The last trip to Japan for some time foreseeable, was the thinking.
Despite having been to Japan numerous times I have yet to visit Osaka or Kyoto, outside of what the inside of their stations looks like.
All the time people, upon hearing that I go to Japan frequently, would speak about how wonderful they thought the country was, and mention sights such as Dotonbori, Todaiji or Kiyomizu, or Arashiyama. Places usually go to on their first visits. Always, I would sheepishly answer that I have not really visited the Kansai area.
The place had so many places worth visiting and I was unsure how many days I needed to devote to a trip to the area. I could do it in two or three trips, but felt a bit of a waste. So I never planned a trip, until now.
Since the last time I have taken some interest to Japanese history through books found in the Japan Foundation Library, from historical fiction like the Tales of the Heike, Yoshitsune to history books such as the Onin War and six volume history treatises in Cambridge History of Japan. While my understanding of the Sengoku Jidai (the period people usually knows more about because, samurai!) remains fuzzy, I’ve come to appreciate a good deal of other eras such as Heian and Ashikaga periods and the role Buddhism played in forming the nation culturally and politically, and the founding of the two great mountain sects, Tendai and Shingon.
And this was going to be the last time I would visit Japan for some time. Travelling alone was reaching its limits. It was stressful and difficult to try different snacks (no one to share with, fills up easily) which takes away some major tourist spots, also hard to force a rest break due to boredom quickly setting in, so going alone in Japan was losing its appeal.
Felt it was time to go to some other places I’ve wanted to go, even if it means not going back to Taiwan for the trip.
So this was going to be the last trip, and I might as well plan a little longer to cover all the spots in Kansai. The decision was made to enter through the Hokuriku area, I actually wanted to visit Kanazawa more than I did of Kansai. Ever since the shinkansen opened to the city it has experienced a real boom both in tourism and investments, and their publicity push has been stunning, with emphasis on tradition and culture that felt more rooted and genuine than Kyoto.
An initial date of late March was penciled in, just before the cherry blossom season. I wanted to avoid the peak cherry blossom season, it was expensive and far too much crowd. If there was cherry blossom, then good, if not, that was also fine. A few places like Kenrokuen I was already set on visiting had cherry blossoms, other than that no plans were made to include any cherry blossom spots in the itinerary.
Then I discovered that there were holidays in late April so it would make sense to go after the season than before to take advantage of them. The dates was quickly shifted.
Two days were allocated to the Hokuriku area, Toyama and Kanazawa, the rest for Kansai area. The exact schedule for Kyoto and Osaka was left undecided, not yet unsure how many days each required.
While still in early days for planning, there were some flyer miles that needed burning so I picked a night in the middle of the trip that provided the best points for money, since many hotels neglect to adjust their point costs for peak seasons, and booked a night at View Hotel Honmachi. In retrospect this was a really awkward location in Osaka and awkward date, but I had no idea of where I’d want to stay yet.
The flight ticket went in a similar way. As I’ve decided to visit Hokuriku it was natural to enter there. China Airlines flew to Toyama while EVA few to Komatsu (near Kanazawa). But EVA did not have flights from Sydney the only choice was China Airlines and Toyama.
Before there was a solid schedule the flight to Toyama and return from Taipei had to be booked; for some reason the flight was almost booked out delays could not afforded. Including the segment between Osaka and Taipei was slightly more expensive than a budget air flight so that was left it out to buy some flexibility, I could decide exactly how many days I wanted to spend in Japan later and only book the flight then.
The planning paused for a few months before resuming at a slow pace. It’s a 2 hour journey from Kanazawa down to Kyoto, I pondered about a break in journey to take advantage of the distance travelled.
It pains to say that Fukui, that prefecture between Ishikawa and Shiga is rather barren. Their biggest attraction seems to be a dinosaur museum, and Maruoka castle, one of the few remaining castles with original pre-Meiji era keep. Neither was worth hopping off the train for.
Somewhere around Lake Biwa, then.
There is a very well made NHK documentary called Satoyama that talked about how Japanese villages existed in harmony with nature, in the show it followed the life of a local villager in Harie, on the western shores of Lake Biwa. Fresh stream water is channeled in small waterways through the village and into the back of houses in inlets where villagers can directly access to wash dishes and vegetables. The water in the channel is kept clean by schools of koi carps, one of many small ways the village lives with the bounties of nature.
Harie is about 80min north of Kyoto. There’s no express trains so access is not very convenient. Although I really wanted to go, it was difficult to fit it in whether as a side trip down from Kanazawa or a dedicated trip out of Kyoto.
Looking to the east side of the lake, Hikone and Omi-Hachiman were obvious choices. One was a famous castle town and the other a town with beautiful canals from the old days. It might not be possible to fit both in depending on when I leave Kanazawa. I made a note and left it at that.
Then a day to Mount Hiei, and two days with a night at Mount Koya. I saw an advertisement for the Okunoin night tour for Mount Koya once and immediately decided I had to experience the graveyard at night.
The rest of Kyoto, Arashiyama, Kinkakuji, Kiyomizu, Gion, Nishiki, Imperial palace and Nijo Castle, plus a few temples out of the long candidate list, I pulled a number out the air and gave them 3 days. Then a day for Nara, 3 days for Osaka though I really have no idea what to do there. All up about 12 days.
I locked in the capsule hotel stays I think I would stay in Kyoto, which unfortunately now had to be spread in two separate blocks, separated by at least one night in Osaka because I had already booked using frequent flyer and could not be altered.
Planning progressed at a very slow pace; there were no shortage of places looked at yet very few decisions made. The number and variety of places in Kyoto made deciding what to focus on difficult. Should I see museums? Traditional crafts? What about the famed moss temple, though it’s rather a pain to secure a reservation. The Kamigamo shrines? Kifune and Kuruma, where Yoshitune learned the secrets of swordsmanship from the tengus? Kyoto is famed for its tofus and I heard they make them differently on the east and west side, can I fit in a tofu cuisine somewhere?
A restlessness took hold and the research became mindless, an emptiness prevented settling on any course or action. I droned on, with the hope that past experiences will find a path through the cloud at the end.
Absentmindedly I went ahead and booked the flight back on Friday late evening. Then a hotel at Awaza in Osaka, which seemed like a convenient enough place to most places I might want to visit, plus it was cheap, be it Umeda or Osaka Castle or Tenmangu or Dotonbori; for the most part I still had no idea what to do in Osaka.
The date at Koyasan was moved forward and back a few times, not sure to make it early to go to a seemingly better shokubo (temple stay) or later and keep it out of the way of the main itinerary. I ultimately went for the later.
The trip went like this for several months, things kept being moved about till I’ve lost track of why I moved them in the first place.
Mount Hiei caused me endless headache. Saturday night was unbelievably expensive in Kyoto and Osaka, I had been searching where to stay when I discovered that out in the countryside in Ohara, the price at the local inn was not weekend sensitive. On a weekday it was a touch pricey but on a Saturday it was comparable. So I might as well go off into the mountains and spend a night in Ohara. But then it did not fit Mount Hiei well, I had already decided to put it the day after Osaka since I could take the JR train directly to Otsu, now it could not be fit in, luggage wise. Ohara up in the mountains demanded at least some warm clothing. Mount Hiei being full of walking demanded no luggage. The two were in conflict.
The schedule remained the chaos.
The bright spot was Kanazawa. The simplicity and compactness of the place made planning straightforward the spots interchangeable. Until I tried to reserve a visit to the Myoryuji, otherwise known as the Ninja Temple.
The temple requires reservations in advance. There is no booking websites or emails, a reservation had to be made via phone. That was not the problem, I can manage simple booking in Japanese by now and the temple’s reception spoke some English. I was shocked to find upon calling that on Monday, which I had originally planned on visiting, the temple was closed.
There was no way I could make it right off the plane so after some umming and without too much thinking, I asked if it was possible to attend the very first tour on Tuesday. The reply was affirmative.
While relieved way, I also knew the day originally intended for Hikone and Omi-Hachiman was now cut in half, and it’s estimated I would only get to Hikone after 1pm.
In the final month, the need to confirm reservations finally forced me to firm up the schedule.
Mount Hiei was out. The main hall was under renovations anyway and the cable cars a good deal pricey; a walk up the east side of Kyoto was put in its place before going to Ohara.
Arashiyama trolley train was removed, the time used to visit a few temples in the north western reaches of the area.
Osaka was virtually removed, leaving just one and two half days to anything suitable. I still had no idea what to do yet, other than Shinsekai and Dotonbori since I have moved the accommodation to Shin-Imamiya to better connect with the train to Koyasan.
The trip remained uncomfortably disorganized even as I step onto the train to the airport.
“This forest smells like the bloated carcase of a beached whale six days under the sun.” Hoshisame suffered, her tone indicated the analogy was born of literal experience than hyperbole. The air was warm and humid. The trunks and roots wept amber tears that inevitably soaked into any item of clothing that brushed past even the slightest while squeezing through narrow gaps. She wringed the side of her shirt, which only got the smelling liquid all over her hands. Her frown deepened, looked on the brink of tears.
Enmir had his face buried in a crude map of the maze, sweating beads. The map lacked detailed features and markers and the dotted trails inaccurate in capturing the twists and turns; the youngsters could afford no better yet. He was looking for a way out of the dilemma before him. A direct path to the Totem might reduce the time they had to suffer, yet that path descends through the worst crevices of the maze. “The forest’s corruption, we will have to brave through it, Hoshi-chan. What’s that? Is there some place to wash up? The streams and ponds we’ve come across have all been corrupted, you saw the muddy brackish water as well. I do not imagine getting a chance till we finish the quest and get back to town.”
A depressed whimper was the reply.
Enmir led them down one of the shorter paths less taken by adventurers, a winding ancient trade road whose last wagon sounded many hundreds years past. The pavestone had been deeply grooved from wear and posed a hidden hazard, the half foot deep layer rotten earth sunk under their weight at these troughs, taking one’s footing if care was not taken.
Yusen watched the two like a mother hen. The girl a few metres ahead and the boy another few further.
A branch failed to bear the weight and snapped beneath his hand. He blinked, flicked what sap he could off the glove and gingerly found a different handhold and climbed over the tangled roots.
“Up the slope, two o’clock,” Enmir called out from his lead position. Great beasts emerged out of the thin mist, trunk like limbs and waist thicker than three men with outstretched arms, three in all. Taller than trolls, their large form deceivingly lumbered with incredible speed. The eyes on those bird like heads sunken and filled with fainting hunger; Yusen felt their blood being devoured merely being under those gaze.
The strange beasts were born out of the swamp, corrupted versions of some creature no longer in existence. Extremely territorial, they roamed the lands in small bands, running down any creature unfortunate enough to cross their paths and after crushing to a messy pulp with their heavy feet, slurp up the spilled liquids.
He gave a wink and a nod to Hoshisame who looked back for guidance; she immediately picked up on his intentions. She spent a second looking in front and to either side. Though this was her first time encountering the beasts, she had studied them using books from the library archives. Though ent-like in appearance the Drandils were distantly related to the common lizards as best guessed by their abilities.
With a few hand signals she directed them to fall a few meters back to a choice rise in the path and formed a loose formation using the tangled roots to protect the flanks.
The first beast crashed into Enmir’s shield. The boy stood resolute, the <Iron Wall> skill employed anchored his footings. The following drandils failed to arrest their motion and ran headlong into the first, their long limbs entangled.
“Stun one, then draw one of them away and hold it, please do that” Hoshisame indicated.
He did not question the directions. He had allowed the girl to assume command, he was to carry them out the best he could and trust her plan was sound. Just as it was her lesson to learn to rely and utilize the resources made available to her.
With the blade held out wide, he leaned low and swept forward, gliding as lightly as the dance of an egret. To the right, the drandil’s massive form passed in a blur, an impervious wall which the tip of the blade glanced off with only light tings. He sheathed the sword.
<Hollowed Piercer>, the jolt of the jab was delivered through the reinforced cap of the sheath, sending a sharp directed shockwave deep into the beast’s sinews. The beast shuddered, then collapsed entirely when it was struck again in its hind leg.
A trunk like limb batted in from the third beast in the mob. The sheath checked the attack, simultaneously he slid out the sword, turned on the beast and delivered a series of shallow scratches that like a horsefly caused more itching than damage.
The beast untangled itself and roared after the nuisance. He slid backward, away, delicately staying just beyond the creature’s reach and led it away for exactly thirty paces. For a moment the beast paused, seemingly measured between its current target and the other two members of its band, then committed itself to first smashing the swordsman. Even the primitive intelligence granted it understood it could not rejoin its band without exposing itself.
