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Goldless

Chapter Text

’Oh, great mountain spirit, protect me from the greedy emperor – from all these desirous humans!’ he cried in the winter storm, tears dripping onto his frost-bitten cheeks,” he heard her say with captivating ardour.

The tousle-haired hunter – a young man, merely seventeen years of age – walked up to the porch of the wooden and rundown orphanage and listened to his older sister inside the house. She was telling an old tale to the children, painting history with words in the younglings’ minds of the deity supposedly living on the mountain, which loomed over their little village at its base. Her voice poured out of the old sliding door that stood wide open to let the late summer’s evening air in and clear away the summer heat.

Before doing anything else, he set the two dead rabbits hanging around his neck down beneath the porch, to hide their bloody corpses from the children’s eyes. Then, he peered into the large room through the open door and saw the children gathered around his sister in the company of candlelight that lit up the room. All of them were sitting on the woven straw mats that needed replacement since a long time ago, all meagre looking and dressed in worn clothes, yet happy nonetheless. They cooed in awe and their storyteller continued the story about the mysterious deity; the legend told about the deity’s escape from their master, running away to leave the nation of Vers in financial turmoil. Everything else, like the deity’s earlier history or personality, stayed unknown.

“The wind pulled at his fine silk, and the jewels and gold that covered him jingled as if they played a sad and muffled song. He looked up at the majestic top of the peaceful mountain before him, which was known for its bare valleys and slopes.” She reached up toward the ceiling in a dramatic manner, stretching her arms up like begging a god for mercy. “‘In exchange, I shall make your empty hills and valleys thrive with life of all kinds and make you to the finest of mountains!’ he shouted, begging to be saved.”

After putting down the weaved basket from his back, with it landing with an audible thud against the wooden porch, the children looked up at him as they noticed his company, but – after confirming the hunter’s presence – they turned their little heads to look at Yuki again. The basket contained fruits, herbs, eatable roots and nuts he had found in the forest during his hunt, and he had to wait for the children to go to bed before he could sort them; flaunting food in front of their hungry eyes was cruel. Instead, he sat down on the edge of the porch and looked up at the mountain towering over the forsaken little village while listening to his sister’s story:

“The mountain heard him,” the woman said and made a small but dramatic pause, before continuing: “It allowed him to climb its rocky walls to the snow covered top, and the god was never seen again. Just like that, during that fateful night, he had discarded all traces of his master and cut his ties to the human world, because now, finally – after two-hundred years of exhausting servitude – he was free. That same evening, the peaceful mountain became deadly, because, now, it protected the god with frightening power.”

The children silently cheered for the god, happy for him to finally be free.

A god…’ Inaho thought while staring at the mountain where this god was supposed to live.

Yuki told the children the story merely to teach them new words and train their ability to focus, but even if he knew that, he stared at the mountain with eyes slightly narrowing. A hot and uncomfortable lump in his chest brewed, letting him know he was angry at the myth for even existing, as it did them no good in their current situation.

It’s just a myth.’ He threw a glance over his shoulder at the children and his sister. The oldest child, Rayet, sat in a corner with arms folded over her chest in protest. She was old enough to know what he knew: ‘It won’t save us from starving.’

“And then what did the god do?” a little girl called Nina asked with a shrill voice that was yet to mature. Her little, round face was decorated by large round eyes and a mouth agape, just like her comrades around her. She was six years old but wore a large and torn tunic that had been patched many times with scraps of fabric from old and unsalvageable clothes, from which slender arms and legs pokes out – looking painfully frail.

“Oh!” Yuki said and smiled with glittering eyes despite the dark circles caused by malnourishment beneath them, making her look older than her age. “The mysterious god wandered across the mountain for several years and planted life where he believed it would bloom. That is why,” she told the children and turned her eyes up toward the great mountain neighbouring their poor little village of Shinawara, meeting her brother’s eyes briefly. The children followed her example and looked up at the mountain through the open porch door. “Our ancestors since two hundred years built our village here where the melted water from the mountain top flowed through the mountain’s blooming areas and down to our old river here in the valley,” she said and got a begging look in her eyes while looking at the mountain, and continued less brightly: “The water brought with it nourishment for our land, where crops grew farther than the eye could see.”

