Monia Sin – Earl Grey Latte

“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. 

Something wheezed. 

Something howled. 

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. 

Player killers. 

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. 

<Hollowed Piercer>

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.

“I know.”


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