Chapter 3 – Limbo
“So, it’s meant to be a piece of cake.”
Max looked up, glaring at the man who said that. “Callum, you’ve jinxed us all,” he muttered, fingering one of his twin swords nervously. A wooden carved chess piece - a knight; one that he had crafted himself on the long flight from Azrea, using a small block of wood and one of his swords.
The dropship was quiet – save for the unsteady, uneven rumbling of its propellers and the low, cautious murmuring of the pilots on their comms. The world outside was pitch black, save for the sporadic flashes of colour from the wing tips of the other dropships. A thin, tense air filled the dimly lit cabin; they were in enemy airspace. Each passing moment carried the risk of being spotted, their fleet only moments away from becoming blazing hunks of burning metal - possibly rent apart by torrents of anti-air fire and heavy magic. He'd seen it happen; military training videos were very inclusive and very
vivid. The only men who weren’t fixated on their boots or on a prayer sheet were lounging exultantly back, their seat straps as loose as their armour.
Private Callum was one such man. “It’s Viridian Forest! It’s filled with a bunch of tree huggers and monks, what can they do?” He grinned, not even bothering to don his helmet.
“You think? The next thing you’re going to say to me is that you’ve brought a gun.”
His shieldmate reached into his greaves, drawing a Glock 17 from a leg holster. “Why not?”
At least three different gloves made contact with their owner’s heads. “Magical shields, you dumbass,” Max chided, shaking his head.
“I’ll just ask a caster to enchant it when we drop.”
“Too many moving parts, enchantments take too long to cast on modern weapons. God, did you ever learn anything at base camp?”
The other soldier holstered the gun, chuckling. “So you’re
Schoolboy, huh? Max Nightingale. The transfers were talking about you.”
Max said nothing.
“With theory grades like that, why didn’t you apply for Command?”
“Oh!” Callum chortled. “No experience? Not even a single tour? You're what, 18?”
His carefully composed face dropped into a grimace.
The soldier laughed even harder, filling the cramped cabin of the dropship. “Hey guys! We’ve got a dead man walking!”
Max gritted his teeth as a few of his ‘fellow’ soldiers laughed. It wasn’t worth the fight. Next year, I’ll be the one laughing, he consoled himself.
The sharp hiss of static chased away the humour. “Drops in thirty seconds!”
The cabin was once again silent.
Major Marsh stepped out of the cockpit, mace held at the ready. His armour gleamed in the dim light of the cabin, showing off his accolade stripes. “Alright you lot, the mission’s simple. We find the HVT and kill him. We meet up with the advance team first to enchant our weapons and armour. After that we’re to exterminate any resistance en route, although don’t expect it to be anything challenging,” he barked, earning a few sniggers from some of the soldiers. He smiled savagely. “Aye, they might be Viridians, but this is their ‘Vessel’. They’ll give their own lives for his safety, so I expect you to do the same.” His glare crackled like an electrical storm - daring anyone to challenge him. Not a single pair of eyes rose to meet him. “As Anon 242 said, ‘A cornered rat-‘”
“-can fight off a thousand snakes,” finished Max under his breath, annoyed by the Major’s pep talk.
The cabin bay doors opened; his blood froze in his veins. The unit stood, preparing for egress, the Major shouting a salute. The dark canopy of trees rushed beneath the floor, threatening to swallow him whole, the wind roaring against his ears, drowning out the chants of the other soldiers. What if he were to get captured here? What if he was abandoned by his unit? What if-
“Hey champ.” He felt a hand on his shoulder. His eyes met Callum’s – steady and steeled, an inverse to his own. The soldier produced a bullet, placing it in Max’s free hand. “Pop this in your mouth. It always helps me to, you know, control the jitters.”
“Isn’t this your tenth tour? How can you still…”
“You’d be mad not to fear death. It keeps me alive.” He ate his own bullet, chewing on the metal as he held on to the hilt of his sword. “Don’t let it keep you down though. Well, I'm still a Private, even after all those tours. First class, but still a Private.”
Max shook his hand; before popping the bullet into his mouth. “Thanks, Callum.”
The trees grew closer and closer, before they submerged below the blanket of leaves. His heart raced in his ears, threatening to leap from his throat. “Hey, Schoolboy!”
The floor rumbled as the dropship touched down. “What?”
Another cocky grin. “If you get captured, find a gun. That's another good thing about carrying a single bullet.”
They stepped out into the darkness, the forest swallowing them whole.
‘Attack’ was the wrong word for it.
It was an extermination.
The swarm of armoured ground troops, suited head to toe in magically enhanced carbon steel, wielding vicious axes, swords and maces had completely disintegrated the Viridian defence, for what it was worth. Gunships armed with cannons and specially designed ballistae had cut down, burned, destroyed every house, cottage, temple and village. There were no prisoners - each and every man, woman, child, even the resident Pokemon were executed if they were unlucky enough to be caught in their path. The few that weren't initially killed had sacrificed themselves defending whatever little had survived; bravely - savagely - cut down as they fought.
At the epicentre of this slaughter was Max Nightingale. His twin blades untouched, sheathed. A harrowed grimace was hidden behind his helmet. A bloody handprint stained the cold metal of his greaves - a woman that had clung to his leg before she was finished by his squadmate. The bullet he had in his mouth had been thrust into his pocket - there was no fear of death. Only disgust and pity.
Someone slapped him on the back. “What did I say, huh?” It was Callum. sword was out - battered and bloodied.
“...Yeah.” His voice was hollow and broken.
“I never knew they were this poorly defended! Did anyone even-”
His hand tightened into a fist. “No. No casualties. Only minor injuries.”
Just as he said that, a medevac helicopter flew overhead, it's radio blaring an emergency signal in Max’s earpiece.
The other soldier cackled. “Looks like someone got hurt a bit!” he chortled.
“Isn't that the champion’s medevac?” he asked. A mote of fear was adrift in his otherwise disgusted tone.
“He probably got hurt a bit, nothing serious,” Callum answered, his tone a mix of sarcasm and soldierly camaraderie. “I bet their poor sucker was worse off than just simple injuries though. Isn't this his first day as a proper Vessel?”