“But why did the river dry and disappear?” another child named Calm asked curiously – he, too, wearing a worn tunic. He was, along with Nina, a child to a foreign couple who had fled the war in their nation and found their way to Shinawara, where they had been in hiding from prosecution of being illegal immigrants. Calm’s and Nina’s family had lived in the same house in the village, but sickness had taken the children’s parents two winters ago. “Is the god and mountain angry at us?” he then wondered, having a mix of sadness and frustration in his little voice.

Yuki gave him a wry smile.

“I guess the mountain became angry at our mothers and fathers and their parents for having been spoiled by the fruitful crops and for not showing the mountain the gratitude it deserved,” she said and explained: “An earthquake shook our land fifty years ago and the water stopped flowing from the mountain.”

“Is the god still up there?” the soon seven-year-old child Inko wondered, and Inaho’s sister chuckled and stood up from the floor where they had been sitting among the flickering candles.

“I believe he is,” she answered. “I heard a farmer from our neighbouring village was saved by him ten years ago when he was desperately trying to take a detour to a market in the capital city. He was on a journey to sell his seeds of beautiful flowers to the rich, but he was caught in a snowstorm on his way down from the mountain and got lost. The god saved him and pitied him, and turned the farmer’s flower seeds into gold.”

“Can’t the god turn our seeds into gold so we can buy food? They won’t grow anyway and I’m hungry,” little Okisuke complained with a growling stomach and then gasped like he was out of breath.

The boy was the frailest of them all; he was showing alarming signs of malnourishment, with a lustreless skin and a face hauntingly sallow. The tiny arms and legs were thin, making him too weak to walk on his own and, each time he spoke, he had to catch his breath for a while after.

“Now, now,” Yuki said and reached down to pick up Okisuke from the floor, before she cocked her head toward the children’s bedroom, to let the children know it was bedtime. “Perhaps the god will hear our hungry stomachs and pity us, too, one day, but right now you runts should get some shuteye.”

The children groaned from the boring task of going to bed, but they obeyed Yuki’s command after blowing out the candles and followed her deeper into the house.

Inaho watched them go and began unpacking the basket once the children disappeared from view. He put all the findings onto the porch and sorted them out into nice heaps while listening to the children make a noise about them having to go to sleep. Once Yuki returned with wooden bowls stacked up in her hands, she set them down in front of her brother, and Inaho began cleaning the findings from uneatable parts and filled the bowls slowly. Yuki lit up a fire in the fireplace in the yard and sat down to skin the hunted animals – a task she did each night after her brother had returned with prey.

“So, how did it go?” she asked quietly with a serious tone to her voice, completely different to how she spoke with the children. Now, she spoke to a fellow adult that was just as aware as she of how serious their situation was.

“The area of dead forest has gotten bigger since last month,” Inaho answered concerned. “The animals are also fleeing; there’s not enough food for them and us.”

“You had to go far today?”

“All the way to the edge of the forest,” the young man answered and washed a couple of root vegetables in the bucket of rainwater he had carried to the orphanage that morning, before heading out into the forest to hunt. “If I go any further, the Versian soldiers might notice me and force me to pay toll for hunting on the emperor’s land.”

Financial crisis had struck the nation, with the previous emperor taking desperate measures to fill the treasury. This in turn had led to a food shortage, for the previous emperor had attempted to fill the treasury with high taxes on everything concerning trade and income. Even farmers had not been spared from the high taxes, which had resulted in agricultural decline. Less people could afford being farmers, and less people could pay for the increasing food costs. Now, to prevent the life in the forests from being depleted, the current emperor had been forced to regulate the hunting grounds with toll and the kills with taxes.

A nationwide famine had settled in Vers Empire, leaving no one unaffected.

Shinawara village lay in a forest that had been regulated with toll and taxes, but the authorities had shown no interest in the dying forest and had therefore left the village to die without concern for the villagers who were to die with it. It had probably been forgotten by now; the emperor’s soldiers never patrolled the forest, which allowed Inaho to hunt freely as long as he stayed within the shadows of the trees.

“And they’ll kill you because we don’t have any money to pay the toll,” his sister mumbled and fell into a frustrated silence.