He held Lily Blossoms in a slightly defensive forward stance. The beast struck, blow after blow, and were nimbly evaded, or by the blade deflected. The <Unshouldered Wind Stance> avoided direct confrontation. Him being lightly armoured, against such heavy blows even a successful block with the sword can wound him from the bleed through force alone.
<Thunder Tiger Fang> was interrupted by a solid column that met its every movement. Ineffective scratches that barely drew any gold specks. It was outright unfair that the beast’s auoguard could match such rapidity. A counter-strike forced him to tighten the sphere and guide the blow aside.
The deflections drained Focus at a frightening rate and he burned Spirit at intervals to regain Focus, an inefficient use. Adventurers trained for speed such as himself was ill suited to holding enemies with great strengths in place for extended periods, advantage in level or not.
To his right, the clangs of metal and rough hide rang out in quick succession. The two youngsters were engaged in their own fight. The die was cast, for good or ill they could alter it no longer.
For the briefest moment he considered using <To Rather Jade Shattered>, the strongest penetrating attack in his repertoire. He held back the blade. It would not be enough. The beast would protect its vitals and block the strike with one limb, after that he would have exhausted his Focus, incapable of defending, much less following up with another strike. If he wished to keep himself between the beast and his charges, then two strikes were needed, one to force an opening, a second to deliver.
Enmir and Hoshisame. He could place precisely how far a sword swing takes him, nothing for the two being up to it. Only believe.
The bark like cracks on the skin of the beast widened, crackled in a low hissing growl that emanated from its whole body, the glow of its dark pupils keenly felt like pincers on his collarbones. The lunge was fast and sudden.
Could this be deflected with <Fisherman’s Brush of Rain Cape>? Unable to tell, he expended Focus. The autoguard took over his legs and he felt himself shifting four paces to the back and left, the bark like skin so close to the tip of his nose he thought he could count each and every scales.
The evasion broke his stance. Before he had resumed it the follow on strike was once again on him. The autoguard recovered not a split moment too soon and narrowly pulled him out from a crushing fate. The sunken eyes held him imprison beneath their gaze. The revolting beaked face breathed hot and nauseatingly into him fully and swallowed up the distance between them. Close, so close the darkness was burrowing inside him.
Almost completely drained of Focus and Spirit, he must retreat outside the beast’s reach. No, he had to hold it here. There was little to be seen beyond the beast’s gigantic form; from the rapid and frenetic sound of thumps the other fight had descended into a chaotic brawl.
For the first time the blade met the crushing limb straight on. The air stiffened, impossible to breath in. Lily Blossom protested under the abuse, its flames seared into the creature at the same time as its master was pushed back. There was shrieking from both man and beast.
His vision dimmed, redness shot through the eyes. Every bone and muscle seemed to drift apart and he felt none of the pain he had braced for.
“O’ spirit of water…” the girl’s sweet voice rose above the growling and grating steel. Like the pure spring water to a tea master’s heavenly gift, he felt the numbness leave. His vision cleared up.
“I know, sorry ol’teacher, I underestimated how tough drandils are,” there was a tint of panic in her voice.
“It’s okay, you’re doing fine, we still have time.”
Forty one seconds, that was how long <Hollowed Piercer> could stun a beast of this size. How long had it been? The third beast would soon recover its strength. Despite the urgency of the situation he said calmly as though everything was under control. Mentally he checked the smoke stones in the belt pouch.
The girl’s stream of arrows turned away from the beast pommeling away on Enmir’s shield. The beast locked in a deadly dance with Yusen grumbled, fire flowers blossoming against the back of its hind legs where the hide was thinnest.
Suddenly caught between foes in front and behind, the beast turned half way and back, trying to protect its exposed parts, overcome with confusion and hesitation.
“<Lotus Comet>!” a single fiery arrow accompanied her call, it splintered into ten, into a hundred, all aimed true at the drandil’s throat. The whisker of candle at their tips immolated into white hot fireballs, streaked across the air in blazing trails of frightening awe.
The beast was undaunted. Reflexively it raised its clawed forelimb and shielded its head. Against the thick hide the flames splattered and puffed dealing little damage.
The next instant it cried. Its large bird head shook madly side to side. Lily Blossom bit into its right eye and continued scoring a deep cut up the side of the beast’s face. Its autoguard was not up to the task of meeting both attacks at the same time. The beast screeched, visibly withdrawing into a stance that left it less exposed.
It made little difference for Yusen. He was now fully on the offence, the grip on the hilt a half hand lower for striking with force. <Thunder Tiger Fang> followed <Storm Rise Tide Fury> in the same breath. The circles of white steel was wherever the beast could not turn. In large chunks the beast’s health dropped, at the joints and undersides upon the ashe flesh gashes grew and buried arrows sprouted.
<One Flash till the Edge of Horizons> broke through the creature’s guard and severed one of its hind leg’s tendon below the hip. The sword raced up the beast’s spine to the neck.
“Back to that one.” Lily Blossom continued drawing its fiery arc, uncaring of the gold specks spurting out of the downed beast.
“Enmir, hang in there. Just seconds more, hold it in place!” the girl had already rushed back to the boy.
“It’s..heavy,” the boy exerted. His sword arm had a large gash where golden specks bled. He braced against the beast’s sweep with all the strength he could muster.
“You can do it, I know you can,” the words lent him strength, and the boy redoubled his efforts. The beast flexed and crackled, every molecule in the air around it roared with the opened beak, as though it sensed its own impending doom if it failed to crush the boy before it immediately.
The boy roared back in response. He dug in his heels, tossed away the sword and threw his whole being into it. A sheet of rotten leaves went flying under the force of impact.
The boy fell to one knee, his sword arm limp.
Hoshisame cried, “Ol’teacher!”
Yusen was in the air. So high he might be mistaken to have launched off from atop a branch. Lily Blossom described the darting dive of a fiery bird of prey, gathered speed and force in mid air in absorbing silence. A scattering of blown up leaves passed slowly at a hand’s distance, one leaf turned into two, three into six, halved by sheer keenness of the air.
The swordsman’s form was simultaneously coiled in the air behind the beast and in front of it crouched on one foot, connected through by a thin thread of blooming flame. Beautiful as it was terrifying, a captivating moment of stillness and quiet beyond time and existence.
Then, the forest howled. The grievously wounded drandil felt its demise and struggled, clawed, pounded the earth, desperately tried and failed to regain its footing, its body drenched of golden specks from the ghastly gash running shoulder to chest. Enmir hurled it to the ground and arrows found their marks head to fletch in the side of the throat.
The clock ran out, the last drandil stirred. It found itself surrounded, swords and bow at the ready.
~ * ~ * ~
They met no further drandils. Several times they did have to fight off packs of hideous hyena-likes whose skins were covered with putrid boils, much to Hoshisame’s chargrin.
The girl looked to be at her limits. Downtrodden, her steps slowed and Yusen had to constantly look back to keep her within formation.
There was more than the stuffy stench weighing on the girl.
Up ahead something caught their attention. On a slope to the left, barely noticeable over the rusted shrubs was the tip of a leaning stone column.
“Is that, some kind of ruin?” Enmir spoke up.
“We’re in luck. Cheer up Hoshisame, Enmir here has led us to reprieve.”
Yusen bounded over a raised root and pointed at a flight of stone steps barely visible. He pulled away a small shrub with the scabbard, revealing a small stone guardian. The guardian’s features were weathered, its exact depiction no longer recognizable, only it was the image of a kind androgynous figure.
“It’s only a ruin and some statues.”
“This forest used to be a holy place for those who dwelled here before it fell to corruption. This has to be what’s left of one of their shrines. Come, see there is the entrance pathway where the lanterns would have lined either side. Shrines like these are always near sources of good water, can you feel it? Already the air taste fresher.”
The prospect of clean water sent the girl’s spirit soaring. She skipped ahead past him up the path. The top of the small flight of stairs squeezed between a stone gate onto a clearing nestled in a hollow on the hillside.
To the far end scattered the rocky foundations of what might have been a cluster of small huts, slight to their left was a body of clear spring water reflecting the shades of a lush zelkova. The tranquil surface rippled and bubbled near the center where a constant stream of fresh clear water sprung forth from the earth.
A silent figure stood guard over the approach; a dried moss covered stone image of one earth deity Kishtana of Vid’Alucina. All around and before the pool grew carpets of grass sweet and green, soft like the down of baby ducklings.
“Water!” Hoshisame grabbed Enmir and ran ahead excitedly.
The earth deity stood on a raised dais, itself a tall man’s height. Angled eyes overlooked into the distance, sternly daring any with dark hearts to approach and face its mercy; kindly welcoming those seeking salvation to rest with no darkness. Muscled chest exposed in the bared V of its vestment, a bulging strong arm upraised over the head, handless, broken off in the middle of the forearm. It would have once held a staff, or perhaps a scepter.
Despite the well toned frame there was femininity to the way the statue held itself. The waist was slender and the hip curved. The lichen framed chin was shaped slightly oval. The small nose and smiling lips also hinted at an ambiguous nature. This was appropriate, the god of earth was both one of fertility and martial protection.
Standing by the water, for years uncounted, watching the playing children grow tall and the men and women gather in circle with songs and dances to offer thanks to a year of harvest. From snowfall to snowfall till the light dimms, the farmers and their hoe grew feeble and rusted. Villages and hamlets fall into decline and the people dwindled, till none were left to offer fresh flowers and wine, when silence took hold and long night fell, the green realm it once guarded and blessed dwindled and all that remained was this tiny cove.
“You’ve really worked hard. There must have been many adventurers who found respite because of you, just like us, you have our thanks,” he breathed.
The youngsters doubled back, noticing him paused before the image. “Ol’teacher.”
In silence, Yusen lowered himself, with closed hands he cupped some water from the stone trough at its base. The broken clay piping though moss covered still fed a trickle from the pool. He splashed it over the head of the image. He repeated the act twice more, over each shoulder. Two claps, and bowed deeply.
For safe travels on the present journey.
For health and happiness in future to come.
And for successful return to the previous life.
He opened his eyes, stood upright and spoke to his charges. “A custom for paying respect in this world, a show of appreciation for keeping watch over this place and its water. A worshipper taught me the ritual and I thought it fitting to do the same whenever I come across their images.”
“They’re not real. Just settings, someone thought the backstory will be interesting and wrote that custom in some passage somewhere for the NPC to say,” Enmir said.
“Someone decided on the custom, yes, but I don’t know if that renders them void of meaning. The customs exist, and in all the wretchedness of the forest, this place, with water fresh and cold as the first snow melts. I prefer to think this statue has something to do with it, there’s something comforting about the idea. Does not require more than a minute of my time, in any case.”
“I did not know you are superstitious,” Hoshisame commented. She copied the same performance and splashed water over the image, her movements were timid and full of doubt.
“It’s not superstitious. If might be have I expectation of any effect. I do not. In much the same way I might look up my zodiac signs in the morning, just to have a fuzzy intrigue throughout the day, whollely unexpecting to have romance or fortunes my way.” He broke into laughter at Hoshisame’s exaggerated look of dismay. “The fortunes never proved true, for one. Now, we can take turns with some light washing up by that outflow there where the water spills out, so as to not pollute the pool. After that we may as well have some overdue light luncheon and let the exhaustion values wear off a little. As a shrine this should be a designated rest area, still, some strong monsters may wander in, don’t let down your guard.”
“You go ahead Hoshi-chan, I’ll stand watch, the area for danger, I mean.”
“What else could you mean, silly Enmir!” the girl reprimanded. Her face was full of smiles.
Yusen left the two to their playfulness. He walked to the foundations of the collection of huts, taking in the surreal sanctuary. A long time ago, the priests who tended the shrine might have lived here. Or perhaps this was where the shrine attendants sold charms. In the last days of the settlements the villagers might have huddled here seeking refuge from the rampaging corruption.
No priests nor shrine attendants ever existed. It was all created backstory if there was one. The world had been in existence no longer than three years, a world several thousands years or more old. Birthed with generations of history, customs, lives, it was a paradox he had accepted but thus far unable to reconcile.
He leaned down, there was a line of writing carved into a stone block. It was a prayer to bestow blessings on the construction, he decided after consulting a translation help book. The letters finished with a mason’s mark, a four branch pine in a circle of sun or moon; a claim of the artisan’s work and pride; evidence of the person’s existence.
Then, was the mason real?
