 33: The Sky at Dusk
Azalea’s objective is not to defeat the intruders; rather she wants to protect the students. For this to succeed, she needs to buy enough time. They need “time” to prepare the inexperienced students in the situation. They need “time” to hold on until reinforcements arrive. That is why she focused on defending early on and then switched to supporting and healing at the end. She has to be extremely careful to the point of exaggeration. All that matters is for no one to die.
While they are in daze as the newly arrived guys are taking care of the enemies. Azalea relaxes her back and slows down her breathing. She watches her surroundings. The noise of machines crashing and multiple explosions are like the ending song of their battle. From the group of seemingly trained fighters, one comes close to them and instructs them to return to their respected dorms while they wait for the medical unit to descend.
“Let’s return to the dorm and rest.” Ezekiel says while leading the way.
“Who are you?” Blair slightly tilts her head.
“I’m…” Ezekiel is taken aback for a second. “We’re from the green-zone. We’ve assisted the mage over there a while ago.”
“Oh. Okay.” She responds casually.
“We’re not returning to the dorms.” Emil declares after looking at his phone. “The prez is calling us back to the clubroom.”
Ezekiel turns towards Emil. “At a time like this you should listen to-”
“You can go now.” Evan cuts him before he can finish. “Our action from here on is no longer your concern.”
Evan then turns towards the opposite direction while Emil and Blair are following him. Ezekiel and Robin can only look at them for a while before deciding to not get involved with them more than this. They left shortly after watching them surround the seemingly indifferent mage.
“Az. Az!” Blair calls but receives no immediate response.
Azalea slowly turns following her voice. Her eyes that are shadowed over by her hood are looking so lifeless and chilling. It is as though she is not seeing anyone right now.
“Who… are… you?...” Her voice comes out almost inaudible.
Blair is about to reach out to her but Evan suddenly blocks.
“Azalea,” he calls. “We are retreating.”
“Back to the fourth watch tower.” He answers calmly while looking straight into her eyes. “Azalea, the battle has ended. You are in AB Academy.”
“Right.” Even though she looks like she is still in daze it seems that she managed to collect herself again. She takes a deep breath and then covers her eyes with her left hand. “In the academy… not in the forest… or the slums.”
“Az, are you still okay?” Blair asks looking so worried.
“Mhm. Y-yeah.” She responds and then takes the lead.
Emil and Blair want to support her on the way but Evan stops them.
“I think Azalea would greatly appreciate it if you don’t get too close to her right now.” He says while maintaining the distance between them.
They cannot explain it but the atmosphere is making them believe that he must be right. They quietly move on their way towards the fourth watch tower. Surprisingly, they are not encountering any metaghosts or monsters on the way.
When Azalea, Blair, Evan, and Emil enter Asylum's clubroom, Professor Claws is already there waiting for them. The professor focuses his sight at the four newly arrived students. They are all covered in dirt, and their clothes are tattered in different places. Not to mention Emil's armor is half destroyed. His arms are slightly trembling; if one will not look carefully they probably not notice it. He is also dragging his left leg a little. His body is fatigued but he is doing his best to hide it. On the other hand, Blair looks physically fine though she is breathing heavier than normal. She must have used up her mana to the point that she may not be able to use D-shift in the next few hours. Among the three of them, Evancross looks the most fine. He must have spent a lot of mana and energy while fighting but it does not seem like what he spent is enough to exhaust him.
After his brief observation, he nods at them and then gestures for them to take a sit. Emil heads to the sit by the stairs while Blair follows him a couple of steps behind. Azalea, who still looks dazed, slowly marches towards her usual place on the couch close to Tristan. Evan follows her and then sits on the chair beside the couch.
“You all look so tired...” Professor Claws clears his throat before continuing. “While waiting for the rest, I would like to congratulate all of you. You did a great job during this time of unrest, however—”
His speech gets interrupted when the door creaks open.
“Hola~” Primrose greets as she enters with Duke behind her. “What… You’re all here already.”
By the looks of it, Duke is still in his yashou form. His scrapped and partly shiny exoskeleton attracts Blair and Emil's attention as they gaze at him with curious expression. Blair’s eyes looks especially gleaming like she wants to jump towards him and examine him.