“More like his last,” came another voice. A laugh rose from the forest floor.
The unit began walking towards the agreed rally point, regaling each other with grim stories of their exploits - apart from Max. His teeth were gritted; how could they be so cruel? How could they be so callous, so numb to so much bloodshed? He started to make his own way back to the base camp; damn the leering glares of the others.
“Hey Max! Where are you going? You know there's still one more-”
A hawk landing on a branch.
That's what it sounded like. Aside from the wrenching scream of the metal - and Private Callum’s short, sharp, final grunt.
Max’s head was the first to turn.
Draped in a cloak of yellow and green fur, his fellow Private’s body laid twisted. Atop it knelt a figure in glistening emerald armour, the likeness of a dragon growling at the corpse it landed upon. Nine golden tails engulfed him. Two fox ears were pressed to the side of his head. A large lance impaled the fallen soldier through the centre of his chest; the hole in his armour a neat, perfect circle. Motionless. Guardless. Soundless.
Gods help us all.
Seventeen soldiers started sprinting towards the warrior, brandishing their axes and maces and swords - Max knew how futile the rush was. This was no Viridian victim. They were all dead, from the moment he fell out of the sky.
The first four men didn't need to face his lance in order to fall within the first three seconds.
With a ferocious, yet relaxed, grace the warrior caught the first sword with his bare hands, a single fluid movement tearing it from one soldier and throwing it through the hauberk of the next. A mace swing was redirected, a soldier’s helmet eviscerated under its weight - a short kick sent that mace wielder flying. The next soldier made the mistake of turning to look at his fallen comrades just for a split second; a brutal punch twisted his head too far. He drew the lance from the body of the Private First Class and flourished it over his head - ready to take on the horde.
No matter how fast any of Max’s platoon-mates could move, that thing could simply dance, slip, slide, stab even faster. He was but a blur - a streak of glinting green and glittering gold creating ripples and circles of blood in the air. One single arcing sweep would slice through two, three, four people at once, eating away at their bodies like they were nothing but practice dummies. He didn't just decimate them; he turned the massacre into something morbidly beautiful. It was a perfectly choreographed dance of destruction.
He turned death into an art form.
Fear rooted Max to his spot. Fear rooted his sword to his sheath. He could do nothing but watch as every single man just became another number and move in this lethal dance. A gunship began firing its miniguns and ballistae at the lancer, illuminating the forest floor with tracer fire and enchanted arrows. He danced even faster. Untouchable. The streak of green and yellow effortlessly swirled around and between the paths of its bullets, still continuing to poke holes and gouge ravines through anyone that stood in its path, seeking out anyone that didn’t. The pilot managed to get off a brief transmission; “Enemy ground soldier engaged! Requesting immediate-”
It was cut short by the lance as it immersed itself in a slurry of glass and gore, the warrior leaping to and from the trees and from the canopy to get to the gunship - landing onto the cockpit with the lance. He rode the vehicle into the ground, jumping from the wreckage as it exploded, using the blast to propel himself into a line of hapless archers.
By now there were more than fifty dead.
A caster attempted to launch a ball of mana at him - he pierced through it and the caster with a trivial jab.
A more heavily armoured Juggernaut attempted to crush the lance warrior with a hefty hammer. He slid between the giant’s legs and thrust his lance through the arm gap in its otherwise impenetrable armour. Its shoulder-mounted minigun hectically attempted to track its target - the dragoon flicked its lance into the ammunition box, causing it to explode. Blood leaked from the seams as the Juggernaut collapsed - finished by an endless barrage of jackhammer blows to the chestplate, cracking its tough surface. He was a woodpecker - the Juggernaut his tree. With a wrenching groan, the lance finally broke through, spearing the man’s heart.
Jumping from the corpse of the Juggernaut he bounced around from tree to tree, paintbrush streaks of blood adorning each tree, creating a macabre mural - a testament to its hungry fury.
The lancer reached the Major - taking just enough time to tear apart his guards and war machine - a three legged, nine-foot tall Armoured Combat Unit. A fearsome machine by any standard, winner of many wars, the ACU still fell laughably quickly - the dragoon jabbed its armoured right laser weapon nacelle, the lance ripping through the armour with incredible ease. A row of explosions slithered from his lance and ended in the ACU’s core. Its triangular carapace was lit from the inside by baleful fire. Even the Major himself - shouting a challenge, he raised his mace in defiance, his eyes fearful and desperate - he too was dispatched, easily cut down with a casual swipe.
The clutches of fear decided to release Max. And he ran. Without looking back.
Whole groups of soldiers ran the other way, each believing they could be lucky enough to survive its voracious wrath, their military indoctrination shouting at them to kill what you fear
They were all unsuccessful.
As the bodies began to pile up, he could feel the lancer coming for him. The sounds were now distant, the screaming and shouting a mile away, but Max could feel that lance chasing him. All he felt as he stumbled through the forest was a piercing pain in his back.
“Oh, so you're finally awake?” someone huffed, her voice fuming with exasperation.
Max’s senses slowly came to, the world trickling into his ears and eyes…
Danger flashed in his mind.
He shot straight up and reached for his blade - his hands grasped at nothing.
“If you're looking for your stuff, I kept it behind the altar you trashed when you ran into it,” the voice spat from behind him. A girl, dressed in a black sleeveless jumpsuit and yellow shorts, lounged on a pew. A silver tattoo carved spirals and whirls on her arms and halfway up the side of her neck. He wasn’t sure if he was delirious or hallucinating, but he swore the tattoo was moving. Through the rips and tears in the bruised cream walls Max saw a dense wall of trees, shrouded in white fog. A grey light, seemingly coming from everywhere and nowhere, painted over the scene in a decrepit, derelict wash. A stone altar covered in ivy overlooked a row of decayed wooden pews, some shattered, others rotten. Candlesticks and candles were scattered around the altar and pedestal. The girl took up the only clean row, it's surface having been meticulously polished. He had been lain in the aisle atop a spotless white towel - although the wooden board floor was also incredibly clean. Free of dust.
Surrounding the setup was a massive temple; the altar and pews merely taking up the central foyer. Dull red wooden beams dissected white walls in an ornate style full of curls and neat rectangles. That and the colossal height of the roof, framed with square, even tiers or floors gave the impression an ancient Viridian pagoda.
