Over the hills and far away
The loud knock startled Itsuki from his reading; he jumped in surprise at the loud noise, not expecting a visitor at such an odd hour of the night. Frowning, he put the book down on the table and looked over at the wooden door. One easy spell later, he was sure that the person standing on his doorstep did not want to hurt him. But, by gods, what did this person want with him so late at night?
“Hey, magician! Are you there?!” More loud knocking, accompanied by an annoyingly pitchy voice.
Itsuki sighed, irritably, looking at the book with a longing of wanting to pick it up and go back to the page he had been reading before the interruption. It was a rare copy of essays about the ancient runes of Inasi’s nation – some of the best defensive spells and protection charms came from what little those people left behind. No one actually knew what happened to them: just that, one day, they had disappeared without a trace and the barrier surrounding their region had completely vanished. Only a few books and notes had been left.
Itsuki’s fingers itched to go back to his reading... if only he could pretend he was absent! But he was sensing the stranger’s determination. It would not be surprising at all, if the stranger decided to wait the whole night for Itsuki to open the door for him. Better deal with him quickly; the faster he got rid of the stranger, the faster he would go back to reading. Who knew? Maybe, somewhere deep in those essays, hid a secret that could be linked to the disappearance of the Inasi people.
Adjusting his scrunched up robes – he had been reading past few hours, constantly changing and shifting his position in the chair – Itsuki murmured a spell to make the lighting in the room brighter. Maneuvering past the piles of books that sat on the floor, bookshelves long past capacity, he sluggishly shuffled over, feet dragging across the soft carpet, yearning to make a turnabout and head straight back to the chair to pick up where he left off in the book, towards the door and opened it, wondering what awaited him on the other side.
On his porch was a young man with the bluest eyes Itsuki had ever seen and hair so light it illuminated in the darkness of the night. The stranger was dressed in a brown cloak, typical for travelers, though it wasn’t buttoned up all the way and Itsuki could see that the man was wearing a light suit of armour underneath it for protection. The cloak was bulging out on his right, at the level of the man’s waist, where, Itsuki was guessing, the sword was located. So the blond was left-handed.
There was also a scent of magic on him, but it was very faint, a little different than the stranger’s aura. So he wasn’t an archer or paladin then – the scent of their magic and aura was the same. A knight with an ability to store his power, probably, if that flight scent of magic was any indication. Itsuki’d heard of how it was popular amongst knights to use their stored powers as protection spells – unlike magicians and even paladins, knights could only use very little magic from amulets and jewels. Moreover, judging by how cheap the stranger’s cloak looked, he wasn’t anyone important in the Gild.
Not like Itsuki knew much about knights from the Gild. He’d studied in the Oasis, which was on the other side of the capital and, most of the time, he’d spend his time reading and studying in the library or tending to herbs he’d needed for potions in the greenhouse.
“Are you finished ogling me? I’m freezing.” The man huffed, but didn’t try to force his way into Itsuki’s house. Before him, there were people who’d attempted to do that – all of which had found themselves on the receiving end of booby traps. Just like how a vampire couldn’t just leisurely walk into someone’s house, no one could walk into a magician’s house. Huh, so the blond wasn’t stupid. “I have a deal that I think you may be interested it.” The stranger smiled cheekily and Itsuki noticed he wanted to smile at him back.
Well, since he could not sense that the man had bad intentions, Itsuki could let him step into his cottage.
“Let’s talk inside,” Itsuki stepped aside, allowing the man to walk into his house. The stranger threw Itsuki a questioning glance; was he surprised that Itsuki had welcomed him in the house without even asking for a name? Poor guy probably didn’t know that magicians could sense people’s emotions and – sometimes – their intentions. “Do you want anything to drink?”
“No, thank you,” the stranger replied.
The man took of his cloak, revealing that he was only wearing a breastplate of suit of armour – the rest was probably in the bag he carried on his shoulder. There was a shield on his back and a longsword on his right decorated in colours of dark red interlaced with creamy white. His trousers and blouse looked to be made of firm material, and his shoes... Itsuki barely stopped himself from opening his mouth in amazement. At first he thought he was wrong, but no! They were made from dragon skin! Unlike most boots, those didn’t have dragon scales only around the feet but were going up to the stranger’s knees.
Itsuki wouldn’t call himself a specialist in zoology, but he was almost absolutely sure that those scales belonged to a Dark Longfang: vicious beasts, very hard to kill, due to their tough scales being extraordinary resistant to both magic and steel . Those boots must have cost the stranger a fortune. Itsuki wouldn’t be surprised discovering that the man’s suit of armour was also enhanced with the same scales.
Just who was this strange person?
Itsuki was observing how the man turned himself around, curiously looking about Itsuki’s house, big blue eyes entranced by how cluttered it appeared, mouth slightly agape. His expression was similar to the one every Itsuki’s guests asks themselves: ‘why is a magician living in such small cottage?!’.
Indeed, Itsuki’s house wasn’t the biggest: kitchen, living room, bedroom; in the basement was his library and another room to practice spells; up in the attic was his private laboratory where he brewed up potions - if something ever exploded, he would only lose a roof. There was also a convenient greenhouse in the back where he grew his herbs. Nonetheless, considering how much money magicians made, Itsuki could easily afford a bigger house with staff ready to fulfill his every command. Itsuki had had enough of it at the Oasis and decided to live almost solitary.
As if he owned the room, the stranger walked through it, towards the table at which Itsuki had been reading at much earlier. He hung his cloak on the back of the wooden chair and sat down, looking up at Itsuki expectantly. He didn’t take off his sword, but since Itsuki couldn’t sense anything wrong, he didn’t mind it that much.
The magician, pulling up a spare chair that had once been used to hold his books, sat down in front of the stranger, waving his hand in the direction of the kitchen. A few seconds later, a tray with two glasses of hot tea landed on the table between them.
Adding two spoons of sugar to his tea, Itsuki said: “State your name, profession and what business you have with me. If I do not agree to it, you can stay the night in my house, but will go away at dawn.”
To Itsuki, it sounded more than fair. After all, he could just throw the stranger back out into the cold just for disturbing his night.
The blond huffed in annoyance. “Do you not recognize me, master Itsuki?” He asked, with a cocky smirk. “No newspapers in this little town or is this book,” he pointed at the collaborated essays, “only here to fool people?”
The implications that Itsuki couldn’t read and, what worse, was pretending to be a magician made his cheeks burn with red. The glass windows shook under his surging power.
“Calm down, I was only joking.” The blond leaned back in his chair, cocky grin still on his face, waving his hand around as if he was not afraid of the pissed off magician in front of him. “Your power is as strong as they say.” He added, watching Itsuki with calculating gaze.
“Who?” Itsuki growled, sitting back down. He hadn’t realize when he stood up... and look at him, he made tea spill. “Who told you that?... no, never mind. Just tell me what you want and leave.”
Honestly, Itsuki tried to be nice, but he was a fourth Master of Potions and Healing, third in queue to receive the first degree of Healing - the highest degree the Elders of Oasis could give to a magician – with a good reason. He’d even invented a charm to make bones heal faster! All of that and he was only twenty-five! Just because he lived without showing off his status didn’t mean some rich, no-named knight could insult him!
The blond grinned this time, obviously not bothered by Itsuki’s reactions, that brat. He stopped rocking in the chair, and stood up, his palms planted on the table with a loud smack.
“Master Harada and that punk, Miyuki,” Those words made Itsuki’s eyes widen in shock. The stranger knew masters Harada and Miyuki? And both of them called Itsuki’s power ‘strong’?
Itsuki had been called many things: hardworking, intelligent, smart, dedicated but almost no-one ever had praised his magic power. In his field of study magic power wasn’t being showed as much as offensive kind of magic – not like he was a weak magician! He just didn’t feel the need to show off his strength and – Wait a second.
“Who do you think you are, to call master Miyuki a ‘punk’?” Granted, Itsuki wasn’t master Miyuki’s friend – they talked maybe once or twice. Master Miyuki was usually in presence of not his peers, but older professors at the Oasis. Prodigy is what he had been called. Watching what kind of spells he demonstrated at the entrance exams didn’t leave any doubt in Itsuki’s mind why he was called like that. No one had a right to call master Miyuki’s names! “I start to wish I didn’t open my door for you!”
The blond snorted. Snorted at him. That was it, Itsuki was going to put such spells on him, he wouldn’t be leaving the toilet for weeks.
But before Itsuki had a chance to literally throw that man away, the blond pointed his finger at Itsuki and said: “First Knight of Gild’s Sixth, Narumiya Mei. I heard you may be interested in antics runes and a treasure – a treasure of knowledge of Inasi’s.”
All right then. Itsuki wasn’t going to throw him out anymore.
To say that Itsuki was surprised was an understatement. The First Seat of Gild’s Sixth was in his house! Of course, he knew the name “Narumiya Mei” – you couldn’t live in Niho and not be aware of one of the best knights of the Gild.
Members of Gild’s Sixth – mostly paladins and knights - were extraordinary warriors, who were sent to fight in dangerous places. Their rigorous training, both of mind and body, made them living weapons. Knights couldn’t use magic in offense, but Gild’s Sixth knights’ skills were so great, they usually didn’t need any help from magicians. On the other hand, paladins could use magic like defensive and offensive spells (some of them quite advanced), but they grew tired more quickly than knights did.
There were very little occasions when the Gild had to use its most treasured warriors. What kind of a mission did Narumiya want Itsuki to go on with him? And why wasn’t Itsuki aware of someone so important coming to his house? Usually, the Gild would send messages to magicians beforehand, informing them that they would like their help.
Observing how Narumiya was behaving, it told Itsuki that, maybe if magicians were aware he’d be coming to them, they’d pretend to be absent. That man was the worst. Itsuki’s tea tasted bad, his living room looked awful, his fashion sense was six decades late and Narumiya couldn’t, for the love of gods, explain properly why had he come to Itsuki’s place!
“So, let me get this straight,” Itsuki rubbed his face, after half an hour when Narumiya finally presented him all the facts. “You, master Miyuki, and the new Paladin of Sixth -”
“New paladin,” Narumiya huffed, looking at his glass of tea, as if it had somehow offended him. “The kid was lucky; one summoning spell and they gave him the sixth seat, unbelievable.” Itsuki pretended to not hear that. During his story, Narumiya paused many times to throw insult at the new paladin, which was why it had taken him so long to tell everything to Itsuki.
The magician didn’t want to point out that, from the stories, he had heard about that paladin, that ‘one summoning spell’ wasn’t his only achievement – but still, a paladin who could cast a summoning spell; it was almost unheard of - but in the end, Itsuki decided to remain silent. He was afraid that if said one wrong word, he would going to listen about that paladin ‘till the morning sun rose in the sky.
“— Found an old book, when killing Dark Longfang in its den.” Itsuki continued, as if no-one had interrupted him. The blond pouted, but didn’t say anything this time. Success. “Master Miyuki believes it could point us to the mythical ‘treasure’ of Inasi. That treasure may be either knowledge of what happened to Inasi or forgotten magic. And you need me.” Frankly, from everything what Itsuki just said that last sentence sounded the most surprising. Why him?
“Yeah, that would be it.” Narumiya leaned back in the chair and put his legs up on the table. Seeing Itsuki’s dirty look, he rolled his eyes and put them back down on the ground. “Paladin and I will take care of any beast we may find. I talked with Carlos,” Itsuki knew that person; Carlos, was a paladin, too, rumoured to run too fast for his opponents to see him. “He’s local to the area of Cold Mountains and he’s sure we shouldn’t meet anything too dangerous till we reach our destination.”
But they would definitely meet something dangerous. Usually not one for adventures, Itsuki felt the adrenaline running faster in his veins. He was interested in that quest.
Something had to show on his face, because Narumiya smirked.
“Interested? Miyuki is going to take care of dark spells and every creepy magical traps. For once his twisted personality will be useful.” Narumiya grinned, wickedly. Itsuki had a feeling that Narumiya and master Miyuki’s friendship was more like two enemies being forced to work together than friends genuinely liking each other. “You will take care of seals, healing and protective spells.”
“If master Miyuki is going with you then, surely, you shouldn’t need my spells.”
Narumiya’s expression spoke clearly how much Itsuki had just disappointed him. “And do you think Miyuki will be able to fight properly and focus on healing everyone? No, it’s safer to take another magician with us. Harada said you are second after him in healing charms.”
“That’s true... But it doesn’t explain why master Harada cannot go with you, sir. I know he’s in the capital, waiting for his nomination to become a Lord. Surely, if he discovered anything important on your quest, it could help him.”
“Well, you see...” For the first time, Narumiya looked uncomfortable. “I said we were going to Cold Mountains, but that actually isn’t our destination.”
“But where else do you want to –” Itsuki’s eyes widened. “The Forest of Doom...” Itsuki barely stopped himself from shivering. Even speaking that name made him feel fear; for a moment, he was sure the light in the room dimmed from how scared he was. “You want to cross the mountains and go there?”
The Forest of Doom. Over twelve centuries ago, when Inasi disappeared, magicians of Niho discovered that Inasi had put up a lot of magic barriers around the Forest like they were fearing something might crawl from there. Still no-one knew why they had done it. Those few who entered the Forest, came back screaming about ‘evil so dark, the night becomes clear as day’. Destroying the Forest turned out to be fruitless: in place of every tree, two more appeared. People with even an ounce of magic in them felt nauseated, when coming close to the Forest. So now, every century, Elders of the Oasis put another set of protective spells, in order to make sure that nothing could easily come out from the Forest. Mountains were only partial natural defense barrier.
Niho’s land actually ended at the mountains but between their neighbouring country and the Forest was a wide desert – which was why the duty of putting protective spell fell on magicians of Niho. Entasia’s king was sure that, no matter what, any monster coming from the Forest couldn’t survive the harsh conditions of the desert. So why bother with it?
“Yes, to the Forest,” Narumiya murmured, his pale, blue eyes looking straight into Itsuki’s brown ones.
The magician was sure that Narumiya felt a grain of fear too, but no: Narumiya’s eyes were determined, bright fire of his magic burning in them. He was ready to go there and fight. The question was: was Itsuki even ready to do something like that too?
“And this is why Harada cannot go with us. We may... um, not have permission? And someone could have overheard our talk about the Forest? Which is why we would have to stay low and don’t book too expensive of rooms or let too many people see us?”
Itsuki blinked. Then took a deep breath and blinked again.
“You don’t have Elders’ permission. What about permission from Gild?” Narumiya shook his head. Itsuki almost laughed at how stupid Narumiya was; this was a suicide mission. “No, I’m not going.”
Risk the fury of Elders? No way. Itsuki wasn’t as valuable as master Miyuki or Narumiya, so he’d face far worse consequences than them. The possibility of discovering more about Inasi was tempting, but Itsuki couldn’t bring himself to break that one particular rule: no one entered the Forest without permission.
“Oh c’mon, Itsuki! Where is your adventurous spirit? If we find out something good, everyone will forgive us going there. If not well... it’s not like any of us has a chance for any promotion in next few years and till that time, our new accomplishments will make everyone else forget about that one.” Narumiya waved his hand around, as if dismissing Itsuki’s concern. “And we will find something! Miyuki is sure of it. Normally, I don’t trust that raccoon, but his dreams are usually right. He’ll be here tomorrow morning to fetch us and if you aren’t sure of your decision, you can talk with him about it.”
That... that sounded good actually. Itsuki could have a chance to ask master Miyuki about his new poison-detecting elixir and then tell them all he wasn’t interested in their quest anymore.
Itsuki stood up and Narumiya did the same, watching the magician curiously.
“You can sleep here on the sofa, sir. I’ll wake you up in the morning and then you will have to go.” Without waiting for the reply, Itsuki bowed his head in respect and went to his bedroom. When he reached the door to it, Narumiya’s voice stopped him.
“So you’re running away, huh?” Itsuki’s fingers closed harder on the doorknob, wanting to just run into it for safety and block Narumiya out. “Harada told me how you studied everything about Inasi at the Oasis, how you hunt down books and notes found in the ruins. I thought you might be interested, but you...”
“But I?” Itsuki asked in very quiet voice, turning slowly to Narumiya. He felt he knew what the knight was going to say. His power rushed under his skin. “What did you want to say?”
Narumiya’s eyes narrowed in on him and he growled out his reply, dripping in vicious honesty.
“You proved to be less brave than even master Harada expected.”
“That’s rich, coming from you. I don’t want to go with you on this suicide mission, without permission and protective spells of Elders and suddenly I’m a coward?” Itsuki was close to blasting the damn knight through the window without any remorse. “I’m sorry, not all of us have a habit of rushing into danger, because an old map in some random book told them so!”
“You are going on a quest with the best magician and a knight of our generation! And in worst case scenario, Sawamura can summon a Beast and we can escape!” Narumiya yelled back, jewels on his belt shining with awakened magic. “Tsk. No wonder you didn’t take part in duels at the Oasis. You wouldn’t last a minute there.”
That was a low blow. Itsuki had a spell at the tip of his tongue, but in the end, he stopped his anger from submerging and wreaking havoc; while he was normally a pacifist, when his buttons got pushed, it wasn’t a pretty sight seeing him explode.
“I didn’t take part in duels, because I preferred to study those healing charms you want me for. Who do you think was tending to the wounds of all those stupid wizards after they finished their duels?” Narumiya, surprisingly, looked ashamed for a second, yet his gaze was still full of determination. “I’m going to sleep now and I don’t want to hear anything more from you.”
With those final words Itsuki went to his bedroom, closing the door behind himself. He heard long murmur of something of what must be insults, rumpling of clothes and in the end a sound of a body lying down on a sofa. That surprised him slightly; he was sure that Narumiya was going to leave his house.
Itsuki sighed deeply, walking slowly over towards his bed. He had been tired, before Narumiya’s visit, but right now, he could think about anything but sleeping. The quest to discover forgotten knowledge of Inasi was a once in a lifetime chance! But weren’t odds too big, weren’t they doomed from the start? ‘Less brave than even Harada thought’, that asshole! Yet, Itsuki couldn’t really disagree with that statement. For a wizard, he didn’t like to fight that much. He much more preferred studying old books and making potions. His own specialization, healing potions and spells with addition of protective charms was the best proof of how much he preferred to stay safe.
He wasn’t like master Miyuki or that new paladin of the Sixth, Sawamura. For as little as Itsuki kept in touch with other people, he heard about them and their winning against a sea monster. Everyone was talking about that event. And now he, Itsuki, was supposed to go with those two and Narumiya, who can kill a dragon alone, without breaking a sweat, and lead an army to a victory, for a quest? What if he were to fail, what if he were to put anyone in danger?
In a fight, his position as a healer would leave him being the one to command the most orders on the battlefield in case of more than one opponent (and who knew how many monsters could ambush them at once in the Forest), as he would stay away from the fight and watch everything from a safe distance. If he was being honest with himself, that’s what was scaring him the most: the responsibility of being in charge over other people's lives.
Lying on his side, Itsuki remembered the bright fire in Narumiya’s eyes, his determination and courage. In the middle of Itsuki’s living room, the knight looked like a true warrior, a leader, when he was arguing that the quest was a good idea, that nothing bad was going to happen. It was easy to see what people saw in him, why they gladly went into a fight with him.
And maybe if Itsuki wasn’t such a pessimist, he’d believe him.
The next morning came too soon. Itsuki was woken by his magic alarm at the ungodly hour. Even the birds weren’t singing yet.
Yawning, he sat up in bed, wondering briefly why he had gone to sleep in clothes. Slowly, he remembered the late night talk with the knight, Narumiya, and how he had fell asleep without changing his clothes, thinking about the quest.
It was right that they could find nothing and lose their lives. It was also correct that they could find something. After all, no one who had ever entered the Forest had had the map to guide them safely through it. What if there was a secret path, away from monsters and unspoken evil, that they could use? Would they discover secrets that made Inasi so powerful that they could separate their country from the continent for centuries? Their names would be sung in ballads for millennia.
Frankly, nothing sounded appealing enough to change Itsuki’s mind. It’s not like I took a final decision, he thought, when washing himself under a perfectly warm stream of water. He could suggest Narumiya to take shower too, but after the knight’s parting words, he didn’t want to show him too much courtesy. I could go and... No, I couldn’t run away.
The face in the mirror looked as if he gotten older ten years in a span of few hours. Scowling at himself, Itsuki used a quick charm to brush his teeth and erase the dark circles and bags under his eyes. Then he shaved his face manually – he preferred the feel of the razor blades against his skin than the spell wiping it off in a split second.
Trying to tell himself he wanted to dress elegantly, because he was going to meet a prodigy of the magic world and not to show off his status to Narumiya – who definitely would look less prestigious today - Itsuki chose light blue robes with silver threads weaved around the cuffs. Every thread on this robe was a protective spell. He’d spent weeks making those cuffs and was very happy with the result. To complement the robes, he choose leather boots made from the skin of a sapphire salamander – highly resistant to any toxin. In the end, he wore the silver amulet with an emerald: his sight of graduating the Oasis with highest marks in his year.
Only one amulet was of higher worth: the gold amulet for a student who excelled in all courses with high marks. Master Miyuki was the first to receive it in over a hundred years.
Taking a deep breath to calm himself and prepare to face Narumiya, Itsuki opens the door to the living room. The knight was sleeping, shrunken under a blanket, which usually covered the couch. He stirred hearing noise, but didn’t wake up. Quietly, Itsuki peeked into the kitchen and murmured a spell to boil water for morning tea – there was no need to make his guest breakfast.
Then, with a heavy sigh, he walked to the sofa to wake up Narumiya. Putting some distance between him and the sofa – it wasn’t too good to disturb the sleep of a warrior – Itsuki said in loud voice: “It’s time for you to wake up.”
“I woke up when you did it.” Narumiya pulled the blanket down, uncovering a mop of blond hair and two, pale, blue eyes, looking far too aware for such early hour. “You’re very loud.”
“And you deserved me being quiet?” Itsuki huffed, yet he was impressed. After all he had tried to be quiet and let Narumiya sleep some more.
There was something predacious in Narumiya’s smile but whatever he thought, he didn’t say it aloud instead opting for: “I’m hungry. Are you making breakfast?”
It is too early for a headache, thought Itsuki, rolling his eyes. “Catch something and you’ll have your breakfast. There are many animals in the forest.” Narumiya scowled, at his response, and sat up, stretching his arms above his head. The blanket pooled on his lap, revealing a naked, muscled torso. There was a thin, pale, pink scar below Narumiya’s collarbone, another one close to his heart and an angry, red scar on his stomach, as if something with sharp, long claws had slashed through it. Itsuki shivered despite himself.
“It was a minotaur,” Itsuki’s looked up at Narumiya’s face, but the knight was looking at the scar, tracing it with his index finger. “We were ambushed and I – well, everyone survived.”
With a clenched jaw, Narumiya looked straight up at Itsuki, his whole aura suddenly defensive. Was he expecting Itsuki to laugh at how weak he was, to taunt him that such a great warrior, such as himself, be hurt so easily in battle?
With eyes lingering for a fraction of a second too long on that torso, Itsuki’s mouth moved without his brain functioning. “Wait here.”
He ignored Narumiya’s surprised ‘what?’ and in a few short steps, he was pushing the door to his attic open, hastily pacing towards the back of his laboratory, rummaging through the shelves on the cupboard. Itsuki cursed under his breath when one of bottles almost fell from the top shelf. He was sure he’d left that somewhere there... Here it was!
A few minutes later Itsuki was back in the living room. Narumiya was still sitting on the couch, one of his light eyebrows raised up. Itsuki absentmindedly noted that he hadn’t covered himself back up.
“What was that all about?” Narumiya asked, eyeing suspiciously the bottle in Itsuki’s hands.
“I...” Itsuki felt warmth raising on his cheeks.
Seeing Narumiya’s scar made him move without thinking. He blamed his instincts for that – no matter how much someone annoyed him, he would help them, if they were in pain. And Narumiya was in pain, Itsuki was sure about it.
“It’s the potion I brew few weeks ago. I improved the formula of Sca-not. It should make this disappear.” Itsuki pointed at the scar, ignoring the path of blond hair under it leading to... “I know it hurts you.” He added, in soft voice.
For a moment Narumiya looked as if he wanted to deny that but in the end he sighed, smiling weakly.
“Is it that obvious?” He asked, waving at Itsuki to come closer towards him.
The knight leaned back, moving the blanket even further downwards, as if giving Itsuki permission to apply the balm.
“N-no.” Get a grip of yourself!
Taking a deep breath, Itsuki knelt in front of the sofa, stubbornly didn’t looking at Narumiya’s face. The balm was in a colour of deep violet, warm on Itsuki’s fingers, even though it had been in the cold cupboard. Narumiya’s skin tensed under the magician’s touch , but relaxed feeling the warmth. Slowly, Itsuki traced the scarred skin, applying a lot of balm to it.