Professor Claws clears his throat again. “However... However, I believe you should not overdo things.” He fixes his sight towards Azalea who is being awfully quiet now. “I believe this incident will also be a good experience to all of you to get a good grasp of your abilities and limits. It is important to know when to fight and when to retreat.”
“What?.. You're going to scold us now?” Blair complains openly while scratching the back of her head. “Can't you just give us some reward?.. or like… a vacation?”
“You're not taking me seriously, are you?" The professor’s brow twitches.
Blair stares at him blankly as though she is anticipating some good news.
“No vacation,” he declares with his deep serious voice. He clears his throat again. “However, due to the large scale damage to the school... classes will be suspended for at least two weeks. Furthermore, you all should notify your relatives that you'll be staying out of the Academy Dorms for a while and don—”
"YES--!!" Blair’s loud voice interrupts the professor again. “Nothing sounds better than the suspension of classes!”
Emil lets out a heavy breath while trying to avoid looking at the redhead beside him.
Professor Claws sighs. “Miss Lisiantha,” he calls significantly raising his voice. “Be quiet while I'm talking.” He squints his eyes at her.
Blair responds by laughing while scratching her head.
“Regarding your place to stay in this coming—”
“Miss Saintgregor.” Professor Claws calls when he notices Primrose looking and rummaging inside the cupboards.
“You can call me by my first name, you know.” She answers while continuing to look for something in the cupboards.
“What are you doing there?”
“Looking for snacks, what else?”
“This isn't the time for that.”
“Don't worry, I always have time for snacks.”
“That is not the point here.” He sighs while brushing his hair with his right hand. “Hurry and take a seat.”
Primrose stares at him for several seconds before saying anything. “Okay, just for a while.” Then Prim and Duke takes a sit by the snack table.
“This matter is of great concern for you, Miss Saintgregor.” Professor Claws continues. “Since the academy will temporarily close after this incident, you'll need a place to stay. During this time, you are not allowed to leave that place and will need constant monitoring from an AB Academy affiliate. You can choose which place would that be, and then I'll take care of the formalities.”
“I don't really care,” Primrose answers languidly. “It'll be the same anywhere.”
“Are you sure?” He asks again.
“Yeah,” she answers coldly without looking him in the eyes.
He sighs. “Then—”
“Anywhere is fine, then.” Azalea cuts-in. Her face is still shadowed by her hood so they can barely see her face. She is maintaining a level tone of her voice while keeping a half smile on. “Why don't you stay with us at Yan's place. Yan is still an AB Academy affiliate, isn't she? I think that she'd be glad to receive a few more guests.”
Primrose looks away, not showing any emotion towards Azalea’s suggestion.
“Would you all just stop interrupting me?" The professor mumbles.
“It seems that you are not interested.” Azalea curves her lips more. “We got a lot of snacks though… it’s a café… so cakes, cookies, any food and drink you desire.”
“Sir Professor, please take care of the formalities ASAP.” Primrose says as soon as she hears the tempting offer.
“So, where are you planning to stay?” He repeats for confirmation.
“To that Yan person's snack house, where else?” She answers as the sparkles in her eyes multiply.
“Mhm. I-I see...” Professor Claws touches his unkempt beard while he marching closer to the table. “Now, the main point of why I gathered everyone here.”
“What?! There's more--?!” Blair blurts out but Emil immediately grabs her with one hand to stop her from making more ruckus.
Professor Claws purposely coughs to get their attention while ignoring Blair's interruption. “Now... Since you did some great job this time...”
“Why is he purposely trying to increase the tension as if this is some game show?” Tristan mumbles softly at the corner.
“I believe you guys deserve some kind of reward.” He continues while checking his phone as if to confirm something. “The headmaster and I will allow your club to engage in an out of school activity… all of you will be permitted to leave the academy for a club activity as long as you take at least two professors with you and the activity will not last more than three days and three nights.”
“This sounds like a vacation doesn’t it?” Blair whispers at Emil.
“Um… maybe…” He answers softly.
Tristan takes a deep breath while touching his nape. “Spending three days and three nights with these guys without break… It’s still far in the future but I already feel stressed.”
“If you have other favors… let’s talk about it some other time.” Professor Claws checks his phone for the last time. “This day has been very exhausting. We will contact Miss Adams… you all can leave with her once her yacht arrives by the beach side.” He then tucks his phone back to his pocket while walking towards the door. “Ah-… For now… all of you stay here. Some trusted professors will be escorting you out as well.”