He shivered at the unwelcome comparison.
“Its a bit run down, hm?”
Max tried to speak before coughing on a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
The girl jumped off her pew and crossed the aisle to him. “Sitrus-Pecha juice. Tastes nasty, but you had no choice. Squishy mortal bodies, you have to heal before you become immortal.” She tossed him a waterskin, although she was close enough to simply hand it to him. He only barely caught it. “Then again, neither did I, right?” She looked to the sky, her furious complaint directed to the heavens. “Damn, they sent just the right amount, no more, no less? Bloody gods,” she murmured under her breath.
“Wh-where am I?” he asked, throat hoarse. He downed the waterskin in a flash - before realizing it contained the same acrid mixture he tasted just before. The juice burned his throat and scalded his tongue going down.
“I would say hell, but that’s only half right.” She didn’t bother looking down at him. “Basically, you’re in a place called Ashphodel. Or at least, part of it. My part.” The girl spat the last sentence with a terse venom.
“What, do you mean I’m dead?”
She cackled. “Yep. You’re a goner. Hope you said your goodbyes to everyone because you probably won’t be seeing them again!”
The words sat in his stomach like a sack of stones. Dead. Gone.
“Wh...Th...There has to be some mistake!” he pleaded, fear once again setting in.
The girl laughed harder. “The gods rarely make mistakes, and when they do it’s never to do with someone’s death!”
The all-too-familiar fingers of dread began to comb through his hair. There’s no way. He was still alive, right? He could feel himself, still walk, still talk?
The slightest twinge of sympathy arose twisted the girl’s cold visage. “Well, I’ll let you come to terms with your, ah, predicament
.” She hopped off the pew and began to tidy up the scattered effects of the temple.
Max was dead.
It took him three days - judging by how the otherwise unchanging wash of light dimmed and brightened in long, tired intervals - to snap from his depressed stupor. Another eight passed before his grim mood lifted from him like a passing storm - although he still held a sharp slice of contempt for the gods; especially for the lance-wielding dragoon.
The girl, Shiel, continued to be as toxic as possible, going out of her way to insult him. He was a ‘dumbass’ or ‘stupid dog’. On the best days he was a ‘worthless piece of trash’. Despite this, even through her unending tirade of offense, he still learnt a great deal about this place he was in. She was incredibly willing to divulge details: often out of boredom, sometimes just as a sideways attempt to offend him.
“Those that die a violent death or are connected to violence in some way are fated to do their time here,” Shiel explained at one point, her lithe, nimble form perched high above him, looking down from the roof of one of the higher floors. She didn't bother to look down; evidently her right hand’s nails were more interesting than engaging in a legitimate conversation with a living human being.
Well, not living, Max reminded himself.
“Although, you're such a boring character that I have no idea how you even made it this far,” she added with a snort.
“How did you even get up there?”
She scowled at him. “Magic? Duh? You aren't very bright, are you?” the girl jeered at him with unrestrained condescension.
He sighed, with more tiredness than exasperation. He knew her type. Back when he was still at middle school, there had been a girl similar to her - aggressive, rowdy, maybe even unhinged; he simply declined to give her any attention. When she made a ruckus or threw a few insults his way, he shunned her, pretended she didn't exist. When she tried to get physical with him, he aptly and ably defended himself; but he didn’t press any charges, nor did he try to actively hurt her. Before long, many of his classmates followed suit. She became much quieter after that year.
He hoped Shiel was the same such case.
The temple, he discovered, was as vast as it seemed; and almost entirely empty. Hundreds of rooms shuttered with fusuma doors or screens or even regular doors contained nothing but stale air and a view of the endlessly boring impermeable mist that surrounded the area. Some rooms contained basic furniture; tables, chairs, bedframes (but no mattresses - it seemed as though sleep had to be as uncomfortable as it was unpleasant, with their dreamless sleeps). It was like they lived on a floating island in a permanent overcast - nothing else existed, besides him, Shiel and the pagoda.
His exploration of the pagoda had ended roughly near the top; he stared down the fourteen floors he had ascended, the pews and altar merely toothpick-sized furniture for matchbox men at this height. There were three more floors (excluding the roof’s crow’s nest), but due to the sloping gradient of the temple walls each floor got smaller and smaller. The top floors seemed only a few rooms wide - he fully expected there to be nothing in any of the rooms.
He decided to jump from the fourteenth floor that day.
He was nursing the pain of broken legs and four broken ribs for the next few weeks - although he could still walk just as well as he could normally.
“You can't die, idiot!” Shiel shouted as she found him crumpled on the floor that one day. “You can't injure yourself; you'll just feel the pain, but nothing different.”
Due to his rigorous military training (not to mention general disgust for his fellow man - he disagreed entirely with the average joe’s desire for strength and efficiency) the man had experienced more than his fair share of isolation and loneliness; his longest stint a lonely two week hike up a desolate mountainside to simulate ‘independent action’ with his country’s extensive and expansive training. The trek had worn him out, to the point that he wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and slowly die; it had made him resent the very idea of going without some form of company; it had caused him to question the intelligence of those that made such an inane, wasteful, dangerous challenge. Well, more than he did already.
And yet, at least he had an objective. At least he had purpose.
Here, he felt...nothing. There was no reason to live - yet he couldn’t die. There was nothing to do - yet he couldn't leave.
He understood why Shiel was slightly cracked in the attic.
On one day - or night, he wasn't sure - he silently decided to himself to befriend the girl. With boredom becoming his greatest enemy, an unbeatable beast that hounded him every passing second, causing him to sometimes even cry in the corner of one of the pagoda’s massive rooms, he needed interaction. His room; the largest on the fourth floor, with two sliding doors that joined to another two fairly sized spaces either side of the room itself, had become a graveyard of doors. He had ripped off the doors of many rooms in the pagoda, constructing things with the nails and wood. A makeshift catapult stood sentry at the window. A bench sat stock still in the far corner. A rickety model of a bridge was stretched across the adjacent room, complete with string suspensions taken from some of the pagoda’s blinds. In the months (he reckoned, if the altar’s clock was correct, and he hadn't made a mistake on the scratch tally he made on one of the fusama doors) that had passed, the girl was only willing to be an insufferable annoyance and his only solace was his woodworking - the mere act of carving wood seemed to lighten his spirits; the initial deep-set depression slowly and surely alleviated. Although while his success with his own mood was sound, his tactic of ignoring the girl had backfired; she only grew more and more impudent.