All Inaho could hear was the knife carving through the furry skins and the fire crackling and hissing. When he looked up at her, she had tears in her eyes. The graveness of their situation was painfully clear in them, and she tried to bravely hold back her tears.

“The kids are starving to death,” she said quietly after a while of silence and snivelled, not minding the blood soaking her hands. She was hardened from years of experience of skinning hunted animals, but to watch the children grow thinner for each day pulled at her heartstrings every time she mulled over their wellbeing. Lately, that was all she could do; to worry about the children, as it had become too palpable what fate they were facing. “I pray each night little Okisuke will wake up the next morning; he’s so weak that he’s constantly gasping for air,” she then whispered and took a shaky breath. “We have to do something; there must be something we can sell to get money.”

The starvation in their village was serious.

In the past, Vers Empire had been a rich nation supposedly blessed by the god now living on the mountain. Back then, because of the empire’s superiority in military numbers and weaponry, they had been able to lead a successful war against several nations, claimed them beneath their banner and forced the people to conform to the empire’s laws. Once the god had turned his back on the nation for a reason no one knew, Vers’ wealth had begun to wane. Therefore, the increased taxes had another function: to maintain the military the empire had once been so proud of. Otherwise, nations, which Vers had claimed during the war centuries ago, risked starting a revolt, to reclaim their independence once learning Vers’ military was weakened. The emperor had done what he could, but – according to rumours Inaho had heard – threats from revolutionists and surrounding nations were already increasing.

The area where Inaho lived together with his sister and the orphans had been a thriving village for two and-a-half centuries. As many as a thousand villagers had resided in the densely-built area, before a devastating earthquake had blocked the passage to the water flowing from the mountain. First, their fields had stopped growing. Then the surrounding and young forest had begun to die and dry out. Now, death was spreading rapidly to the forest borders, condemning the village to an unavoidable end.

Before Shinawara had become a ghostly area, the villagers had made several attempts to find the blockage and clear the path for the enriched water. Many women and men had paid with their lives as the blockage had turned out to be high up on one of the most dangerous slopes. Two of these brave individuals had been Inaho’s and Yuki’s parents, who both had perished during a try to save their children’s home.

The mountain was treacherous to climb, and the villagers had decided to adapt to the new poorer conditions after many wives and husbands had been widowed. That adaption had, however, turned out to be destructive, for the land continued to die. Everyone who could afford to flee to the larger cities had done so, abandoning the remaining villagers to their fate – and rightfully so.

What had been left had been those who were too poor to move, the elderly and the orphans. The village's one-thousand inhabitants had decreased into less than a hundred. The adults tried to help the children and elderly by venturing deeper and deeper into the forest to gather whatever eatables they could find, but it was an unsustainable effort, for the forest continued dying – slowly but steadily.

Inaho was one of those who walked the furthest each day to find food, and he had noticed the decline of eatable vegetation and hunting prey better than anyone. He felt alarmed with the constantly worsening situation, for he knew something had to be done as soon as possible before the village would become a graveyard. Some elderly already refused food, sacrificing themselves to give the children their portions, and others ventured out into the forest and never returned. Inaho would later – if he was unlucky – stumble over their corpses lying deep in the forest.

“I could go to the nearest city and-“ Yuki began, but Inaho interrupted her immediately, knowing her well enough to hear in the tone of her voice that she was about to say something he had already rejected several times before:

“You will not end up like a streetwalker; you know you’ll get sick from that. We’ve lost enough people; we cannot lose you too,” he said with his usual stolid tone, uncoloured by his frustration that was born from worry.

It was impossible to argue about it with him, and Yuki knew this.

“I don’t want to either…” she whispered with a voice thick from sorrow. “… but what else can we do?”

Inaho did not answer, as there was no need to argue with her; he knew an argument would start if he decided to remind her she had more important assets than her womanhood. Thankfully, Yuki let it pass and finished skinning the first rabbit.

“Do you think the god is really up there?” she asked softly after they had been silent for a while. She made a pause in skinning the second animal and looked up at the dark mountain. Night was falling, making the shadows on the mountain deeper. “Do you think the story about the traveller ten years ago is true?”