“I have some experience in healing, you know?” Itsuki said in conversational tone, fighting with a warm blush spreading across his cheeks. The last time he blushed seeing a half-naked patient, it had been the first time he’d been working at a hospital in the Oasis. “I know scars like this definitely must hurt.”
Narumiya was quiet for a second, letting Itsuki focus on his scar. He started talking as soon as Itsuki started murmuring the spell for quicker healing.
“No-one at the Oasis could help me. They said that if I came to them earlier, they would be able to help, but...” Itsuki heard a soft sigh above. “I couldn’t leave my soldiers in the desert because I was hurt and we lost our healer a few days earlier so...”
Itsuki almost mispronounced the next word, upon hearing Narumiya’s voice. Desert? Narumiya was in a desert; Itsuki had heard about it – but that incident had happened over two months ago. And no healer? It was a miracle he survived! Of course, paladins were taught the basics of healing, but Itsuki couldn’t imagine how a mere paladin could save Narumiya’s life. The wound was too big to heal for anyone who wasn’t an experienced healer.
He looked up, adding one last protective charm on the scar to protect it from hits. Narumiya’s eyes were burning bright again and for a moment Itsuki wanted to reach up to him, take away his pain.
“How did you...?” Itsuki pointed at the scar. He was still kneeling, but he didn’t mind it. There was nothing more important that the man in front of him right now. “You should have died.” He whispered.
Narumiya leaned down a little, his face close to Itsuki’s.
“Miyuki taught me how to quicken healing using the powers from my jewels.”
Itsuki’s eyes widened.
“But... But you could have gotten sick, if someone cleaned your wound incorrectly! And what if the person healing you messed up your internal organs? There is a reason why knights aren’t supposed to do something like that! You would have to be sliced open again at the Oasis!”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t.” At those words Itsuki’s blood turned cold. If Narumiya’s wound had had to be opened again, it meant he had been fighting in extreme pain for gods knew how long. “I helped the paladin heal me, but he was young, and we didn’t have time... At least I could move.” Then, probably deciding he said too much, Narumiya laid his palm on Itsuki’s, squeezing it gently. “It’s okay now. I don’t feel the pain anymore.”
Reluctantly, Itsuki moved his hand away, still looking up at Narumiya. His inside healer was screaming at him to put Narumiya to the bed for next few weeks and make him rest. The knight was unbelievable: travelling with such a painful scar? And he wanted to go for another quest!
Learning all those things about Narumiya didn’t exactly make Itsuki like him... but there was new found respect for him, all right.
Narumiya opened his mouth, although Itsuki’d never learn what he wanted to say. In the same moment, Itsuki felt that another magician moved past his wards and he stood up quickly, not recognizing that magic aura. His sudden movement startled Narumiya, who quickly reached for his sword leaning against the bed, and grabbed Itsuki by his wrist – only then Itsuki realized how close they were to each other, with Narumiya’s knees pressing into his thighs.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, moving his gaze between the window and the door as if expecting an attack any moment.
“A magician I don’t recognize just passed my wards.” Itsuki explained, moving his arm back but without much strength. He didn’t want to risk a broken wrist – Narumiya was holding him quite tightly after all. “There are two people and... four horses?”
Narumiya snorted. “It’s probably Miyuki with that paladin of his. I told you they were going to be here early.” He put his sword down and released Itsuki’s wrist. Despite his strong hold, Narumiya didn’t leave a bruise.
“You didn’t say they would be this early!” Itsuki brushed the dust from his robe and adjusted it quickly. Throwing a passing glance at Narumiya – and he wasn’t looking at that naked chest again, no – Itsuki said: “I’ll go and find bandages for you. You... you can open the door for them.”
Narumiya nodded, obviously understanding the importance of that statement. A magician let him welcome people in his house – there weren’t more important things than that.
“All right. And master Itsuki?” Itsuki stopped dead in his way back to the attic and looked behind his shoulder. Narumiya was standing with his back to Itsuki, looking through the window. “When Miyuki comes here, I’d like to hear your answer.”
Itsuki left the room without a word.
It was a good ten minutes later, when Itsuki came back with clean bandages soaked in healing waters. It took him two minutes to locate bandages and healing water, and then another eight to regain control over himself. He couldn’t explain what pushed him to touch Narumiya – he should have just given him the potion and left him alone. But no, Itsuki just had had to touch the knight and even put spells on him!
It was surprising that Narumiya hadn’t stopped him.
Walking downstairs, Itsuki heard noise in the entrance of his house.
“Hullo, master Itsuki, are you there?” More of loud knocking. Did those people ever learn? Annoyed, Itsuki walked into the living him, where he was greeted by the sight of Narumiya sprawled over the sofa on his back.
“I told you to open the door,” Itsuki said in a brittle voice, throwing the bandages at Narumiya. The knight caught them almost quickly – too bad, Itsuki hoped they would hit Narumiya’s head. “Why didn’t you do that?”
“It’s your house and since you told me to hunt down a breakfast...” Narumiya shrugged.
Itsuki huffed, feeling the headache behind his eyes. “I cured you, remember?”
The knight stopped wrapping the cloth around his stomach and looked at Itsuki with unreadable eyes.
“I know,” he whispered, his eyes once again mesmerizing Itsuki. “And I won’t forget to pay you back.”
A shiver ran down Itsuki’s back, a touch of magic caressed his skin. Did Narumiya... did he just make a magical vow? Having a debt to one of the Gild’s strongest warrior with much influence – it wasn’t something that happened daily.
Another knock startled Itsuki. Disturbed by the easiness with which Narumiya made his promise, Itsuki quickly went to the front door. Up so close, he could feel a familiar thrill of master Miyuki’s magic – sneaky and confident, with a calm core - along with unknown echo of another aura: warm and shiny, like a sun, stubborn. Those two auras were moving next to each other in harmony, telling much about the mutual trust of their owners.
“I deeply apologize for making you wait.” Itsuki opened the door and bowed deeply.
“No need to apologize. We know we are early, master Itsuki.”
Itsuki straightened, looking at the two people in front of him. The one who spoke was Miyuki. He hadn’t changed much, since the last time Itsuki had seen him at the Oasis: he was still wearing the green robes of a magician with a dark travelling coat on his shoulders. The cheeky grin and glasses were the same.
Itsuki’s eyes travelled over to the second person. Slightly shorter than Miyuki, paladin Sawamura had the aura of confidence around him – much like Narumiya. His smile was bright, eyes sparkling cheerfully when he saw Itsuki. He was wearing a full, light suit of armour – blue laced with white and gold – with a big sword on his back and a small shield. He smelled of blood which made Itsuki furrow his eyebrows.
“Did you run into any trouble?” he asked.
Sawamura’s mouth opened slightly, but Miyuki only grinned.
“As expected of you, master Itsuki, to notice that,” Miyuki adjusted the bag on his shoulder and pointed at the horses behind them. They were bound to a fence by their reins, eating grass. One of them had a white bandage wrapped around its leg. “We were found by a bear few miles from him. Sawamura took care of it.”
“And we had a nice breakfast.” Sawamura chirped in. Itsuki could bet his right arm that he’d heard Narumiya snorting in the living room and had to surpass a smile. “Can we come in?”
Miyuki looked at his companion with pained expression. “Sawamura, how many times do I have to tell you that you cannot ask that? It’s rude.”
“But I gave him a choice to talk with us outside, if he doesn’t want to go with us to the Forest!” Itsuki was sure the paladin was seconds away from stomping on his feet. “I thought I was being nice!”
“See? This is your problem.” Miyuki sighed, theatrically. “You should leave thinking to me.”
“Right, because it usually ends so well.” Sawamura rolled his eyes, while Miyuki’s narrowed.
Itsuki was observing both of them, feeling that they forgot he was standing there. The magician was astonished about how two famous people could argue like little kids. Yet, a more skilled eye could see that their jibes lacked any poison, that they were comfortable in their little argument knowing what to say and what not. They had the air of a couple who fought and risked their life together, and somewhere in between they’d formed a friendship stronger than mountains, than chains holding mystical Baru to the core of the planet.
It was an unusual sight to watch them, and pretty entertaining too. Miyuki seemed to have lots of fun riling Sawamura up, taunting him about his lack of control and... something about sweet clouds? That was weird. However, the paladin blushed at that phrase and mumbled under his breath something Itsuki couldn’t catch.
Itsuki coughed and the pair looked at him; Sawamura was looking like he really did forget that Itsuki was with them, while Miyuki was wearing a huge smirk. The magician could tell his morning was going to get interesting. “Please, come in. We’ll talk inside.”
After a short introduction (‘Master Miyuki, it’s an honour to meet you.’ ‘Likewise, master Itsuki.’ ‘Master Itsuki, lowly Sawamura Eijun thanks you for letting him step into your household!’ ‘At least you know your position in society. Lowly, indeed.’ ‘What did that mean, Narumiya Mei?! Miyuki Kazuya, stop laughing!’), Itsuki went... okay, he hid in the kitchen pretending to make breakfast. Somehow, Miyuki had realized that Narumiya was still hurt by his scar – he’d probably smelled the potion and felt the afterglow of healing charms – and right now, Itsuki could hear him lecturing the blond knight about being too rash to go on the next dangerous mission while he should have been resting.
Itsuki was putting a block of cheese on a silver plate, when Sawamura sneaked into the kitchen. He’d taken off most of his suit of armour, leaving only a chest of breast and knee-pads. Just like his armour, his trousers were blue too and his boots – as Itsuki had immediately noticed – were made from expensive dragon scales. No doubt he had killed that dragon himself.
The paladin smiled weakly at his host.
“I’m sorry for them. It’s just...” He rubbed his face, looking tired. Weirdly, Itsuki was missing his cheerful smile already. “Mei told us he was fine. He didn’t even want to go with us to master Takigawa to lend horses from him, insisting he could run to you and now...” Sawamura sighed again, looking in the direction of the living room.
Through closed doors, both of them could hear urgent voices of Miyuki and Narumiya; something about how Narumiya hadn’t said anything, and Narumiya’s angry response that it was only hurting a little and they didn’t have time! If rumours that those two were friends were true, Itsuki could understand why master Miyuki was so angry at Narumiya.
“Let’s give them another five minutes and they will be okay.” The paladin winked at Itsuki.
He found himself smiling back and even cracking a joke. “Five minutes? With Narumiya’s temperament, they will need at least an hour.”
Sawamura giggled and walked to the stove. He put the kettle down – Itsuki had to boil water again – and poured it into waiting glasses. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow, when glasses started murmuring when he was filling them.
“I understand you’ve already had a chance to see yourself why Mei is called our ray of sunshine?” The paladin teased, looking around himself and taking a bowl of sugar. With a horrified expression, Itsuki watched how he added five spoons of sugar to his tea. “Don’t worry about anything he said. He doesn’t know when to shut up.” The stormy face Sawamura made told Itsuki just how many times Narumiya had gotten on nerves of the paladin. “Do you add sugar to your tea? Me and Mei drink unsweetened.”
So those five spoons were for Miyuki’s tea? Itsuki gaped at Sawamura, before remembering to behave and shook his head.
“Not to the morning tea. Do you...” Itsuki threw a glance at the door. The rest of his guests were quieter now, but he didn’t want to walk in there to see them just yet. “You could slice the ham and I’ll slice the bread.”
“Yes, sir!” Sawamura grinned at Itsuki. It was almost blindly, honestly. “So,” the paladin started casually. “Mei told you what we are going to do?”
“Yes, but I haven’t decided yet.” Itsuki put the bread on another plate and reached for carrots to cut them. He heard how the knife in Sawamura’s hand stopped moving. “It’s... it’s going to be difficult.”
“Utterly difficult with little chance to survive.” The paladin laid ham next to the slices of cheese Itsuki had put on the plate earlier. “But we have one advantage other people didn’t have.”
Hearing that Itsuki looked at Sawamura. The young paladin’s gaze was piercing the magician in the same way Narumiya’s had been doing just a few hours ago. He was looking so serious, Itsuki for a moment, couldn’t believe it was the same person. There was strength in Sawamura’s eyes and in his voice, his aura was rumbling with a desire to move and do something, but there was also something soothing in it.
“Every person who has ever entered the Forest and ran away was a Summoner. I can summon Mighty Beasts to take us away from there, if things get rough.” He reached out to touch Itsuki’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. Yet, despite his calm aura, there was steel in his next words, his magic raising to levels unreachable for most people, filling Itsuki with warm. “We will survive.”
Helplessly, Itsuki could only nod. First Narumiya, now Sawamura; Itsuki now understood, all too well, why Sawamura was one of the Sixth too. He could appear childish at first, but his persona spoke about experiencing things which many could only read in books. Seeing that more serious side of Sawamura left Itsuki speechless – he didn’t suspect getting any kind of pep talk from him.
“... I think we can go back now.” Itsuki finally said, trying to convince himself that he was not trying to run away from Sawamura’s calm gaze.
“Yeah, let’s go there while they are getting breath for another long rant.” In a blink of the eye Sawamura was back to his loud self. Taking a tray with glasses in one hand, and a plate with bread into another, Sawamura yelled: “Ej, evil four-eyes! Open the door, I’m bringing food!”
Itsuki had to laugh when he saw how quickly his door moved on its own, pushed by Miyuki’s magic under Narumiya’s words about how hungry he was. Sawamura grinned at him one last time and disappeared into the living room, only to be greeted by Narumiya’s loud: ‘you’d be an awful maiden. Sawamura. I’m wounded, give me the food first!’. Chuckling to himself, Itsuki waved at the remaining plates and made them fly after him to the living room.
Breakfast was... ‘different’ for the lack of a better word. ‘Loud’, too. ‘Chaotic’ would describe it the best.
Despite saying that he and Miyuki had already had breakfast, Sawamura was going through food on the table with terrifying speed. Narumiya tried to laugh at him for that, but he wasn’t any better himself with eating scrambled eggs in less than three bites, while making himself a sandwich, at the same time. Those two were throwing painless jabs at each other, between gulps of food, muttering something about how everything tasted better than ‘that black meat of hokudu’ they had eaten in the desert – Itsuki wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not.
Only Miyuki was being polite, trying to talk with Itsuki about potions. It was hard for Itsuki to focus on their talk, though; he was too busy trying not to stare at how Miyuki was adding another three spoons of sugar to his tea. And then two spoons of honey. Itsuki’s teeth started to hurt.
“I’m full.” Sawamura leaned back in his chair, petting his stomach. Narumiya nodded, wiping his mouth with a cloth. “It’s what I needed, after walking here the whole night.” The paladin grinned apologetically to Itsuki. “I know I said we’d ate not so long ago, but we only took a little meat from that bear and we aren’t the best cooks.”
Itsuki wanted to point out that making scrambled eggs and vegetable salad didn’t require much skill, but in the end, he only nodded, feeling pleased by the compliment. No matter how loud his guests were being, Itsuki would be lying if he said he didn’t miss having people at his house from time to time.
“Well then,” Miyuki put the napkin on his plate and suddenly the atmosphere got much more tense. “I guess there is no beating around the bush. I know,” he threw a passing glance at Narumiya who nodded, “that Mei talked with you, master Itsuki, about our quest. Would you like to come with us?”
That question happened sooner than Itsuki was predicting. He put down his glass of tea, looked at Miyuki and tried to ignore Narumiya who was observing him like a hawk. Sawamura, for once, was quiet, watching him with complete and focused attention, too.
“I... I thought about it. It’s a very tempting offer. Finding Inasi’s spells and recipes of potions...” Miyuki smiled, his eyes brightening. At this table, he was the only one who could understand how much Itsuki wanted to put his hands on such treasure. “But I need to decline.” He said finally, a heavy knot settling in his stomach. “I trust your skills to survive, but I’m not a warrior myself and –”
Itsuki turned his head into Narumiya’s direction, hearing his yell and in the next second he was moving left, almost falling onto Sawamura and dodging a sugar bowl threw by the knight. Without thinking he waved his palms in front of himself, creating a protective shield.
“What the hell was that?!” Itsuki yelled at Narumiya, standing up, furious.
“That?” Narumiya blinked, his expression falsely innocent. “I just proved you that you have necessary skills to come with us. You can dodge in time and use shield charms.” The knight shrugged. “This is your job. We will take care of rest.”
“You – !” Itsuki pointed his finger at that insufferable asshole, but before he had a chance to knock that brat down with a stinging curse, Sawamura stood between him and Narumiya, blocking his view with a shield.
“Calm down, master Itsuki.” He pleaded, his eyes big and trusting. Fool. Standing in front of a magician without preparing his powers to defend himself...! Itsuki blinked, his powers calming down as if someone had switched them off. Of course, Sawamura didn’t have to defend himself, Itsuki didn’t want to hurt him. Just burn every hair on Narumiya’s body. Was it too much? “Better?”
Itsuki nodded, feeling ashamed of himself suddenly. It had been years since the last time he lost control over himself like that.
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to...”
Sawamura waved his hand, interrupting Itsuki. “It’s okay. I know how annoying Mei can be.”
“Hey!” Both of them looked over at Narumiya, who was watching them in annoyance. Miyuki was standing next to him, holding him in, what Itsuki supposed to be, a binding spell. “You can release me now! Damnit, but I was right, see?” Again, that burning with fire gaze turned to Itsuki. “He could go with us. He doesn’t have an experience, but Sawamura’s Mighty Beasts could help him fight if there was a need for that.”
Itsuki watched how Miyuki looked at Sawamura. Something passed between them and in the same moment they stepped back, leaving him and Narumiya unguarded. Miyuki did slide his hand through his hair, sighing deeply.
“Everything you proved is that you can piss off anyone.” He said, taking off the charm from Narumiya.
The knight snorted. “Compliments so early in the morning? Why not, thank you.” Then he turned his gaze at Sawamura, who was standing awkwardly at Itsuki’s left. “Stop making that puppy face, we are fine, see?”
The paladin’s gaze moved between Itsuki and Narumiya for a few seconds, before he seemed to relax.
“Sorry. It’s just...people rarely attack Narumiya like that. I was surprised.” He shrugged. Then he walked to Narumiya and grabbed his arm. “Let’s go out and check the horses. Master Chris said that they should be able to take our bags without a problem. My horse accepted mine and Miyuki’s bags, but we should check with yours.”
“What do you –” Narumiya tried to get him to release his arm, but Sawamura was holding onto it rather tightly.
“Let’s go.” The paladin said meaningfully, pointing at Miyuki with a short movement of his head.
Without arguing any further, the knight took his travelling bag and left the room, with Sawamura walking after him and telling to Miyuki that they would be back in a few minutes.
After Sawamura closed the front door behind them, Miyuki threw Itsuki a lopsided grin. “He has never been subtle.” He sat back again and showed Itsuki one of the chairs. “Please, sit.”
“I know what are you’retrying to do.” Nonetheless, Itsuki sat down. He felt so stupid, being ordered around like that in his own house.
From the outside they heard Sawamura’s delighted laugh. Apparently the horses weren’t spooked by Narumiya’s bag. If he concentrated, Itsuki could hear both of them praising the horses for being such great animals.
Bags normally used for quests were put under so many spells – protective, anti-mould and so on – that many horses due to them beingeasily startled scared of magic, didn’t even want to try carrying them on. On the other hand, not taking a bag like that from the Oasis or the Gild was out of the question. Those bags were much bigger on the inside and carried a lot of things: food, weapons, armour, but at the same time they were very light, even fully stocked.
For example, Itsuki was sure Narumiya was carrying the proper sword of a knight inside his own bag – that little sword he had at his waist was probably his travelling sword. There was no need for him to carry the standard sword used by knights in battles without any need since it weighed a lot. Sawamura, one the other hand, had his paladin’s sword on his back but that was probably because of his encounter with the bear. Itsuki was guessing that the paladin had left that sword out, thinking that they could possibly run into more wilder, dangerous beasts than a grizzly bear.
The first time Itsuki had seen paladins and knights fighting with swords almost as big as their owners, he had been shocked. Why use such monstrous weapons? However, he quickly learned that a paladin’s and knight’s strength let them wield those monsters without much of a problem. Additionally, their weapons had to be so big because only a special mix of steel, bigger than those of a sword for non-enhanced people, could withstand the magic put on it. Plus, they had to use them, in order to slay monster of all sizes. Itsuki couldn’t imagine taking down a dragon with the sword Narumiya was currently carrying outside his bag. No, it would be impossible. Such small swords were for magicians, but only as a last resort to protect themselves if their magic failed them.
Shaking his head to clear it from useless thoughts, Itsuki scowled at Miyuki.
“I won’t change my mind, no matter what you say, master Miyuki. I...” He rubbed his face, tiredly, appreciating that, unlike Sawamura and Narumiya, Miyuki actually listened to him, without interrupting. “I could lose too much. I’m not popular, unlike you and your companions. We don’t know what awaits us in the Forest and I can’t fight. I can supply you with healing potions, but that’s just about everything I can do.”
“Now, now, master Itsuki.” Miyuki folded his arms on his chest. “I saw how you dodged Narumiya’s attack... By the way, I’m going to tease him for months that he used a sugar bowl to attack someone... And I know what the first spell you wanted to use was. You can’t tell me that you don’t know how to fight.” Miyuki leaned forward, his eyes watching Itsuki with a dangerous gleam in them. “Bloody Feast.”
“No!” Itsuki yelled, horrified. “I-I only wanted to raise the temperature of his blood a little, to scare him, that’s all!” For Miyuki to insinuate something like that...! It was a dark, dark magic which tainted a person’s soul. “I wouldn’t use that spell!”
“Raising one’s blood temperature is a part of Bloody Feast.” Miyuki shrugged. Itsuki felt as if something punched him in the lungs; he couldn’t even take a breath. “Even if you didn’t try to use that spell your first thought was to create a shield and then to attack. It was a good way of thinking.”
“...But would that be enough?” Itsuki asked, voicing problems he had been thinking about before going to sleep last night. “I’ll have to help you on a battlefield, right? What if my commands put you in a danger?”
Miyuki leaned his head back and laughed.
“This is what you were so afraid of?” He laughed some more and Itsuki didn’t even try to pretend that he wasn’t annoyed by it. “Sorry, sorry... You see, a healer usually commands but everyone is always close to them. You can’t tell us to go too far from you, so we’ll always see each other and know if someone is in danger. And if your commands turn out to be wrong or something unexpected happens... We have enough of experience infighting together to survive without a healer’s orders.” Miyuki tapped his fingers on the table. “It’s going to be a difficult quest. But as Sawamura told you in the kitchen, we can always escape on his summons.”
“But what if we couldn’t? We don’t know how far we can go before even the Mighty Beasts can’t help us.” Itsuki argued, ignoring the fact that Miyuki had overheard his talk with the paladin.
“That’s true.” One of Miyuki’s hands went to the pocket of his coat. He took out a sheet of paper. “These are all my notes about all the people who have ever entered the Forest. I tried to compare how they were walking in the Forest with the map I found and... Well, see for yourself.”
Curious, Itsuki took the paper and spread it on the table. It took him only a few minutes to realize what Miyuki had wanted him to see. What he saw made him take his breath loudly.
He turned to Miyuki, moving his lips wordlessly before finally whispering: “Is it true?”
With a serious expression on his face, Miyuki nodded.
“It’s true.” He leaned over the table and tapped the imagine image of the Forest. “The book I found had details about how the Forest really looks inside. I carefully studied what all of the survivors wrote down and I’m sure that they were attacked, because they weren’t walking along the path. Like this one.” Miyuki tapped the red line. “Year 576, 25th year of King Mikara’s reign. For the first two hours, he didn’t see any danger, but then he turned right here.” He moved his finger along the red line. It was going away from the green line, which was going through – Itsuki could see it – the whole Forest. “Next to an, I quote, ‘enormous oak tree with red leaves’. The book says that the path to the treasure goes right past an oak tree with red leaves but says to take a left turn, not right. Do you understand it?”
Itsuki stepped back to take a good look at the whole picture. There were many lines following the same path as the green line, but many of them went too far. The picture wasn’t the actual picture of the Forest – there was none of it. Miyuki could only draw what he read in the book, but it was enough. It was painfully clear that some of survivors were walking the right path and nothing bad happened to them.
Would they really be safe?
Itsuki looked at Miyuki who was observing him in silence. The dark magician’s eyes were bright, his jaw clenched. It was obvious he knew he was right and that they would be safe. Again, Itsuki felt that same rush of adrenaline shoot through his body. He wanted to go, gods how he wanted to goon that quest! Yet, he couldn’t just say ‘yes’ considering just how dangerous it was. And why him? If not master Harada, then there were many more great healers and potion masters who could help. Magicians with the experience of fighting.