He trotted down to the foyer; Shiel was standing at the entrance, scything down an invisible enemy with Max’s sword.
She was fairly terrible. Her posture was lazy and slack. Her swings were exaggerated and clunky, like a robot imitating a human; no grace or fluidity in her movements.
“Practicing?” he called to her amiably.
She hastily threw the sword aside. “N-n-no! I was just...er...inspecting it! You know! Polishing it for you - you disgusting animal! You can’t clean up after yourself, so I have to do it for you!” Her voice was an octave higher than usual - her face red and flooded with embarrassment - her body frozen as a deer in headlights.
Max laughed. “Well. sure thing.” He casually slunk over to the thrown sword. “But if you really do want to learn swordplay, you should ask me.”
The red of her face deepened, if that was even possible. “Eh-ah-I-I-” she spluttered, her voice breaking like it was playing from a faulty CD.
Pulling the sword from the pew it had speared, he performed a simple, yet showy, flourish. “See? It’s easy.” The sword flew through the air from his head to his hip, spiralling in swirling, slithering curves, terminating in him mimicking a quick sheathe.
The girl’s blood red eyes were transfixed on the tip as it swung back around into a ready position.
“Easy,” the swordsman repeated softly.
Her lip curled inward as she chewed on it nervously. “...I-I guess you could teach me how to swordfight,” she finally ceded.
For the first time in months, he broke open a smile.
“Up. The point needs to be up.” He pulled her slacking arm straight, as though she were a puppet designed for his whims. “It needs to be straight - you get the most reach, the fastest swing - and it looks good.”
It was more than a couple of weeks since he had first started teaching her. Or was it? He needed to check his tally to find out. Not that it would do any good as he forgot what days the venture begun…
“So, this?” Shiel demanded, before swinging the sword down from head to sternum.
“Uh, almost.” He took the sword from her and performed his own slash, for the umpteenth time. “See how it moves, like it's a part of my own arm?” He elaborated the swing in slow motion.
Shiel didn't snap at him - instead simply snatching the sword from his grip. “So-” The air whistled as it was sliced apart by the blade.
“Good, but you're still gripping the handle too hard. It needs to flow freely, remember?”
The same whispering hiss slid through the air again.
“Hey, that's much better!” He gave her an appreciative clap. “You're making great progress.”
She nervously chewed the inside of her lip.
“Alright, so get into a guarding posture please?” He inspected her arm as she held the weapon in front of her.
“...that’s an incredible tattoo you have there,” he remarked in an awed whisper. Thin silver lines cut apart the otherwise perfect skin of her arm in diamond-shaped portions, the tattoo disappearing into the shoulder of her jumpsuit. It fitted in and around the contours of her arm and wound itself like a glittering spider web or a pattern of quicksilver vines. He had never seen the marking up close before; the girl had always kept herself well away from him as a rule, but now that he was within touching distance of her...
“...op staring. Hey. Hey!”
A quick slap startled him out of his reverie.
“Ow! Oh! Uh...sorry.”
She glared at him as though she was the teacher. “Concentrate?”
“...Right, my bad,” he murmured sheepishly. “So, make sure your guard is always steady…”
The air sang and screamed with the sound of whirling, clashing metal.
“That's much better!” Max shouted from his position, seven paces from the hungry blade wielded by Shiel. Its counterpart’s point wavered from side to side, watching, expecting, predicting Shiel’s next attack. “Tone down the aggressiveness, though!”
In between pants, she replied; “Is - it too - tough for you - ?”
He laughed. “No, your guard is too open.” With that, he advanced on her, imposing in his steadiness.
Roaring, she rushed across the divide in all of three leaping steps. A novice rush, inexperienced; yet it had the ferocity to make up for it. She made a wild downward slash for his chest - telegraphing her move with an enraged shout. He caught her at the foible with a swift beat - her swing deflecting away from him. He attempted to jab her side with his sword, as a riposte - she turned her chest to avoid and shoved him back with her free hand.
The back and forth lasted for well over five minutes. Clangs, grunts, shouts and curses crackled the air with frenetic energy. Neither of them were worried about hurting each other; death or harm wasn't an issue. Both had long gashes on their clothes where the swords had cut into them, but the wounds sealed as fast as they appeared - leaving only the burning pain of the injury, nothing more. Even their clothes has stitched back together, the thread wrapping itself shut, worming into the other side of the rift and burrowing through the rest of the fabric.
It wasn't long before they were both exhausted by the exchange.
“Want to, *huff*, finish *huff* ?” Max clutches his stomach, wincing from where Shiel had sliced open his midriff. She had vastly improved in the past month. Her aggressiveness was blind and dangerous, but incredibly effective; especially against Max’s more measured and controlled style. In essence, she was a wolf to Max’s panther: she lacked the grace or skill, opting instead for simply savaging him with pure, unrequited fury while Max prefered to stay well away from his opponent, jumping in for a quick and calculated strike.
“I…” she struggled to her feet. “I think I…” Her sword dropped to the ground
“...Are you hurt?” he asked. “Do you…?” He ambled over to her.
He leaned down, as though she was going to whisper something.
In one single, swift movement she thrust the side of her hand towards his chest, her hand gripped around an imaginary sword moving to thrust it into his heart. Her mouth moved in a silent murmur.
Instinctively, he brought his hand to block the strange uppercut.
A piercing pain erupted in his hand, the flesh of his palm screaming. He looked down; a thin silver sabre had punched through his hand and bathed itself in his blood. He almost screamed out in pain.
Where did she-
She crouched to gain a better angle and pushed with both hands, aiming the sword (and the back of Max’s hand) at the centre of his chest. The tip prodded the fabric of his shirt.