It was ironic, and one that never failed to render a sadness in his heart, that he would leave less trace upon this world than this imaginary person. Upon the occasion that his skills fail him, his character would dissipate into a cloud of glittering specks, his consciousness fail to return to the other world and short circuit into the void; there would not even be bones for others to mourn.
Existence here was one of floating impermanences, a dream like fancy that might vanish the very next instant.
Yusen withheld the next thought. The train of thinking was never fruitful other than a day of gloom melancholy and loneliness. He should be happy to enjoy things as they were without the requirement to seek meaning in them.
He looked back into iris of depthless brown garnet twinkling like ocean waves.
“Much. Enmir’s cleaning up now,” the girl leaned forward on a waist high stone, like a playful seal with her feet raised off the ground.
In the short time she had washed the muck off her hands and feet and combed her hair. The leather armour could only get a quick wipe down but she did manage to get fresh change of tunics underneath. Her spirit was immeasurably fairer. In the edge of her laugh, a shadow weighed.
“It’s amazing how a place like this can exist in spite of the maze’s level of corruption,” she commented.
“This is a game in its core, from a design perspective these rest points are necessary to give players a location to recuperate or check their progress and log off from. In-universe, I would like to think, the prayers of adventurers and people of this world wishing for a place of sanctuary, the belief gives the divinity of this place its powers to hold back the corruption.”
“So cliche. Are you also spiritual in real life?”
“Out there?” he paused. It was an unspoken rule to not enquire about the outside world. He has been accompanying the two for many weeks now and he still knew very little of them, and them he. For him there was no harm to it, only out of habit did he never mentioned it. “A little here and there I suppose. I stop at shrines and temples and offer the occasional prayers but I don’t really worship there, in the normal sense of the word. I don’t take it seriously, the ideas I do find romantic I think.”
“My parents are very dedicated buddhists. Enmir’s from a christian family, but not that into it, he only went because he had to. When I was little other kids from the church would come out and pick on me because my clothes were always filled with the smell of incense. Each time Enmir would tell them off and walk me home.”
“So that’s how you two became friends.”
“No we were classmates at school, we did not realize how close we lived till one time later, after that we tacked around everywhere. Not like he got along with the other kids at church. I like this world, where previous differences become blurred and people come to know each other without preconceived notions. There’s no buddhists, no christians. He is he and I am I.”
The conversation went like this for a time while they waited for Enmir. About the forest, about the world, about going back to Aroma after the trip, about the small things in life.
Hoshisame rebalanced herself.
“Do not apologize,” he headed her off, startling her. “It was neither the right decision nor the wrong decision. It was a decision. We are ever making decisions, some turn out well, others less so, it is not always evident how things might have gone.”
There was no reply for a very long moment. Then Hoshisame forced her head up and spoke softly. “But I placed us all in danger.”
Yusen pulled up his legs and sat crossed on the stone blocks, a zen master in transmission of koans.
“Why, I won’t deny it got a touch uncomfortable with the drandils but I would hardly say you placed us there. Things considered it was not a terrible decision in other situations, levels, experiences, positioning; striving for balance is not a bad thing. Would you say I placed us in danger by having you lead? You might say that’s different because I had a reason by trying to train you, perhaps, you are really feeling is the reason in what you did. Why you chose the placement that you did.”
The girl digested the words in quietness. A slight flush rose to her cheeks, and she shifted with minute nervous motions. “I understand. I will try to not be clouded next time.”
“No, you do not understand, not yet. But no need to stress about it, there is a charm to it,” he turned his head and gave her a look from the odd angle. “Formless falling water creates holes in the toughest stone. Weakness is strength; strength is weakness. It’s not our strengths that defines us but our weaknesses. Now the boy approaching is foolhardy, such is his weakness.”
Enmir was juggling his cleaned sword between one hand to the other. “Was that supposed to make sense, plus am I? Very well then, what is your weaknesses, ol’teacher?”
“I am terrible at pretending,” he said in tone too serious. “Terrible, yes? What was it about the manager of Aroma said about a talented act? Never mind that clown, I used to be an on paper member of the drama club then there was a period of time when he and others were mistaken regarding my intentions.” He had a wide smile. “I can’t act to save the life of me.”
“You worry us sometimes, ol’teacher. That manager was right about one thing, sometimes you are quite the jester.”
He took his turn with some quick wiping down also.
By the time he returned Enmir had put on a pot of tea and Hoshisame from her pack materialized a wafer of fruits hardtack and some cold sausages. It was no feast, common travel rations that weighs very little and lasts weeks without care. In Vid’Alucina one’s diet made very little differences and on adventures it was customary to eat in the most efficient while bearable manner. Hardtack and sausages were easy to hold in one hand and eaten while on the move. “Just because they are basic and convenient there is no reason we must eat like uncivilized savages,” but Hoshisame would say each time. She sliced them with a small knife and divided them out on white napkins.
They had tea, laid around on the soft grass. Enmir took a nap. Yusen made some sketches of the ruins and pond. Near an hour later their exhaustion have recovered much and were ready to head out once more. Yusen and Enmir had expected Hoshisame to meekly voice protests but the girl only shuddered and exhaled slowly before picking up her gears.
Before departure, Yusen went to the statue, materialized a jug of wine, drank a mouthful, poured a third of the content out then set the jug down at its feet. Not knowing what else he possessed on his person made for appropriate offering, he hoped the earth god would find the small bit of wine to its liking.
One more hour, or perhaps it was closer to two, at last they reached the area where the sunsnakes dwelled. Compared to the drandils the sunsnakes barely constituted a challenge. The snakes dwelled at the heart of the corrupted woods for safety from predators. The drandils kept hunters and other dangers away; the giant beasts themselves held no interest in a snake no larger than a person’s arm.
The sunsnakes were able to live in this twisted place due to their resistance to corruption. In fact where the snakes inhabited the corruption was reduced to a low level. The snakes themselves neutralized the flow of corruption, there was a power in their scales or bones, the research by the residents of Vid’Alucina remained inconclusive. If one fashioned a totem from the sunsnake and buried it in the earth or dropped it into the well, it can cleanse low level corruptions from tainted fields or water sources and keep them pure for weeks.
They identified a nest in a rock crevice and gathered about it.
Yusen pointed at the nest entrance and motioned for Enmir to bring it out.
“What?” was the reply.
“The trap Enmir, the trap. Did you not prepare snake handler’s traps?”
“Oh, is that what we need.”
“No, what you need,” he almost smacked the boy with the hilt. There were a few trap kits in the pack also but they were for small mammals, not very effective in catching snakes.
Hoshisame laid out a bundle of sticks and wires wrapped in bast woven sheets.
A cheer, and a sigh.
Trapping was one of the more common quest types. As one of the required goals or required during the process of achieving the goals, the players needed to capture and bring back a creature. For Enmir’s progression quest, the player is asked to help a village with their water problem. The mountain spring that the village depended on for their livelihood and fields was corrupted by foul creatures, to cleanse the corruption the player need to acquire a sunsnake totem. To have artisans fashion a totem required bringing to them a live sunsnake.
Most players out of necessity invested adequate skills and knowledge in the hunt to utilize trap kits. Like most skill usages in Vid’Alucina, once activated the system would guide a character’s actions toward completing the task as the mind envisioned. Complete knowledge of twisting every hook or tying every thread was not required but one did have to have a good awareness of what one wanted to achieve and how. A snake handler’s trap, a rectangular wooden box with funnels on the two ends, needed more finesse than others, still, between the three of them they managed to set up the cages.
Hoshisame wiped the sweat off her brow. “That’s done.” She looked satisfyingly at the ring of cages arrayed against the nest. “Let’s see the snake escape this!”
Overkill does not begin to describe it, but fair. Yusen smirked. Even he has had enough of this forest. If they failed to trap this one they’d have to trudge about in search of another nest and that could take another hour, even two.
True to the girl’s words. Not long after they retreated behind concealment did a white prodding head raise out of the nest and licked the air. The sunsnake poked left then right, suspicious of the tasty morsels placed within even more suspicious cavities.
“Come on,” Enmir whispered, his grip on her hand tightened. The girl said nothing, squeezing back.
The snake slithered past the first cage, then the second. A third blocked its path and sat confused for almost a minute.
None of them dared breathe.
Just when it seemed the snake was letting its guard down and about to give in to gluttony, it suddenly veered away and shot directly for an opening between the last ring of cages toward freedom.
Yusen resigned himself to spending the night in this forest. At least there was the shrine; they could backtrack to it and camp out. It’s doubtful there were any edible animals or fruits to be found here so it was to be rations of more hard tack and sausages, at best some canned soup. A long cold night, the fire might draw in unwanted attention, taking shifts to keep watch and drowning in coffee to stay awake.
Camping out in mazes had given him few good memories. The darkness grows in strength and monsters that stayed beneath the earth at day wandered at will. Some docile creatures that avoided contact in the sun becomes vicious predators. The protection of the rest points weakens and become easier to breach. At darker mazes the void would even play tricks on one’s senses; many players who ventured out too far on their own become lost and end up deeper and deeper into the depth until they could no longer leave.
The snake braked hard, narrowly avoided being shot through by the arrow that plotted a head’s length before it.
Hoshisame had stood up and was letting fly a second arrow.
It landed even closer to the snake. Terrified, it tried to turn to the left. Another arrow stopped that thought. In a panic the snake did an about turn and fled back toward its nest. Another arrow whistled down and it immediately turned right and charged. Right into the opening of the cage.
The spring loaded mechanism squeezed the funnel shut. The cage shook violently, its captive banged with all might futilely against the walls.
Yusen clicked his tongue and clapped silently. Once more he was amazed by the girl’s resourcefulness.
“That was amazing, Hoshi-chan!” Enmir held her shoulders. “I can’t believe you pulled that off, the aim and timing was perfect!”
The girl hopped excitedly while the praises were heaped on her. “They say when under extreme pressure sometimes people just click.” She went up to the cage, looked proudly at her work. “I felt precisely where and how quick the snake was going to move, and I knew just where I could land them.”
“Just how bad did you want to avoid spending the night here?” Yusen helped Enmir secure the cage, screwing on solid panels with only a few tiny air holes over the funneled ends. “Careful, sunsnakes can be vicious.”
The boy flicked open the interface window which popped up in the air above the cage. He tapped. Then again when nothing happened.
“You can’t digitize into the backpack with something alive in it. Not a regular backpack in anycase.” The cage was bound with a length of rope and flung over the boy’s shoulder. “Careful now.”
They recovered the remaining traps and headed for the home stretch. The strong elemental imbalances rendered porting stones as plain pebbles, exiting the maze was needed before the option for quick retreat was available.
The shadows slanted and grew long. They fought through a further few groups of hyenas and a lone drandil. They went at a hurried pace, eager to see the roaring fire at the inn’s lobby.
“Enmir can turn in the snake at the artisan’s quarter once we get back. I’m going straight to the Auspicious Misty House (福霧館) and float around for some good steamy relaxation,” Hoshisame said on multiple occasions.
Yusen warmed at the cheerful suggestion. But he said, “I will need some super spicy fried chickens from the kitchen, that’s the only way to cleanse the taste out everything.”
“This is not fair, stop taunting me, I thought you were on my side Hoshi-chan?” said Enmir, holding firmly onto the cage. Despite the words he was glad.
They continued in good spirit for another hour, about two thirds of the way to the narrow gate whence they entered.
The setting sun filtered through the forest, the golden rays masking the amber tears of the trees and for a brief moment, the world was at peace. He could even imagine a few birds chirping in the distance.
The three of them were like the travellers of ancient past, merchants hurrying along the trade roads toward the next post station. The merchant with his catch of snake and his huntress partner. And… a hired escort? A fellow merchant? A patrol magistrate?
The forest closed in from a flooded bog on the right. For almost a hundred meters the road curved gently following the edge of the dark water in a convex dike, the mirror like surface shrouded by an uneasy fog that quickly swallowed the drowned brushes. To the far end was a misty tunnel braced by unusually thick grove of tortured woods, their branches choked and strangled overhead, engaged in a battle for dominion of precious space. To the left laid darkness incomprehensible; opposite the water the forest floor fell away steeply into depth beyond the meagre reach of the sun, the causeway barely held up by the tangle of roots and fallen trunks like a clay lined woven basket of enormous size trying to hold in too much water.
An austerity practitioner. He decided.
Perhaps it was time he stepped outside and try in search of that thing to look for in the horizon. The pair had grown much, they could easily duo select quests with care. He smirked to himself. Hoshisame would scold him for raising flags with such statements.
“Ol’teacher, Hoshi-chan, come take a look at this,” Enmir called back.