“Okay.” Emil and Blair respond in unison.
“Understood.” Evan answers formally.
“Y-yes sir!” Tristan follows immediately.
“M’kay.” Prim says while chewing some biscuits she found.
The professor then leaves in a hurry since he still needs to report to the headmaster before reporting to the officials of ICA that have come. The clubroom is left in silence for a moment. They cannot help but take notice of Azalea who barely responds as if she is half asleep. Meanwhile, Emil’s attention catches something else.
“Hey, Duke.” Emil calls out while staring at the man. “Aren't you... Well, you're... Is my eyes going bad, or are you looking kind of transparent right now??”
“Brother...” Primrose stares at him after finishing her biscuits. “Is your form...?”
“Yeah, I'm sorry.” Duke replies with his gentle voice. “I can't hold out much longer, it seems. Even though Wrie decided to dematerialize to help you rest… it seems you also have exhausted yourself to the limit.”
“Hey, what's going on?” Blair asks while running towards Duke. She touches his shoulder as his body disperses like embers blown by the wind. “What's happening to him?.. Prim?..”
“I didn't want things to turn out like this.” Primrose states while leaning her back to the chair. “My brother… Duke, needs a bit of rest.”
“Don't worry, I won't take long.” He continues while giving them a very kind smile. “I'll leave my adorable little sister in your care for a while.” His legs gradually disappear as parts of his back and arms disperse with the particles of light.
“Y-you're not dying, are you?” Emil asks with concerned expression.
Duke laughs. Only his chest up to his head remains floating midair. “That's a little rude, man. I'm already dead.”
The moment they hear those words, the rest of his body completely vanishes. Their voices seem to have fallen down their throats as no words come out though they have a lot of questions. The surprise is unbearable for those who have no idea.
Primrose simply sits relaxed while watching Duke disappear before her eyes.
Once Duke completely vanishes, Prim sighs before laying her head on the table, as though she is sleeping. “Mhm… I… need some rest… too.”
Even though Evan looks calm as always, his gaze did not leave the vanishing body of Duke. Meanwhile, Azalea remains seated, unmoved and silent. The moment is too overwhelming for the rest to take it casually.
Azalea suddenly stands up.
“Az?...” Blair stares at her as she picks up that there is something wrong.
“I’ll go out for a bit… for some fresh air…” She mumbles while slowly heading towards the door.
While watching her, Tristan notices the weird marking on her right arm. “She didn’t have those before. How could she suddenly get tattoos amidst these circumstances?..”
Evan stands up. “You should just rest here.”
Azalea tries to follow the voice but for some reason her sight has become dark and blurry. She knows who is talking but she can no longer look them in the eye. Some gems in her armor have cracked.
She spent more mana in this incident more than any other battles that she has been through in her life. Even this armor cannot keep up with the continued strong flow of her mana causing the gems that regulate the flow to break. Her armor is supposed to absorb her leaking mana and use it on either defense or enhanced self-healing. This allows her to fight longer with less repercussion. However, with this damaged armor, the feedback will slowly eat at her.
She is almost at the door when she turns back. “I-I’m…” She wants to say that she is fine but she is obviously not. This is not the time to fool around.
“Az?...” Blair takes a step towards her but she does not know what to do.
Her right arm is throbbing. It is burning. It hurts a lot.
Tristan suddenly remembers something so he raises his voice. “It’s not s-something like before… is it… What happened in the ship…”
They all suddenly stand up looking so worried.
Azalea cannot clearly see their expression but she can sense their actions. “O-okay.” She raises her hands gesturing for them to stay calm. Her breathing is slow but heavy. “Damn it!” She grumbles.
“I don’t really get what’s happening…” Blair says. “But don’t just walk away from us… as if you are going on your own and deal with the problem alone.” She frowns.
“Aren't you tired?” Evan asks without hesitation. “I know... You've used too much mana, more than any reveil could spare. The barrier for three large dorms. The battle with the enemies. Healing and supporting all the students. All to prevent tragedy from coming close to anyone. The way you're trying so hard to conceal you trembling arms and legs… You need to rest.”