“Shi...Shiel! How did y-y-”
A demonic grin was affixed to her face as she struggled. A harmony of grunts and growls punctuated their deadly embrace, the hairline thin margin between them slowly growing as the stronger, heavier man inevitably pushed her back. She twisted her grip on the sword and began to murmur something else.
“S-s-stop th-th…” Max groaned. His face was scrunched up into a look of intense struggle.
White light exploded from the blade. A miniature sun opened up at his sternum; his form was wreathed in burning light and heat. A metallic ringing filled the space between their bodies and steadily rose higher and higher and higher. The swordsman averted his eyes and blocked his face with his other hand, trying to be rid of the sabre pinning him to her, before the ringing snapped and crashed into a low boom. Something heavy smashed the air out of his lungs and-
Flying. A massive force flung his form across the space towards the roof of the pagoda.
He wasn't conscious to hear the world-rending crash that accompanied his impact.
Max came to, ears ringing from the impact. His back felt crushed, trapped between an invisible vice. He spluttered and choked on the fine brown mist left behind by the wood his projectile body pulverized. He struggled to his feet and arched his back, working out the phantom pain of an imagined broken spine. A league below him, Shiel waved cheerily, as though she hadn't just flung the man through a solid wood wall.
He turned away from the rift his body had created, murmuring something dark under his breath.
A pair of steely-silver irises met his own.
They looked at each other wordlessly. His own dumb surprise was reflected back at him. The full implications of the unlikely meeting had yet to dawn on him; though his face slowly shifted from mild shock to severe comprehension - or revelation.
The silence was palpable.
Something hissed towards him; he suddenly found himself face to face with a giant curved blade. The weapon - a polearm, a Naginata even longer than the man was tall, its crescent blade longer than Max’s entire arm - stood adamantly forward and pinned his stare to its point, torn away from the dumbstruck boy in the middle of the room to the girl that wielded it. She was dressed in a white kimono - the same as the boy - the very same steely silver eyes staring him down, an open and defiant challenge in her glare.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who are you?”
He immediately held his hands up. “Alright! I'm unarmed! I'm sorry!”
Below him Shiel shouted; “What's going on up there? Max?”
The boy jumped up and poked his head from the hole to Shiel. He looked at the girl with a certain look - she shook her head. The silver moon blade hissed in his face ever closer. “Who is she?”
Max compressed himself against the wall, edging as far away from the Naginata as possible. While he was aware that he was effectively invincible, he didn’t fancy being skewered through the throat or being beheaded. “Calm down! Calm down!”
There was a slight metallic ringing as Shiel floated to the roof. “What's going on he-” Her eyes fell on the girl. “...Oh, we have more roommates.” She snorted with a mix of contempt and sarcasm. She kicked the wall and stormed off, muttering something about annoying twins.
The girl’s fearful grimace deepened. “Roommate? Another? What's going on? Where are we?”
The boy shared the same scared, confused expression. “We’d like some answers, fairly quickly.”
Max’s breath caught in his throat. He remembered when he learnt the nature of his predicament. The loneliness. The regret.
He swallowed something hard in his throat. “Well? There's no easy way of saying this…”
He explained to the pair about Ashphodel; their eternal prison. How they were the subjects of some kind of punishment.
In exchange, he learnt her name. Her name was Hikaru. As was her ‘twin’s’.
The room’s trapdoor had been close to obliterated due to their attempts to escape the room, which had been the only room to be shut off in the pagoda. Sealed away by some form of impenetrable reinforcement. Deep gouges and gashes marred the wood where the giant polearm had bit into the floor. No matter how hard she struck, the wood just wouldn't split apart; the gashes hadn't weakened the wood one bit.
He would later learn that destroying the wood from the outside was easy - almost trivial.
Hikaru - both of them - were incredibly apologetic and meek after realising Max and Shiel meant no harm. They stated that they were ‘Miko’ and ‘Geki’, or ‘Shrine Maiden and Shaman’. Max didn’t understand this reference; Shiel explained that this was similar to what he knew as clergymen or monks and nuns, to a certain effect. It was a very old Viridian tradition. Shiel immediately despised the newcomers as well; treating them with the same annoyed condescension she subjected Max to.
Her irritation with Max had seemed to lessen greatly.
The female Hikaru proved to be incredibly reclusive, almost. Her gaze was nearly always averted from Max and she never seemed to speak - often her counterpart would do her talking. She reminded him of one of the women who worked with the clergy back in Azrea - silent, deferential, almost maid-like. While she had designated her room as an incredibly cosy cupboard-like enclave next to Max’s three-room hall that he spent most of his time ‘remodelling’, knocking down walls and tearing apart doors to make the three rooms properly conjoined, she had barely, if ever, emerged from there.
On the other hand, the male Hikaru had chosen the largest room he could find on the same floor - not before he had a fifteen minute argument with Max for him to take his hall. He was amiable; if not insufferably annoying. On one day he had just simply decided to lie down in the middle of his hall - not moving or being disruptive, simply relaxing in his workplace.
“What, am I not allowed to lie here?”
“I-I’d rather you didn’t.”
“You’d rather?” He had given Max a winning smirk. “So I don’t have to, right?”
“Nah, too much effort.”
He had simply decided to ignore him until the boy grew tired of his floor.
“...So is that block, riposte, backstep? Or should I backstep first and then riposte? I like the idea of hitting as quickly as possible.” Shiel mimed thrusting her sword quickly into an imaginary chest and then jumping back to avoid an invisible swing.
Her strikes and swings were much faster now; she had taken to using her conjured sword instead of one of Max’s much heavier twin-blades. The frosted steel blade of her sword was webbed in a thin skein of glowing white lines - as though the sword was made of spider webs.
She still seemed to lack slightly with the weapon though; her strikes were too fast and too sudden - she was holding something much lighter than she’d like, or she didn’t know her own strength.
“No, you really want to just take your time on landing a good hit. Remember, one good hit can take out an opponent, so you should focus on getting that one hit.”
He batted away Shiel’s blade, jumped back and aimed his sword at her throat - the point hovering a few inches from her skin. “See? You would be dead at this point, whereas your strike would have only grazed my rib.”
She chewed the inside of her lip. “Y-You know this doesn’t m-m-mean anything, right? The training? I still sorta hate you!”