Hoshisame answered and picked up pace, the side ponytail bounced with cheer on the shoulder.
In the fading light Yusen caught a glimpse of the object in the direction the boy’s pointing hand.
By the waterline laid half submerged an oddly shaped barrel the size of a two man sleigh, with many protruding rods embedded with dark stones of what might be obsidian. The object pulpsed ever perceptively.
“Enmir get back!”
Small flames red and white divided the gloom in a shooting white arc; Lily Blossom had leapt from its sheath defter than a swallow. A series of tings and screech too close together they blended into a single reverberating clash.
The whispering fire rippled past the girl’s left, her expression was suspended by shock in the moment before panic and fear, mouth agape. The flame continued to above her, it described a hook like the needles of pine leaves, coming about in front.
Enmir let out a single cry. A black loop wrapped itself about his ankle and before the boy could slice at it he was engulfed by darkness.
Shadows fell. One, then two.
Where Yusen had been moments earlier dropped a hooded figure limp into the mud. Before Hoshisame another tumbled away, while a third barely held after its weapon was tossed out wide.
He gave no quarters and pressed in, slicing through its biceps.
Shadows rose. Two, then three, then five. In front and behind, and some unseen above.
The flames paused and reversed, coming level at guard before the girl.
“Let him go, now,” Yusen said cooly.
Immediately did he recognize the strange barrel for what it was. An elemental condenser, a device crafted for the purpose of collecting the elemental forces. On many occasions such artifact might be employed to collect the energy of the sun or snow to help bring balance to an area, to help a village’s crop grow, or to restore the habitat of some wild beasts.
There was no use or quests for collecting the forces of corruption, which could only be what the device was doing, half submerged in the dark waters of a foul maze as this.
No quests, except for those given by the agents of darkness.
Most players allied themselves with the ‘good side’ in this world; the regular kingdoms and people who were under threat from the darkness and chaos. The goal was to force back the evil and protect the lands.
There was the option, nonetheless, to forsake the normal route, turn to the other side and aid the darkness in seeding corruption and chaos, even claim townships in the evil dark lord’s name. The game allowed that freedom.
One common aspects of dark side quests involved collecting corruptions, it might be spread in peaceful villages and pave the path for monsters and other dark creatures to invade, to poison water sources, or forged into weapons that empowered the demons.
For a normal game that might be a fun and interesting path for those seeking challenges or a varied take in gameplay.
Not Vid’Alucina as it was now.
Those who carried out quests for the agents of darkness were those who had rejected the main playerbase. Outlaws, criminals. For crimes committed these people were banished from cities under the control of the Concordance, the guilds that came together at the peak of Eventide and formed an agreement to keep order in Vid’Alucina and ended the chaos amongst players.
Some were thieves. Others were highway robbers. Some were rumoured to have joined the darkness willingly, for they were fearful of leaving this world and sought to impede the progress of the players. Many, quite simply and commonly, wretchedly and contemptuously, enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. The hunt of another fellow player.
It was nine against three.
No, eight against two. Enmir was bound and held at knife point. One of the opponents was cut grievously so to be considered out of the fight, the near death debuff needing several hours to recover.
The ambushers made a mistake in launching from above and traded surprise for caution.
The other two, though injured, managed to retreat behind their accomplices and were already healing up with potions. Their performance in any upcoming fight were impaired, but still very much still in it.
Already Yusen regretted not having chased down the third attacker.
“Let him go,” he stated once more, fighting to keep his expression under control. At the slightest sign of fear the pack of wolves would close in. The only reason he and Hoshisame were still standing was because of no one wished to be the first to test Lily Blossom’s wrath after the initial failure.
A voice stated. “Hardly are you in a position to make any requests, do you not think?” The owner of the voice stood on the right at two o’clock. It was a man’s voice, low, raspy. He had his arms crossed before the chest. No weapons could be identified beneath the heavy cloak but Yusen was sure here was someone his equal if not better. There was a collected cruel confidence in those eyes that drilled shivers down the spine.
“Enmir!” the girl next to him called out. She was trembling.
The boy struggled but could do nothing against the bounds.
She made a step toward him before Yusen stopped her.
The raspy voiced man was correct in his suggestion. Against such numbers there was no hope of rescuing Enmir by force.
A ransom, if they were lucky. Trouble was he could see no reason why these highwayman would not try to make it at least two ransom. And that was hoping money was their only goal. Yusen could not help but risk a glance at Hoshisame. He told himself he had to try and assuage her fear.
There were none, only concern and anger for her childhood friend.
“We are not wealthy players, neither are our friends,” he said. In effort to stall for time.
“That will be a shame then. Since that means extracting value out of you in other more, creative ways. Fortunately, you do have something quite valuable amongst you,” the man’s eyes moved between him and Hoshisame. “I apologize, please make it two, valuable things. That sword of yours is from that pretty smithie of Smonglr Cliff, I am not mistaken as I am sure. A marvelous piece of craftsmanship, most marvelous. She does not accept commissions easily, indeed she is very protective of her work. A good choice, I will commend her, but a choice that leaves many with eager demands without a supply.
“The sword will fetch a very good price at certain channels. A weapon of such class is assuredly bound to its owner’s life and even if we can convince you, will not be able to have you part with it. So it is as the saying goes, over your dead body. It is a shame to have to acquire such beautiful work through bloodshed, but one has to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.”
The man’s polite mannerism was unsettling.
“If this is what you seek then that’s easy. Let the two of them go, then you can have it.”
“No, ol’teacher!” Hoshisame said quietly. “No.” she said again when he gestured for her to say no more.
“How courageous and selfless,” the man clapped slowly. “But very foolish. As soon as these two are safely out of the way, rather than standing nicely still for us to cut you down, you’re going to make a run for it. There is no shame in admitting, you are very capable and there’s far too great a chance we will fail to stop you. Consider the proposal denied.”
“Then you can try with force and I promise to take as many of you with me.”
“An unappetizing risk, won’t deny the possibility, but as mentioned, you’re not the only one of value. I can also get a very good price, incredible price even. There are some who aren’t too concerned about making omelettes, they however really enjoy breaking eggs.”
His grip on Lily Blossom tightened.
The other seven opponents were not at the level of their leader but each were more than a match for Hoshisame. He eyed. There was a single scout, identified with the longrunner boots. The one holding Enmir held a small knife but Yusen noted the bow on his back, the wear on it suggested he had been through no less than the leader. Four were positioned in loose encirclement. Then there was one more up in the tree he could not tell.
Enmir pushed against his restraint and yelled. “Forget about me. Ol’teacher, get Hoshi-chan out of here, I ask of you. Take her and go!”
“No! Enmir!” the girl was pulled forward by those words.
“Listen to me and get out of here, g-!”
“Shut it you.”
It was perhaps the only correct choice. If he made a break for it with Hoshisame they had half a chance at getting away. Enmir, by himself, could perhaps be ransomed, if he had not been deemed too troublesome to be worth the effort. The chances were poor, but infinitely better than if they tried to make a stand.
The girl stopped him before any words could be forcibly formed.
“No! Ol’teacher,” she pleaded. “We can’t leave Enmir. We can do it, together we will get him back. Tell me you won’t leave him here.”
He bit the lips. Those eyes, those pure eyes had their lustre robbed by dread. He could neither shake nor nod his head.
“I understand,” the girl was crestfallen. Her shoulders trembled with suppressed sobs, the ground between her feet sputted with fallen tears. “I know I’ve been a real spoil, ever asking the unreasonable,” she hushed and stuttered, quitely did the words emerge. Soft, broken, full of conviction. “Please grant me just one more request. Please.
“Please take good care of that bumbling idiot boy Enmir for me.”
“Don’t!” Yusen hissed.
Hoshisame suddenly drew her bow.
“Stop, come to your senses. You will do no right for either him or yourself. You know what awaits. They will not kill you while you will wish they would!”
The girl wrested free of his hand and charged heedlessly.
To make the opening for her teacher to save her childhood friend. Whatever the cost. Whatever the sacrifice.
The girl blinked at the blurry vision. Her eyes were hot, filled, and she could hardly breathe. The steps felt distant beneath; she was running, she thought. She had to go faster. Dimly she was aware of the enemy leader raising his hand in pity. Yes, here was a foolish girl, compelled by the throbbing stuck at her throat. She had to close in further, her aim must be true. That hideous figure holding her childhood friend bondage. If there was even a one percent chance she knew it was what she had to do.
Their teacher was a good man. A skilled man, thoughtful and kind. Without asking for returns he had gladly accompanied them, taught them, protected them.
She remembered the time she found a bearwolf pup at a night bar, kept in a glass cage for the entertainment of guests. The sight of the poor creature was unbearable. When she asked the owner for its release the owner demanded a thousand pieces of blue coesite shards in return.
The volcano where coesite could be found was far too advanced for her and Enmir. But their teacher suddenly took them there one day that week after. He refused to have any business with the frivolous quests, but stood by patiently driving away the high level monsters while they scraped the delicate crystals out of the slope full of cut scoring jagged pebbles.
How kind, her teacher had always been. And she was asking a greater burden upon him.
He always had a cool expression while he waited by the school gate. A wholesome unreserved laugh when crossing the finish line, win or not. How easily he blushed when teased.
How tall his back appeared when yelling at the church kids.
Maybe she would wake up on a hospital bed and the death game was a lie.
Maybe there were no worlds, neither now nor before and after.
She looked into Enmir’s troubled eyes and comforted him with hers.
Whatever may be. She hoped.
She started the motion to let fly the arrow.
Flames entered the vision and she felt a dull sensation, everything drifted away as though her soul was separated from her character. Vaguely she thought something blunt knocked into her back, on a segment of the spine right between the shoulderblades. It somehow felt familiar, something from when she practiced with her teacher.
She felt her body floating ahead of herself. The world turned and quivered, the muddy ground rose up till she was looking flatly at the rotten leaves and distant tree roots and she knew she had landed face down on her side.
“Huuuuahhh,” she wanted to cry out and could not. Her hands and feet twitched uncontrollable, ensnared by numbness. She was not sure whether to reason or to despair or to wonder.
“Hoshi-chan!” Enmir gasped. As did the outlaws.
The footsteps of steel lined boots halted unquietly near. A shadow loomed over her.
“Don’t you think you’ve gone far enough with the spoiledness?” the voice was terrifying, unrecognizable. But there was no denying whom spoke them.
Her teacher, who never so much as leveled a harsh word at them, stared down at her with a smile as twisted as the flames embering out of his blade.
Why. She mouthed. Her body curled up uncontrollably, overwhelmed by an unrelenting rejection that threw forth deep within. Why.
Enmir beseeched in terrified surrealness. She could not hear with all the fuzzing but understood the words to be asking of their teacher.
Was it betrayal? Had they been deserted by the one they trusted the most? Was it something she had done? Why. She convulsed again and again.
There was no answer. In frightful stillness her teacher stood there, vacantly taking in her tormented form, only the occasional foul breeze tugged at the ends of his hair and edges of the sleeves.
The enemy’s chief laughed, thoroughly entertained by the unexpected unfolding of events.
“You have not realized it yet? Your mentor is in love with you,” the raspy voice was basked with mockery. “He is consumed by it, enslaved by it. How I feel pity. To imagine being witness to his heartache throw herself away, and be asked by her to look after the object of jealousy. To have it laid bare where he placed in her bosom and thoughts. Women can be so very heartless and cruel.”
Perhaps he heard the man’s words, or perhaps he had completely succumbed into his own world. Yusen knelt down and softly traced her features, then caressed her hair with unasked tenderness that sent chills to her stomach. The sound of Enmir protesting against the restraints failed to bother him in the slightest.
A cold breeze rustled through the branches like a heralding wave and between them, carrying with it the sounds of laughter past. Hearts sank with the falling light and dreams blacker than the night. Once there were her gleeful giggles, his triumphant bravado, and his assuring interjections. Now left was her sniffing tears, his distraught struggle, and his uneven breathing.
“For long have I watched, never knowing the distance to stand, never knowing how to part,” at last he breathed. His hand had followed the shape of her neck to her shoulder, which he patted gently. “Never could I understand, I was content, or so I thought. To watch you and him tease each other, watch you mope and sulk over his inconsiderateness, to hear you and him laugh and frolic, watch you share the same straws, to bite the sugared plum off a stick in his hand. To suffer this hurt and emptiness, to hide it all. With a small hope for you to notice. I am not greedy, I am not vain, I do not dare desire for much. A little praise, a little thank, a little smile some way as you would for him. In the end, it amounted to insignificance.