“Then where are you going?” Blair’s brows cross. “Rest here until Yan comes.”
“That’s kinda hard.” Her nose starts to bleed but she just wipes it away with her hand.
This alerts Blair, Evan, Emil, and Tristan to get closer to her.
“Listen.” Azalea takes a deep breath. “Okay… I’m going to rest.”
“Ah, you can take the couch.” Tristan offers.
Azalea shakes her head softly. “Listen. I’m about to fall asleep… When I do, I probably won’t be waking up for… a very long while.”
“Seriously, how long is that supposed to be?” Blair asks impatiently.
“Maybe more than a day..?”
“Why are you not sure? And isn’t that a bit too long?”
A half smile is the best she can muster at the moment. “Mhm.” She is so tired, the life in her eyes are not coming back. Her mask is completely gone. There is a slight throbbing in her head. “I’m just going to have a very long sleep.”
Without them noticing, Evan has already come close to Azalea. He offers her his hand. Her sight has gone darker and even pulse has been deactivated. She can barely see the hand and she cannot really tell whose it is though she has a hunch. She can feel her limbs gradually weakening.
“When was the last time I let someone watch me sleep?” She asks herself.
There are not many occasions where she exhausted herself to this point. If she still has some strength left, she would normally find a hiding place. She struggled to find a safe place to rest in… But this time, maybe she has already found a safe place.
“Well...” She tries to reach out. “I'll entrust myself to just this once, okay. JUST THIS ONCE.”
“I understand.” Evan keeps his hand open waiting for hers.
Even so, this does not erase her fear. There are, after all, those times when she woke up to face the outcome of a horrid tragedy. The times she has no choice but to accept the painful reality; full of helplessness and remorse. When she falls asleep, it is like the time has stopped for her, and only for her. The world is spinning continuously while she is stuck unable to do anything. The people either move on with their life… or end up unable to keep it.
“What would have changed once I wake up this time?”
Everything turns black.
“Azalea!!!” Blair shouts while leaping towards her.
Before she can reach the hand in front of her, she falls down as if all the strength in her legs has been drained away. Evan immediately catches her before anyone else can come close. He holds her close to him, embracing her warmth.
“Evan,” Blair calls as she comes closer. “Is she okay?”
“Don’t worry.” He responds with an obviously forced smile. “She is just sleeping.” Even he cannot pretend at this time. The fake smile he wears has been shaken to the point that it cannot cover up his uneasiness.
For a while he looks like he does not want to let go of her. His smile turns into a frown. After taking a deep breath, he carries her to the couch and then lays her down.
Their long and tiring day has ended.
Before the sun sets, Lillian arrives with her yacht. They initially planned to dock by the shore but since it is too far from the fourth watch tower, they decided to make some changes. With most of them close to exhaustion and two unconscious, it will be hard to move around casually. Lillian’s yacht is now docked by the cliff closest to the fourth watch tower. There is no lifts to help them go down so Lillian uses her barrier ability to act as one. She makes a barrier tall enough to reach the top of the cliff, and wide enough for all of them to fit in. She then slowly shrinks the barrier by making it shorter to lower everyone down.
Aside from the members of Asylum, three other professors are accompanying them. They are Isaw Crownheit, Rajid Signas, and Xiao Feng Zhu. Their official role is to protect them and watch over them while they are out of the academy grounds.
Though, their primary role as ordered by the headmaster is to act as their guards just to put the higher ups of ICA at ease.
Without further trouble, they all arrived in Mellow Out café. Since the building has a number of guest rooms, it is no trouble for Lillian to suddenly accept a lot of people to stay with them for a few days or weeks. For now, all they have to be concerned about is getting a good rest.
True, there are no casualties among the students. No one is reported to be severely injured. It is like a miracle that all they got are light injuries such as few scrapes and bruises. The most likely life-threatening injuries have been healed by Azalea’s Healing Aura and with the support of the healer-type reveils in the green dorm. However, it is undeniable that a few hundred have been harmed in District 3 and the number of casualties are still rising from tenths to hundred as of now. While some AB Academy students are celebrating their so called "victory" against the intruders, there are a few groups who find it questionable.
As the sun sets, cries that carried different meanings echoes throughout New Eldoon City. That night, the rain falls as though it is trying to wash everything that happened in the day.
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