He half-frowned, half smiled. “Uh, sure?”
“G-Good! Yeah! Anyway…”
A soft patter of steps crept to the front door. He heard the battered wood creak slightly.
“Oh, Hikaru.” He waved to her as she emerged from the pagoda. “Come to watch?”
She edged from the protection of the door, her massive polearm poised carefully in one gripped fist. “May I have a duel?”
He was stunned. It was the first time the ‘shrine maiden’ had come out of her room - at least, the first time he had seen her.
“Why are you asking?” Shiel hissed, instantly reverting to her aggressive state. “Just go back to-”
“I'll be happy to duel with you,” Max said in a hurry. “I hope you don't mind, Shiel. You don't mind, don't you?”
“W-wait! We’re not-”
He raised his hands to placate her. “Only for a bit! I promise we’ll continue after this.”
She gave him a suffering look. “Well, fine! Fine!” Shiel gave a sharp huff and stormed away.
“What am I going to do with that girl?” he muttered to himself. She was too much, too often. Her outbursts were unpredictable, maybe even dangerous - just like her fighting style, he supposed.
At the pagoda’s entrance, Hikaru smiled at him. “Thank you, Max.”
“Where’s - uh… the other-”
She shook her head. “He declined to participate.”
Shrugging, he drew the other sword - the blade slicing through the air with eager anticipation. “Best of five hits?”
Hikaru nodded, standing feet apart, chest to the side, polearm balanced in one hand. A proper stance.
A silence settled around the pagoda as the two combatants faced each other off, two figures at each end of a line, sizing each other up.
Already, Max’s mind was racing ahead into the battle. So, she wields an incredibly large weapon - she’ll be slow. She has it held away from her, so her first move will be an overhead swing. It's very long too; I can get into her range, make sure she can't hit me…
The air was shoved out of the way as Max ran forward..
As expected, she brought the weapon scything down over his head. He sidestepped the blade with ease and got to within striking distance of her. The blade was too long, and he was behind it already. First point to me-
In one sweeping gesture she pushed Max back with her left hand and spun around, the blade rushing around to meet him.
He had just enough time to step back. A long line of red opened up at his stomach. A glancing hit.
Any closer and he would have been split in two.
“Damn!” He winced at the wound on his stomach. “You can swing that a lot faster than I thought!”
She pulled back the polearm, flicked it back into her other hand. She said nothing; her eyes cold and steady.
He charged forward again.
The polearm shot forward. He easily dodged that initial jab. The polearm shrunk back and she changed tack. The moon blade hissed around her. He attempted to deflect the swing. Their blades met.
The shrieking clash of metal on metal pierced his eardrums and the sheer force of the attack shoved him roughly to the side. His sword vibrated in angry protest at the brutal force behind that swing. His arms burned. His side ached.
Note to self. Never block that polearm ever again.
Not stopping, she brought the polearm around again in a slow, graceful sweep.
He barely avoided the second strike as it glided centimetres above his low roll.
Just as the blade went past he sprang forward and brought his right sword across her frame. It bit into her arm - she was just about able to avoid the most lethal part of the attack. She bit back a pained shout, her grip on her left hand slackened; her next swing had not lost any of its grace or power, however.
Her discipline was shatterproof.
Despite this, Max was steadily pushing her back. He would dodge every arcing slam, every circular sweep, every single move. Nipping in after her long and winding attacks to nick her side, stab at her chest, he hit and retreated, deciding the battle would have to be a war of attrition. It was evidently working. He was too fast.
He was three hits up, to her one. He thought he had the hang of it, he thought he knew her attack style. Her patterns, mannerisms, habits. Shiel looked on with vested interest, giving slight noises of encouragement to the swordsman.
Thus it was all the more painful when Hikaru finally landed another hit.
He was inside her guard again. The blade of the great Naginata was an arm’s length behind him. His left hand sword was aimed directly at her sternum. He could taste victory.
The first strike was to his eyes. A flash of intense light froze his vision in time; a hazy afterimage of the girl’s kimono was burned into his retinas. It was as though she had dropped a flashbang directly in his face. His eyes clamped shut immediately.
As he stumbled back blindly he felt something drag across his legs, leaving behind two tracks of burning, piercing pain. He dropped to his knees.
Two of those burning tracts of pain opened themselves up on his wrist, slicing through his tendons. His twin swords dropped lifelessly to the floor.
He felt a point poke his throat.
“So I won, right?.”
He opened his eyes slowly.
Max chuckled weakly. “Now that’s just cheating.”
He - Hikaru, the boy, wielded something not unlike her large moon blade. It was a polearm - what looked like the same polearm, except a much smaller diamond-shaped spearhead replaced the massive naginata blade that he had grown accustomed to dodging.
He was pulled up. “Sorry about that, but you didn’t exactly specify any rules.” He watched the wounds he gave the swordsman heal over with a slight tinge of concern.
“That’s a nasty spear you’ve got there.” He winced.
“Yeah, it does sting a bit, so I’m told.”
He looked around - seeing the female Hikaru stand a few paces back, watching with intense...worry? Embarrassment? He nodded to her and then looked up at the pagoda. “How did you do the whole... switch maneuver?”
“What, the flash thing?”
He grinned. “Jumped.”
“And the flash?”
The grin grew wider. “Seeeecret.”
The swordsman laughed and slapped the boy’s back.
As though something had given way within her, the other Hikaru ran to Max and bowed curtly, gritting her teeth slightly. “I do apologise for cheating against you in our duel. I do hope you forg-”
Max laughed. He put a hand to her shoulder. “Well, you’ve had your one chance.”
She continued bowing. “I-I’m sorry. I will not do-”
“No, no no no.” He smiled. “I mean, now I know what to expect.”
The polearm, the female Hikaru had - reluctantly - explained, was something of a ‘part’ of them. Whichever Hikaru wielded it had its blade altered to suit their proficiencies. The female Hikaru practiced in grace and elegance; to make up for a lack of speed she hit with absurd strength and had her weapon specifically suited to her needs. The male Hikaru, on the other hand, preferred speed and ferocity. He had forgone aesthetic and power to simply hit and hit and hit.