“You are beautiful, smart, selflessly caring and your smile sweet poison. A fair flower put in a clay trough; he neither appreciates nor comprehends what fortune blessed him with. Weak, brash, foolish and self centered. He is not deserving. For a while I was sure in time the present can overcome the memories of the past.
“He is not worthy. Yet you fail to see.” he said. A hand held her face up to the direction of the boy twisting and stamping. She shuddered with horror. “Why would you be willing to condemn yourself for him? What will it take for you to understand how much better you deserve? Why do you not see there is another who can bring you joy a thousand times more, who will treasure a jewel with wrapped silk and tend to a lily flower with fresh mountain snowmelt?”
Slowly, he stood up. “All that remained then, the way to open your eyes is to severe all bonds and hopes. Perhaps, when all avenues are closed and there is nothing but despair will you at last reach out for the firm arms that has always been open for you.”
The deadness of his eyes sent Enmir reeling.
Their teacher toyed with the facing of the sword in his hand. He approached, on the footsteps of envied malice. “It was always him. If he had gone away in the Eventide. If he had disappeared long ago. A secret training gone awry. Careless in some solo quest. Ate too much like the glutton he is. If a little gentle prodding and tiny guiding had gone this way and that.”
He looked down at Lily Blossom, then up the captive boy. His head tilted at an odd angle beamed with unspeakable fancy that brightened with every step forward.
The outlaws were beyond themselves. Never could they have imagined their most difficult adversary would have his mind snapped and broken and resolve their own dilemna for them.
The man holding Enmir exchanged a nod with the leader. He wrested the boy by the arm and positioned him out neatly to the approaching swordsman. If the tragic man was going to slay his former student and friend then he was more than happy to oblige to close out a story well told.
“Please, I’m sorry. I did not know. This is all my fault, Please don’t hurt him. I’m the one who caused you all the pain. Don’t hurt him. I beg you,” the girl clawed at the earth in front of her and found no hold, leaving only lines her finger trailed. She wailed for her dearest friend. Cried out the same name she would use when they exchanged ice creams after shopping for study guides together. She kicked and pulled frantically, yielding less than even a hand’s distance. In an anguished cry she broke down and wept. Then redoubled the futility.
The icy world tasted of mud. The warm wetness matting locks of hair to the face and lips sour and bitter.
Unripe dreams snipped at the stem fell one by one into a basket bottomless. The futures no longer seen.
The skies where they had together taken flight on fanciful nights were without light, the starry mozaic of moments now and before glittered and fell, beneath the mirror like seas fading into murky depths. There was no turmoil, only stillness. Not acceptance but absolutely forlorn abandonment.
The struggle continued with full knowledge of the impossibility, in spite of it. Because of it. Against reason, against meaning.
Their teacher went before the boy, the tip of Lily Blossom pointed slightly behind at the ready. Without pause it drew up and forward, a rising crescent.
The outlaws chuckled with anticipation. The leader stood expressionless, like a god observing his toys. The boy gritted and glared.
Forsaken, abandoned, even her scream failed her, robbed of air, the world frozen in asphyxiation.
Gold specks sprayed against the backdrop of the burning edge. As they crossed the air the beautiful and mesmerizing particles lost momentum, to begin the last journey of their existence floating into the twilight.
In the same instant Lily Blossom reversed, like the autumn wind it described a score of lightning flashes that engulfed the figure at the centre.
Only then did the clock of the world resumed its turning.
Enmir was held up by the collar of his shirt. “Earn this.” With that, he was thrown flying and tumbling.
The boy fell on his back. Through the stars he pushed himself up right at the moment to see the embering sword be yanked out of the chest of his captor. The man had a sunsnake wrapped around his neck; it had escaped when its cage was sliced open and in rage bit into the first person it saw.
The bonds had been cut, he realized. No further than a meter to his right laid Hoshisame.
“Take her, go!”
Lily Blossom cartwheeled through the air into the outlaw with longrunner boots, knocking the man over. Everywhere weapons were being drawn, slowly coming to realization
A shower of cracker pebbles sent two outlaws near the youngster scrambling. Their teacher narrowly squeezed past several swings directed his way, He caught up with his sword, snatched onto the hilt and continued into <Storm Rise Tide Fury>, cutting through more than half of his opponent’s health.
Enmir reached out and found her hand. He clasped it. The warmth transmitted through the mud caked soft hand jolted to every data of his body. The thoughts and images that failed to be absorbed suddenly swelled through. He pulled her to him. “Hoshi-chan,” he choked. She squeezed back.
“Ol’teacher,” he looked up and saw the same collected and thoughtful teacher he had always known.
“Come on now, carry Hoshisame if you have to. Don’t look back,” his teacher twirled the sword in his hand. He let out a hearty laugh. “What’s with the face, have you not heard, I’m quite the act. Had even you fooled did I not. Now run! No way am I going to let you babies be taken, I’ll be the laughing stock at Aroma.”
An outlaw approached with axe held up high. The man was intercepted, sword against axe the exchange sounded in crisp succession.
“Use everything you’ve learnt, don’t rush, don’t hesitate, escape this maze.” His teacher gulped down a potion and tossed the empty bottle. “Don’t worry about me, I’m your teacher remember? I’ll see you on the outside. And you better be ready to receive a good grilling!”
Enmir lifted up the girl in his arms. He expended only a moment with hesitation. “Thank you, ol’teacher,” he obeyed the order and started.
Behind him on the causeway the battle grew frantic, white smoke billowing from dropped smokers covered the escape. Each time the outlaws tried to give chase they would find their path blocked by the embering sword.
On into the gloom he ran. He slid down slopes, leapt over tangled roots and mud pits. On for many minutes he ran, darkness before and behind and to every side. The sounds of clashing blades became faint, till there was only the trickling and dripping of rotten tree sap falling into water. Still he continued to run.
The softness in his arms stirred. “Enmir?”
“Yes, Hoshi-chan. We are safe, for now. Thanks to our teacher,” he answered. “Can you walk?”
“The debuff is wearing off, I think so,” she had him put her down. She had to keep a hand on him for support for the first few steps before finding her footing.
“He said…. He said to run, get out, and that he will meet us on the outside. We have to do as he asked, we have to get to safety.”
“I… we,” Hoshisame tried to find the words. She fell silent.
As did he. Hand in hand he and she continued into the night.
Burned into their hearts were the last image of their teacher, their friend, holding the causeway, his resolute form standing tall and alone, illuminated by the embering flames of Lily Blossom.
~ * ~
“Is it worth it, don’t you wonder, to trade your own survival for those two,” the man with the raspy voice asked. The man pointed to his left thigh.
The nasty gash ached. He had suffered the wound in the dash to bring down the scout. Though the potion stopped the bleeding and no more gold specks bled, it still hindered his movements. There was no getting far on the injured leg.
“Worth is a funny thing,” Yusen answered. “Whatever you may say I will not permit any harm to come to them on my watch.”
The outlaws came at him, a wave of tsunami battering a lone rock on the shore.
Yusen maneuvered along the causeway, constantly shifting and angling away so that he always faced only one or two opponents at a time, never allowing them to surround him. He would advance, perform a half-strike, and suddenly retreat, a staccato to the opponents’ cadence like nails on chalk.
There was an unfamiliar clarity to his observation of movements for each including himself. He could see precisely the path each attack would take, knew where he could position himself and how soon his own sword could be brought to bear. He met the attacks with his own defensive skills, sparing the autoguard only for moments where it benefited.
His heart had left with the boy and only tranquil thoughts remained in the emptiness. Each skill was executed with synchronized orchestration, expending the precise amount of spirit and focus needed to match the attack.
The outlaws had surprise on their faces. For attempts uncounted did they launch attacks that would have left even the most hardened veterans at wits end, yet on this night their opponent never failed to find the slightest imperfections in their execution and foiled the plan with a well timed move or defence skill. They scored minor hits, scratches and light damages that seemed more allowed than successes. Like throwing stones against an immovable bulwark.
The fight went on. Seconds dragged into minutes, into tens of minutes. Had there been fewer opponents; had they not been allowed to retreat when wounded and the place filled by another, the outcome might have been different. As it was, the end was decided from the beginning.
A thin moon had sailed half way up amongst the stars. Still Lily Blossom danced. And the outlaws were infused with awe and wonder and terror filled, and might have scattered under a less determined command.
At last exhaustion rendered natural recovery and items ineffective, and even the most expertly played strings of a koto were stretched taut at the limit. Yusen found himself backed against a wide tree trunk, his breath heavy but even.
He could hold back the foes back no longer. In silence he prayed that was time enough for the two, and for the earth divinity, if it still dwelled and watched this place, to guard and guide them out of the maze safely.
The path of the coming rapier was clear, yet he could do nothing. It stabbed into his side. The rapier’s wielder, a youth yet without malice or greed in his feature, surprised by the success he held the pose for a moment, then jumped back.
He held onto his sword, the only thing keeping him from falling over.
It was worth it. He muttered under the breath.
What was it, he could no longer recall. Something important, something dear. He could neither see nor hear it any longer.
But as sure as he was that the sun rises. It was worth it.
“You have my respect,” the raspy voiced man said. “But I hope you know you have no skill in pretending.”
Line of tears he didn’t realize were there ran down the cheek.
A side story set almost 2 months after the Fireseed adventure.
Yusen deflected the giant locust’s attack; the curve of the single edged long sword met the creature’s stabbing right appendage and applied just enough force to shift its aim by a hand’s length.
A string of arrows struck the giant locust. The second member of his team, a girl with a composed demeanor, fired from twenty paces away across the abandoned field. The arrows did little damage, bouncing off the locust’s hard exoskeleton. Then one found a joint, elicited a screech from the bug.
Taking the moment of the creature’s divided attention. He adjusted his handgrip, turning the edge at angle, and unleashed one of his best guard-break attack, <Storm Rise Tide Fury>. Such was the force of impact the bug was visibly shaken, its legs scampered to regain footing.
On other days he would sweep low in a whirlwind to behind the creature and defences. He instead drew back half a step, monitored the young man to his right take up the vacated opening.
“<Cross Strike>!” the young man lunged. The movement activated his character’s skill and the body moved to a will of its own. The gladius was thrusted right to left. The creature shrieked terribly, a deep gash scored across the underside of its unsightly head. “It’s a hit!” The man exclaimed excitedly.
The young man followed the shirking locust in as was instructed earlier in the day. The creature bowed from the wound, revealing the weak spot behind the forehead between the back pair of antennas (the giant locus has two pairs), an area that could be described as the start of the locust’s neck. Almost, another strike by its chin will leave the locust stunned and fully exposed.
“Don’t!” Yusen frowned, hurriedly pushing forward.
The young man leapt high, aimed and brought his blade down. “<Falling Fang>”
That was not how he was instructed.
The gladius struck true, biting into the supple flesh –
-the blade, the young man and his buckler was tossed high up in the air. The locust’s hind legs packed a force more powerful than a cyclop’s fists.
“Enmir!” the girl’s cry came from behind.
The bug screeched and lunged, its yellow disgusting gel covered mandibles clamping down hungrily.
The young man’s attack failed to penetrate more than skin deep and only enraged the creature.
“Hoshisame (星雨), take Enmir.”
Late to launch yet earlier in arriving, Yusen placed himself in between the locust and the young man. With one hand he grabbed the fool by the back of the shirt, threw him down. With the other he swept the curved sword in a defensive strike.
Steel met rock hard chitin shell. Sparks showered. Yusen knocked the creature’s foreleg back, spun a full circle in mid-air, timed to catch a second strike from the locust. He and the locust landed back on the ground, both having expended considerable Focus in the exchange.
“How bad? Hoshisame.” He asked, keeping his sight ahead, past the blade and on the locust’s domed eyes.
“Down to one third health, it was a critical hit, fortune upon him, the shield took some of it. Status wounded and the bar was dropping fast. I’ve given him a potion, that stopped the health loss but it is not increasing much. Should I give him another?”
“That is fine. Stay back and keep out him out of trouble. Give him another, that will fill his exhaustion but cannot be helped.”
Yusen shifted his footing back, drawing the sword hilt back and up, the tip pointed forward, in a two handed over shoulder stance.
“Please be careful, ol’teacher.”
“Observe with all your hearts and learn, that is what you are here for. Enmir too, if he was not wrought under pain.”
It was PuddingBitter (苦布丁) who tasked him with training the two new recruits. The guild master picked up a herd of younglings during one outing and had the mind to take them under the wings. Something about duty to help those less experienced, guide them into the harsh difficulties of the third continent, where levels spiked and monsters grew sophisticated and intelligent. A good soft hearted man that pudding was.