As if reading his mind – which wouldn’t be surprising at all – Miyuki placed his hand on Itsuki’s shoulder and squeezed it gently.
“I saw you a few times in the Oasis. You were trustworthy and hardworking, always looking to help other people. Neither Mei nor Sawamura knew you personally, but they’d heard a lot of good things about you. Me too.” Miyuki’s eyes were kind, trusting – just like Sawamura’s. “It’s normal to be scared.” Itsuki didn’t feel offended by that. After all only fools didn’t get scared. “Let’s do it this way: you will come with us, but the moment you truly wish to go home, Sawamura will summon a Beast for you and you are free to go. We’ll have six days, before reaching the mountains. You could spend that time reading the book I found. You are better at reading Inasi’s runes than I am and there are things in that book that I couldn’t decipher. I know that they're about the Forest and what is inside, but that’s about it. You’d be a great help to us.”
Miyuki, Itsuki was surprised to see that, was being serious. He was actually giving Itsuki a chance to run away if things got too rough. But that wasn’t something Itsuki would do. He might not be the bravest magician around, but he would never leave his companions behind in need.
He looked away from Miyuki, buying time; Itsuki had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be asked again to go onto that quest. His gaze fell on the book he was reading yesterday; the one about the Inasi. Hadn’t he been thinking just a few hours ago how great it would it be to find out more about the Inasi? And now, when there was an opportunity to do that, here he was being a coward, even if he was being reassured again and again that they could have a safe way of running away together?
Itsuki studied the map in front of him again, absentmindedly touching its ripped edges with his right hand. His left hand was playing with the medallion he’d received at the end of his studies at the Oasis. Both the Oasis and the Gild were built to prepare soldiers: brave soldiers who could save people from dark monsters. And he, Itsuki, was, in a way, a soldier too. Maybe he couldn’t knock down a dragon, but he could definitely heal people and protect them. Using what the Inasi had left behind, he wouldn’t fail his patients ever again.
Miyuki had just started to take off his hand off his shoulder,when Itsuki held him by his wrist.
“Promise me,” He demanded urgently, thinking about Sawamura’s cheerful grin, Narumiya’s kind smile and Miyuki’s quiet laugh he had heard when they had been talking about potions. The image of Narumiya travelling with a painful scar was still clear in his mind. “Promise me we will come back together.”
“I promise. I won’t let anyone get hurt.” Miyuki’s power raised, his aura got stronger and Itsuki closed his eyes, breathing in that power, allowing himself to drown in the sensation of that moment, reminding himself just how strong Miyuki was. How strong they all were. “We’re going to come back here together.”
Not opening his eyes, Itsuki nodded once, slowly. The words hurt his throat, yet he wanted to say them. He decided to not run away this time, to show himself that he could be brave.
But more importantly he wanted to protect those foolish people he had only known fora mere few hours.
“I will go with you.”
It didn’t take long for Itsuki to pack his travelling bag: one change of clothes, his travelling cloak, some food – Miyuki planned to buy more in a nearby village, but having more food didn’t hurt - bottles with elixirs, hand kit with herbs and an old book with advanced spells – he wanted to re-read it during the travel. After that, he put a protective seal on his house to forbid anyone from entering it and he was done.
Neither Narumiya nor Sawamura seemed surprised, when Itsuki left the house with Miyuki. Sawamura looked pleased, although it was hard to say if he was pleased with Miyuki or with Itsuki, while Narumiya only grinned.
They were giving water to the horses. Itsuki used those few seconds of walking towards them to check on Narumiya. It didn’t look like the scar was hurting the blond knight, but on the other hand he had spent quite some time pretending he was alright. It’d be a good idea to ask him about it later.
“I thought you got lost.” Narumiya said to Miyuki, giving him the reins of a white horse with a dark patch on its forehead.
All four horses were big, menacing looking animals: two whites (the second white one had brown dots all over its back), one brown with an almost gold mane and one grey with the darkest eyes Itsuki has ever seen. They didn’t seem scared of any members of the group. It wasn’t surprising, when one knew they were from master Takigawa’s raising. Yet, when it came to animals and magic, no one would be one hundred percent sure that an animal would not get scared. For example, one of those horses would not let Narumiya come too close to it, but a weaker knight would be able to do that.
“It might have been my fault,” Itsuki raised his hand a little. “I wasn’t sure what to pack.” That, and he had spent too much time deciding what to wear. It’s not every day that he was going on a life threatening quest. In the end, he had decided on wearing another set of robes with protective spells vowed into it.
“Don’t listen to Mei, he’s always grumpy in the morning.” The moment those words left Sawamura’s mouth, he dodged a half-hearted smack from Narumiya. Winking mischievously at Itsuki, he gave him the reins of the grey horse. “See this person, Carand? This is Itsuki. He’s your rider.” Whispering, he added softly to Itsuki. “Pet his mane.”
Nodding, Itsuki raised his hand slowly to pet the animal’s head. The horse was observing him with dark, intelligent eyes. Feeling Itsuki’s tentative palm, Carand snorted and brushed against it, demanding more petting. Itsuki complied to that request, with a smile, marvelling over the softness of Carand’s hair.
Carand was the smallest out of all the horses, but its legs were muscled, making Itsuki wonder why that one was chosen for him. Other horses were taller, probably used to running fast... Oh, that was it. An attack. He didn’t need a horse to attack, but something what would run for miles. Plus, Carand definitely looked to be familiar with non-experienced riders. The other horses weren’t looking that calm and, if Itsuki was quite honest with himself, he wasn’t looking forward to riding such tall animals. The smaller, more muscled Carand was perfect for him.
“What is the plan for today?” Itsuki asked, still petting Carand.
“Chris promised me we should get to Kadnaga before evening, if we start riding before eight in the morning passes.” Miyuki answered him, while attaching his bag to the saddle on his horse. The animal stood perfectly still, not even flinching at the close proximity of the magical bag. Itsuki paused, eyeing the saddle on Carand and the bag in his own hand. Fortunately, Sawamura was quicker than Itsuki could ask – he took the task to attach Itsuki’s bag to the saddle upon himself. “It’s only a little after six. I suggest we take a break around noon to eat and let the horses rest. It wouldn’t be wise to travel, when the sun is at its highest peak in the sky.”
Itsuki saw Sawamura nodding at Miyuki’s words and he nodded once too. It was the middle of Žetvar and while the morning was wonderfully chilly, the day was going to be very hot. They would have to take much more than one rest.
“Master Itsuki, have you ever ridden on a horse before?”
“Only a few times and not far.” Itsuki replied, sheepishly. Upon hearing that, Sawamura nodded his head in acknowledgement of the magician’s answer, and launched into a long explanation.
Apparently, they really borrowed Carand from master Takigawa because they thought that Itsuki might not be an experienced rider. Itsuki, honestly, couldn’t tell why he rode horses so rarely. There just hadn’t been a need for it. He was born in the capital and never really travelled far from it. The village where he did his shopping at was close and if he was ever needed to go somewhere, he was usually travelling there in a carriage.
Thinking about it now made Itsuki think he might be a little spoiled.
Nonetheless, he was listening closely to Sawamura. The young paladin was quick to explain everything at once; Itsuki felt bemused by all the information. How to hold the reins, how not to talk, what to say, how to sit, how to not sit, how to not ever try to sit, which comments Carand understood in more language than one, how to notice that something was wrong with his horse, how to praise it. Itsuki’s head started to hurt.
“As usual, you talk too much.” Narumiya said in annoyance, from behind Itsuki. The magician almost jumped. He hadn’t even noticed Narumiya had left Miyuki’s side. “Just let Carand take you. He’s a smart horse, right?” The knight nuzzled Carand’s muzzle. The horse snorted, but didn’t back off. “He understands basic commands. If there is need for more, we’ll teach you on the road.” Narumiya looked at the clear sky, frowning. “It’d take too long to explain everything now and we need to hurry.”
“You can ride next to me, master Itsuki.” Sawamura proposed. For some reason, Narumiya scowled at that. “What? I’ll make sure he doesn’t fall down!”
That would be nice, thought Itsuki. Not falling down, that is. Carand didn’t look like he would throw Itsuki off his back because he was startled but the possibility was still there, right?
“You’ll talk him to death,” Narumiya grunted. “I’ll ride first, next Miyuki with Itsuki, and you at the end. I trust,” he raised his voice a little, when Sawamura made a sound of disagreement. “that you will be able to keep our back safe.”
“I don’t remember making you the boss of this quest.” Sawamura mumbled, folding hands on his chest.
“Considering your brain capacity, it’s a miracle you even remember to put on your pants every morning.” Narumiya snarled back.
The paladin and the knight were looking at each other with rage in their eyes. Itsuki’s gaze was moving between them. Should he say something...?
Fortunately, Miyuki took matters into his own hands. He stepped between the two warriors, shoving them back with only his aura.
“If this is how you are going to behave, then I’m going back to the Oasis, giving Elders the book, and letting them debate for the next fifty years if going to the Forest is safe.” Itsuki could be wrong, but it looked like Miyuki was getting highly annoyed. “If there is a boss, then it’s me, because I know the area where we’re headed to. Am I clear?”
He looked with expectation expectantly at the warriors. Sawamura nodded, with a heavy sigh, and Narumiya didn’t even move, but when Miyuki raised a strong eyebrow at him, he nodded his head too.
“Great. I’ll ride in front with Sawamura.” Was it Itsuki’s imagination or was there a note of possessiveness in Miyuki’s voice? “Mei, you ride with master Itsuki behind us.”
Both Sawamura and Narumiya nodded again, trying not to look at each other. Miyuki sighed, theatrically, at that and whispered to Itsuki, loud enough for everyone to hear him.
“They are like little kids, master Itsuki.”
“... You can just call me ‘Itsuki’, master Miyuki. It’s weird to be called so officially when we are going on a quest together.” Itsuki smiled at Miyuki, noticing that the other magician seemed to be surprised by the request. Did he overstep his bounds? “And... um, you can call me Itsuki too.” He added to the rest of his companions.
Miyuki snickered. “I was going to ask you the same. I don’t like to be called ‘master Miyuki’ all the time.”
“Could have fooled me.” Narumiya whispered to Sawamura and both of them snickered, under the narrowed eyes of Miyuki. Itsuki wasn’t even surprised that they were talking normally again. Good gods, the next few weeks were going to be interesting with these two. “I don’t mind being called Narumiya. And if you are going to cover my back you can call me Mei.” There was softness in Narumiya’s voice when he said that. Itsuki felt that something clawed in his stomach and turned into a knot. Was he getting sick? “And –”
“You can call me Eijun!” The paladin grabbed Itsuki’s hand and shook it up and down vigorously, smile wide on his face, eyes alive with friendliness. “It’s a pleasure to –”
“All right, let’s go.” Miyuki grabbed Sawamura by the back of his shirt. This time, the possessiveness was obvious. “Come, you dork. You’re causing a scene.”
“But I only wanted to be polite!” Sawamura whined, but – as Itsuki noticed it with raised eyebrows – he was letting Miyuki drag him away. Itsuki was sure that, if Sawamura didn’t want Miyuki to move him, the magician would have to use spells on him. No magician was stronger than a warrior, in terms of raw strength. “We’ll talk later, Itsuki!” he added cheerfully, waving to the healer.
“He’s a good kid, but sometimes he’s too blind.” Narumiya said, quietly, ignoring Itsuki’s curious stare. “Nevermind. Do you need help with getting on Carand’s back?”
Itsuki turned to Carand and stared at the animal. It was true that his horse was the smallest, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t tall. The magician hadn’t been riding that many horses for awhile now but he still remembered how to mount a horse...
Yet, before Itsuki had a chance to say that maybe he’d need some help, Narumiya patted Carand’s muzzle, whispering a string of words Itsuki didn’t understand. Carand shook his head and bent his back legs. Then as if Itsuki was nothing more than a light toddler, Narumiya grabbed Itsuki’s waist and raised him up.
“What are you –!” Before Itsuki could end the sentence, he was pushed onto Carand’s back.
Quickly, he turned, putting his legs on both sides of the horse and leaned forward to grab the reins to not so he wouldn’t fall down. He felt himself sliding down but Narumiya was still holding him by his waist and helped Itsuki adjust his position. The whole things didn’t even last but two seconds: in one moment, Itsuki was standing firmly on the ground and in the next, he was already up on Carand’s back.
“... T-that was dangerous.” He panted, his heart racing.
“I just thought I could help you, Itsuki.” Narumiya grinned at Itsuki, leaning his chin against the magician’s thigh. He was grinning like a child who had just pulled a silly prank and Itsuki felt he didn’t have the heart to yell at him. Even with his wounded pride he could admit it was fun. “Try to make Carand make take a few steps.”
Nodding, Itsuki pulled the reins back a little. Carand snorted, but slowly started walking slowly. The magician was all too aware of Narumiya’s hand lying at the small of his back. Well, it was nice of him to make sure Itsuki wouldn’t fall down, right?
“I think you’ll be okay,” Narumiya decided, when Itsuki demonstrated for him how to turn and stop. He patted Carand. “You aren’t that bad of a rider.”
“Wait ‘till we’ll have to gallop. I’ll bind myself to Carand’s back so I don’t fall off.” Itsuki half-joked. It was true that riding Carand was easy but they were moving at a very slow pace. “I won’t let you fall down.” Narumiya promised and... it sounded good. It made Itsuki feel warm and for the second time this morning he wondered if he didn’t catch a cold. “Let’s move then!”
Itsuki was watching how Narumiya walked to his horse that was standing next to Sawamura and Miyuki’s. The magician threw onelast glance at his house, checked the seals for the last time, and started riding towards the gate. Carand was carrying him so gently, Itsuki thought that maybe he wouldn’t suffer too much from sore muscles later.
“See? You’re quite good, Itsuki!” Sawamura grinned to Itsuki then pulled on the reins of his horse and let him jog in the direction of the road. “Let’s go!”
“Sawamura, let’s start with a simple walk!” Miyuki yelled after the paladin and went after him, giving Itsuki an encouraging smile when he passed him. Itsuki was observing how Miyuki quickly caught up to Sawamura and was now tousling his thick, mop of dark hair, despite the other’s loud protests.
“...We can jog, if you want to.” Itsuki said, looking at the distance between him and Miyuki. He threw Narumiya a half-smile. “I promise that I’ll try to not fall down.”
The blond snorted. “You better or it will be me who will bond you to Carand, when we have to gallop.”
Itsuki was startled to hear himself laugh at Narumiya’s words. Together, they jogged to Miyuki and Sawamura, who were in the middle of another harmless argument.
The sky was clear, the air deliciously chilly, Itsuki had a priceless book to read and he was able to sit comfortably while Carand was jogging. That last thing made him feel proud of himself. He wasn’t going to slow everyone down because he was too afraid of moving faster.
Everything looked good, even considering that they were going to enter the Forest without the Elders’ permission. However, Miyuki had been right, when he’d mentioned having to wait fifty years for the Elders to agree on a quest. And who knew what would happen in the wasted time spent with endless debating. The ground could open up and swallow the Forest or the evil living in there could destroy the treasure.
Itsuki shivered and touched the book from Miyuki in his pocket, hoping he would be able to find any information about what was living in the Forest. Because of his lack of experience, Narumiya was riding close to him and Itsuki discovered that it was especially hard for him to focus on the road, when every time he turned his head to enjoy the view, he saw the knight and his waist started to burn in the places where Narumiya had been holding him.
Never before had Itsuki been so grateful for living in an area full of forests. True, it was more dangerous with monsters and thieves lurking between the trees, but during hot days like this, travelling through a forest was a wonderful experience. When, around ten o’clock, the temperature had risen way too much for such an early hour, the leaves of the trees were protecting Itsuki and his companions from the gruelling, merciless rays being cast down from the sun.
They didn’t have a problem with finding a good spot to take a break at noon either. The road to the city was leading close towards a river, so they decided to stop and take a much needed rest by it. The horses were delighted, soaking their long legs in the cool water and Itsuki followed their example, as soon as he finished helping prepare a meal.
“Gods, I was dying from hunger.” Sawamura groaned, biting into a sandwich. He was sitting next to Miyuki in the shadow of a maple tree, keeping an eye on their bags. Itsuki couldn’t help but notice how close Miyuki and Sawamura were sitting. He’d heard of some of their adventures, so maybe they really were— “Come over and sit in the shadow with us, Itsuki!”
“Sawamura is right, you know.” Miyuki took a gulp of water from the bottle, passing it to Sawamura, without looking at the paladin. “It’s not safe to sit out in the sun like that.”
Itsuki smiled at them, moving his legs under the clear water. Small waves were splashing over his calves, making him feel colder. “I know. I’ll join you in a minute.”
Miyuki nodded and looked as if he wanted to say something, but Sawamura asked him about the Cold Mountains and Miyuki turned to him to answer. Itsuki went back to observing the river, letting his sore muscles relax. Only five hours and his thighs were already on fire! Before they go back to the road, he needed to put a protective charm on his legs – it was silly of him to expect he’d be all right when he rode horses so rarely.
For a moment, Itsuki wondered about reading the Inasi’s book, but decided against it. As fascinating of a lecture it was, he much preferred listening to the sounds of the forest life and quiet talk behind him. He’d read later, once they stopped in the city where he’d have more time.
A shadow fell over him. Itsuki turned his head and saw Narumiya standing behind him. The knight hadn’t wore put his shirt back on yet, after Itsuki had demanded to see the scar when they had stopped for a break, and his eyes went on their own, from the hard lines of Narumiya’s torso to the scar. It wasn’t red anymore and Itsuki was glad to see that the blond had put more balm on it.
“Do you want one?” Narumiya waved an apple by the brown stem in front of Itsuki. The magician nodded and took the red, juicy fruit from Narumiya’s hand. He took a bit of it, relishing in the sweet taste. Narumiya sat next to him, sighing loudly, when he soaked his feet in the cool river. He turned his face to the sun smiling like a content cat.
They were quiet for a couple of content minutes. Itsuki had already finished eating the apple and was wondering if he shouldn’t go to sit in the shadow of the trees, when Narumiya finally spoke: “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“Huh?” Itsuki looked at Narumiya. The knight wasn’t watching him; his gaze was cast down and he was playing with a blade of grass. “Your scar?”
“Yeah. Your balm was very good. I can move freely now.” As if to demonstrate that it was true, he stretched. Muscles flexed in his arms and torso, and Itsuki’s throat suddenly got very dry. “I practiced with a sword and nothing started to hurt so... Thank you.” Finally, Narumiya looked Itsuki in the eyes. For the first time, since they had met, Itsuki didn’t see any conceit in that gaze.
The magician bowed his head a little.
“You’re welcome. It wouldn’t say much about me if I couldn’t help you, right?”
Narumiya cocked his head to the side, blond bangs sliding across his sunburnt face. “Probably. But that was an awful scar.” Shaking his head he grabbed Itsuki’s hand and stood up, pulling the magician up too. “Let’s go and rest in the shadows. You’ve been sitting in the sun long enough.”
Itsuki wanted to say ‘you too’ but bit his tongue in time. It looked like Narumiya was started to accepting him and it wouldn’t be good to destroy that little peace between them. More so, Narumiya should rest in the shadow too; for the past half hour he was performing a complicated set of exercises – probably to check if the scar wouldn’t start to hurt – which left him all sweaty and tired.
Itsuki felt a line of sweat forming on his forehead and he wiped it off with a tissue. Yes, resting away from the sun sounded good.
Their little peace was broken only a few hours later.
After the break, they had gotten back onto the path. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been able to travel in the forest for too long and after an hour or so of riding, the road started leading through fields. The sun had been burning them mercilessly and no amount of cooling charms could help Itsuki.
It wasn’t surprising then that he and Narumiya started snarling at each other soon. It started with the knight asking aloud if he could stop playing babysitter and stop riding right next to Itsuki. For that, Itsuki responded that Narumiya agreed at the beginning of their journey to help him so if he could kindly stop playing a martyr...?
After that, Sawamura turned to them and said that he could help Itsuki which, in turn, resulted in Narumiya growling something about paladins who should mind their own business. Miyuki ignored him, but Sawamura didn’t and they had a shouting match ‘till Itsuki got pissed enough to try to put a silencing spell on them. Both of them blocked the spell and, while Sawamura got the message and kept quiet, Narumiya turned his annoying self back at Itsuki.
“Don’t get between me and Sawamoron, Itsuki.” He pointed his finger at Itsuki, pale eyes burning with anger. “And don’t try your spells on me ever again.”
“I’ll remember that when you’ll be bleeding to death.” Itsuki snarled back, shaking the reins of Carand and making him jog faster. He passed Narumiya and started riding in front of him, pretending to not hear anymore mumbling of Narumiya’s. Gods! How were they supposed to bear with each other for the next couple of days?
Itsuki casted another cooling spell onto himself and drew the hood of his robe more onto his face, hiding it from the sun. In the radius of his vision, Itsuki couldn’t see any trees; only grass and fields of gold wheat shining in the sun. Great. He remembered that after two more hours of riding they should enter another forest and he was tempted to call a break there; there was a lake they could visit to cool down.
Lost in his thoughts Itsuki barely noticed that Miyuki slowed down, until they were riding next to each other. Seeing the other magician riding with such a calm, composed expression Itsuki felt ashamed of himself. He was the healer of their quest; he shouldn’t have let Narumiya rile him up like that.
“... I apologize for my behaviour.” He mumbled finally, looking down at his hands.
Miyuki only smiled, eyes still focused ahead.
“Don’t apologize. Mei... is a difficult person.” Miyuki’s tone was too cheerful considering the fact that three out of thefour people in their little group just had an argument. “But he was the one who insisted on taking you with us.” Those words made Itsuki stare in astonishment at the other magician, seeing the corners of Miyuki’s lips curving up into a smirk. “Surprised?”
“With his attitude? A lot.” Itsuki answered in a whisper, not wanting Narumiya to listen to him. He didn’t want another argument.
“He’s just testing you.” Miyuki waved his hand, nonchalantly. “Don’t pay him any mind.”
“So I cannot curse his ass into next week?” Itsuki murmured darkly, tightening his hold on the reins. “I don’t like being tested, ma-, uh, Miyuki.”
Miyuki sighed, shaking his head. “Me neither. But this is how Mei treats people: he wants to see if they aren’t pushovers.”
Itsuki clenched his jaw. “He behaves like a spoiled kid.”
“And I’m not going to argue about it.” Miyuki shrugged. He leaned his body over towards Itsuki and took control over Carand’s reins. “Since we are walking slowly now, why don’t you start reading, Itsuki? I’m curious about the opinion of someone who values knowledge and their plan cannot be summarized as ‘let’s just attack them, it’ll be a surprise!’.”
Sawamura’s ears, Itsuki noticed with a small smile, got red and he huffed, mumbling something under his breath. Miyuki grinned.
“Are you sure? We could ride faster now.” Itsuki pointed out even if desire to read the book was eating him alive.
It was true. They had slowed down, when the path became bad for running, but the ground under them was getting noticeably better.
“No.” Miyuki shook his head. “It’s too hot for the horses to run any faster. Let them walk for now and once we reach another forest, we’ll jog.”
Itsuki found himself nodding at those words. Right, he didn’t think about the horses. If he was dying from high temperature, then gods only knew how tired the horses had to be. And it wasn’t like Itsuki didn’t want to read the book. It was a true chest of treasure; he had checked it during their break and longed to start reading it.
Not only was there a map of the Forest, but also encrypted spells and recipes for mixtures. Its owner also talked about politics, morality of using unspecified – at first - test subjects (Itsuki didn’t feel too well, when he realized that those subject were humans) and how the Inasi shouldn’t have experimented with corkasdenoze d’lta pertevu, because it could have a pitiful result. That term was a complete mystery to Itsuki and he had a faint idea that it might be related to the mystery of the Forest’s inhabitants.
“If you say so...” Itsuki loosened his grip on the reins to make them longer and easier for Miyuki to hold on it. “But didn’t you want to ride next to Sawamura?” The magician hoped his tone was polite; he didn’t want Miyuki to think he didn’t want his company.
The smile on Miyuki’s lips faltered for a mere moment.
“It’s not like we’re going to get ambushed in the middle of an empty field, Itsuki.” Miyuki shrugged, but Itsuki couldn’t help but think that there was something more to it than Miyuki would let on. Well, they weren’t friends after all. “Go on.”
“If you say so.” Itsuki sat more comfortably in the saddle, taking out the book from the pocket of his robe.