They still closely guarded why this was, or where they came from.
They continued to practice their skills against each other, despite Shiel’s reservations on ‘sharing’ Max with the two. After a rough start though, she really began to apply herself. She had great success with using her own weapon now - a hefty spiked mace she summoned herself.
Max initially laughed at first, thinking the girl had gone mad.
She proved to be far more proficient at the brute-force style of the mace than the more tactical approach of the sword. She began to really test the man’s skills.
Time flew by.
His tally counted four entire years, and yet he was told he hadn’t aged at all.
Often he wondered what the world was like now. Did they win against Viridian? Did Shioko retaliate and send in their fierce kitsune Champion to obliterate his old home?
Did anyone miss him?
He thought about his home much more than he had before. Shiel and the Hikarus had no choice but to listen to him talk about his life - their own guarded, secret pasts were seldom ever spoken of; they were like out of place artefacts - they had no explanation, no context. They existed without any history - or any history they would allow Max could discern.
Shiel rapped his door harshly - the once flaky wooden frame shaved and smoothed. She had regarded the door with a mystified expression. She ran her hand along the surface, caressing it, feeling how soft and smooth the wood felt under her fingers.
“Ah, Shiel.” There was a muffled scrambling, the sound of something being shoved away into a corner, before the door was heaved open with a huff. His ever inquisitive face greeted her. “What do you need?”
Shiel whistled. “Nice work on your door, Max.” She ran her eyes along its surface. “You should do that for my room.” She paused, and then added with a grin; “I know you aren't busy.”
He chuckled. “Sure, I'll do that sometime. I’ll have to sharpen my swords up.” He went over to the far corner of his middle room, sitting at a grindstone he fashioned from a round stone table in one of the rooms.
“Well, that's not why I'm here, actually,”
“Wow Max,” Shiel whispered in slight awe. “You’ve never shown me this.” She staggered to the centre of the room and spun slowly, taking in the product of the man’s span years in this limbo. “How did you…”
It was honestly awe inspiring. The man had adorned his room with all manner of carvings, sculptures and what seemed to be wooden clockwork
. It reminded her of...something. Something poignant; a memory of something long gone, dead perhaps. A man, imposing silent quarantine on himself, surrounded by works that will never grace human eyes...
He laughed meekly. “Well, you never come visit my room so you wouldn't have seen it, but thanks.”
She wandered over to one side of the room, where Max had carved an ornate sailing galleon out of a block of wood. “I-I never knew you were an artist!” she breathed softly.
He scratched his head, embarrassed.
She continued drifting around the room, an unseen current impelling her from one piece to the next. She didn't move; she was moved, pulled by the strange gravity each one of his works exuded. Even the trash - or what she assumed was trash, as it was crumpled away against a wall or in a corner - fascinated her. “Well, you know, I-”
She stopped at a particularly complex assembly of wooden cogs and string pulleys. The cogs were turning - albeit incredibly slowly - and a long arm with a charcoal tip was held suspended by the cogwork, the assembly turning the arm around as a clock hand. “What's-”
“Oh! Don't touch it!” He pulled Shiel back slightly; as though the clockwork was ablaze and she hadn't noticed it. “It's a counter; how many days I've spent here.” He gestured to the wall behind it; the wood was marked with hundreds of black streaks.
It took Shiel a while to realise those were tally marks.
She gritted her teeth bitterly. Idiot. Didn't he realise he couldn't return? That there was no use counting days; there's nothing to wait for, nothing to be excited about. Whatever home he had, he wouldn't see it again. Whatever he was missing, it would be best for him to forget it.
She thought herself lucky that she didn't have a home to miss.
She had finished ogling the swordsman’s works, being more than suitably impressed by each of them. As she scoured their intricately carved surfaces with her eyes Max stood more than a few steps back, often looking at anywhere but the piece in general; he seemed like he couldn't stand the sight of it. Her mind was filled with wooden galleons; complex arrangements of wooden cogs; impressionistic assemblies of interlocking blocks; even the odd bust or two.
At one point they had stopped by a chess set, each piece crafted entirely by hand. “Do you play?” the man asked.
She shook her head firmly, scowling briefly. “Out of my depth.” She was silent for a moment, before adding; “At least it looks good.”
Now, they were away from the wooden sculptures, sitting face to face on a couple of chairs the man had taken (and reshaped, restyled entirely) from another room.
“Where's Hikaru?” Max asked, confused as to why she hadn't come along as well.
Shiel made a small irritated sound. “Why would you care?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Forget it.”
“She's probably wandering about the building. She's got her own friend, so I wouldn't be worried.” She snickered internally; as though she would be worried about her anyway.
Max cocked his head. “What do you do in your room then? Don't you have something to pass the time?”
She shrugged. “I draw. Practice my magic. Not much else - of course.” She summoned a pencil; showing it to Max, twirling it in her hands before letting it disintegrate into a light silvery powder.
He leaned forward. “Really? What do you draw on?”
“Fusama doors and walls, I guess. I've only used up half of my floor’s walls though.”
He chuckled. “We could start up some kind of company. Nightingale and Shiel; woodworking and design.”
“Business would be tough though; lack of customers!” She snorted at her own joke. “More like ‘Shiel and ‘Gale, swordsmanship training.”
“Well, at least there won't be any competition.” He nodded sagely, ironically.
In her room next to his own, Hikaru could hear them laughing, offering up a slight, saddened sigh to whomever was listening.
“For me? Really?”
He presented to her the training dummy; an almost lifelike statue of a dragoon warrior, shield raised and lance poised to strike. While it wasn't as practical as an actually training dummy; it lacked the soft, spongy feel of a straw dummy, or the reactive nature of a spinning training dummy, but the statue would do well enough, especially with the little materials he had at hand. He had almost exhausted all of the wood on his floor and four floors up and down - he would have to begin raiding the upper floors, and carrying the tables to his room from so far up would be a pain. “Yeah, who else? I've got something for Hikaru as well, if you're worried about that.”
She was oblivious to him speaking; what he said was a hundred miles off. He couldn't believe that anyone would give her anything near a present. Her! Of all people! She was perfectly aware of how she treated people; both him and Hikaru, and the way she treated people while she was alive, all those years ago. And yet, despite all that…
“...so it should probably stand up to your mace. Hello? Hello? Are you even listening to me?”