Himself? Yusen was glad just to have a few rookies to tease and show off in front of. As Pudding liked to say, a simple man.
He was a high B ranked player (almost level 400). Against a lightly wounded giant locust of the Kazdon Fields it was a safe, if still some way from being easy fight.
9/9/7, 2/1/3. He scanned the overlay display and noted his Health, Spirit, Focus and respective exhaustion levels. He was in good conditions. Clearing half the field took some toll on exhaustion levels, especially Focus, the primary stats governing auto-guard and effectiveness of using skills. The 30% exhaustion level was going to delay recovery of the Focus expended in the exchange so far. He had best not draw out this fight.
Still as a mountain, calm as the winter lake. He breathed, and exhaled with the breeze. He burned Spirit with <Clarity Mind> and became one with the world. The creature before him grew large and closer. Every joint, every seta, every tendon of the creature was apparent.
The locust hissed at him, as if sensing the change in the man’s attitude, though he knew the creature did not possess the intelligence.
He held several distinct advantages. His agility compared to the locust’s size, his awareness over the insect’s based instincts, and his weapon.
His sword was a more ancient style than the common warrior sword of the East. The blade a full meter in length, the hilt also extended to allow a loose two handed grip. Less dextrous, better reach and speed. An extremely well forged sword granted the name <Edge of Thousand Fiery Lily Blossoms>. (千焰百合之鋒）
He channeled Spirit into it, the steel reddened and small flames enveloped the blade.
<Thunder Fang Tiger>, he charged the locust, felt the skill activate and allowed the system to guide his movements. Fast was the attack, at first unsettlingly silent before bursted in a thunderous gong, as if the surrounding air itself was cracked and buckled. Behind the thrust was force enough to shatter even the hardest shell of a Unkadu scorpion.
The locust leapt over the sword and him in effortless and harmlessly, in great anti-dramatic fashion.
A worried gasp escaped Hoshisame.
The Focus and Spirit consumed in executing the skill was not wasted; Yusen was counting on the locust executing the jump when confronted by a strong frontal strike.
He hooked one foot in the ground. The momentum reversed with the maneuver skill <Turn of Fall Leaves>, he cartwheeled, launched after the creature, sword rising – <Strongman Nigon’s Mountain Cleaver>.
The blade sliced through the soft underside. Glowing specks erupted thick and heavy out the large wound, accompanied by the creature’s suffered whine. It crash landed in a heap chin first, but quickly rolled back onto its legs. Its mandibles opened and closed furiously, with a cry, out launched glob after glob of yellow stench steaming spit at the human.
Yusen approached head on. The auto-guard guided his movements, his arms moved with a will of its own, the globs spattered on the sword edge and dripped to the side, his legs carried him out of harm’s way. For those that the system could not completely deflect, he braved through, the burning sensation sent tingles wherever the glob splashed on the skin. His health dropped, increments small enough which he ensured. He kept the advance, not allowing the locust’s attack to hinder. Cutting and stabbing at its appendages, exhausting the creature’s own Focus.
The locust could not escape by performing the same leap, with its ghastly wound. It clawed and kicked threateningly to keep danger from striking, with varied success.
He spared it little sympathy. It could not be considered alive, and it was a vicious creature that attacked without provocation. It was either it, or him and the two rookies under his charge. Such was the way of this cruel and unfair world. Filled with suffering, tragedies, harshness. The only surety was the system and its absolute fairness.
He and the creature obeyed the same rules. Auto-guard was not effective while actively using combat skills.
The creature, was not given the intelligence to be aware of that fact, nor learn of it after he just exploited it.
Yusen offered the locust another opening, intentionally suppressed the system auto-guard from moving into blocking posture. Manually he leaned to the right, in the starting movement of <Shrouded Waterfall>. It was a risky endeavor, forgoing the auto-guard. He was solely responsible for judging the timing and distance for the move. The slightest miscalculation would result in the locust inflicting an unguarded critical hit, the same as was done to Enmir.
He felt the locust’s <Pincer Bite> snap past. A small chunk of his health dropped, taken by a graze to the left shoulder, otherwise it failed to register as a hit. Suddenly he was to the right and behind the bulb that was the bug’s head.
The upraised curved sword slashed down, like a sheet of fallen water it cut cleanly through the weakspot behind the forehead. The locust twitched, fell flat.
He shrugged off the golden specks clinging to the blade, returned it to its sheath.
“Are you okay, Hoshisame?” he turned his back on the limp body of the locust that was slowly dissolving into floating golden specks, and asked.
“We are alright, thanks to you ol’teacher,” the girl answered. Her gold streaked dark hair was disheveled, some of that side ponytail caught on her gentle features in sweat.
“Good job with the potion, quick response,” he said. Noting the way the girl had helped Enmir to the potion bottle. “You’re very used to taking care of that fool.”
“Childhood friends, afterall,” there was a smile. She looked at the young man sitting next to her with doting exasperation. “He’s the one with a sword and spot at the front, he gets hurt a lot more than I do.”
“Thank you, ol’te-ooch!” Enmir took a pommel to the head.
Yusen sheathed the sword. “Next time, do as instructed! You could have gotten yourself and Hoshisame killed. Understand? This is no simple game, you die here, you’re dead.”
“Yes, sir,” the rookie answered. He paused, jumped and ruffled his hair in annoyance. “Damned’it, I thought I could hit the weakspot and finish it there.”
“You need to know what your limits are,” Yusen said calmly. He did not blame the young man, at least not much.
Things almost went very wrong, if Yusen did not outlevel the locust significantly they most certainly would have become another names in the Field of Remembrance, like many other rookies who failed to learn the lessons in time. It was why BitterPudding tasked him with training the two in the first place, to guide them in the hunt and teach them the skills needed to survive, skills that he and others had learnt through too much sacrifices. And they had just learnt one of the most important.
“If you hope to succeed in your adventurer progression test, you need to learn more about yourself, your character. Vid’Alucina is no longer a game, but at its foundation is still a game. Lesson of the day, listen well, there’s no such thing as uncertainty. You need to know that that strike is beyond your character’s abilities currently. For example, do you know how many seconds it will take you to reach that, ignoring reaction time and not using any skills?” he pointed to a large stone boulder some fifty paces out.
“Maybe 7, 8 seconds?” Hoshisame blinked.
“I say about 7 seconds as well,” said Enmir.
“It will take me 4.88 seconds. This is important, your character’s stats are known at any point in time, based on those stats the system has calculated how fast you can move. You need to know what the system has decided. Unlike in real life, your character can always put out 100% of what it is capable of at that point in time based on its stats. If I can run 50 paces in 4.88 seconds, then I can always do that when I need do, and I can never do it in any time less so I know to never attempt it if I do not have 4.88 seconds.
“For most of your journey up till now you’re used to levelling up, getting better equipments and adding to your stats, trading blows and overwhelming monsters through sheer force of numbers, sprinkling maybe a few exploitation of weaknesses. But once you are in the Third Continent, levelling becomes harder, the differences in stats gets smaller, your character’s growth plateaus. Learn to play closer to your potential, it is what will keep your alive and take you further.”
It took little time for Hoshisame to realize the implications of his words. She nodded, “I get it, if I know precisely my limits I can maximize efficiency and avoid mistakes. But what of times when I am not at 100%? Say I have exhaustion, wounded, or have a buff or debuff?”
“That is the million ducat question of what separates good players from the masters. The more you are able to accurately judge your limits at any circumstances, the better you will be compared to others. You expend less Spirit, lose less Focus; strike with faster speed and waste less moments readied in defence, you become equal of someone several folds higher in skills. I myself am not anywhere close to that stage when it comes to calculating moves, in fact I am but a novice that has made a small step. Nonetheless knowing what can be achieved in perfect conditions gives a good baseline to start out from.”
“Can anyone actually do that? Knowing what one can do in any circumstances,” Enmir was less than convinced.
“Indeed, that is a stage more hypothetical than reality. In practice, very few realizes the importance of simple training and knowing limits. As that connotes, you two are already better players than most you will meet on the street in Port Capital. But to answer your question, yes, there are probably a few out there, the absolute top players, who can perform near 100% for most times. There is at least one I know for certain who does, he who taught me the ropes.”
“Not my teacher, at least nothing formal. It was when I first ventured out in the Third Continent too. He helped me with a difficult quest, and taught me many things over the course of a few days. Then he left, as sudden as he had appeared. The very best player if I’ve ever seen one.”
Yusen looked up at the clouds, lost in memories.
Finally, he turned back to the young pair.
“I can still fight, my health has been restored,” Enmir saw the glint in his eyes and protested.
“And the next time you suffer a grievous wound the potions would prove ineffective. Patience, few peaks are climbed in a single day. That is enough for one day, we have cleared three fields of infestation, that earn us a moderate grade bounty reward. The other fields will be cleared by others over the next few days. In time, the farmers will reclaim these fields and the nearby villages will prosper that little bit more. Did we salvage enough saplings while we’re at it?”
“This one makes twenty,” Hoshisame just about finished up putting away the pumpkin vine sapling the locust had been drawn to.
“We need four more,” said Enmir.
“Five, you also accepted the request of the lady by the dried well who desires one for her garden.”
“Gives you two something to work on this weekend together, is that not wonderful say you two, less shopping for you, and more opportunity for you, and less embarrassed look from both please. We head back, and go somewhere for dinner, Enmir’s treat.”
“No complaining. Consider it punishment.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” said Hoshisame as well.
“What would you like, ol’teacher?”
“You two have been to most of the better known places in Port Capital in the past month, I think? That’s right. So, how about tonkatsu curry? Have you been to Aroma, it’s a cafe in Palmerton.”
“Aroma? Oh let’s go there, let’s go there. Inglekitty told me about it, she say they make the most wonderful taste, and their dessert is sublime!”
“Eh…. I heard that place is really expensive?! Ah… well, if Hoshi-chan is keen to try it.. I guess everyone should have some enjoyment now and then.”
“Yay! Thank you Enmir.”
“It’s decided then, we’ll head out after reporting to the guild.”
~ * ~ * ~
He files his report with BitterPudding and met up with the rookies in the entrance lounge. The day’s hunting done, the two had changed into casual outfit; something experienced players who endured the chaos of Eventide usually frowned upon, the horrors of their memories demanded they be always at alert. Now the days were calm, in the streets people greeted each other warmly in passing.
Enmir wore dyed jeans and a t-shirt printed with an illustrated picture of the Shaman, reigning champion of the Arena. The boy was a great fan and followed the matches keenly every weekend.
T-Shirt. It was hard to believe that fashion took hold in this world. Life had become so normalized that people could devote resources into less practical matters. That they spent enough time outside of dungeons and hunts to warrant purchasing clothing that could only be worn in town.
Keeping to her usual efficiency, Hoshisame had redid her side ponytail. A <露肩上衣> with skirt like hems and shorts that was the latest trend from the Western First Street fashion market.
Yusen also was slowly getting used to not worrying about being stabbed around every corner. He walked easily, without armor or other protections. He kept his sword at side, a compromise to contain the nerves. Without it he felt exposed.
They walked to the transportation courtyard. The rookies followed him, pulled on the porting bell and were instantly transported kilometers away in the elemental stream that covered this world like a fine web.
“Chuu!” sneezed Hoshisame as soon as they stepped out of the fading glow of the elemental stream. She accepted a blanket from Enmir and clad it about her shoulders like a cowl.
The temperature was noticeably several degrees cooler than Port Capital. A distant peak rises above, its top capped in pale blue snow in the moonlight, echoing with the whispers of late autumn. A quiet small town situated on a gentle slope at the foot of the mountain ranges. On its single main boulevard walked few residents and even less adventurers.
“What a small place, I was expecting dank busy streets filled with people of all walks, like a pirate’s cove,” surprised an overly imaginative Enmir.
“Aroma is a cafe, not a bar, my young knight in training,” he laughed. “In anycase, its owner prefers to keep a personal touch. Pointless chatter, overly helpful, inviting himself into other people’s business. And being overly friendly,” He gave Hoshisame a blink. “But not to worry, the last one is an act by the fellow, I think.”
Their destination sat at the head of the street. The two storey cottage was built of cedar cut from neighboring forests, the wood were precisely cut and unpolished to yield an appearance that was both industrial and elegant. The first floor windows which were sized large and cut low, offering unbounded view. From its position it overlooked the township, the warm glow of a brazen fire shining through the impeccably cleaned glass beckoned like a lighthouse, welcoming the journeyed and wandered to the shelter of a homely bay.