It was tricky to stay still in the saddle, when he let go of the reins to take out the book. Itsuki couldn’t read not holding reins; he leaned forward a bit, holding the reins with one hand. He still had to rely on Miyuki to steer Carand, but somehow holding the reins made Itsuki feel more stable.
For someone not familiar with how the Gild or the Oasis operated, it would look silly that Miyuki insisted so much on Itsuki to read that book. But usually warriors and magicians were aware of what was waiting for them so they could properly prepare . Yet, Itsuki agreed to go on the quest without knowing all information. He had packed what he’d deemed necessary – using Miyuki’s advice – but Miyuki couldn’t tell him everything about what he had learned from the book. For one thing, Itsuki was better at decrypting Inasi’s runes than Miyuki. That meant, in case Miyuki had mistranslated anything, they would have a few more days to prepare themselves.
Itsuki had tried to make Miyuki talk more about what they would find, but Miyuki only listed a bunch of monsters normal for the area of the Cold Mountains. It appeared that, beside of an understanding on how to navigate through the Forest safely, Miyuki couldn’t find anything else about it in the book. So, for now, he prompted Itsuki to read it quickly, because he was hoping that the magician would find useful information. Itsuki hoped for the same.
Unfortunately, so far Itsuki hadn’t been able to find anything worth mentioning. He was consulting Miyuki about everything he was reading. There were a few things Miyuki hadn’t been able to decrypt (“Oh, so that was about enhancing materials to build houses?” “It seems so, Miyuki. I doubt this is code for something else”) but none of them were about the Forest. Itsuki wished the book was more of a manual than someone’s personal diary.
The book wasn’t long; it only had a little more than two hundred pages, plus various notes on the margins – some of them were Miyuki’s. Itsuki thought he should be able to finish reading it all by tonight.
Itsuki had never been too big a fan of winter, but after feeling as if the sun was frying him alive, he was very grateful that their quest lead to the Cold Mountains – who were living up to their name, the cold wind blowing there, even in the middle of summer – and not to the Siklain Desert.
Once they reached forest again, Itsuki heard everyone’s sigh of relief. They stopped to give water to their horses, and during that short break, they were passed by one carriage – everyone but Itsuki turned their face away from it.
“What are you doing?” Itsuki was puzzled; it was a simple carriage, nothing with emblems of the Gild or Oasis. “I know you usually stay in the Capital between missions, but you can leave it, right? You’re not prisoners.”
“No, but see...” Sawamura scratched his head. “The Gild has its people everyone. Someone could see us –”
“Ask why we are travelling together –” Narumiya added.
“They may ask too many nosy questions –”
“Or follow us –”
“Or they could have Gild’s orders for us and we don’t have the time to spare.” Miyuki finished, twisting the cap of water. His horse brushed his muzzle against Miyuki’s face and the magician patted him.
“Right...” Itsuki said, slowly. Narumiya had told him something similar already. “So I guess a glamour charm will be used soon?”
“Yep.” Narumiya leaned against his horse. Itsuki wondered how someone can look so cocky just by grinning widely like a wolf. “Seeing your face, it seems like we’ve forgotten to mention that?”
“You did.” Itsuki sighed. A glamour charm wasn’t very difficult to perform, in terms of magic power, but it required great concentration from the magician in order to make it work. “But I should have thought about it, when you mentioned staying low. We’ll probably share a room, right? To not look too rich?” Everyone nodded. “Is there anything else I need to know?”
Miyuki and Sawamura looked at each other with puzzled expressions, as if wondering what else they had forgotten to mention. Narumiya cocked his head, focusing his gaze on Itsuki with a serious expression.
“There is one thing...” he said but didn’t finish that thought.
“There is?” Sawamura sounded curious. He leaned to Narumiya, watching him curiously. “What is it? I don’t remember anything else!”
“Hush, you,” Miyuki scolded him. “We don’t need everyone in the forest to know about us.” Sawamura grunted something about too pushy evil magicians. “What is it, Mei? I can’t think of a single thing.”
Narumiya’s grin – if that was even possible – got wider. “Oooh, you don’t?” He sounded way too happy about that. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “If we’re going to sleep together Itsuki needs to know that Sawamura snores like a wild boar!”
“I DO NOT!” Sawamura yelled so loud that the birds from the tree next to them flew away in a panicked flight to get away from the noise. “You snore!”
“I beg your pardon, I do not!” Narumiya said in a mocked outrage. “And how would you know? You are always the first one to fall asleep!”
Itsuki was watching the two warriors in astonishment. Was this Narumiya’s idea of a joke? Very bland, honestly. But, at the same time, listening to their playful argument somehow made Itsuki feel better. He couldn’t even stay mad at Narumiya too long when he was watching him teasing Sawamura and smiling. Honestly, if only Narumiya smiled a bit more, he wouldn’t be half-bad...
“Mei’s sense of humour is getting worse.” Miyuki shook his head and put his arm around Itsuki’s shoulders. “But speaking about sleeping... You wouldn’t mind sharing a room with us? I didn’t think about asking you sooner, sorry. And I promise I won’t let Mei use all the hot water.”
Itsuki laughed at that, feeling a bit weird with Miyuki touching him like that but also nice. It was as if Miyuki had accepted him as a part of their quest. Stupid, really, but people rarely were so friendly with Itsuki. The difference was refreshing.
“Or we could use all the hot water ourselves and then tell him to take a shower.” Itsuki proposed in a low whisper to not let the warriors hear him.
Considering how Narumiya was holding Sawamura’s head under his arm and ruffling the paladin’s hair, telling him to ‘apologize to his elder’, Itsuki doubted they paid any attention to them.
Miyuki’s eyes shone mischievously. “That’s a great idea, master Itsuki.”
“I’m glad you find it amusing, master Miyuki.”
They both snickered.
“What are you talking about?” They both turned hearing Narumiya’s voice.
The knight was still holding Sawamura, but it seemed like the paladin didn’t mind it. Both of them were looking at Miyuki suspiciously. “I don’t like that smile on the raccoon’s face.” Narumiya told Sawamura, freeing him from his hold.
Sawamura pointed his finger at Miyuki. “You’re planning something terrible, I know it! And you’re trying to make Itsuki do bad things!”
“C’mon, Sawamura, couldn’t it be that Itsuki proposed something terrible?” Miyuki asked, taking his arm from Itsuki’s shoulder. “Have some faith in me.”
“Please.” Sawamura snorted while Narumiya rolled his eyes. “You’re the evil magician here, tainting innocent people’s minds!”
“If you say so.” Miyuki raised his hands up and shook his head as if giving up.
He winked at Itsuki though and the magician masked a giggle with a cough into his fist. Yet, it was hard to not start laughing when Sawamura was accusing Miyuki of everything wrong on this planet with Miyuki playing an innocent victim. Narumiya was still looking suspiciously at Itsuki so he sent him his best ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’ smile and sat on Carand’s back again.
Seems like Itsuki had been right in thinking that this quest definitely wouldn’t be boring.
Once the horses had finished drinking water (and Narumiya had stopped teasing Sawamura), they went back to riding towards the city. With the sun setting down, they decided to make the horses run faster, not afraid of getting them too tired. This time, Itsuki rode at the back with Sawamura and overheard Narumiya telling Miyuki that it would be better if they were travelling by night if they didn’t want to tire out the horses. Itsuki couldn’t help but think if his companion thought lowly about him – true, he didn’t ride much but they could travel at night, he wouldn’t mind that.
However, Miyuki answered that they shouldn’t mess with their biological clocks. They weren’t going to travel through any mountains at night and to rest after sleeping during the day, they would have to take at least a break of one day. In their situation, with the Gild, which could be suspicious about them, it was too long. In today’s tempo, they would reach the mountains in a pretty decent time and once they pass Netele, a small town fifteen kilometers after Kadnaga, they wouldn’t have to worry too much about being seen by anyone.
After that, Itsuki was unable to hear anything more, because the clopping of hooves got too loud. At some point, Itsuki thought he heard an encouraging yell from Sawamura, but he wasn’t sure. Yet, since it was Sawamura, he could yell something. Itsuki could swear that the paladin was only quiet when Miyuki asked him to not speak.
A few times Narumiya turned his head to them. He gave Itsuki a thumbs up and it made the magician feel better. Carand was jogging smoothly and, unlike other horses, didn’t try to run faster. He was listening to Itsuki’s every command; sometimes, when they had to turn, it looked like he was reading Itsuki’s mind. Itsuki was tempted to buy that horse, if only he didn’t know how much it would cost him: way too much.
The path left the forest and a city flickered in the distance. The scenery changed too; instead of flat fields, they were seeing small hills. And above the city, far away behind it, Itsuki could see the shape of the Cold Mountains.
Itsuki was just glad no-one had tried to attack them. He loved living close to a forest but riding through it a whole day and not getting stopped by anyone... Well, they were more than lucky. Now, so close to the city they were safe.
Their path joined the main track and they had to slow down to not crash into any carriage. Somehow Itsuki moved to the front of their group with Miyuki.
“When do you want to cast the glamour charm?” Itsuki asked, eyeing the carriages and lonely riders in front of him. It was close to eight in the evening, but it was still bright enough for those people to recognize Itsuki’s companions. They had to think similarly because they didn’t take of their hoods. “I don’t think we should wait till we’re in the city.”
“No, we shouldn’t.” Miyuki turned his head to Itsuki, holding his hood with one hand to not let it fall down. “We may get separated at some point, so I thought you could cast the charm on Narumiya.” Seeing Itsuki’s surprised expression, Miyuki explained himself quickly in a hushed voice. “You know how much concentration that spell needs. If we get attacked, there is a high chance I won’t be able to hold the charm up for three people.”
Itsuki looked behind himself. For once, Narumiya and Sawamura were quiet, riding with their heads bent low. He hadn’t cast a glamour charm in years, but since there was little chance anyone would recognize him, he wouldn’t have any problems with keeping the charm on Narumiya for only tonight and the whole day tomorrow, before they pass through Netele. Behind that town, they shouldn’t meet anyone for kilometers.
“All right.” Itsuki agreed. “Are you and Sawamura going to look similar? Should Narumiya look like you too?”
“No, I’ll make us look as ordinary as I can,” Miyuki laughed quietly. “Do the same with Mei. And don’t mind his whining; he gets sulky when people describe him as ‘ordinary’”.
Itsuki had to smile at that. Why wasn’t he surprised?
Miyuki waved to the warriors behind them and passed Itsuki, now walking in front of him. Soon, Sawamura passed Itsuki too, going up to Miyuki – to cast a glamour charm, the touch between a magician and the other person was necessary – and Narumiya appeared next to Itsuki, with his head bent down.
“Are you that worried about people recognizing you?” Itsuki understood that Narumiya was popular, but surely not everyone in the country knew what he looked like. Itsuki certainly hadn’t just yesterday.
“I’m blond,” Itsuki was sure Narumiya rolled his eyes, but the hood was obscuring his vision. “We’d be in the centre of attention if anyone saw me.”
“...I hadn’t thought about that.” admitted Itsuki, feeling his cheeks going red from embarrassment. In this area, dark and red hair were the most popular. And didn’t Itsuki himself think just yesterday how much Narumiya’s hair stood out in the darkness of the night? “Um... What do you want to look like?”
The knight shrugged. “I don’t care. Just don’t make me bald.” He took his right hand off the reins and raised it towards Itsuki. “Pretend that you’re giving me something.” He added in a whisper.
Itsuki nodded. He pretended to be looking for something in the pockets of his robe, when in fact, he was focusing on an image of a face in his mind. Finally, he pulled out an old string and gave it to Narumiya. The moment his hand touched the knight’s, Itsuki whispered the spell. The magic flew through his body and rushed into Narumiya, wrapping itself around him – they were lucky that glamour was a hidden type of magic meaning there weren’t any bright lights or sounds when it was being casted. There was a reason why it was liked so much by spies after all.
Itsuki focused on the road in front of him, waiting for Narumiya to take of the hood. He shouldn’t be looking at the knight too much; it’d look suspicious. Before he was able to admire his work, Itsuki took that time to look at Miyuki and Sawamura. Both of them had already taken off their hoods. Sawamura’s hair was bright red, long, pulled into a low ponytail, while Miyuki had a mop of dark hair on his head.
“I hate how it feels.” Itsuki turned his head left, hearing Narumiya. “It’s like I’m in someone else skin.”
“You’ll get used to it soon.” Itsuki shrugged. Narumiya’s eyes – black as ink this time and more cat-like than usual – looked at him with disbelief. The knight touched his new, (brown) short hair tentatively. “How should I call you?”
“... Shirakawa. Miyuki and – Watch out.” Narumiya pointed slightly with his chin at something in front of them.
Itsuki turned quickly, tightening his hold on Carand’s reins, but fortunately they weren’t going to hit anything. There was an army soldier riding from the city. The magician tried to look as harmless as he could, when the soldier passed them; he could hear Narumiya’s sigh of relief.
“That was close.” He murmured. In a louder, more conversational voice he added, waving at the rest of their group. “I hope that we, Toujou and Raichi,” Narumiya accented both names. “Will find a place for us to stay the night.”
“I think so, Shirakawa.” That name sounded wrong in Itsuki’s mouth. The knight looked wrong without his blue eyes and blond hair. Silly, but somehow Itsuki was missing those things. “The city isn’t visited by many at this time of the year.”
Narumiya grinned. “Good. And Oota? Don’t read too much tonight, we need to leave early.”
It took Itsuki a moment to realize that ‘Oota’ is his name. He hoped Miyuki and Sawamura knew it and it wasn’t a new idea of Narumiya.
Itsuki whimpered, when he sat down on his bed. His thighs were on fire, but he couldn’t cast any spells, since there were too many people around them. Now, in their room, he was free to give his sore muscles proper treatment.
No one had stopped them at the gate; the soldiers had barely spared them a glance. They found a nice inn with free rooms and, after making sure that the horses are safe in the stables, booked one of them. It was quite a good room; two bunk-beds, a table with four chairs and a wardrobe for clothes. At the end of the hallway was a bathroom. The owner asked to tell him in advance when they were going to wash themselves so he could prepare hot water.
Right now Itsuki was alone in the room with Narumiya. Having much more experience at this kind of ‘pretending’ thing, Sawamura and Miyuki had gone down to fetch supper for them.
Narumiya was lying on the bed above Itsuki’s humming a tune the healer didn’t recognize. Hearing Itsuki’s groan of pain he stopped, and suddenly he was hanging upside down, with his head on Itsuki’s level.
Itsuki congratulated himself for not jumping in shock.
“Are you okay?” Narumiya asked, those black eyes looking at Itsuki with concern.
“Y-yeah...the charms I put on my legs were a bit too weak and, after a whole day of riding, my muscles are quite sore.” Itsuki explained, massaging his thigh with one hand with fingers glowing green from healing magic. “I’ll be okay soon.”
“All right.” Agile like a cat, Narumiya left his bed and, without asking, sat in front of Itsuki on the magician’s bed, leaning against the bedpost. Itsuki moved stretched legs back quickly. “When are you going to read the Inasi’s book?” Narumiya asked him, with such a serious expression, it made Itsuki forget about scolding him.
“After dinner. During our ride, I found a term neither me nor Miyuki could translate.” Itsuki said, suddenly feeling very conscious about his appearance.
It was one thing to sit in shorts when Narumiya hadn’t been looking at him and a completely different thing now. The magician cursed himself for taking off his pants to massage his legs; he could do it fully dressed, thank you very much!
Yet, Narumiya didn’t say anything about how the healer was looking like. Without his eyes ever leaving Itsuki’s face, he prompted Itsuki to speak more with a gesture of his hand. It hit the magician that, no matter how childish Narumiya could be, he was an experienced warrior who wanted information. And Itsuki was the person from whom he could obtain information to make sure no one would get hurt. He had promised that after all.
It was different to talk with Narumiya now. For example, he was actually listening to Itsuki, without giving his own two cents. He didn’t try any of his ‘I know better than you’ speeches. No, he was looking at Itsuki attentively, considering everything the magician was telling him, even if there wasn’t much of it: he hadn’t deciphered what the unknown runes meant and they weren’t any closer to knowing what was in the Forest than they were this morning.
In that moment, Narumiya interrupted him.
“No, we are.” He kicked off his shoes and put his legs on the bed, making himself sit more comfortably and pretending he hadn’t seen Itsuki’s dark look. On his part, Itsuki used that short break in his tale to charm pants to appear on him again. Seeing that, Narumiya grinned for the first time in the past few minutes. “I was wondering when you were going to do that.”
“It’s you who came into my bed without an invitation. Don’t whine about what I looked like.” Itsuki huffed, leaning against the bedpost behind him.
The bed wasn’t too long and their feet were brushing against each other.
Narumiya’s smile became darker for a moment. “Anyway,” he said as if nothing happened. “This morning, we weren’t sure that the book held any information about what is in the Forest. Now we are.” He scratched his head and yawned. “We’re moving forward.”
“Well, if you think about it like that...” Itsuki propped his chin on his hand, tapping his lips with his forefinger, thinking. “I’m sure I will find more information later. That author, Airik, talks about how the Forest was “a bad idea”. I think he mentioned why too.”
“If he didn’t, I don’t think anyone would bother with hiding the map of the Forest in that book. They would leave the map along with an explanation about what lives there.”
“Exactly!” Itsuki clapped his hands. “From what you and Mi – Toujou,” he corrected himself quickly, “told me it looked like someone hid it in that book on purpose. There wasn’t anything else in the cave, right?”
“Nothing important.” Narumiya yawned again. “There were more maps but Toujou analyzed them and said they are useless... Those were plans of the old Inasi’s capital.”
Itsuki straightened at that and almost hit himself in the head. Ignoring Narumiya’s short laugh, he exclaimed: “They are important! Do you know how long people have been speculating about what the capital looked like?!”
Narumiya smiled, politely. “But they aren’t important for our quest. You can see them later.”
See them later... Itsuki was sure that, if he was a dog, his ears would be standing upright now. Check the plans of that mystical city? He’d kill for such a chance! Well, maybe not kill, but definitely injure someone.
“You’re just as hopeless as Toujou.” Narumiya shook his head. Then, to Itsuki’s astonishment, he curled up into a ball, with his head next to Itsuki’s knees and closed his eyes. “Wake me up when they come with dinner, okay?”
Itsuki was speechless. “Wh... But... Y-you have your own bed!”
“So?” Narumiya opened his eye and looked up at Itsuki. Even looking like someone else, he still had that aura of pride about him. “You should be close to me so you won’t lose too much energy on maintaining the glamour charm. Oh, and your bed is softer than mine.” He added, after a moment, as if that should make Itsuki shut up. “You can read to me what you and Toujou were reading so intensely today.”
Knowing when he lost a battle, Itsuki leaned over to the stool next to the bed and took the book. When he sat down again, Narumiya made an urging sound. Trying very hard to not roll his eyes (he wasn’t a kid anymore!), Itsuki opened the book on the first page.
After a few minutes of reading he thought Narumiya had fallen asleep. But when he put the book down, he was welcomed by the sight of two black eyes boring into him. Narumiya raised himself a little and moved so now his head was lying on Itsuki’s thigh. That warm weight didn’t bother Itsuki as much as he thought it should.
“Read more. I won’t fall asleep.” Narumiya said in low voice, looking at Itsuki upside down.
His voice was a dark whisper which somehow made Itsuki’s shiver. Being all too aware of their close proximity, Itsuki started reading again, grateful that his voice wasn’t shaking.
A few times when he was turning the page, his fingers grazed at Narumiya’s hair. The knight didn’t react and Itsuki tried to tell himself that it was all right that his fingertips were tingling after every time that happened.
After reading the second time everything, the thing Itsuki remembered the most was that Narumiya had very soft hair.
Sawamura and Miyuki showed up a moment after Itsuki had finished reading. Good; Narumiya still had his head on the magician’s thigh and he didn’t know what to say without sounding as if he was flustered because of the situation. Because he wasn’t. It was just... weird.
“We have foooood ~~” Sawamura said in a sing-song voice, holding two big, silver trays of food.
He seemed to not notice Narumiya and Itsuki together, unlike Miyuki, who’d raised his eyebrow at them but didn’t say anything.
Itsuki felt himself blushing. He was only reading to Narumiya and it wasn’t like they had been doing anything improper.
“Finally!” Narumiya went to Sawamura and took one of the trays from him. “What took you so long?”
“The kitchen staff were very busy tonight, so we went to buy more food.” Miyuki explained, closing the door behind himself. Itsuki noticed he had his travel bag on his shoulder. “I ordered breakfast for us too. It’ll be ready for us to eat, when we get up.”
“That’s great.” Narumiya said, absentmindedly, helping Sawamura put food on the table. There wasn’t much of a variety: mushroom soup, baked potatoes, and fried meat. Miyuki was holding a tray with plates and tea to drink. “In the meanwhile, Oota told me what you and he read today.”
“Oh?” Miyuki cast a glance at Itsuki, putting down his tray. Itsuki moved to help him give everyone plates and cutlery, not being able to decipher that glance. “I did the same with Raichi. But first, let’s eat and we’ll talk later.”
It was an unique experience to see two strange faces acting like Narumiya and Sawamura usually did around each other – which meant teasing and arguing. Sawamura’s eyes were almost as black as Narumiya’s. He had many freckles coating his skin and a slim, short nose, with red bangs falling into his eyes. Miyuki’s new appearance was somehow the easiest to accept, even with his big, green eyes, too wide lips, and no glasses. Itsuki knew that there were glasses; if he tried to touch Miyuki’s face, his fingers would touch it. But apparently Miyuki was so good at the glamour charm, he could make his glasses disappear. Speak about talent; Itsuki would never be able to do something like that.
Even if both magicians had put silencing spells on their room, they kept calling each other by their fake names. ‘To get used to it’, as said by Sawamura. It wouldn’t do them too much good if they mispronounced each other’s name outside, when other people could hear them, right?
Itsuki poured mushroom soup into the bowl and sighed with content. The smell was strong, the mushrooms were soft and – what’s more important – there were many of them in the soup, instead of only a few which was the usual practice in cheap inns. It tasted great too. He took another portion, not even minding when Sawamura’s knife missed his wrist by millimeters followed by Narumiya’s fork and wounded yell of ‘that was my piece of meat!’.
Huh. Was he getting used to this insanity?
Miyuki seemed to be in a similar state of nothing caring about anything happening at the table, calmly sipping his tea. As far as Itsuki knew, Miyuki usually worked with Sawamura, and was friends with Narumiya. Yes, he was definitely used to loud meals. It’d be probably weird for him if both warriors were quiet.
Soon, they finished their meal. Miyuki asked Sawamura and Narumiya to take the empty dishes back down to the kitchen. Meanwhile, he wiped off the table (it was amazing how much food was on it), while Itsuki was looking in the bag for the dictionary he had packed. It was his favourite version of Inasi – Niho dictionary. He was updating it constantly with new words or rewriting whole definitions. Itsuki would need it for tonight’s task of deciphering the Inasi’s book.
The magician laid the dictionary on the table, along with some of his own notes and the works of Inasi he was reading yesterday. There were new words in those works he hadn’t seen before. He was hoping they could help them.
Narumiya came back quickly with Sawamura. Everyone sat at the table, looking at Itsuki with hope (Sawamura), cold interest (Narumiya), and hopeful expectation (Miyuki). Three of the most powerful people were sure Itsuki could help them; he was not going to disappoint them!
“Let’s start with page fifty.” Miyuki suggested. “This is the first time that strange term appears, right?”
Over two hours later, Itsuki was ready to rip out his hair. Not only they were nowhere near closer to translating the old runes correctly, but apparently the author was using a damn code! It was Sawamura who had figured that out, noticing the strange patterns of every third, sixth, eleventh and twenty-second rune (Itsuki wondered how bored by the whole thing he had to be if he was counting runes).
“That’s useless.” Narumiya sighed, leaning back in his chair. He kicked lightly at Itsuki’s leg. “Are you listening what am I saying?”
“It’s hard not to,” Itsuki said in a dry tone, not looking up from above his book. He could feel that he was a little bit closer to understanding what that strange term meant. It was the fourth time it appeared when the author was writing about a king and the government. “If you could keep a little quiet...”
“Oh, so now it’s my fault you can’t translate that text?!”
“I haven’t said that!”
“Stop it, both of you!” Miyuki stood up and slammed his palms against the table. Both Narumiya and Itsuki were quiet in an instant; even Sawamura looked surprised.
“I think we’re all tired.” Miyuki said in calmer voice, looking everyone in the eye and, truth to be told, all of them looked down when his gaze fell on them. “Let’s continue this tomorrow evening. Netele isn’t far away from here. We should be there around five in the evening and we’ll have much more time to work, okay?”