With the suddenness of a bear trap snapping around an animal, she rushed him.
“Wait, what the-”
He reached for his sword - grasping empty air and the fabric of his shirt. They were still downstairs! He tensed himself for impact.
She tackled him - gathered him up into a ball. And hugged him. She was hugging him. “Thank you! Thank you - thank you - thank you!” She squeezed him hard. A tear leapt from her face onto his shoulder.
He was beaten back by the hug. He still wasn't sure if this was a genuine hug, or an attempt to catch him off guard. “Whoa! I-uh, it's only a training dummy!”
She buried her face his chest.
“Just-uh, tired of you attacking me, is all!”
She didn't respond, only dug deeper into his clothes.
He decided to shut up and settle for patting her back as she embraced him. Never mind the pain of him carrying the statue down four flights of stairs, or the myriad of splinters embedded in his fingers and hands he spent hours painstakingly picking each and every one of them.
For the first time in four years, he had felt something spark within him. He could feel it in his nose, feel in his arms and chest. A funny, unfamiliar feeling.
He felt happy.
She felt it before he noticed it; a hair-raising, heavy aura, as though a stranger had hovered his hand centimetres above her skin, her knowing it was there, not wanting the hand to touch but being unable to do anything about it.
It wasn't from the idiot she was hugging.
A dome of black enclosed them both.
Max pulled away. “What's this? Are you-”
She frowned. “No, that's not-”
It struck her.
“Max! You have to ru-”
The black orb shrunk, collapsed around the man’s form, shrinking until it was barely able to contain them both. The edge passed through her; converging onto him. An invisible force began to shove her back - her hair and clothes billowing in a baleful, howling gust of wind.
“Shiel! Where did you - what's going-”
“No!” she roared, reaching out to him. The hair-thin tendrils of silver lining her arm jumped from her hand, reaching out to where the man stood.
A hand thrust out from the orb. Reaching for her. Thrashing in the air.
She grabbed it, pulled harshly. Pulled with enough force to rip open a door, her tattoo curling around Max’s fingers, thin webs sticking him to her.
He shouted something muffled by the orb.
Hikaru ran out from his room. “What are you guys-” He saw the orb, saw Max’s hand reach out from it. He cursed.
Shiel’s eyes were drowning in tears. Pleading at him.
Without thinking; from the highest floor of the pagoda he jumped; spear pointed down at the orb. A blueish glow emanated from the spearhead.
Shiel yanked ever harder.
The spear struck the orb - the anti-magical enchantment crackling against its surface spitting blur sparks and arcs of lightning from the impact point - until gravity continued and even Hikaru was consumed by the orb.
For a tiny moment, everything was silent.
Atop the orb, form shimmering in the decayed, depressed wash of light, something stood. Billowing white smoke curled atop its hair. Billowing black smoke curled aside its shoulders. A piercing, disdainful, malevolent blue eye glared at her, partially covered by the white smoke that served as its hair, obscuring the rest of its face lest any one sees.
[b]You don't deserve them.[b]
She choked; sputtered on the air she couldn't seem to breathe. “B-but w-why m-me?” Her grip loosened.
The god said nothing. His form vanished.
The wind blew even harder. It shoved her back; that one final grip rent apart by the extreme forces pulling them away.
With a thunderous clap, a deep boom reverberating her form as it faded, the orb collapsed on itself, leaving no trace of anyone being there at all.
She stared at the spot where he once
stood. Horrified. The dragoon statue stood behind where he was, spear pointed where his chest would be.
The pagoda shook with the force of her scream.
The darkness snapped out of existence; Max’s irises had been pulled almost out of his eyes thanks to the orb consuming his vision with complete pitch black. It was complete darkness - a lack of any light whatsoever. A heavy - yet soft - object pushed him back slightly; it disappeared into the wind.Wind roared and whistled around him, before exploding outward as the dark prison exploded outwards. Something bumped hard into his head and he stumbled forward, out of the quickly dissipating smoke from the orb.
“Oof!” The male Hikaru lay sprawled on the leafy floor, his spear shoved aside. He groaned. “Damn... that hurts.”
Max pulled him to his feet. The female Hikaru had landed in a crouching stance, her hair and kimono soiled by the jungle floor. It looked as if she had rolled.
“Ah, ow ow ow! Thanks.” He dusted himself off and looked at their new surroundings. “...Isn’t this…?”
Max could hear the confusion and shock in his voice. He wasn’t standing in Ashphodel anymore.
Trees. He was surrounded by a crowd of trees, their leaves making the sunlight filter through the canopy like acid melting through a sheet of metal. In the distance a dim orange-red glow emanated. He realized those were fires, similarly to how he realized where he stood.
It was Viridian Forest.
He was back.
He dropped to his knees. A tumult of emotions raged inside him; relief bordering elation on his return to what was perhaps the real world; fear, foreboding upon seeing the place him and his fellow soldiers marched on to destroy in some sick, vainglorious extermination, and him seeing this may have meant he had descended into an even lower form of hell designed to torment him further; confusion, as he didn’t know what prompted this occurrence.
But one voice shouted the loudest among the rabble, something that made him slam his fist into the ground and grit his teeth.
“Where did - is Shiel - What just-”
“...Did we get transported...to Viridian? Is this - “
“We need to go back. Shiel - she can’t stay alone for too long.”
Hikaru looked at him strangely. “You… want to go back?”
The swordsman grabbed the boy’s silken kimono. “She - she can’t be alone again! She - what happened? Why wasn’t she -”
The boy slapped his arm away. “I don’t - know! All I saw was you being eaten by this black ball thing, and Shiel trying to pull you out, and -” He fell silent as Max withdrew. “...Wait, Max, what are you doing?” He frowned. “...Are you...crying?”
The female Hikaru glanced at him with an unreadable expression. She looked at her counterpart. He nodded solemnly.
The man stared at his bare arm. His lip trembled; his eyes began to drip. Hikaru couldn’t see it, but Max couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
Curled around his arm was a tiny silver thread.