He lead his charges up the street and stepped up the planked steps. The doorbell chimed of glass against brass chink to his soft tug on the door.
“Welcome to Aroma!” a cheery, familiar voice of a young woman called out.
“Welcome,” much less cheery, equally familiar voice of a quirky man who only had two mood of too bored or too excited. Today seemed to be the former.
“Welcome, dear customer,” came a third voice, also familiar and wholly unexpected.
He stepped into the relaxed lounge atmosphere lit by sunset glow crystal lanterns. “Hey Icedrip.”
“Yusen, what an unexpected pleasure!” the less cheery voice perked up in excitement. “I have not seen you for days. What brings you today, nay nay, what does you bring today? Ho ho mmmhmm.” The man paced around the tall counter to the front to greet his guests. Dark hair kept in an unkempt average cut, in clothing equally devoid of any notable features. He had devoted all attention to the appearance of the cafe and barely any to his personal own.
“Oh wow, that smells good,” in followed Enmir. He sniffed the air, his attention moved to the right then left, from the picture covered back wall to the counters to the tables.
Hoshisame tugged the young man’s sleeve when she passed, “Let’s find a seat. So hungry I can eat a whole hog.”
“What did you say?” she glared at her childhood friend.
“I said me too.”
Yusen looked about, searching for the owner of that third voice. Even for dinner time business was unusually good, by the standard of Aroma, out of the twenty odd tables there were five or six with people. He was interrupted.
“Who’s this, and this, goodness oh goodness. I see now why you have not dropped by Yusen!”
The man was oblivious to the girl’s reaction. He leaned in, tilted his head left and right, and paced around her, studying, as though he was a fashion magazine scout.
“So these are the newbies you’re said to be handed with. I see, I see. Well, supremely well.”
“Please excuse us, mister,” Enmir blocked the man off with one arm.
“Can you not do that, Icedrip,” Yusen shook his head. “You’ve gotten worse.”
“But I am ow,ow,ow!” A hand reached from behind the man and pinched his collar. He dropped to the floor dramatically as if writhing in agony.
“That is quite enough, Manager,” came that third voice. A girl with pink hair, rare even in this world, withdrew her hand. Dressed in a mint green summer dress and white knee-highs, in the style of Aroma’s uniform.
She pulled the man behind her. “I’m sorry, miss. Please accept my apologies on behalf of our fool of a cafe manager.” She bowed, and carted the man away. “Can’t you ever learn, Manager, it’s because you’re always like this that this place don’t get many customers.”
“Leliry? What are you.. Are you working? Are you working here, part-timing?” Yusen was becoming ever more confused.
“Oh hi Yusen, hahah, uh…”, a nervous blush rose up on the bright features of the young woman called Leliry. “It’s bit of a long story, sorry I will get back to you in a few minutes, need to deal with the Manager first. Please take a seat first, three of you. Alright Manager, get back to cooking, you, don’t you dare make whines.”
“Wait now, I’m no worse than this jester here. Did you youngsters know that your teacher is quite the talented act? Oh yes, played with many hearts and had us for fools many times. I’d spare one eye on him, if I were you, lad.”
“Nocturne, help me with this idiot!”
The source of the second voice, Aroma’s regular server, a young woman a few years senior in appearance to Leliry, joined with a wide smile. “Of course, Miss Leliry.” Together they hauled the joker into the kitchen.
“What was that?” Enmir asked.
“Was that the owner of the place?” Hoshisame asked.
The rest of the cafe’s patrons ignored the commotion and continued their meal and chatter. A few, whom Yusen recognized, gave him an affirmative nod before looking back down.
“It’s a long…. story,” he considered his words. “In any case, let us find a table.”
They grabbed a table by the window and helped themselves to the menu.
Enmir looked through the list, “I don’t see tonkotsu curry.”
“Oh, curry’s not on the menu, you can order them,” Yusen said.
“There’s also very few desserts, strange, there’s no strawberry cake Inglekitty said,” Hoshisame added.
“Strawberry cake?” he studied the menu. Hoshisame was correct, there were only six items under desserts and none of them had strawberries in them.
Now he think of it, this was only the second time he looked into the menu here.
Leliry came back out, she brought water to their table. “Again please accept my apologies, dear customers.”
“No need to apologize, miss. This is quite the interesting place. Excuse me, but do you have strawberry cakes here?”
“Yes miss, today we have three kinds of strawberry cakes available. Sake marinated winter strawberry cake with kuzu. Fresh cheese cake with strawberry spread. And chiffon strawberry pudding cake,” came the reply immediately.
“I guess they’re not in the menu…”
“Seasonal items, dear miss, please enquire for them,” Leliry started, then sighed. “But I guess to begin with most customers don’t know them to order.”
“Actually now I think of it most items here are hidden items,” Yusen suggested.
“Yes, it is that way. Worse is I still don’t know all of them, thankfully Nocturne is always around to help. The Manager thinks not listing every item keep the place interesting, allow for varieties and offer surprises,” the shake of her head indicated how much she shared that opinion.
“I really don’t know what to order, can you order for me, ol’teacher,” Hoshisame folded the useless menu back up.
“Giku?!” he choked. He looked to Leliry.
“Perhaps you would like to try the…” Leliry suggested a few options. After some exchanges Hoshisame decided on the mushroom steak and breast cutlet in spicy curry sauce with rice and yoghurt lime juice.
Enmir picked from the menu, the grilled salmon and eggplant bowl and a cappuccino.
“And I’ll have a lean pork croquette with special orange sauce mozzarella pasta grill,” Yusen ordered.
“We have that?” Leliry blinked, then wrote it down, another sigh. “We have that.”
“Thanks, and an earl grey latte.”
“Earl grey latte… this one I know.”
She left momentarily before returning with some appetizer treat, a glass of lightly salted fried noodle pretzels.
“Thank you. It must be hard work. So when did you start working here, Icedrip didn’t kidnap you did he?” he checked behind her for the chain.
The young woman’s cheeks took on some color. “This is my fourth week, only once or twice a week. It’s complicated, but mostly, the Manager needed extra hands to help out, someone with a more human touch, and you know, my atelier isn’t that established yet and money can be a little tight.”
Yusen considered the possibility. For one Aroma did not enjoy businesses to need an extra pair of hands while Leliry’s place had no shortage of waiting customers. He decided the matter didn’t warrant outright disbelief.
“It would appear you know each other, ol’teacher?” Hoshisame asked.
“Fufu, are you two taking lessons from Yusen. You are fortunate, he is very skilled, very disciplined. For your question, we have been friends for quite some time.”
“Leliry is my contractual alchemy-smith, she has crafted every weapon I uses since coming to the Third Continent.”
“Ehhhhh?!!” a shocked Enmir jumped. He leaned over the table. “You crafted ol’teacher’s Fiery Lily Blossoms? You’re the Leliry of Smonglr Cliff?! The alchemy-smith of Atelier Synstylae’s Edge? The only alchemy-smith who has crafted named fire elements blades? Who has forged the sword that slayed elder demons in a single strike and the spear that cleared the Abyss of Wailing Torment?”
“Calm down Enmir.”
“I am flattered by your recognition. Yes, that is I but I won’t quite describe it like that,” Leliry was taken back by the retelling of her deeds as though epic tales.
The Manager showed up suddenly. “Don’t be modest Lyric-chan, you have another fan here it appears. Oh yes learned one, this is the great alchemy-smith, nay, the greatest alchemy-smith. The only one with an innate fire elements at level of perfect attunement. Her works are amongst the very best in all the lands, each one worth a hundred times the commission yet you shall not find one willing to part with their own. The treasured idol Lyric-chan of Smonglr Cliff who is lovely as she is talented. Her smile has unwittingly stolen the heart of a hundred man, and girls, and the boxes she receives on a February day is enough to stock her own chocolatier,” he gestured like a priest delivering sermon. “And sadly, lately, I regret to say to her fans, sorry kid if you are one, but our precious Lyric-chan may be – opuwhh!” He was smashed across the chin by a baguette.
“Stop it! Manager you idiot!” Leliry placed the baguette back in the decorations basket.
“Lyric-chan, you shouldn’t be this violent, it’s not befitting your image.”
“Then maybe you’d like to have that image of me corrected, or maybe you prefer to be cooking instead?” the air near Leliry looked ready to burst into flame.
“Wait, wait, let me give my callpass to our new guests, as a commemoration!”
“Such simple tasks hardly deserves taking time away from the preparations. I will give it to them, Manager.”
Once more the dejected man was sent away.
She tapped out two callcards, duplicated them with a splitting gesture, and nudged them through the air. “The Manager’s, and mine also.”
Yusen gave a nod to their look. They accepted the cards and registered them in their contacts.
“Again I am sorry. The Manager is a good man, it has been a slow day and he’s very excited to see new customers and a chance to share his passion, cooking I mean. I hope you will have a different impression once you’ve had a taste. I know you will enjoy your meals.”
She profusely made several more apologies before she left to see to other customers.
They were finally left to themselves. Enmir drew a fried noodle stick.
“This is cracking. I think my hope is restored.”
“Come now Enmir, that wasn’t so bad. I have not ever seen a livelier place, you can sense the miss deeply trusts and respects the manager.”
Where did she get that? thought Yusen, and saw Enmir thinking the same.
“Oh you boys won’t get it. Oh this is delicious. Now don’t poke me with them, hey, stop it Enmir.”
Yusen took one himself. It was one of the common appetizers on rotation served to guests around meal time. Thin egg noodles were lightly fried and dusted with a fine rock salt spice and laid over Fresha leaves, a species of bramble native to this world, to absorb its scent.
Aroma, was more than a cafe. There was another lesson to be learnt tonight, he observed his two pupils across the table tease each other. He would see if they pick up on it.
Their main course was brought by Nocturne, the cafe’s full time waitress. She was not an adventurer but a native resident of this world. She wore a dress similar to Leliry, the collar tied off at the front with blue ribbon instead of red, which matched well with her long midnight hair. There was some change in Nocturne demeanor since the last time Yusen was here. Subtle yet noticeable. Friendlier, with a more natural smile. Usually residents of this world was a little deadpanned; perhaps some of Leliry’s cheer rubbed off on her, or perhaps the Manager had given her another upgrade. Each of their plate was placed before them, perfectly centered and oriented. Ink-art ceramics, delicate bamboo chopsticks and spoons.
He scooped into his pasta grill. The cheese cover opened, like opening the fountain of heaven and poured forth the most wonderful rich scent. He breathed in deeply, it was all he could do to keep himself from munching away like a bear in spring, and waited for Enmir and Hoshisame to have a taste of their own dishes first.
Their eyes widened and lit up like moonstones on mid autumn night. Enmir wolfed down his salmon, not wasting a moment for compliments. Meanwhile the girl next to him sat motionless, lost in the sensation of exotic spices most balanced and delicate.
He thought back to his initial experience walking through the door of this quiet town cottage. The place had not long opened, the food was not at the same level back then, not quite the menu choices, complexity nor availability of ingredients. It still was the first time since coming to this world which he was reminded of a previous life not far and so far away.
In some small way, this was where it began, when people like him began to live, no longer blinded in sole mindlessness, to not spend each waking moment despairing for a path back to the outside world and each sleeping moment dreaming of a better life.
In the madness and despair, there was a small piece of normality, a small piece of comfort. Something to look forward to.
“Ol’teacher?” Hoshisame’s voice brought him back out. “Your pasta will get cold.”
“It is quite alright, thanks. I’m just thinking of how old I’m getting.”
“You are old,” Enmir commented.
“Enmir! Yusen ol’teacher is barely older than us,” she elbowed the boy.
“I don’t mean age,” Enmir explained.” I mean, how much more experienced than us, old, wise.”
“Time flow differently here. I have only been in the third continent for a year, already it feels like ten,” Yusen said. “You two have talents, and are good learners. You will catch up before you know it. Not just in skills or adventuring, also resourcefulness. The Manager of this place, Icedrip.”
“The uncourteous one,” said Enmir sourly.
“Okay ignore the issue where he teases every cute girl he runs across -”
“Fufufu, finally even you admit I am cute!”
“-across. He is a good and honest man,” he shook his head. “If either of you, or any of your friends, is met with a difficult situation, go to him. He will be able to help you.”
“He does make very good food,” Hoshisame mused.
“Good food doesn’t resolve crisis. We have you and BitterPudding, ol’teacher.”