Itsuki found himself nodding, without even thinking about arguing. Miyuki didn’t even look that angry, but he did look scary enough to make them all agree without any comments.
Surprise, surprise, Sawamura reached for Miyuki and patted his shoulder. “Why don’t you go to the bathroom first? You could warm water for all of us. We don’t need to go to the owner.”
Miyuki nodded slowly and smiled a small smile to Sawamura before walking over to his travel bag and then leaving the room. Itsuki felt as if something heavy was being taken off his shoulders; he had no idea just how much pressure Miyuki could create with only his aura. Even the air seemed to cool down.
“...He’s a bit cranky, because he didn’t sleep much.” Sawamura scratched his head, grinning. “I’m sure he didn’t want to yell at you.” He didn’t sound too convincing.
“I bet.” Narumiya snorted. “It’s a good thing we have you here, huh?” He winked at Sawamura who – Itsuki’s eyes widened – blushed. So the magician was right about those two!
Whoa. Just... whoa.
“Um... I mean...” Sawamura was clearly flustered. “Anyway! I-Oota, do you think you could check on my horse tomorrow’s morning? I saw her leg before leaving the stable and it looked to be healing well, but maybe you would...”
“Sure, I don’t mind.” Itsuki bowed his head to Sawamura, pretending he didn’t notice the obvious change of the subject. “One of you can go to the bathroom after Toujou. I can go after that and warm more water.”
Narumiya nodded and started rocking on his chair. “Why not? I’ll go last; only remember to warm the water for me.” Itsuki barely surpassed a smile, remembering his talk with Miyuki. Narumiya’s gaze became suspicious. “...Or maybe I’ll go before you.”
This time Itsuki chuckled.
Washing himself, Itsuki missed his house for the first time today. The bathroom was little and sterile clean, with a small bathtub, sink and a mirror. It had a proper hydraulic system, but the water was cold. After Miyuki, it was Sawamura who’d had a bath and the water wasn’t warm anymore by the time it was Itsuki’s turn.
Itsuki played with the idea of not warming up water for Narumiya but finally decided to not be that mean. He put a spell on the pipes, making them hot – if he or Miyuki wanted to warm water itself, everyone in the whole building would have warm water. That would make the owner of the inn curious so both of them settled to warming up the pipes under the bath. If water was left to slowly fill the tube, it’d get warm nicely.
Preparing to leave, Itsuki felt Narumiya’s presence in the hallway. Why would the knight leave the room? Did he and Miyuki argued again...? No, probably not. Narumiya had looked almost apologetic when Miyuki had come back from the bathroom, still looking annoyed with everything. They had been sitting in complete silence, till Sawamura had come back to their room. Itsuki would never admit it, but he was happy that he had a reason to...well, escape.
Narumiya was leaning against the wall some distance from the bathroom. He didn’t look angry which Itsuki took for a good omen.
Some of his thoughts had to show on his face, because Narumiya said “Don’t worry, we didn’t try to kill each other.”
“Good to hear that, Shirakawa. Water should be warm for half of an hour more.” Itsuki left the door opened politely for Narumiya.
“Thanks.” Narumiya adjusted the bundle with towels and soap in his hands. But when he was passing Itsuki, he stopped. “Wait a moment till you go in there, okay? They need some space.”
Narumiya sounded very serious about that one, his tone almost commanding. If only Itsuki hadn’t been so tired, he’d have snapped at him and told the knight that he’s not blind. Of course Sawamura and Miyuki would need some space, especially after Miyuki had snapped.
“I’ll make sure I won’t interrupt anything.” Itsuki promised. “And be careful with your scar. Too hot water may make it itch, at least today.”
Narumiya merely nodded and disappeared into the bathroom. Itsuki stood for a long moment in front of the bathroom’s door. It seemed like one ‘thank you’ daily was the knight’s limit.
Itsuki walked to their room and stood in front of the door. He could feel magic shimmering inside; should he knock or wait? Thankfully, the choice was taken away from him when the magic abruptly died down and Sawamura opened the door.
“O-oota, hello. I’m going to check if the guys in the kitchen can give me some hot tea. Do you want some?” Sawamura’s voice was suspiciously too cheerful. He looked a bit distracted, with messed hair and two big spots of red on his cheeks. He strongly smelled of magic, too.
“I’d like green tea if that’s not a problem.” Itsuki said slowly, not being able to take his eyes off Sawamura. So the rumours were true, huh?
“Sure!” Sawamura grinned and let Itsuki walk into the room, before leaving it. He was humming and jumping a little.
“He’s such a kid sometimes.”
Itsuki almost jumped, turning around quickly. So focused on Sawamura, he completely forgot about Miyuki.
The dark magician was sitting on his bed, looking a lot calmer than when Itsuki had gone to the bathroom. He smiled sheepishly, showing Itsuki to sit at one of the chairs at the table – the one closest to him. Itsuki sat, suddenly feeling strangely awkward. Miyuki was flushed too, the strong smell of his magic was making Itsuki want to open the window; his head was starting to get dizzy. Itsuki was shocked just how much magic those two could generate and he was sure that they hadn’t finished when he came.
Miyuki sighed, bringing his left leg onto the bed and leaning against it. “I guess I need to apologize to you. I wasn’t exactly myself before...”
Itsuki shook his head so fast that dark spots appeared in his vision. He had thought about their situation in the bath and had realized that Miyuki had a good reason to explode. “No, don’t apologize. We... Me and Nar – Shirakawa behaved awfully today. You were right to be infuriated with us.”
“Was I really?” Miyuki looked at Itsuki with something akin to shame in his eyes and suddenly Itsuki understood: Miyuki didn’t lose control. Ever. It was one of the most widely known facts about him. “Guess we all should have behaved better today.” He laughed, humourlessly.
Itsuki fidgeted on the chair, suddenly not sure if he wanted to talk about that subject... but he was so curious! No person with magic wouldn’t be in his place.
“C-can I ask about something?” Itsuki fought the urge to fidget more under those serious green eyes. Good gods; how could Miyuki appear so... so superior by just looking at him? “I... I know it isn’t my place and you have a right to not answer at all... But I noticed that you... um, you and Raichi didn’t have a chance to spend... and then the magic... You know what? Forget it.”
Itsuki stood up quickly, blushing brightly. No matter how curious he was, he couldn’t ask about something so personal! He decided to go to his bed, hide under the duvet and pretend he didn’t exist.
Only Miyuki didn’t let him. Quicker than a snake, he leaned forward and pulled Itsuki towards himself, making him sit on the bed. He was grinning in the way that Itsuki had already associated with troubles.
“C’mon, ask. I know you want to.” He wiggled his eyebrows in a lewd manner. If it was possible, Itsuki would blush even more. “Everyone is curious, everyone suspects but you are the first to have the guts to actually ask me about it!” Miyuki threw his head back and laughed loudly. He even wiped off tears from laughing too hard, that brat. “Go on, I won’t hex you.”
Itsuki took a deep breath, nervously cracked his knuckles, sent a quick ‘I love you’ to his parents and blurted out:
“Is it true that you and Raichi are magically compatible and that you snapped at us because Raichi barely came back from the desert with Shirakawa when you had to leave for this quest and you didn’t have time to let your magic synchronize again?” At the end of his little speech Itsuki was breathing hard, practically vibrating in his seat.
Miyuki’s face was closed and he was quiet for so long Itsuki considered disappearing from the room. It was considered as the worst faux pas to ask about a magician’s bond with a warrior. The harmony of magic auras was something which happened so rarely that many people considered it a fiction.
Many scientists had been researching for ages why there were people born with magic powers that let them be catalogued into groups: magicians or warriors. And then, while they were growing up, they were being split even further: healers (like Itsuki), alchemy masters, dark magicians (like Miyuki, who showed remarkable talent in offensive spells), summoners who fought with monster summoned from... no-one still knew from where. They were the rarest kind of magicians too.
Also not only were there were knights (storing powers to enhance their strength like Narumiya) and paladins (like Sawamura who could use a little of both defensive and offensive spells), but also archers whose magic allowed them great sight and speed, and lancers who could get magic from the nature around them and use it to enhance their body strength and resistance, for a shorter time than knights could though.
Everyone’s magic aura was different and with such amix of different kinds of magic – like Sawamura’s who seemed to inherit summoning powers from his mother, which was a genetic miracle – it was almost impossible to find people with even similar auras. Yet, there were people whose auras were compatible. It was always a magician and a warrior; their magic was responding to each other, enhancing their strength and the power of spells.
There were many myths about that kind of a bond. From what Itsuki could observe, it was right that a magician and warrior needed to spend some quality time together to let their magic flow together – after all, their magic was considered as one being, not two. Rumours said that too long without harmonizing each other’s magic did lead to a bad mood and even a decrease in magic power. Itsuki didn’t know about the latter, but he had been the witness of the former.
Another popular rumour was about how often a magician and a warrior with that bond – called mockingly a ‘battery’ by skeptics, like in that child’s play – were a couple. Not only did they shared power with each other but also their body. That’s why asking about the bond was considered rude. It was almost as if asking someone straight up if they were sleeping with their bondmate.
Which also explained why Miyuki said that no-one had ever dared to ask about that. The moment Itsuki had met Sawamura and Miyuki, he had thought about how their magic was in harmony, but he didn’t even dared to think that...
“Well...” Miyuki started and Itsuki bit his lips, remembering Miyuki’s promise about not hexing him into oblivion. “That would be right.” He admitted in such a carefree tone like it was nothing.
Itsuki opened his mouth and then closed it again instantly, not knowing what to say. Finally he managed a weak: “... True? Everything?”
“Yup, everything.” Miyuki grinned at him and nudged him with his elbow. “Before Raichi and Shirakawa went on that mission in the desert, we found the Inasi’s book. I decrypted what I could and after they came back, Raichi was called onto another mission. Right after he appeared in the Capital, we were leaving again in a hurry.” Miyuki shrugged. “Almost two months without harmonizing were a little too much for me.” He admitted with visible difficulty. “But fear nothing, we’re fine now.”
Itsuki felt there was something more to that story, but didn’t press. Instead, he bowed his head. “Thank you for telling me this.”
Miyuki waved his hand nonchalantly in a parody of Narumiya’s move; Itsuki felt himself smiling.
“That’s nothing. It’s not a secret. All our closest friends seem to know about it but no one, aside from Shirakawa and you, asked.” Miyuki shrugged again and then winked at Itsuki. “I blame all those romantic novels where a magician and a warrior needs to have sex to harmonize their magic. Everyone is too embarrassed to ask. As if magic would need something so physical to work!” He laughed and Itsuki followed his example, vowing to burn that one novel which was about what Miyuki had just said. He had gotten it for his birthday as a joke and then read it. A few times. Some parts of it were really good.
“I thought your and Sa – Raichi’s powers seemed to be in harmony but I didn’t know if I could ask.” Itsuki admitted sheepishly.
“I thought so. To be honest I thought...” Miyuki’d gotten surprisingly quiet and made a face like he thought he had said too much. Seeing Itsuki’s curious glance, he continued, though. “I thought Harada was so quick to tell us about you because maybe... maybe yours and Shirakawa’s powers would harmonize too.”
Itsuki felt a sudden pang of sadness, so big it left him breathless. “But they cannot,” he whispered, something in his chest clenching.
It wasn’t the end of the world, right? Yet somehow the thought of being able to harmonize his magic with Narumiya sounded – simply speaking – good. There was something alluring in the thought of feeling Narumiya’s presence so close to himself, to touch his raw I. Nothing but the two of them surrounded by magic.
Itsuki shook his head, scowling at himself. Finding his compatible partner wasn’t worth spending the rest of his life close to that spoiled brat! Why had he even thought about Narumiya? There were much better warriors who Itsuki liked, like Shunshin or Carlos, whom he had met on one of his mission. Honestly, anyone could be better than Narumiya.
The magician ignored the small part of him that’d asked ‘oh really?’ without any problems.
They woke up early, but not as early as Itsuki had to wake up yesterday. It didn’t mean the magician wasn’t tired. He’d put healing spells on himself, but that didn’t make him unable to feel the fatigue of yesterday’s ride.
He must have looked pitiful, because Narumiya was being unnaturally nice to him the whole morning. The knight didn’t even comment, when Itsuki slipped and almost knocked into him, but caught him instead, helping him stand up.
“You should be more careful,” was everything that he said. Weird. Actually Narumiya had been more quiet since his bath yesterday, but Itsuki couldn’t tell why.
After a short break, they started their travel once again. This time, Itsuki casted even stronger healing charms on his legs. He asked if anyone need them as well too, for which Sawamura literally threw himself at him, thanking him for being so considerate. This time, it was Narumiya who grabbed Sawamura by the back of his shirt and pulled him back.
“Behave,” he growled which caused Sawamura to pout and run to Miyuki, who only smiled. Even that behaviour of the paladin didn’t annoy Narumiya; he merely rolled his eyes and sighed theatrically loud.
It looked like everything was all right today save for a quieter Narumiya. Would he be getting more serious because of their mission? Itsuki felt the anticipation too and his stomach was changing into a block of ice every time he thought about what was awaiting them.
Just like Miyuki had said the day before, they reached another city in a much shorter time. Despite now being in more hilly terrain, it looked like the horses were running almost effortlessly. As far as Itsuki’s small knowledge about horses went, they should be able to make thirty kilometers, tops. Yet, after running for fifteen, their horses looked like it was a mere warm-up for them.
The magician knew that Takigawa’s horses were specially enhanced and trained, but he didn’t expect them to be that good. He did dread to think how much Miyuki and Sawamura paid to borrow them. Should he pay for Carand too? Why hadn’t he thought about it before?
But when he talked to Narumiya about that when they were waiting for dinner, the blond knight only shook his head. “Takigawa is Raichi’s old friend. You don’t have to pay for anything.” His dark eyes shined with humour. “Don’t worry about that.”
Well, Itsuki wasn’t going to argue with that.
After dinner, he and Miyuki started to read the Inasi’s book again, while Narumiya and Sawamura pretended that old runes interested them. They survived for a whole hour, before deciding that they should clean up their suits of armours. Like right now.
That actually made Itsuki stop his research. He remembered the monsters roaming the area of the Cold Mountains. If they got attacked, there wouldn’t be time for Sawamura and Narumiya to get dressed into their suits of armour.
“Are you going to wear it tomorrow?” he asked, looking curiously at the breastplate in Sawamura’s hand. It was a piece of good job, as far as he could tell. “Will the horses be able to support you?”
Sawamura grinned at him and waved the cloth, which he was using to clean his armour, around himself. “Yes! We’ll wear them about five, maybe ten kilometers behind the town. Toujou will cast special enhancing spells on the horses so they will be able to carry us. Even I could do it.” He announced proudly.
“They won’t get scared?” Itsuki moved his gaze from Sawamura over towards Miyuki who shook his head.
“No, they won’t. Takigawa raises them well.” Miyuki’s voice calmed Itsuki’s nerves.
And that seemed to conclude their talk. Itsuki tried to focus on the runes, really, but he was being distracted by Narumiya wearing his suit to check if ‘everything was okay’. He was still under the glamour charm and while the suit looked good on him, Itsuki remembered just how good Narumiya looked in it normally. That thought made him flush.
He... he could admit that he thought that Narumiya was attractive. But he was also spoiled, had a bad temperament and had managed to piss of Itsuki more than people he had been knowing for ages had. Sparing the knight any more thought than necessary was stupid of him.
His only thought of consolation was that Miyuki seemed to be disturbed by the constant chatting of both warriors.
They hadn’t managed to discover anything new about the Forest that day. The code was hard to crack, even given Sawamura’s hint from the other day. Itsuki went to sleep angry at himself, feeling that he was missing something obvious and not knowing what. He could feel he was close but everything that he and Miyuki were translating sounded like rubbish.
In two days, they would get to the Mountains, where Sawamura’s acquaintance was stationed and could take care of their horses there. Passing the Mountains by foot wasn’t difficult for magicians. Because of the fact that the Forest required protective spells casted on it, they had built a magical path to ensure the safe travel of magicians chosen for that task. It would take them an entire day to get on the other side of the Mountains and then another one to reach the Forest. Since they didn’t know how much time they would spend there and didn’t want to risk the horses would run from the path if they got attacked, Itsuki’s companions had decided much earlier that they would leave the horses before entering the Mountains.
“Kanemaru is a cool guy,” Sawamura was babbling happily, riding next to Itsuki. “People around here claimed they saw dragons so he is stationed at the Mountains.”
In the corner of his eye, Itsuki noticed that Narumiya was moving his mouth along with Sawamura, as if he had heard the text many times already. The magician bit his lips, in order not smile, but Narumiya noticed that and grinned to him.
That grin was making funny things happen to Itsuki’s chest. It clenched every time he saw it, while he himself was feeling much lighter.
Itsuki didn’t dare to think what that could mean.
Of course, because they seemed to have luck on their side so far, it had to run out one day. To be precise, on the fourth day of their travel.
The third night they’d spent in sleeping bags around a big fire. They were taking turns in guarding the camp. Itsuki was the first to guard the place, which was the best spot: he could sleep undisturbed unlike people guarding in the middle and wouldn’t have to wake up before dawn like the people guarding the last shift. He had a feeling his companion let him win that spot because of his lack of experience and he didn’t even try to argue. Itsuki himself wasn’t sure if he would be able to wake up in the middle of the night.
In the morning they barely finished packing their bags, when something passed through Itsuki’s wards: something big and mean.
“A monster is coming!” He alerted the rest of the group but it was unnecessary: Narumiya and Sawamura were already standing in combat position, not fully dressed in their suits of armour yet. Miyuki was standing at their left, a little away, with his hands raised in front of him, prepared to cast spells.
They were so quick to take their position, Itsuki could only stare at them in surprise. He himself barely could decide on what he should cast first: a barrier on all of them or a protective spell on every person individually, while they were already prepared to fight.
Gods. Itsuki felt like he was going to be totally useless.
Sawamura knelt down and touched the ground with his fingers. “It’s a wyrm,” he said, gripping his sword tighter and raising his shield a bit higher. He turned his head to Itsuki. “It doesn’t walk but slides. There is only one type of monster in this area that does that,” he explained.
“Itsuki, cast the barrier,” Miyuki ordered, his eyes never leaving the direction from which the monster was coming at them. “It seems to be coming straight at us.”
“Good.” Narumiya’s jewels shined brightly, when he took power from them; it slide around him like a blanket. “I haven’t fought a wyrm before.”
“They are quick but stupid. It if focuses on one of us, the other two can easily strike it down...Itsuki, where is that barrier?” Miyuki sounded positively annoyed.
“R-right!” See, how had Itsuki been right? The fight hadn’t even started yet and he was already making silly mistakes.
Itsuki raised his hands and chanted the incantation of the barrier spell. It shined brightly with gold in front of them.
“Looks strong,” Narumiya murmured, moving a bit more to the right and standing right in front of Itsuki. “Do not worry. I won’t let it touch you.”
Itsuki nodded even if the knight couldn’t see him. Then, the monster lashed out from the forest – an ugly, oversized black serpent with brown tentacles jutting out from its sides - and then all hell broke loose.
The wyrm hit the barrier once, twice, its dark tail making it shake. Miyuki didn’t waste a second in casting a freezing spell on its tentacles. Right in the moment they froze, Sawamura rushed at the beast with a roar, passing through the barrier and cutting through frozen tentacles, as if it was nothing, the dark blade of his sword shimmering with the light of his magic.
The monster turned its ugly head to him, hissing in pain, and Sawamura raised his shield to prepare himself for the hit. The wyrm growled loudly. So absorbed in watching Sawamura, Itsuki didn’t notice that Narumiya had run to the monster and impaled it on his sword, cutting the wyrm from right under its head down, splashing blood everywhere.
But what Itsuki could see was how the beast raised its tail to hit the knight in the last attempt to fight. The knight raised the shield above his head to protect himself. It was only fractions of a second; Itsuki instinctively yelled another barrier spell, not hiding Narumiya from the hit, but enhancing his shield. The knight’s magic felt as if it was welcoming Itsuki’s power, taking it in greedily. On Itsuki left, Miyuki threw a lightning spell on the tail, making it blow up.
The wyrm gurgled, spitting blood and then fell on its side, its insides spilling open from Narumiya’s cut.
Everything got quiet suddenly. Narumiya turned to Itsuki, soaked in blood from head to toe. On his right, Sawamura was sitting on the ground, smiling with relief. Miyuki was grinning at Itsuki too.
“See?” Miyuki asked. “You weren’t half bad.”
Itsuki took another glance at the guts of the wyrm spilling from it – a mess of organs, blood and...strange, green goo – at Narumiya whose body and the suit of armour were covered in blood and then promptly vomited up his breakfast.
It didn’t take them very long to burn the dead body of the wyrm and prepare for the ride. Miyuki took care of the body, Narumiya went to wash himself (something hard rose in Itsuki’s throat when he realized that Narumiya was carrying a skin with water only for washing off blood from himself) and Sawamura sat with Itsuki, trying to make him eat and cheering him up.
“It happens to everyone during their first fight... Slowly, don’t drink too fast on an empty stomach.” Sawamura helped Itsuki drink water from the cup, not mentioning just how much the magician’s hands were shaking. “It’s Mei’s fault anyway. He didn’t have to butcher that wyrm in front of you like that.”
“Sawamura, I’ve seen people with bones sticking out their skin. I’m a healer. I’m used to seeing...” Itsuki took a deep breath, waving his head in Miyuki’s direction, who was burning the body of the beast. “Blood and stuff,” he finished meekly.
The paladin bit his lip and gently touched Itsuki’s shoulder. “My father is a healer too. I helped him tend to people at the village. I saw more open wounds than I could count and yet I also vomited, after I killed my very first beast.” His brown eyes were looking gently at Itsuki. “You are not weak, Itsuki.”
Somehow, that did help Itsuki to pull himself together. He wasn’t shocked that they killed a beast; he was shocked because it was his first time killing any beast. He’d graduated from the Oasis only four years ago and hadn’t received any mission where we’d have to help kill anything yet. Once, Carlos had to fight with a griffin, when they were going back to Capital, but at that time Itsuki had been told to back off and help hide people in the cave.
More importantly he felt ashamed of getting sick in front of everyone. Yet, truth to be told, he wasn’t teased by anyone. It was Narumiya who actually had helped him to get up and had given him a cloth to wipe off his mouth.
Itsuki sighed but smiled weakly at Sawamura. He was grateful for what the paladin told him. And maybe Itsuki could tell why he had reacted like that: it was the first time when he had helped to kill something. Even if that was a beast who would devour them all without a second thought... It was alive. And he helped to kill it.
Not to mention the sight was disgusting. Really, did Narumiya have to behave like an unskilled butcher?
Once all of them finished, they sat on their horses. It had to be said that the animals didn’t try to run seeing the wyrm nor they start trashing. Honestly, Takigawa gave them the best horses he had.
A sudden thought appeared in Itsuki’s mind. “Sawamura?” he asked. The young paladin turned to him, curious. “If that wyrm took three of you to kill, wouldn’t your friend be in troubles if he is here alone?” After all dragons were much stronger than wyrms.
It was a very rational question for which Itsuki expected an answer similar to ‘my friend isn’t here alone’ or something like that. Yet, he didn’t expect everyone to start laughing.
“Puh-lease, that wyrm wasn’t hard to kill at all.” Narumiya walked close to Itsuki and pointed at the place where Miyuki burned the wyrm. “We only fought it together because I wanted to test the monster strength. And,” his eyes shone mischievously, “it was a good way to see how well we could fight together, right?”
Itsuki gaped at him. Then he turned his wide eyes at Miyuki and Sawamura. “You’re telling me you could have easily killed that beast alone?” Miyuki nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. “Every one of you?” Sawamura blushed a little under Itsuki’s gaze, murmuring something about how wyrms were ‘creatures for one hit’ and how they were easier to kill than dragons. Dragons! “But it almost hit you!” The healer pointed at Narumiya with his finger. “I had to help you!”
“Actually...” Narumiya looked a bit uncomfortable. Itsuki tried to prepare himself for what he was going to hear. Knowing Narumiya – and truly, Itsuki felt as if he had been knowing him for years already – it was something what would make him angry. Figures. “I wanted to know how hard wyrms can hit.” The knight patted the maze of his horse, avoiding Itsuki’s gaze. “But your spell was good, you know? You even managed to join my magic, nice.”
Itsuki took a deep, calming breath. And then another one. “You, purposely, put yourself in danger.” He said slowly, vaguely aware that he was more angry than if he heard that Sawamura had done something like that.
Narumiya’s eyes narrowed.
“It is a knight duty to know what can hit him or what shouldn’t.” The knight growled.