“Your faith and confidence is appreciated, Enmir. There may be a day when I live up to your admiration, for now, I am far from that. I am merely a high B rank, same for BitterPudding, there are hundreds of A ranks above us, and some more above them. There are so many things in this world that is beyond me, and there will be times when I will not be around. The Manager, Icedrip? He is at least an A rank, if it weren’t for his cooking skills which must have consumed an enormous amount of his stats, he would probably be a high A, close to one of the legendary S ranks.”
“Please don’t say some foreboding cliche line, ol’teacher.”
“For sure you joke, that guy?”
“You don’t gather ingredients and recipes like the ones Aroma has without being able to handle oneself out there. Some of the things in our plates are 6 star rares, and the quests to obtain the secret recipes are no simple task. Don’t let his demeanor fool you, there is a man who has witnessed some of the harshest this world has to offer. He has given me many advices in times of needs, many times dropping them before I was aware I lacked them.”
“I owe it to a lot of people to still be here today, many who have saved my lives, helped me on quests and missions, taught me vital informations that helped me stave off failures. Leliry, the Manager, many more.
“Enmir, you’ve said you want to some day stand before the Shaman.”
“Yes! I will be a great fighter, attend the arena and fight in the final with the undefeated champion,” he said with enthusiastic naivety.
“Undefeated champion~fufu,” Hoshisame cheered.
“Hoshi-chan, you know that one time was a fluke.”
“When was that, five or six weeks ago?” Yusen did not follow the games very closely and missed the fight in question, only what was heard in passing from others. The reigning champion’s shock defeat was quite the talk back then.
“Shaman would have won, if she had chained the <Nova Destruct> with <Taurus Vici>, but she had to fight IronBane in the semi and was far too exhausted by then. The unnamed grey contestant knew he got lucky and have no shot repeating the same run, that was the first and only time he showed up at the arena.”
He had met Shaman once, felt the indomitable aura just from the woman standing, a true warrior at heart and mind. There was no such thing as luck for that person. <Nova Destruct> was one of the most powerful strikes for axe wielders, chaining it with <Taurus Vici> created a charging strike that covered distances before an eye blink.
A not uncommon tactic, If it was not used then there was a reason for it. Yusen considered. Enmir was a good kid, brave and determined, but very much a straight shooter.
“If you seek to be on the same level as Shaman, you need more than just your own skills. Everyone may stand alone in the arena, but they are not alone. When you’re out there, think more of those who are concerned for you.”
Enmir nodded quietly. He eyed his childhood friend.
“I was so worried. Seeing you get struck and not moving like a rock.”
“In the Third Continent, more than gaining levels it is just as important to have those who you can rely on in times of need, those you can trust. You’re already a step ahead of many others, you and Hoshisame have each other.”
“That’s right, you have me!”
“Ah, my eggplant, I was saving that!”
“And I happy receive them, thank you Enmir. Mmm they taste so good.”
“That’s it – “
“Stop, no, not my cutlets! Enmir you meanie!”
A smile rose to Yusen’s lips. It was good to be young and innocent. He ate into the pasta. It was good to be alive.
“You two performed admirably today. Enmir learned to direct his new scouting ability to watch for hidden dangers, and remembered to be more flexible in switching between offensive and defensive skills, and quick to act, if proven foolhardy. And Hoshisame, you’ve shown good judgement in assists and taking initiatives, and now have better field awareness required as a mid-range support. Next time I think we can have you two take the lead.”
“Enmir will lead us off the map again!”
“I will not! Besides even then there’s nothing to worry about if we fall into the giant slug’s burrow, we’ll have ol’teacher with us this time.”
Hoshisame let out an adorable pitiful squeal at that viscus memory.
“Well now, to celebrate your growth, and since someone is picking up the bill tonight I think I’ll have dessert after this.”
“Me too, me too! I want to try the strawberry cake.”
~ * ~ * ~
Next morning, Enmir emerged from the adventurer administration hall. He walked across the square toward them.
“Well?” Yusen looked up from the bench.
“He passed of course,” Hoshisame said. “I made him memorize all the past test questions last night, he passed.”
“By the looks, you forgot to make him memorize the answers as well,” he noted the boy’s solemn face. “Ten ducats say he failed. Well, speak up, Enmir.”
“No bets,” the girl declined, not due to any lack of confidence.
“Sorry Hoshi-chan,” Enmir spoke. Yusen turned with a grin. It faded. “I only got nineteen out of thirty five questions.”
That’s not a fail.
“That’s fantastic Enmir, I knew you could do it!” she tackled him. “One more mission and you’ll be have enough standing with the office, you’ll be able to accept just about any quests.”
“But you stayed up so late, cramming them into my slow brain, and…”
“A pass is a pass!” she stopped him, held his hand with contagious joy.
Yusen nodded, then shook. “A done job is a job well done. Less deserving of cheer, the practical portion of the final quest is dependent on the test score, the better the score the easier the mission. I’ve seen A+ results being asked to deliver a package down the road. A low passing mark means a poorer draw. What did you get?”
“Haven’t looked at the assignment in detail yet, let me see what the scroll says…. Something on a corrupted village headswater and cleansing with the Totem of Sunsnake.”
Yusen groaned audibly.
“Is that bad?” Hoshisame asked.
“I would throw some salt over Enmir to cast off the spirits. The sunsnakes dwell in the depth of the Wretchbone Deep, an overgrown swampy forest not far on the east side of the peninsula, out of the way and have no notable treasures. It’s a maze that one can easily become lost and lead to dead ends. There are several points where there is but a single path between sections, the dense growth and also fog make for easy concealment. The monsters and traps there does not pose significant obstacles but…”
“That’s no problem, if on the peninsula the difficulty level cannot be much above us. I’m sure we’re up to them,” Hoshisame stopped him. She eyed him, blinked.
If Enmir suspected any ventures into the dungeon to be too dangerous, he would insist on leaving her out. He paused, uncertain of whether to make the threat evident.
“We must take more precautions than usual, and make as readied preparation as possible,” he decided finally. “I’ll let PuddingBitter know where we’ll be off to, in the meantime you two should go see to the supplies. We must leave on the morrow before the first rooster crows. If all goes well we’ll be back before the night is long. I want to avoid camping out if at all possible.”
~ * ~ * ~
He woke the two younglings before the twilight was faded, though succeeding in only waking one; Hoshisame was already almost dressed when he knocked on her room.
The innmaster had been notified the night before and the inn’s gentle manservant had breakfast prepared. On the dining table was left a tray of cold chicken sandwiches, some fruits and pitcher of milk.
“Be quick, but don’t wolf them down,” he told them. With a nabbed triangle in hand which he nibbled on at a constant rate, with the other he fumbled for and hung a pot over the stove, for tea.
Hoshisame ate in suppressed calmness, in the mistaken image of a lady of high upbringing if not for the leather corselet and shoulder guard.
Enmir stuffed down the fourth slice of sandwich and washed them down with a glass of milk. “This stuff is great, we should order them again next time. I’m done, I’ll go grab our packs,” he said and left.
Yusen made his usual brew of earl grey before he started onto the second slice. Steam rose troubled as his thoughts. He stared, and chewed, then watched some more. Then he realized he had been posed a question.
“Do you know much is a commission from Madame Leliry, maybe if you put in a word for me?”
“More than what you can accrue, not even if you empty all your savings. A shelf item, yes, a commission, no. Not before his birthday.”
“I don’t mean… I mean, I see. To be expected, they are incomparable to common merchant stocks. Not yet, some day.”
Yusen added no further remarks, the log beamed dining hall fell silent once again.
“You are troubled, ol’teacher.”
“I am, Hoshisame,” he replied. “It may be what remained in me of the Eventide. Wishfully nothing, a figment of a poor night’s rest. Let not a weary fool’s demeanor affect you.”
“You think there is trouble waiting at the Deep?”
“I do not think it, I feel it. I do not know why, there is no reason to suspect there is trouble. The Eventide is long over, the times of troubles in the past. This near to Port Capital there few chance to find Red’s lurking around the next passage, and it is not some profitable grounds where disputes may spoil into conflicts. It is senseless, bereft of logic. I cannot think of any good reason to think, but I have no providence over what myself feel.”
“Should we hold off on it. Wait for PuddingBitter and others to accompany us.”
“I leave that decision to you, Hoshisame. I see puzzlement in you when there should not be. You have the most to lose in either choice being awry. You two are my charge and for what is within my powers and perhaps beyond I will keep you from harm, and unreservedly offer guidance. Still I am not your master, you should not let me rob you of choices and lessons.”
“That’s a pretty good excuse.” the retort brought him a smile.
“A fine line, it may be. As for advice, I suggest PuddingBitter has hands full with his own newbies. We are here because we believe in venturing out and not let the hashities of this world defeat us. Let fear dictate and we have best return to Starter and never again step outside the safety of townships. Besides, if we suggest it to be a dangerous prospect your boy is going to overreact, no good ever comes of that. It is a Saturday, there will be fewer people out in the wilds and less troubles.”
Hoshisame sifted through his words. He could not tell if the girl, unspoilt by the darkness of Eventide, understood the depth in them. Better also that she did not. “We go.”
“Final task, then we move on to your progression quests. We really ought to have done it in the other order, it would have been infinitely simpler. Your patience is to be applauded.”
“Only one person in a party needs to be eligible to accept quests, my own progression can be made anytime. Enmir works so hard, running after the fiery sun. I can support him along the way, that is why I do. As childhood friends.”
“That boy must be a saint in a previous life to have earned this much karma.”
Enmir emerged through the archway. “I’ve got everything in the lobby.”
“Then let us be on our way, ready Hoshisame?” he finished the remaining half cup of tea, placed the cups and plates back onto the tray and gripped the handles to either side, paused for Hoshisame to place her own cup and plate onto the tray, and carried them to the return shelves next to the counters.
The first leg of the journey covered by a port to a town near the Deep large enough to afford the construction of a porting bell. Then a small trek through the wilderness following small hunting trails. Yusen avoided most encounters along the way, exhaustion was conserved and left less traces of them having been through the area.
Sixty five minutes later. Beyond the shallow banks of an emerald river, The Deep.
Tortured roots of dense beeches tall as forty meters formed a natural border. The upper reaches of the foliage were a faded green, tinted yellow in the woken sun, but just below where the light struggled to penetrate, a light mist shrouds crooked branches and black tainted leaves. The trees have stood for hundreds, even a thousand years, struggling and strangling each other, fighting sickly for the barest ray of sunlight.
Small saplings peek out grey mud, the nearby giants spread their foliages and rob the saplings of their chance for childhood. Half of a hundred would wilt, and thirty of the rest rot, the score that managed to touch a speckle of light would sprout up, lean on the old tree where the tendril of their roots drill beneath the barks with consuming avarice.
The grown trees suffer haplessly, a slow death smothered under a thousand tiny parasites born from their very own flesh. At long last they expires, their core rots, leaving empty husks that become footholds for the small trees in their race to sun and survival. Until the cycle repeats. The oppressed atmosphere tasted bitter on the tongue.
Maze, an area where the elements were rendered severely out of balance, the natural stream permeating all Vid’Alucina became severed and formed their own local system, isolated from the outside world. The abnormal atmosphere often attracts rare species that made it their dwelling, and other common creatures became more wild and develop unusual traits. Lethally for adventurers, porting was impossible and communication links were reduced to extremely short distances.
An excited Enmir splashed across the shallows, he thumbed a dried hump on the trunk of one tree. “It’s rotten.”
Yusen cleared his throat.
“Enmir, let us go through precheck.”
“But we already did before we left, we don’t need… of course you’re right, Hoshi-chan, let’s do the check,” Enmir gave way under those fiery brown eyes.
“Critical, major, salve, rejuvenate. Health and Spirit. Check. Remedies?”
“Poison, curse, burns, painkiller, daze, check. Smoke cracker?“
“Che…. wait where have they gone? I had clipped them to my belt. Here? No. This pocket perhaps, or this one…my ears are red. Thank you, Hoshi-chan”
She shared the content of her own pouch with him at my indication.
‘Smoke for cover, check. Lights?”
“Lantern, candle, glow pebbles. Check…”
The two went through each other’s inventory for the twenty odd items no one should venture into a maze without. Yusen inspected his own as they were called out.
When every vital item had been accounted, Yusen unfurled a length of scroll and spoke the words of power. An insurance.
“Stay close, keep insight of each other. Speak up if so much as a shudder in a blade of grass or a chirp of a songbird puts you off ease. Now lead on. Act not be surprised, you two leads, this is your quest, try not to lead us to each and every corner of the forest.”
* * *