Suddenly, Itsuki was reminded how Narumiya had stood between a nameless paladin and a minotaur in the desert. There was truth in his words; in case of more opponents, where the warriors couldn’t avoid all blows, they had to know what kind of hit they could take and what they should avoid at all costs. That realization calmed down Itsuki instantly.
“...I guess you’re right.” He finally admitted, pretending he didn’t see how Sawamura sighed in relief. There would be no argument now. Narumiya on the other hand looked pleasantly surprised. “Next time, warn me you’re going to do something like that.”
“Sure.” Narumiya grinned. Then he reached over and patted Itsuki’s shoulder. “But I wasn’t joking. You were really good with your spell.”
With that, the knight turned to take position in the front of their little group. Itsuki looked after him, trying to tell himself that the small praise didn’t mean for him as much as it did.
Itsuki decided that he really liked Kanemaru. The sandy-haired lancer was a serious man with a sharp sense of humour who didn’t mind to call any member of his group ‘an idiot who shouldn’t disturb anything in the Forest’. Listening to him was like hearing his own thoughts spoken aloud.
They had met Kanemaru once they’d got closer to the Mountains. It was around six in the evening, when they spotted the small camp between trees; Itsuki was close to crying from relief, when he saw a small lake near it. He was swimming in his own sweat; honestly, walking through Cold Mountains sounded like a paradise, after a whole day sat upon a saddle under a mercilessly hot sun.
The lancer had greeted them, when they had come closer. If ‘Sawamoron, I can’t believe you’re doing this’ could be counted as a greeting. Since Kanemaru had graciously prepared a meal for them, Itsuki was inclined to believe that for all his ‘this is dangerous’ and ‘I should call the Gild, I can’t believe I’m helping you with this madness’, the lancer actually genuinely tried to help them. Or just thought that they deserved one proper last meal before they demise.
“Kanemaru, you worry too much!” Sawamura grinned to the lancer, placing another piece of meat onto his plate. “We’ll be alright! And don’t worry,” he added in conspiratorial voice, “he won’t forget about your help! Everyone will know about it!”
“I told you, I don’t want to be known!” Kanemaru swatted Sawamura’s head, furrowing his eyebrows. “Just come back alive, got it?”
They were sitting around the fire, Kanemaru between Itsuki and Sawamura. On the right side of the healer sat Narumiya and next to him Miyuki. It was getting darker but no-one was being sleepy yet – or maybe they just didn’t to sleep, knowing too well what deadly kind of danger was waiting for them.
Drinking hot tea, Itsuki managed to relax a little. Before they had started eating, Kanemaru told him about a nearby clearing with many campion flowers. They were the main ingredient in a potion for magic shock. Hearing about them, Itsuki realized he had completely forgotten to pack that potion. At least it was easy to prepare; he could do it in the morning, before breakfast started. Nothing could calm down the healer as much as brewing up potions.
Listening to the group gossip, Itsuki was absentmindedly turning the worn pages of the Inasi’s diary. A few times, Narumiya’s knee nudged his own and the knight looked at him expectantly, but Itsuki only shook his head. He was happy with just listening to everyone’s stories. Apparently, Sawamura was the prankster in the Gild and had gotten close to getting kicked out from the Academy quite a few times. It was interesting to hear.
“They just couldn’t prove it was me who filled the teacher’s room with soap bubbles!” Sawamura said in a triumphal voice, looking quite smug. “I – Whoever did that, covered his tracks well. Or her. It’s not like I know who did that.” He looked at them innocently.
No one was fooled.
“You always had more guts than brains.” Kanemaru sighed when the paladin poke out his tongue at him. “Master Tadano, what are you doing?” He leaned closer, looking at the book in Itsuki’s hands. “Is that the mysterious book?”
“Yup.” Hearing Miyuki’s answer, Kanemaru backed off quickly. “No, no... Go ahead, check it. It’s written in Inasi’s runes and we can’t decipher them.” The last part was spoken in a growl. Apparently, it wasn’t often when Miyuki found something what he couldn’t translate.
“I found out it was a code!” Sawamura said loudly, straightening and smiling proudly.
At first, Itsuki was sure that the paladin demanded being praised too much but after listening to tales about how everyone at the Academy ridiculed his every accomplishment, telling him he had been lucky – because no one from some gods forgotten village could be a good paladin – the healer changed his mind. He didn’t mind complimenting Sawamura now, when the paladin deserved that. He, too, knew what it was like to be told he’d never be good enough.
“Yes, you did.” Itsuki smiled at him. For some reason, Narumiya scowled at that. “Unfortunately, it didn’t help us much.” Itsuki frowned, tracking runes with his finger. “Some of those words make no sense. It’s like the sentences are all jumbled together, but I just cannot find the key to read them.”
“What about reading them from up to down? Or from down up?” Kanemaru asked, looking at the book from a safe distance. He really hadn’t been joking, when he’d said he didn’t want to know anything about their mission. Apparently, even looking at the runes he couldn’t read counted as ‘knowing too much’ too. “It was on my exam for lancer.” He explained, his tan cheeks going a bit red when everyone stared at him. “It was...Sawamura don’t you even dare laugh!... my last task on the exam: decipher the code and find the kidnapped people. I noticed the code was written from right to left, but not that the true message was written from down up with every second and then third row being rubbish information.”
“But I remember you passed that exam.” Narumiya said slowly. He leaned his chin against Itsuki’s shoulder to have a better look at the book before bringing his gaze back at Kanemaru. “I was in the Announcement Hall when you heard your score.”
“That’s true.” Now Itsuki was sure: Kanemaru was blushing. The lancer reached behind himself and added another piece of wood to the fire. “But I might... um... both locations were quite close to each other, you know? And while I was going to the wrong location, I was using my powers to enhance my hearing. I was about five kilometers before the wrong location –”
“When you heard the kidnapped people.” Miyuki finished for him, looking surprised. “During exams they are always hid in a cave. You managed to hear them through stone and a distance of few kilometers? That’s pretty amazing.”
Kanemaru nodded, obviously embarrassed now. Itsuki could relate to him; being complemented by Miyuki was one of the highest praises he had ever received.
“So what about the code?” Sawamura asked, pouting. Apparently he wasn’t very pleased with how Miyuki was complimenting a different warrior.
“I’d overheard the professors talking about it, after they’d announced I had passed.” Kanemaru explained, taking a gulp of the vine. “They were sure I was going to fail.”
Narumiya snorted, still close to Itsuki, but it wasn’t bad. The knight was warm and smelled like magic, his soft hair were brushing against Itsuki’s cheek. When he backed off, the healer felt a pang of lost.
“Do you think there is an information coded the same way?” The knight asked.
“Well, only one way to check it, right?” Miyuki waved at Itsuki. “Come here. We’ll try to decipher that damned thing.”
Itsuki nodded and changed his seat by the fire, definitely not missing the warmth of Narumiya’s body next to his own. He sat between Sawamura and Miyuki, surprised that the paladin didn’t comment on that.
Together, both magicians tried to crack the code, while the warriors pretended to be engaged in small talk about the Gild, obviously trying not to interrupt them but also dying to know what was written in the book.
The words in front of Itsuki’s eyes finally started to make sense! He and Miyuki were writing the translation down in different combinations, remembering about Sawamura’s note about different runes in rows. They noticed how every first, fifth and twelfth row on every page was written with wrong information – just like Kanemaru had mentioned.
Slowly, the text started making sense, but with every word, Itsuki’s stomach was turning into a knot. He focused on text itself, trying to block the meaning of words; translate and write down without thinking because that... that couldn’t be true. For centuries Inasi were being showed as the example of a nation who was perfect: perfect justice administration, perfect government, perfect society... To think they could keep such secret!
No, of course not. Itsuki took a shattered breath. There was probably another message in that translation, something they would find soon. The healer looked up at Miyuki with plea in his eyes. The other magician didn’t look much better too; he was pale, his brown eyes wide in shock. Itsuki was somewhat aware of how quiet warriors became, but he was focused on Miyuki.
“We... we’re wrong, right?” Itsuki almost winced when he heard begging in his voice.
Miyuki gulped, obviously feeling uneasy. Sawamura moved a little closer to him, curiosity mixing with anxiety on his face.
“I... I don’t think so.” Miyuki whispered back. It was obvious that speaking those words hurt him. The knot in Itsuki’s stomach turned into a sheer block of ice. “But you’re the bigger expert than me. Maybe...try checking the text again?”
Numbly, Itsuki nodded. He re-read the text, while Miyuki was telling the rest of their group to be quiet and let the healer focus.
It wasn’t necessary though. Nothing, not even another attack of a beast, could destroy Itsuki’s focus. He was that determined to find another code, another secret message. Inasi’s used runes to write every syllable of a word separately, after all. Maybe Itsuki should join together every third syllable? Every fifth rune?
With bile rising in his throat, the healer finally, after another hour, put the book down. Disappointment rose in him, treating to swallow him whole. He couldn’t believe what he and Miyuki had translated. The last pages of the book really were about what was in the Forest and, even in his wildest dreams, Itsuki wouldn’t expect that. It was madness. Complete and utter madness, and no amount of ‘it’s for the greater good’ could convince Itsuki otherwise. In this case, he agreed wholeheartedly with the book’s author.
The healer closed the book and looked at his companion. All of them were looking at him with curiosity, not daring to think what he had discovered. Miyuki’s face was closed but he was gripping the hem of his coat so hard, his fingers turned white.
“Itsuki? Well?” Narumiya apparently tried to sound gentle, but he didn’t manage it.
At least that helped to kick some sense into Itsuki’s shocked mind. He coughed and looked at the notes with translation. Time to reveal just in how big troubles they were going to be.
“You know that this book is a diary, right?” Sawamura, Narumiya and, to Itsuki’s surprise, Kanemaru nodded. “The author writes mostly about Inasi’s judgmental administration. I thought that whatever is in the Forest was connected to it.” Itsuki gulped, unable to decide what to say next.
Thankfully, Miyuki started talking. “Apparently the Forest was used to punish criminals.” All warriors gasped. “If they could find their way to the cave in the middle of the Forest, their crimes were forgiven.”
“That’s weird,” Narumiya said, propping his chin on his palm. “You got all spooky because of something like that?”
Miyuki, and there wasn’t really any other word for it, growled, his angry aura putting actual pressure on air around them. Narumiya’s eyes widened in surprise and Kanemaru squeaked.
“Inasi summoned a demon to punish criminals! And they thought that everyone should be punished the same, because smaller offences could lead to bigger ones in future! Those fuckers forced kids to go into the Forest! They didn’t stand a chance against that demon! The moment they stopped walking the right path, they were dead!” Miyuki yelled, standing up. The sudden rise of his powers knocked over their bags, the air became hard to breath.
Sawamura stood up quickly too, trying to hold Miyuki’s hands but the magician backed off from him and the paladin’s face paled. Itsuki didn’t think it was possible for always happy Sawamura to look that devastated.
“I... I need a walk. Excuse me.” Without waiting for anyone’s reply, Miyuki turned away from them and left the camp, quickly disappearing between trees.
They could breath freely again but in the face of everything what was happening, what he had learnt, Itsuki wasn’t sure he remembered how to do that. Good gods, he wouldn’t want to face an angry Miyuki, never. Between his sly grins and his little jokes, Itsuki completely forgot just how powerful magician Miyuki was.
“What are you waiting for?” Narumiya hissed, making Itsuki jump. Blue eyes of the knight were looking at Sawamura with distaste. “He’s yours, right? Go after him. Now!”
That was an order. And Sawamura was a soldier. So no matter in how big shock he was, his body listened to the order, before his mind registered it. They watched how he quickly ran after Miyuki; the pain in his aura actually hurt Itsuki. Miyuki was Sawamura’s magic-mate. If it hurt that much to be denied the right to help your mate, then Itsuki was glad he wasn’t in their place.
“... So, what about that...that demon?” Kanemaru asked in quiet voice, obviously looking uncomfortable. He and Narumiya sat close to Itsuki, looking at the magician with expectation. “Master Tadano?”
Itsuki licked his dry lips, opened his mouth... and words failed him. Surprisingly, Narumiya reached to him and squeezed his palm gently.
“Take your time,” he whispered, his blue eyes no longer annoyed. “Is it that horrible?”
“Y-yes.” Itsuki stuttered. He took another cup of tea from Kanemaru; the hot liquid did little to make the knot in his stomach disappear, but it made him a bit better. That, and Narumiya’s hand still holding his own. “As Miyuki said, Inasi summoned a demon. They said that only those who really regretted their crimes would find the path to the heart of the Forest. There was an artifact that would make them apparate in the capital. And if they couldn’t find the path, they would get devoured by the demon.”
Narumiya frowned, Kanemaru looked uneasy. “But if that’s only a demon, why no-one could banish it?” The lancer asked. There was tension in his voice.
He suspects, thought Itsuki. He suspects but he won’t say anything because it’d be ridiculous to do something like that, right?
“And what about those kids Miyuki mentioned?” Narumiya tugged slightly at Itsuki’s hand, pulling the magician from his thoughts. “Surely, Inasi couldn’t punish kids’ pranks like crimes made by adults?”
“I’m afraid they did,” Itsuki whispered; Narumiya’s hand clenched painfully in his own, while Kanemaru moved back, as if hit by Itsuki’s words. The magician pointed at the notes with his chin. “It was like Miyuki said: they believed that if a child broke the law, they would break the law later too. The author of the diary didn’t agree with that. He didn’t agree with the whole system. He was too weak to banish the demon alone, but he hoped someone would find his notes and do this for him. There is no treasure, save for the teleporting artifact and medallion in the heart of the Forest. The incantation is in the diary. It must be said by a magician and said magician must be holding that amulet. The amulet was used to summon the demon and it’s the only thing that terrified the creature. Only a powerful magician can use it.”
“But...” Kanemaru started slowly, obviously thinking carefully about every word. “You don’t need artifacts for summoning demons. And demons should disappear once a person who summoned them dies.”
Itsuki took another deep breath, bracing himself for speaking words he was so afraid of. “Inasi didn’t summon any ordinary demon. That term which I couldn’t decipher? Taking out wrong runes, me and Miyuki discovered what kind of demon it was.” He gulped. “They summoned the old kastate.”
Suddenly a strong, cold wind started blowing. The fire became smaller, goosebumps appeared on Itsuki’s skin. Kanemaru stood up quickly, his face white like a paper. He was holding his lance in battle position, looking frantically around himself.
“Don’t speak that name never again,” he whispered with haunted look in his eyes. “Never again,” he repeated. “That brings bad luck.”
Narumiya, the first to laugh at people who were scared of their own shadow, this time was quiet, looking at the fire with disbelief on his face.
“They couldn’t do it.” He finally said. “They couldn’t be this stupid!”
“But they were.” Itsuki closed his eyes, tasting the bile rising up in his throat. The nation he had admired for so long turned out to be something he had ever expected it to be. “They charmed the Forest so it could keep the demon inside. The right path was charmed too. And since there were always criminals, the demon was getting its meal and didn’t try to fight the barrier around the Forest.” Now, to the even worst part. “When Inasi couldn’t find anymore criminals, they were hunting for people outside the borders of their country. Their rulers were too proud to admit that the summon was a mistake. We still don’t know what happened to Inasi but if they were willing to summon... to summon that thing, I don’t think their end was pleasant.”
Kastate: a mystical, old demon from another world. The thing that even other demons were afraid off. A few centuries ago one of summoners summoned a demon by mistake. The thing didn’t stay for long but, before it drained the summoner of their magical strength, it had told some secrets of demonic world – at least the summoner had even sense to ask about something useful. Forced by the bond to be obedient and speak, demon spoke the secrets of his kin. All of them were kept in the highest secret, the summoning of demons was banned – but somehow the information about kastate had leaked into the outside world.
The demon was said to be enormous in height, looking like a big, dark goo with tentacles and few rows of pointy teeth. It was said to devour anything it could find. One of primeval demons, with the power to destroy the world, if let loose. It was older than anything on the planet, born at the beginning to the time. To summon such beast was a move of a madman who wanted to see the world burned to the ground. And, unlike other kind of demons, it could stay even if its summoner died. A chosen artifact was keeping it on the planet, not a summoner.
But from what that was written in the diary, Inasi had discovered so much about magic, they had thought about themselves as invincible. They had thought that they could make the rules. They had forgot they were humans, not gods.
Itsuki had never thought about himself as a person who wished misfortune for other, but in that moment it was hard to him to find any sympathy for a nation who disappeared during the night. To sacrifice children and innocent people, who had been considered low beings, worse than animals, because they weren’t one of Inasi... No, Itsuki wasn’t sympathetic at all.
The heavy silence was broken by Kanemaru. The lancer added another piece of wood to the fire and said: “I don’t think any of us is a ready for the talk about old demons now. Why don’t we go to sleep and talk tomorrow’s morning?”
Itsuki nodded. “What about Miyuki and Sawamura? They are still in the forest.”
Kanemaru and Narumiya looked at the place where the battery disappeared between trees. Their eyes were gleaming softly and Itsuki realized they were using their powers to enhance their vision.
“They are coming back now.” Narumiya cocked his head right and stopped holding Itsuki’s hand. The magician only then realized that the knight was holding it the whole time. “You’re right, Kanemaru. We’ll talk tomorrow morning.” He stood up and stretched, looking at the start above them with melancholy face. “The night is never good for talking about the creature of evil.”
Something in his voice akin to experience shook Itsuki to the core. He opened his mouth to ask, but decided not to. The knight looked so disturbed by whatever thoughts were haunting his mind, the magician couldn’t bring himself to ask. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know how much of Narumiya’s soul had been tainted by demons.
You couldn’t face a demon without it leaving a scar on you after all.
In silence, the three of them slowly started preparing for sleep.
During the night Itsuki was awoken by whispers at the fire. As the last night, he had been the first to guard the camp, along with Kanemaru. Next was Sawamura, and after that Narumiya with Miyuki.
It was those two who had woken up Itsuki. The healer tried to fall asleep back, but hearing his name spoken by Miyuki, he stopped. Why would Miyuki be talking about him?
“— I don’t remember if even Harada’s magic was so compatible with yours... Oh, don’t make that face.”
Itsuki wished very hard he could turn around and see the look on Narumiya’s face. Was the knight angry? Annoyed? Would he deny Miyuki’s words?
“I guess you are right.” Narumiya’s words stopped Itsuki’s breath. Forcing himself to look like he was still sleeping, he listened to every word. “His magic felt extraordinary good, combined with mine.”
“But it’s not...?”
“Like you and Sawamoron? No.”
The pang in Itsuki’s chest was back.
Both guards were quiet for such long time, Itsuki almost fall asleep. But then Miyuki’s next question did wake the healer up better than river of strong coffee:
“Would you like him to be yours?”
Be yours. Be a magician of a warrior, have a warrior as his own. Work and travel together. Share power. It was one of the greatest accomplishments a warrior and a magician could do: find someone whose magic was compatible enough that even if they weren’t a battery, they could be something similar.
“I...” Itsuki held his breath, waiting for Narumiya’s answer. “I don’t know.”
The healer squeezed his hands into fists under the duvet. Narumiya and Miyuki didn’t speak anymore and Itsuki thought, humourlessly, that that kind of an answer was better than nothing.
The next morning came too fast. After hearing the talk of Narumiya and Miyuki, Itsuki had had problems with his sleep and when he finally had managed to close his eyes, he could swear he was woken up only few minutes later.
Miyuki looked like he hadn’t lost his temper yesterday. Truth be told, when he had come back from the woods with Sawamura, he had been already looking calm. Sawamura was his usual loud self; he even went with Itsuki to take campion flowers for the potion and was observing how the healer was brewing it, while Miyuki was leisurely turning pages of Inasi’s book. If they were going to continue their quest, there was only one person who was strong enough to banish the demon and that person was Miyuki.
Kanemaru and Narumiya had gone some time ago to hunt down a deer for their breakfast and to check if there were anymore wyrms in the close proximity. Itsuki’d told him himself it was fine that Narumiya wasn’t here. He already had enough problems with staying focused with the knight close to him and didn’t want the potion to blow up into his face.
Adding smashed seeds of sunflower, Itsuki wondered for the tenth time that morning if being a magical pair with Naru— Mei would be so bad. True, the knight was still pissing him off... but he was also making Itsuki feel safe. And he wasn’t a bad person to talk with, once you stopped minding his ‘I’m the best’ personality. Mei was a good leader too and a very strong knight. He travelled a lot; Itsuki could have a chance to lay his hands on rare ingredients, test his protective spells and maybe invent or find new ones.
With a sigh, Itsuki took the small cauldron off the fire. Once the potion cooled down, he could pour it into small bottles and hid it in his bag. The elixir looked good, even if Itsuki had been brewing it with only half of his usual focus.
“It smells nice,” Sawamura proclaimed. “And has such lovely, blue colour!”
Blue like Mei’s eyes. Itsuki barely stopped himself from groaning and hitting the ground with his head, repeatedly. Somewhere at his right Miyuki snickered.
Gods, when had his life become so complicated?
Soon Kanemaru and Mei came back from the woods; both of them were holding a deer. Apparently, they had met a lone wyrm and – according to Mei’s words – it didn’t take them more than one hit to kill the beast. Itsuki was grateful that this time the knight wasn’t covered in blood.
They ate breakfast in tense silence, unspoken question hanging between them. Itsuki had problems with swallowing his meal, haunted by what he had read yesterday.
“So,” Miyuki started, putting his plate on the ground. They were sitting around the fire just like yesterday. “Do you still want to go to the Forest?”
“The demon was used to being feed quite regularly. One day, it may break the barrier and then it will be too late to do anything. I say we should continue with our quest.” Mei folded arms on his chest, looking at everyone with a challenge in his eyes. “We are the strongest warriors and magicians of our generations. We can do it.”
Itsuki scowled at himself for feeling a rush of happiness when Mei had said ‘magicians’ instead of ‘magician’. Even if that statement wasn’t exactly true, it made the healer feel better.
“Would the demon be weakened by hunger?” Sawamura asked, playing with glade of grass.
That was a question Itsuki knew the answer for.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “That demon is older than the sand of the desert. For it, it could pass a day, since the last time it ate.”
“What about fighting it?” Kanemaru asked, rubbing his chin. “You need medallion, right? What if that amulet is connected with the barrier around the Forest? What if it disappears? The demon would probably rush outside instead of looking for you.” There were tracers of fear in the lancer’s voice.
“Most of the magic in the barrier belongs to our magicians. The barrier won’t disappear,” Miyuki explained. “Plus, when we move the medallion to use it in the banishing ritual, we’ll interrupt the flow of protecting magic put on the path. That means –”
“— That the demon will come straight for us, knowing someone is in the Forest.” Finished Sawamura. He wasn’t smiling anymore; his expression was stormy, aura pulsing with anger. He had managed to calm down Miyuki yesterday, but it didn’t mean he himself wasn’t angry too. “Miyuki is the only one who can banish that damn thing.”
“But are you and Narumiya strong enough to hold it down?” Kanemaru looked like he couldn’t dislike the idea of them going into the Forest more. “There are no spells for hurting such an old demon! Your swords will be useless!”
“Hey!” Mei yelled, obviously angry.
But before he or Sawamura could start arguing with Kanemaru, Itsuki came to the defense of the lancer: “He’s right. Primeval demons can only be banished, not killed. Even that guy wrote about it in his diary. We could slow the demon down with our attacks, but not kill it.” Closing eyes, he recited from the memory: “No steel, no wood, no stone, but only words of the one with gift can banish the Shadow back to its realm.”
They all grew quiet, obviously thinking about chances to survive such a suicidal mission. For Itsuki, those chances were zero. Ha, they would be lucky if the demon didn’t kill them with its first attack.
“What about traps?” Mei proposed suddenly. “We could put traps around the field where the amulet is. They could stop demon for a while like Poisonous Fog or Pointy Ground.”
Itsuki shivered hearing names of those spells. The former was creating a fog which poisoned every being, the former was creating pointed stalagmites, which would pierce an unfortunate human. The healer almost gasped aloud when he saw Miyuki nodding, as if those spells were familiar to him. Well, he was a ‘dark’ magician after all, offensive spells were his specialization.
“That... that could work. But we would need many traps.” Miyuki threw them a half-smile. “I checked the incantation. Words need to be spoken with pauses between them every two minutes. The whole ritual will last forty-five minutes.”
This time Itsuki gulped aloud.
“Forty-five minutes?” He repeated, shocked. He hadn’t check the incantation and didn’t know about it. How were they supposed to stop the beast for that long?
“Unfortunately,” Miyuki murmured darkly. “According to notes the beast is normally lurking close to the barrier. It’s not very fast, so I estimated we’d have about thirty seven minutes before it finds us.”
Thirty seven minutes. Thirty-seven minutes of a fight with a being so old that humanity was an infant compared to it. Thirty seven minutes of struggling, protecting each other and Miyuki, who wouldn’t be able to protect himself.
Sawamura stood up abruptly, dusting his thighs. “We don’t have time to talk.” He was still wearing that serious expression. “I’m going. In the worst scenario, we’ll put the medallion back on its place and run away on my summons.”
Mei chuckled without any happiness in his voice. “Sawamoron is right. It’s our duty to protect Niho.” He stood up too. With his armour shining in light and aura humming with resolve, he looked like a young prince ready to lead an army to a battle. “Are you going with us?”
“Do I have a choice? You need someone with brain after all.” Miyuki stood up, adjusting his robe.
Sawamura rolled his eyes at that, while Mei snorted.
“If we need someone with a brain, then Itsuki should go with us.” The knight said. All of them looked at the healer, who suddenly wished to be very, very small. “So, Itsuki? Are you coming with us?” Mei was smiling cockily, putting hands on his waist.
Itsuki had a good view of Kanemaru, who was looking at the group in shock repeating ‘you’re all crazy’. The healer agreed with him wholeheartedly, but he had made a promise before, right?
The magician shrugged and stood up like the rest of his companion, a weak smile on his lips. “When are we going?”
Both warriors grinned at him, Miyuki patted his shoulder and Kanemaru actually sank to his knees, staring at Itsuki as if he lost his mind like the rest.
To be honest, the healer thought so too, but the thought about running away was unacceptable. He had elixirs with poisons, potions to enhance magic, strength of warriors and was the only person who could be able to keep a barrier around Miyuki, since the magician wouldn’t be able to focus on any spell.
And, if Itsuki was honest with himself, Mei’s smile was enough of a reward to make up for that lapse in his sanity.
For all his words about how much he didn’t want to do anything with that quest, Kanemaru went with them to the Cold Mountains. If Itsuki wasn’t going to the place of his – probable – death, he’d appreciate the view: tall trees slowly becoming smaller, grass under feet of horses turning into stony path. The mountains were tall, intimidating, their peaks covered by fog.
Nothing grew on them, not even moss.
They bound their horses together, reins to saddle, and gave them to Kanemaru for safe keeping.
“Are you sure you want to do it?” The lancer asked, for the last time.
“I dreamt about the Forest,” Miyuki said, looking at the Mountains with some kind of longing. “I know I had to go there.”
Kanemaru nodded. Itsuki remembered how Mei had mentioned something similar; that Miyuki had a dream and his dreams were almost always true. As far as healer knew, Miyuki couldn’t predict the future. But maybe, like Sawamura with his mother who was a summoner, someone in his family could see lines of destiny and, thanks to that, Miyuki could see partial, vague future events his dreams?
“Don’t let yourself get killed. I’ll wait three days, before notifying the Gild.” Kanemaru nodded to them and then rode back to his camp, taking horses with him; Itsuki waved to Carand, already missing him.
“All right, it’s time for us to go, too.” Mei, as Itsuki noticed, tried to sound cheerful, but his voice sounded very forced. The knight adjusted his bag and said to Miyuki: “So where is the path?”
During their ride here, the dark magician told them how he had managed to accidentally – which everyone, with Sawamura being the loudest, had called bullshit – to find papers about where was the path for magicians. Of course, the whole thing had to be hidden; it wouldn’t be too good if enemies found out their secret passage. As it turned out it wasn’t exactly a path, but a tunnel under the Mountains.
Itsuki felt a bit weak at the thought of entering a tunnel under the big, heavy mountains. If something bad were to happen, would anyone hear their screams? And what about monsters lurking in darkness? What if they couldn’t use light because they was gas they didn’t know about, and they would blow up?
The healer didn’t fancy the idea of using that passage.
Miyuki promised them it was totally safe. The Elders were checking the path every few years and the last check up had been half a year ago. Monsters couldn’t get inside – and there wasn’t much monsters in the Mountains to start with. Even earthworms were avoiding this area.
Itsuki didn’t feel exactly reassured, but he went to the tunnel once Miyuki had found its entrance.
“You don’t seem to like it,” Mei whispered, making the light in his hand shine brighter.
“Is it that obvious?” Itsuki whispered back, avoiding hitting a long stalactite. “I’ve never liked closed spaces.”
Miyuki and Sawamura were walking ahead of them, checking for any sights of danger. Mei threw them a quick gaze, before holding Itsuki’s palm in his own, just like he had done yesterday. “Focus on my hand, okay? You can even close your eyes.”
“And risk hitting something?” Itsuki joked. The thing about the tunnel, which Miyuki forgot to mention, was how little it was. If Itsuki wasn’t careful, he’d hit something with his head. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so...” Mei’s face fell a little; or was that only a play of light and shadows on his face?
The knight tried to take off his palm, but Itsuki suddenly squeezed it hard.
“I... Maybe I’ll focus on it,” he said, meekly, feeling vulnerable like a newborn kitten. “If you don’t mind,” he added quickly.
That warm smile of Mei’s and the twinkle in his blue eyes made Itsuki’s chest feel warm. Gods, he was heading straight into falling for the blond knight, wasn’t he?
The walk through the tunnel – long, small, dirty, and smelly – took them almost a whole day. When they left it, the first thing they saw was peeks of trees of the Forest. A shiver ran through Itsuki’s spine.
That time, there were no happy talks, when they were preparing their meal, nor when they were eating it. Everyone was too deep in their own thoughts to talk. They didn’t even go closer to the Forest, deciding to sleep near the entrance of the tunnel. No one said it aloud, but Itsuki knew that if the barriers around the Forest suddenly fell down, they wouldn’t have time to run away and alert people in Niho.
Everyone tried to make Itsuki take the first shift, but he refused. “Let Miyuki take it. He should get the most sleep,” he argued and, surprisingly, everyone had listened to him.
They were a team, after all, so his companions shouldn’t treat Itsuki like a kid. He could guard their camp well too! Not only in the evening, but also in the middle of the night, when the chance of an attack was bigger. In the end, Itsuki had the middle shift with Sawamura, and Mei had the last one.
Itsuki felt a bit guilty for wanting to have a shift with Mei, but he understood why he couldn’t. The knight had had the middle shift yesterday and it was obvious that he needed sleep, especially since he was filling his jewels with powers this evening. Waking up sooner, instead of being woken up in the middle of the night and then falling back asleep was better.
Yet, Itsuki was surprised to note how quiet Sawamura was during their shift. The paladin was looking at the stars, listening to sounds of nocturnal animals around them. “Do you think we will survive?” he asked in a deadly serious voice, somewhere in the middle of their shift. He didn’t even look at Itsuki, when he’d asked that.
The healer found himself at a loss. He didn’t want to lie but he also didn’t quite believe that they would survive. Or if all of them would survive.
As if reading his thoughts, Sawamura looked at Miyuki’s sleeping figure with such open, vulnerable expression Itsuki felt like an intruder who witnessed an intimate scene not for his eyes.
“Me too,” the paladin said, looking young and afraid, light of fire highlighting dark circles under his eyes.
Itsuki turned his gaze away from Sawamura, not wanting to even think how terrified he was looking like.
They didn’t talk again.
In the morning, the situation wasn’t any better. Itsuki gave everyone anti-nauseating potion – the close proximity of the Forest was making them feel ill. Its effect should last for another twelve hours. It was enough time to fight the demon.
They were moving slowly towards the Forest, Miyuki with Sawamura again at the front of their group, Mei next to Itsuki. Everyone was being unusually quiet and Itsuki, never one to babble, felt the urge to start talking, to fill the silence with sound.
Once they got closer to the Forest, Itsuki had to stop himself from groaning at what he was seeing: the whole Forest looked ill. The trees were tall, but their leaves were the colour of dirty brown, dead bark falling down from them. The smell coming from the Forest wasn’t the most pleasant too, but it was bearable. Itsuki hoped that once they pass the gold barrier around the Forest, the smell wouldn’t become worse.
“The entrance is there,” Miyuki pointed at the smallest opening between trees. “In front of Mountains, three and half of a step from the spruce with dark bark,” he read, looking at his notes. “It’s the only place which fits the description.”
“And if not,” Mei said, taking the sword off his back. “We’ll know about it soon.”
It seemed that fate was on their side. Maybe sweet goddess Ennai decided that, if they were going to die, they could at least walk to the place of their death undisturbed?
They couldn’t walk too fast though. One of the hints in the diary was that people who were moving too fast brought the demon’s attention to themselves. And them? Four people with strong auras were like a promise of a feast! Not to mention the path was twisting constantly. They all knew that one wrong move and they would alert the demon.
It was a close call, once, when a branch of a tree suddenly fell down. Itsuki dodged it, but slipped and almost fell down outside the path. In the last moment, Sawamura and Mei grabbed the robe on his back, and pulled him back onto the path.
“T-thanks,” Itsuki panted, surprised by how terrified he was. A fraction of a second later he’d let the demon know where they were.
“Be more careful.” Mei nodded at him, gripping his sword tighter. “We don’t have time for mistakes.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Itsuki hissed at the knight. Was it his fault that that stupid branch couldn’t wait a little longer with falling down?!
Mei was already opening his mouth to say something back – something not nice very likely – when Sawamura said: “The sound can alert the beast too.”
Never before in his life had Itsuki been so quiet. Without another word, they started walking again; only this time Itsuki was walking right behind Miyuki, as far from Mei as he could. The healer understood that the knight was tense like all of them but it didn’t mean he could try to take out his anger on Itsuki!
The path widened, as they came upon a big clearing. It was wide, for about a kilometer with a big, stony monument of a hand stationed in the middle of it. Something gold shined at the tip of the stony finger pointing towards the sky – the medallion. The whole glade was covered in the same protection spell as the path, so they could walk around it freely.
A few days ago, Itsuki would have been so happy to be here. But not now. The easiest part of their quest was over; the real challenge started now.
There was something else too. While they were walking, Itsuki realized just how cruel Inasi people had been. The path leading to glade had more twists and turns than the healer could count. Without a map, there was no way anyone could find the right way to the centre of the Forest. The thought of little children being eaten alive, because of some twisted sense of judgment, made Itsuki feel sick.
“Let’s start with putting up the traps.” Mei announced in a very commanding voice. Yet, Sawamura nor Miyuki didn’t argue with him, only nodding their heads. “Itsuki, how wide of a barrier you can put up?”
Itsuki considered that question. “Would ten meters radius be enough?” Such little radius would make it easier for Itsuki to repairs any holes in the barrier.
“All right then.” Miyuki adjusted his glasses, looking around the glade. “What kind of traps do you want to make?”
In silence, Itsuki was observing how Miyuki was walking around the glade, casting dark spells. He knew that Miyuki wasn’t using the worst spells; dark magicians were called ‘dark’ because of their talent to use offensive spells, not because they were using real dark magic. Yet, instinctively, Itsuki feared Miyuki a little. And who wouldn’t when observing how easily Miyuki cast Poisonous Fog around the glade? Pointy Ground on an area of fifty meters from the edges of the glade going inside – the demon would have to step in that trap? There were also mini bombs-spells which attached itself to an enemy’s body and would blow up.
Trying to help, Itsuki reached into his bag. He couldn’t cast any amazing offensive spells, but there was something he could do.
Knowing he had to be quick, Itsuki opened one of the bottles that held anti-nauseating potion. He added three, yellow petals of dandelion and then crushed claws of a dragon from his personal kit. Dandelion would nullify the reactions between the moss and spider’s eggs in the potion, while dragon’s teeth would go into reaction with the heart of a flatfish. Itsuki didn’t have all the ingredients but was sure Miyuki knew a proper spell to make the potion work.
“Miyuki, do you want to add something else?” Itsuki asked, walking towards the magician. Miyuki looked at him curiously. “I, uh, thought about something?”
“What is it?” Miyuki pointed at the bottle in Itsuki’s hands. “I don’t remember you packing any brown potions.”
“I made it a few minutes ago.” Itsuki tried to look nonchalant, but he failed miserably. “I thought it’d be good idea to add a wall of fire, don’t you think?”
“Anti-nausea potion and dragon fangs?” Miyuki guessed. Seeing Itsuki’s nod – the healer told himself he should have known that Miyuki would have been able to guess what he had done on the very first try – he grinned, then turned to the monument that Sawamura was sitting on, as he polished his sword for battle. “Hey, Eijun, come here for a moment!”
Eijun? Right, it was Sawamura’s name. Being so used to calling the paladin by his surname, Itsuki needed a moment to remember his name. It was interesting to hear Miyuki calling the paladin by it. Names were precious to paladins; Itsuki wondered how big of a significance was hidden in Miyuki’s move.
Sawamura jogged to them, already fully dressed in his suit of armour. It looked to be lighter than Mei’s, but just as durable: blue with gold and white emblems. There was a chest of arms of the Gild above Sawamura’s heart – a dragon swirled around a sword – and under it a small, black canary. Itsuki was sure he had seen it before...
He quickly looked at Miyuki and yes, there was the same symbol on his robe. The healer was curious about it but decided to stay quiet. It wasn’t time for idle talks.
“What is it?” Sawamura asked.
Itsuki could feel how tense his aura was but now, so close to Miyuki, he was calming down. Both of them were calming down, realized the healer. Their magic resonated, giving them both strength they needed to much now.
“Itsuki had a brilliant idea. Do you remember the black fire?” Miyuki raised the bottle with elixir a little and a sly smile spread across Sawamura’s lips. “Like the last time: one drop every twenty meters. Don’t make a mistake and be quick.”
“Sure thing!” Sawamura snagged the bottle from Miyuki’s hand and started running around the glade, pouring the drop of elixir just like Miyuki instructed him.
“Like the last time?” Itsuki asked, with raised eyebrows.
“What can I say? Pirates didn’t want to cooperate.” Miyuki shrugged. “Do you want me to cast the spell?”
The spell was everything the potion needed to work. The charm would active the potion in the moment the demon got closer and, hopefully, burn its skin to crisp with adding help of mini-bombs. The black fire was strong enough to melt steel; obviously it had to hurt the demon a little!
“Actually,” Itsuki started with a sheepish smile. “I wanted you to teach me that spell. It’s not hard, right?” Plus, Miyuki would save his magic powers for incantation.
“Now now, master Itsuki, I think we have tainted you too much. Wanting to use offensive spells?” Itsuki tried to say that it wasn’t exactly an offensive spell since it was mostly binding together ingredients in the mixture, adding only a little more power to it... Okay, it was an offensive spell. “Don’t you dare try to apologize or something.” Miyuki’s wide smile could rival Sawamura’s. “I count that as personal success.”
They were preparing to fight an ancient demon and their chances of survival were very slim, and yet, Itsuki laughed.
Soon, they finished all the preparations and were ready to start working on banishing the demon. It was the part Itsuki had feared the most. What if they couldn't manage to stop demon for over half of an hour? What if his barriers failed?
“Itsuki, could you put the barrier up?” Mei asked.
Nodding, the healer casted two different spells. The first one was to create a barrier around them all. The second one created a small protective barrier on every one of them. Itsuki knew that he that wasn’t be enough for Mei and Sawamura, who were going to be attacking the monster; he was prepared to cast it as much as it would be needed.
“Let’s start, then.” Miyuki knelt on the ground, behind Itsuki in the centre of the barrier.
With both warriors at the front, Itsuki would have to keep Miyuki safe with his spells, if both of them failed. The healer tried to not think about it and both he and Mei pretended they hadn’t seen how Sawamura hugged Miyuki earlier, burrowing his face in the magician’s robes, their combined magic making the air around them buzz with electricity.
Itsuki observed how Miyuki summoned the medallion from the monument with a charm from the diary. The old artifact didn’t resist and smoothly landed in Miyuki’s outstretched hands. The magician immediately started to recite the incantation, yellow beams of light surrounding him. Far behind them, they heard a deep roar of pure hatred.
Mei looked at Itsuki, his blue eyes determined and for one crazy moment the healer wanted to reach for him, pull the knight close and... and...!
The moment passed and Mei stood up next to Sawamura, both of them ready to face the danger. They heard the faint sound of steps of something big, very big starting to approach them.
Taking a shaky breath, Itsuki started to count minutes in his head, preparing himself for the fight.
The demon appeared after ten long, tense minutes. It was later than Itsuki thought, and sooner than the magician would prepare himself for facing it.
The creature was huge, at least thirty meters high and over fifteen long. It looked like a mass of black goo with four legs and two limbs in the middle of it that looked like hands. Its eyes were round, all red, without any irises. From the mass that was its torso, were growing red tentacles which were hitting trees as it made its way towards them.
No wonder there were so many glades in the Forest; that thing was destroying everything around itself. According to the notes in the diary, it usually waited until a criminal was close, before using its tentacles to catch them. It was intelligent enough to know that trees were giving it protection, hiding it, and it was something no one in Itsuki’s group liked. An intelligent, strong demon to fight? They really didn’t have much chance to survive.
However, now the demon decided to show itself in its full glory. The author of the diary was right: once they took off the amulet, the creature rushed at them knowing that someone disturbed the magical artifact which had brought it to this planet. With the medallion gone, Inasi’s barrier would disappear and the demon would be free.
“Ugh, that thing wouldn’t win any beauty contest.” There was pure disgust in Sawamura’s voice.
“For once you wouldn’t have the last place,” Mei told him.
They both grinned to each other and Itsuki realized they were trying to make the situation less tense. Unfortunately, the healer wasn’t the type to joke when he was terrified. And he was terrified, okay? That thing stopped at the edge of the glade, obviously wondering if it was really safe to enter it. Itsuki tightened the magic in the barrier around them, trying to keep calm.
“C’mon, you stupid fuck, come closer.” Mei said, his jewels shining with magic, ready to be used. “Let us wound you, you asshole.”
So, Mei curses when he's scared?
As if hearing the knight’s words, the demon moved closer, straight into the fog. Immediately, the demon’s front got covered in small burns. Itsuki started to smile, thinking that their trap was working, but the beast merely shook its tentacles around itself; they were shining with magic. Stunned, they were watching how the fog was being torn down by them.
“Fuck.” Sawamura’s curse surprised Itsuki. What was with warriors and their need to curse before a fight? “Let’s hope the rest will work better.”
Knowing what else they had prepared, Itsuki wished for the same.
The demon roared at them, opening its jaws; there were way too many pointy teeth for the healer’s liking. It started moving again, the ground rumbling under its legs – if that black mass in such a weird shape could be counted as ‘legs’ – and it walked straight into the next trap.
Itsuki actually had to close his eyes when the ground rushed up, piercing the demon’s body. Seeing that thing pierced by big, stony arrows-like things made his stomach clench. He was breathing fast, afraid he was going to vomit and, gods, that would be too embarrassing to ever mention that battle to anyone...
“Oh, come on!” Sawamura’s angry yell made Itsuki open his eyes.
He turned his gaze slowly back at the demon and groaned loudly.
The creature looked surprised, angry too, but not on the verge of dying, oh no. Its tentacles were still crushing stones and the one which had pierced its head... The demon was eating it, as if it wasn’t a stone but candyfloss. That sight, along with observing how the demon was curing holes in its body, was both disturbing and fascinating.
And Itsuki knew it would haunt him in his dreams forever.
“It... it looks pissed,” Mei noticed with false cheerfulness in his voice. “How much time have we bought?”
“Seven minutes,” Itsuki answered almost without thinking.
Mei chuckled. “Five minutes more than I'd hoped. So, Sawamura? Who is gonna hit the big bastard first, when we piss it off even more with the black fire?”
The paladin swirled the sword in his hand, as if it weighed nothing, looking like he was seriously considering Mei’s question while observing how the demon was healing itself.
“Fifty gold coins it would be me,” he announced finally, when the beast roared in anger. They were lucky that kastate couldn’t move fast or the demon would have already run them over. It certainly looked like it wanted to do that. “And you will refer to me as ‘master Sawamura’.”
“Same goes to you.” Mei raised his shield higher, obviously preparing for an attack. “I’ll be ‘master Narumiya’ for next two weeks for you.”
Itsuki thought he should be more surprised by that talk, but he didn’t have time. The demon rushed at them with new strength and he had to concentrate. Only a little bit closer and...
“Burn!” Itsuki yelled, waving his hands in the pattern Miyuki had taught him. In an instant wall of flame shot up from the ground. Mini-bombs started exploding. The roar of – what Itsuki hoped to be – pain was very satisfying. Through the black flames, they could see how the demon stopped, its tentacles hitting the fire and moving back quickly.
Itsuki couldn’t hold that spell up for too long – it was requiring too much magic – but the sight of wounded demon filled his heart with hope. They had a chance! The creature was hissing at them, its dark skin having melted in many places. The healer could see something yellow in those places. Bones? Muscles? Did demons even have muscles?
The demon was healing its wounds quickly, though. Not wanting to wait anymore, the two warriors rushed at the demon: Sawamura was running in front of Mei, his sword gleaming with magic, while Mei was taking the strength of his jewels to enhance himself.
They seemed to read each other’s minds: the paladin jumped up, attacking the side of the demon, piercing it with his sword. He swirly avoided tentacles and dodged to left away from them. In the same time, Mei hit the ground with his sword; it broke right under the demon, a blast of power hitting it.
Unfortunately, none of those attacks seemed to do much damage. The creature roared at them and tried to catch Sawamura with its jaws. The paladin ran away in the last second, but Itsuki felt how the demon grazed at the barrier he had put on Sawamura. He wasn’t so lucky in avoiding being hit by the tentacle again, but at least he had managed to shield himself; the tentacle sent him flying, but he'd managed to land perfectly.
In the same time, Mei attacked again, this time slicking three tentacles with one hit. The demon roared, but before that heavy mass turned to Mei, the knight managed to cut down another tentacle. He jumped back and held up his shield in the last moment, as another tentacle hit it.
It was a macabre spectacle, watching both warriors getting close to the demon and then backing off from it. They hadn’t been hit too strongly yet, but Itsuki had a sickening feeling it was only a matter of time. The demon was moving slowly, but surely towards amulet, towards Miyuki, and the warriors couldn’t stop him. The worse part was that its attacks were getting stronger and his wounds were disappearing much faster. Soon, it would start attacking with its full strength and then Itsuki knew he would never see the light of a sunset again.
Obviously, he had to be right. Mei dared to come too close to the demon’s back foot and the creature roared again and then moved back as if to sit on the knight.
Itsuki wasn’t sure who’d screamed, him or Sawamura. But it wasn’t important. Important was how Sawamura ran to Mei and pushed him back, for a moment taking his eyes off the demon. That was a mistake which cost him much: the beast raised its leg and kick Sawamura square into his chest.
The paladin flied almost ten meters away, before landing hard on the grass. Through the spell Itsuki could feel the broken ribs and pierced lung of Sawamura. He quickly cast the strongest healing charm he knew, observing with horror how Sawamura got onto his knees and started coughing up blood. Although Itsuki's magic was healing the paladin quickly, the healer's hands were shaking; it was close, too close.
Mei ran to the paladin, shielding himself from the attacks of the demon’s tentacles. As if knowing that it was close to winning, the creature turned away from the medallion, and slowly moved towards warriors. More terrified than ever, Itsuki cast another barrier spell around Mei and Sawamura; he got dizzy when another ounce of power left him. Yet, it was a good move – right after he put up the barrier, tentacles started hitting it.
“You stupid idiot!” Mei was screaming at Sawamura, his voice carrying over the sound of attack of the demon. “Do something like that again and I’ll fucking kill you!”
Sawamura stood up slowly, wiping off the blood from his mouth with his palm. “You protected me on the desert! I couldn’t let it kill you!”
“Next time, I’ll let a minotaur pierce right through your empty head!” Mei roared at him, stomping on the ground with fury, sending another wave of powers towards the demon. “Don’t risk your life for me like that!”
Itsuki’s eyes widened in sudden realization. Sawamura was strong enough in magic to save Mei’s life. And it was him who Mei had had protected. If the paladin knew that Mei had to be sliced open again at the Gild, knew about his pain, then it wasn’t surprising he had risked his life to save the knight. Hell; he was probably the one to dull Mei’s pain during their time in desert!
“We’ll talk later!” Mei growled when first cracks appeared of the barrier. “On my mark! One... two... three!”
At the last word both of them ran in different directions, avoiding being hit by the tentacles. Itsuki’s barrier disappeared a moment later, when the demon hit it with its pawn. The healer managed to fight down a shiver, when he saw how easily his barrier was broken.
Once again, Sawamura and Mei started attacking the demon, this time being more careful. The beast turned to the barrier around Itsuki and Miyuki once more, hissing at them loudly. It was practically ignoring attacking it warriors, swatting them away with its tentacles and trying to smash with its pawns. Both warriors obviously didn’t want the demon to come too close to the barrier, afraid it would try to smash it with simple force of its body – and Itsuki was scared that the demon would succeed.
They were losing their strength too quickly, while the demon was still healing its own wounds with rapid speed. They couldn’t even get too close to hit something other than the tentacles; Mei’s hits were strong enough to cut them, while Sawamura was helping himself with a cutting charm on his swords, but those stupid things kept regenerating!
In that moment, Itsuki knew they were doomed. If only they could distract demon’s attention for long enough, Miyuki could finish casting the banishing spell. But the creature was smart and it was focusing its attacks on Miyuki, obviously ignoring attacking the other humans. Narumiya and Sawamura’s attacks weren’t doing it much damage even when they still could touch the demon’s body. No steel, no wood, no stone, but only words of the one with gift... Itsuki didn’t know any offensive spells good enough to distract an ancient demon! He had only his healing spells; what, was he supposed to make the demon feel warmer? It wasn’t like... Itsuki’s eyes widened, his eyes going to the wound on the demon’s back pawn, in the place where Sawamura hit it. It was bleeding. Bleeding like any mortal would –
The healer knew what to do although the plan was risky with little chance to success. Yet, he was willing to try it because what else he could do? Miyuki was still murmuring the incantation, rocking slowly back and forth, and holding Inasi’s medallion between his fingers. The artifact was pulsating with a faint, purple light. Itsuki remembered that it was a sign Miyuki was close to finishing the ritual but at this rate they would be devoured by the demon first!
Narumiya was attacking the demon furiously, moving with the speed Itsuki wouldn’t say that any knight could posses. He attacked, moved back behind Itsuki’s barrier, attacked again and so on. It looked like he was trying to focus demon’s attention on himself. But why? The creature was attacking the barrier, making Itsuki use more of his powers to hold it up when he would be saving his powers for that ridiculous plan... And where was Sawamura?
Frantically, Itsuki looked around himself. Had Sawamura been hit and he had missed it? The demon shifted, coming close to the barrier and then the healer saw him: the paladin was standing with his hands raised up, magical rings with words of summons surrounding him. He was preparing himself to summon a Beast to attack the demon from behind, while it was focused on Narumiya. That was dangerous, and stupid, and actually could work.
Almost forgetting about his own plan, Itsuki could not stop watching how Sawamura was summoning a Beast. He was keeping a close eye on Mei – there was a close call when one of tentacles almost wrapped itself around his ankle – but could not tear his gaze from the paladin. What kind of a Beast could he call for? Surely, nothing too strong, since he only inherited summoning powers from his mother; he wasn’t a full-born summoner.
The rings around Sawamura paled and then a huge shape started forming next to him. Itsuki heard himself taking a deep breath; the demon noticed the shift of power and turned around, not caring about Mei who just sliced through his leg as if it was soft butter. Some rational part of the healer thought it wasn’t surprising that the demon lost interest in Mei: it wasn't everyday you saw a mighty Fenrir and Itsuki doubted the demon knew any of the Mighty Beasts. It was only interested in power and Fenrir had power.
Itsuki gaped at the enormous wolf with fangs so big, he was sure they were at least half of his height. The wolf was growling deep in his throat, clawing at the demon when it got too close, its fur shining with a soft, blue glow of summoning powers; it had belts with spells all around its trunk. Gold belts with green and blue jewels shining with magic.
Fenrir was strong, very strong: a mass of muscles and sharp fangs. The wolf was one of the strongest Mighty Beasts and to think that Sawamura had the power to summon it...
That lapse in the creature’s concentration was everything Itsuki needed. Mentally kicking himself for staring too much – thank gods he didn’t lose concentration - he raised his hands in front himself, calling for the magic. It was true his offensive spells wouldn’t do too much damage to the demon, but they only had to keep it away until Miyuki finished reciting the banishing incantation. Fenrir was a powerful ally, but even with his help they wouldn’t win: only Inasi’s spell would banish the demon.
The healer threw a last glance at the concentrated face of Miyuki who was still kneeling in the circle. The light around him was changing slowly from yellow to white. They were so close to banishing the demon –!
“Fenrir, now!” A yell of Sawamura pierced Itsuki’s ears.
He was watching, in awe, as Fenrir jumped on the demon, baring its fangs. The wolf sank its teeth in the demon, digging its back pawns into the ground, slowing down the demon in its tireless walk towards Miyuki. Narumiya and Sawamura couldn’t get too close for too long but they could now attack the demon’s tentacles and wound its legs even more.
And Itsuki had his chance.
“Sehta!” The spell shook Itsuki’s body, focusing all his powers onto the demon.
The magician felt overwhelming cold and those red eyes looked at him again, but the demon didn’t try to fight off his charm, probably thinking that the wolf at its throat was a much bigger danger.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Mei’s scream was heard even over the rumble which shook the ground when demon and Fenrir fell onto their side: the demon trying to pull away from the wolf and the Beast attacking its opponent, not minding deep wounds tentacles were inflicting on its body. “That was a bloody warming spell!” The knight looked pissed.
“What?!” Sawamura turned his head to Itsuki’s, gaping at him. “We need a thunderbolt, not a cosy spell for ill patients!” He growled, daring to furiously attack the demon’s back while it was still wrestling on the ground with Fenrir.
“Just trust me, okay?!” Itsuki yelled back at them, focusing all his will power on not breaking the red thread of magic between him and the demon.
Sawamura cried out something to the magician, avoiding being hit by a cast from the demon’s hand. Fenrir growled, trying to push the demon back, but it was obvious the wolf was getting tired. Everyone was; Sawamura had a nasty cut on the side of his face, and Mei’s side was bruised. They were both covered in sweat, quickly losing their strength.
Yet, instead of curing them, Itsuki focused on a warming spell. His barriers would keep the warriors safe for some more time... hopefully. But he was sure he was going to succeed! Itsuki was starting to feeling slightly warm and he was so close... so close...
The healer got the idea by remembering how Miyuki thought he had wanted to use Bloody Feast on Mei. Itsuki couldn’t cast that spell – nor would he ever try to do that – but he was familiar with a warming spell which could be easily altered to make not a body, but blood, warm. And since the demon was bleeding, it had liquid in its veins which, in turn, had a boiling point. When he had casted the spell, Itsuki felt the familiar sensation of knowing the temperature of body of another person – their opponent in that case.
Of course, Itsuki could be completely wrong. Such a mystical, older than this world creature could be immune to such a silly spell but its body temperature was growing warm, Itsuki could feel it.
Then, the demon roared and threw Fenrir away from itself. The wolf tore off big piece of demon’s neck but it it seemed the creature didn’t notice it. It jumped on the wolf, its tentacles swirling around Fenrir’s body; the wolf whimpered, not being able to run away.
“Get away from him!” Sawamura’s sword was shining with dark gleam when he attacked the beast – it was a killing curse, Itsuki knew it.
Mei ran after Sawamura, jewels on his belts shining less than with one fourth of their strength. As if it was nothing, the demon blocked the paladin’s attack and sent him flying right into Mei. Both of them tumbled few meters back, hitting trees. They weren’t moving but Itsuki felt their auras – they were alive.
An awful sound of breaking bones brought Itsuki’s attention back to the demon. What he saw almost made him throw up: Fenrir was howling in agony, while tentacles around him were squeezing harder and harder. The demon opened its mouth, showing fourth sets of pointed teeth and then bit the wolf, once, twice. With blood running cold Itsuki realized that the demon was trying to eat the Beast.
The healer heard the faint cry of Sawamura, a spell to banish summoned beast. Fenrir disappeared, but not before the demon bite the side of the wolf’s muzzle. Then the creature looked at Itsuki, slowly standing back up to its enormous height. The magician gulped, urging the spell to warm the demon faster, praying Miyuki would finish the incantation soon because Mei couldn’t fight anymore, and neither could Sawamura, and they were going to die, gods, they were not going to make it...
Suddenly, a miracle of miracles, the demon stopped in its walk towards Miyuki and hissed. Through their connection, Itsuki could feel the sting; it was a part of the spell which was made to tell healers when they should stop warming someone up. It was very useful when their patients were unconscious. That sting meant that the demon was getting uncomfortable!
With new resolve, Itsuki took more of his powers to the spell. The charm was starting to sting him more and more, but it was nothing; the demon was frantically swirling around itself, hitting itself with tentacles, as if it thought that there was something on it what was harming it. Itsuki was panting, feeling cold sweats running down his body in such an abundance amount like he was standing under a shower spurting out cold water. When was the last time he had to use so much power for one spell?
Unfortunately, the demon seemed to realize what was hurting it – or maybe it just thought that killing Miyuki would make it feel well again? The creature started hitting Itsuki’s barrier again. The magician almost broke connection with the warming spell when suddenly another spell started requiring his power. He could feel he was close to success: the demon’s attack wasn’t as powerful as before, but Itsuki couldn’t kill him and he definitely couldn’t stop his hits!
The demon hissed aloud again, the blood leaking from its wounds was starting to boil. Itsuki’s knees almost gave up under him, yet he didn’t waver. He stood straight in front of Miyuki, protecting him, looking in those red eyes of the monster and telling himself that he could do it, they could do it...
Something warm leaned against him and Itsuki felt rush of power flowing through his body.
“I’m here,” Mei whispered into the healer’s ear. Itsuki didn’t notice him; there was Sawamura too, standing next to Itsuki, casting small fire spells at attacking tentacles and the demon’s pawns with every swing of his sword before they could hit the barrier.
Both warriors had to sneak up around the area and went through Itsuki’s barrier unnoticed. Now they were doing what best they could: Sawamura was attacking and Mei was giving his stored magical powers to Itsuki. The healer was looking forward to the magical shock he was definitely going to get because of using so much power. At least it would mean they would be alive.
“Why is that fucker not dying?” Mei growled, gripping Itsuki’s shoulders and holding him up. Only then Itsuki realized his legs had stopped supporting him. But he didn’t break his spells. “You’re boiling his blood!”
“It’s an ancient creature from another world which probably doesn’t submit to the rules of this world?” Itsuki panted, his vision slowly going blurry. He blinked fast but it didn’t help much. “We were lucky this spell weakened it down a little.”
No one dared to mention how the demon’s attacks were getting stronger or how its wounds were being healed. Itsuki was afraid that, once it the creature cured its wound created by Fenrir, the beast would fight off his spell and that would be the end of them.
Then, all of them heard the voice they were looking forward to the whole battle. Accompanied by a magical surge of wind, which rushed past them towards the demon, every word was spoken with absolute power. Itsuki felt like crying from sweet relief when he listened to Miyuki saying the very last words of incantation in the Inasi’s language.
“I hereby deny thou existence. There will be no more sunsets on this Earth for you, and no more sunrises. The air will burn out your lungs, the ground will sink under your feet. Your existence is denied on this planet.” As he was speaking, Miyuki walked past them, right up to the barrier, pointing the Inasi’s amulet at the demon.
The creature roared and backed off, as if the mere sight of the artifact hurt it. However, in the moment Miyuki started speaking aloud, beams of light started to emerge from the ground, surrounding the demon and trapping it inside. Beady, red eyes were looking at them furiously, tentacles hitting the barrier with terrifying speed...but their attacks lacked any strength to break through it.
“You have no longer have place here!” Miyuki yelled, another rush of magic swirling on the battlefield. The demon hissed, baring its teeth but didn’t attack them again. “In the name of the First and the Tenth, under the protection of the Second, I order you, Shadow, to go back to the world in which you are from!” Amazingly, Itsuki was observing how the demon started faltering, its skin becoming more and more transparent with Miyuki’s every word. Magic wind was whistling in Itsuki’s ears, filling him with a warm feeling of safety. He broke the warming spell, vaguely aware of Mei still holding him close. “With the magic I wield like a sword, and will stronger than steel, I command you: banish!”
The demon roared in high pitched sound like it was in pain. Light burned from under its skin; Itsuki had to close his eyes in order not to be blinded by the light’s intensity. A surge of power exploded in front of him... and then nothing. It had grown quiet, and the healer thought he had gone deaf for a moment.
Opening his eyes, he could see Sawamura kneeling next to a magically drained Miyuki. The magician was saying something comforting to the paladin, who looked to be close to tears. Both of them looked fairly good though; a quick spell here and there, and they would be all right.
Slowly, with every muscle screaming in pain, Itsuki turned his head to Mei. The knight was more pale than that usual, his left eye was black and swollen, both of his lips cut. His aura told Itsuki just how tired he was, yet the warrior managed to stand up and hold Itsuki at the same time too.
“...We won.” Itsuki wasn’t sure if that was a question or a statement.
The whole fight seemed so unreal to him. He would need days, if not weeks, to accept it as a part of his life: yes, he had just fought with an ancient demon and survived the whole ordeal.
“Seems so.” Mei said, his face getting closer towards Itsuki’s.
“Oh, that’s good.” The healer smiled, weakly. There was something in Mei’s face now, some kind of a resolve, but he was growing much too tired too fast to pay the knight much attention. His vision was all blurry with dark spots appearing everywhere.... but wasn’t Mei a bit too close? “Good,” he repeated. “I’m happy you’re alive.”
And then everything faded out into pitch.
Itsuki woke up some time later with his head pounding with pain. He tried to sit up, but everything he managed was loud, painful groan. How pathetic.
“Shh... It’s all right.” Mei’s head appeared in Itsuki’s vision. He slide his arm under Itsuki and helped him to sit, bringing the cup of cold water under his lips. “Drink slowly, okay?”
Too much in pain to even nod, Itsuki opened his mouth obediently and Mei tipped the mug. It was heaven; wonderfully cold water slide down his dry throat. When was the last time he drank something so good? It was too long ago, Itsuki knew it.
“What happened?” Itsuki asked tiredly, leaning against Mei for support.
The blond knight waved with his hand at somewhere in front of him. “We banished an ancient demon, this is what happened.”
Something appeared in Itsuki’s mind: the memory of black goo, casting spells, Sawamura with broken ribs close to dying, Mei pouring his powers into Itsuki, holding him close, Miyuki saying the incantation aloud...
“Oh.” Was everything Itsuki managed to say. He looked around himself, noticing that the scenery looks familiar. “Where are we?”
“Near of the entrance of the tunnel under the Cold Mountains,” Mei explained.
Above his shoulder, Itsuki could see Sawamura talking with Miyuki, who appeared to be very weak... Wait, why did Miyuki kiss Sawamura? And why was Sawamura kissing Miyuki too? Ugh, Itsuki felt there was something significant in what he had just seen but his hurt head didn’t let him focus on anything.
As if curious about what Itsuki saw, Mei turned his head to look at the rest of their little group. He brought his gaze back at Itsuki, sighing loudly.
“They've been this sappy, since we left the Forest. It’s disgusting.” Itsuki was almost sure he heard faint ‘you’re disgusting, you stupid knight!’. “Go back to sleeping, okay? You should feel better tomorrow.” Mei helped Itsuki lie down again.
“Why do I feel like this?” Itsuki whispered, his eyes already closing.
“A magic shock. Good thing you brewed that little potion yesterday.” Itsuki wanted to nod, to say something more, but sleep was pulling him quickly into its embrace. Someone squeezed his hand. “Sleep.”
And so he did it.
The next few days were more hectic than exam period at the Oasis.
Apparently Itsuki and Miyuki needed some time to wake up, after being magically drained. Mei and Sawamura had taken them away from the Forest (and wasn’t that making Itsuki blush, the thought of being carried by Mei). Miyuki had woken up first, but Itsuki, not used to using that much power, had regained his strength three days after the fight – one full day after Miyuki.
Since they didn’t have any measure to contact Kanemaru, once they had left the tunnel, they were greeted by small army of magicians and warriors. The Elders were standing in the front row. Itsuki had been sure they were going to be banished from the country, but apparently master Harada and Takigawa – thanks to information from Kanemaru - pulled a few strings here and there, along with Sawamura and Mei’s old professor from the Academy, Kataoka.
They were hailed as heroes who had risked their lives in order to protect the country. They had been taken to the capital city, where the king and the queen were waiting to give them medals for their courage and bravery.
Itsuki didn’t remember much from the travel; he was mostly sleeping, riding in the carriage with Mei and master Harada. A few times, he thought he felt someone’s hand in his hair or stroking his palm, but every time he opened his eyes, no one was touching him. He had probably dreamt about it, wanting a warm touch of another human being after fighting with an ancient demon. The sight of those red eyes was going to haunt him forever.
At the palace, he was given his own chamber close to the size of his entire house. There was a set of fresh robes and a hot bath waiting just for him.
He was glad that the master Harada was close to him the whole time. Thankfully, Itsuki had been able to wash himself alone – even if the other magician asked him, hum a note the whole time to make sure Itsuki didn’t faint – but getting dressed was too much for him.
“I heard you were amazing.” Master Harada said, helping Itsuki adjust the belt of his golden-brown robes. “Mei cannot stop praising you. Sawamura and Miyuki too once they remember that they can’t spend days making moony eyes at each other.”
Itsuki chuckled, tiredly.
“Does everyone know about them?” He asked.
Master Harada messed Itsuki’s hair playfully like they were both still students at the Oasis.
“It’s the worst kept secret among their friends. And the rest...” He shrugged. “No one else needs to know.”
Itsuki nodded, watching himself in the mirror. He had to admit, the robes looked good on him; the gold colour brought out his eyes. He touched the material reluctantly, surprised just how soft it was; he didn’t even want to know how much that robe cost. The coat was wide, ideal for dramatic entrances with swirling it like a first year student.
“C’mon, Itsuki, everyone is waiting for us.” Master Harada called to him from where he was standing by the door. “You’re looking handsome enough. Be careful, some blond knight may not let you go back to your chamber alone, after the dinner with the royal family ends.”
“M-master Harada!” Itsuki almost yelled in shock, blushing furiously.
Did... did his mentor just make a sexual joke?! The older magician merely laughed and left the room. Without any option available for choosing, Itsuki ran after him, fighting off his blush. Master Harada’s words struck too close to truth.
Watching himself in the mirror, Itsuki had thought that it would be good if Mei appreciated him in the new robes.
The supper was an interesting experience. In the middle of the king’s speech, Itsuki almost started to yawn. It wasn’t a bad speech, he was just really sleepy. Or maybe he had been sleeping too much and he was just tired?
The whole hall was packed with the most important names in the country. Itsuki felt as if he were an intruder. He didn’t fit in this place, with people who held such high position in the society. With how bad his hands shook, he barely could hold the utensils.
“Calm down,” Mei leaned towards Itsuki, his breath hot on the magician’s ear. “This evening is to celebrate you. Try to have fun.”
Itsuki looked at the knight sitting on his left. Mei was dressed in finest robes just like his own, gold too. He was wearing standard trousers, a blouse, and a breastplate. There was a small sword at his waist. Itsuki threw a quick glance at Miyuki and Sawamura – they were dressed in gold robes too. And no one else in the whole hall was. The royal family had some gold in their scarlet robes, but that was all. That feast really was for Itsuki and his friends.
“I’ll try,” he whispered to Mei.
Mei smiled warmly at him and it hit Itsuki that this was the first time they were talking with him being aware of what he was saying. Suddenly, he remembered how Mei was holding him after they had banished the demon and he had to fight off a blush.
A few hours later Itsuki managed to escape. He wasn’t used to being the main centre of attention, unlike his companions: Sawamura and Mei were positively thriving in people paying attention to them (but where Sawamura was at least trying to be modest, Mei wasn’t shy at all to admit just how great he was – and instead of annoying Itsuki, it only had made him smile) and even Miyuki looked to have fun. But Itsuki? Oh no.
He was happy to talk with the king and the queen. Both of them were polite, thanking him with such gratitude for protecting the country, Itsuki almost felt bad. After all he had gone on that quest, thinking he would find a treasure, not to fight with a demon and save anyone.
Yet, in the end, he had stayed, didn’t he? And that's what counted the most.
After the royal pair had left him, he had gotten embattled by his old professors who had wanted to know exactly how Itsuki got the idea of boiling the kastate’s blood. How exactly did he alter the spell to warm blood and not the body?
It had taken Itsuki way too long to explain everything. Once he had finished, a new group of people had appeared. He only managed to escape when the king asked dancers to enter the hall. When people had started to look for a good place to observe dancers, Itsuki ran away.
He felt a bit guilty about it, but hoped that everyone had drunk too much vine to notice his escape. Itsuki barely managed to take off the cloak of his robe when someone knocked to his door. He groaned quietly, not wanting to talk with anyone.
But then he recognized that magic aura and practically jogged to the door to open it. During the supper they managed only a small talk and after that they got separated by other guests. Itsuki didn’t fancy idea of lying to himself for too long and was finally ready to admit that yes, he missed that special aura.
He opened the door; Mei smiled at him, his blue eyes shining brightly.
“You lasted there longer than I expected,” he pointed in the direction of the ballroom.
“Really?” Itsuki raised his eyebrow, a smile playing on his lips. He was ridiculously happy to see the knight. “I was told I often surprise people.”
A big grin appeared on Mei’s face.
“Then would you be interested in going with me on another quest? You know, I bet Miyuki that you wouldn’t.” How Itsuki could even think that that cheeky grin was annoying?
The healer snorted. “So quick to leave the capital?”
“So quick to leave people starving to talk to a hero.” Was that Itsuki’s imagination or did Mei shiver? “Today’s evening wasn’t bad. But since tomorrow’s morning, you’d be getting visitor after visitor. I got a small mission from Kataoka and I’m going to my room to grab the things I need. I know Sawamoron and Miyuki are also preparing to leave. Would you like to come with me?”
“Only with you?” Itsuki asked. The smile on Mei’s face faltered a little and the magician wanted to kick himself. “I didn’t mean I don’t want to go with you,” he said in a rush, suddenly afraid of the thought that the blond knight might leave him now. “But I’d like to know more about the quest.”
“It’s nothing dangerous.” Mei waved his hand around, nonchalantly. “A few wyrms to kill fifty kilometers from here. Are you in?”
Itsuki leaned against the doorframe, folding his arms on his chest, his gaze for leaving the knight. Mei was looking very good in golden and white clothes; the healer wouldn’t mind to see him more often in them.
He thought he heard quiet ‘do it now!’.
“Did you hear that?” Itsuki looked around the corridor, but there was no-one there beside of them and he couldn’t feel any other auras.
“Probably guards outside.” Mei’s licked his lips, looking like he was considered doing something important. “You know...” he started, taking one step closer; they were almost touching each other, “if you go with me, people may start saying you’re mine. I rarely go on missions with the same magician.”
Itsuki’s breath hitched in his throat. He remembered the talk of Mei with Miyuki at the fire, the burning disappointment when the knight had admitted that they weren’t like Miyuki and Sawamura. He didn’t dare to hope, but was Mei saying...?
“And do you...?” The healer gulped, not sure what exactly he wanted to do beside of moving close to the knight.
His own magic was buzzing in distress and Itsuki wasn’t even surprised when Mei’s aura reacted to it, surrounding him like it had done during the fight with kastate.
“I want you to be mine.” Mei growled the word ‘mine’ in rare show of possessiveness. Itsuki’s blood boiled, as if someone had cast a warming spell on it. The knight laid his hand on the brunet's folded arms, looking up at him expectantly, but also with traces of worry. “So?” he purred seductively, moving his palms up to grab the hem of Itsuki’s robe, pulling him slightly down.
That was the kind of voice Itsuki could get used too. Mei obviously knew what he was doing, every his move speaking volumes about what he wanted.
“Only if you will be mine,” Itsuki answered, noticing the pleasantly surprised look on Mei’s face. “Well? What do you say?” He leaned down a bit more. It wasn’t often when his partners were shorter than him and Itsuki discovered he kind of like it.
“I think,” Mei murmured, his lips close to Itsuki’s, body holding the magician against the doorframe. There was no way the healer could break free and nothing in the world, not even another attack of kastate, would make him ever want to leave this position. “That this isn’t a bad idea.” He traced Itsuki’s cheek with his finger and Itsuki moaned quietly at the touch hot on his skin, craving for more. “I’ll be as much yours as you’ll be mine.”
“Deal.” Itsuki promised, turning his head and kissing that hand still touching his cheek.
For all his seductive play, Mei actually gasped at that gesture, his eyes closing a little in pleasure. Then, because he could and, gods, they both wanted to, he knew it, Itsuki leaned more towards Mei and finally kissed him. The knight was more than happy about that, wrapping his arms around Itsuki’s neck and returning the kiss with fervour.
This time Itsuki was sure he heard loud, happy ‘oshi!’ and more quiet ‘finally’.