“It’s nothing but superstition,” Inaho answered, feeling the hot lump brew in his chest once again, and continued cleaning and sorting the vegetables and fruits before portioning them up for the children. “Praying to a god hasn’t helped to fill the stomachs of the children or elderly, neither has it saved any lives.”

“I guess,” Yuki sighed with slumped shoulders, lowering her eyes to stare at the dancing flames. She hissed the moment a spark flew onto her dress, burning another hole on the already worn skirt. To prevent the hole from getting larger she quickly brushed the spark away, and continued: “But what if it’s true?” She turned her eyes to the mountain once more. “There’s a reason why the myth is so young, right? It only came to be about three centuries ago.”

“Myths are born each day and old ones die as quickly. They merely serve to explain real phenomenon with superstitious stories to give them some purpose,” the brunet answered, clearly rejecting any religious or spiritual belief as he found it a waste of time to pray for food when people kept starving. “We shouldn’t waste our energy or time on such things; we need to focus on facing our reality and find a way to earn enough money so we can buy food.”

“Spoken like a true adult…” his sister grumbled, which made Inaho feel the responsibility hanging heavily on his shoulders; he was a young man who was not experienced enough to find a solution to their problem.

With those words ending their conversation, the siblings prepared the next day’s food in mutual silence, both perfectly aware of their despairing situation.

 

In the morning, the seven-year-old Okisuke was found sleeping in an eternal sleep, not waking from his friend Inko’s brusque shakings and loud cries. The house was deathly silent in the morning, devoid of the usual running steps and laughter and cries of the orphans, for a heavy and intense hollowness rested in the rooms were the steps of a child was now missing.

Yuki gathered the children, who once again were forced to part with a friend, in the backyard while Inaho carried the little body that hung limply in his arms into the forest – without being respectfully covered as the orphanage had no fabric to spare even for a child’s corpse. There he buried the boy among the other villagers who had also departed to the next world and, once he announced the grave was ready, all the remaining villagers came to say their farewells.

While Inaho stood there and watched the villagers grieve over the lost life of yet another precious child, he listened to the silently crying children’s stomachs grumble from hunger. They held each other’s hands and wept over their friend, who had gone away to someplace better, standing on thin legs that shook beneath their weight. The sight was painful and distressing along with the grief of losing yet another child who was supposed to get a better chance in life than this. Dreadfully, Inaho knew that if he did nothing to fix this, all the children would be dead when winter came – and the hollowness would swallow them all.

“Here you go, Okojo,” Calm said and offered his breakfast – a handful of nuts and bitter berries – to the boy beneath the ground by placing them on the grave. “You don’t have to go hungry anymore,” he then said and bravely gritted his teeth to bite tears back while holding Nina’s hand tightly.

When the children were not looking, Inaho had to gather the offering and put the berries and nuts back into the bowls for the children to eat later that night. Nothing was sacred anymore, not even the offerings to the departed.

We have come as far as we can; we can’t keep going like this,’ he thought and turned his eyes to the mountain. ‘A god…’ he then thought and felt a strange form of desperation grip his heart, which made him feel slightly delusional.

The thought held his heart hostage, and he squeezed his hands into fists from determination. The children’s last hope of surviving was to rely on a ridiculous superstition. Without the government’s aid and with the forest dying around them, he knew this was his last option; he had tried everything else thus far. The village had reached a dead end and there was no other way of keeping the residents alive:

If you’re up there, I will find you and ask for your help. If you refuse, I’ll capture you,’ he swore and made up his mind while staring at the mountain, knowing full well it was nothing but ridiculous to hunt a god.

And yet – just like his sister had said the evening before – what else could they do when they had already tried everything? If there was a chance the story about the lost traveller was true, then perhaps Shinawara could be saved as well?

By the time the children had said their goodbyes to the forever-resting Okisuke and returned to the orphanage to recover from the difficult morning, Inaho had already finished his plan to climb the mountain and search for the village’s last hope. When he shared this plan with his sister, Yuki took him away from the children's ears and looked at him with great worry.

“Are you insane?!” she asked with a whisper and held his shoulders firmly. “You’ll die trying to climb that accursed rock!”

“I’ll die soon enough anyway, and if I won’t try solving our situation, the entire village will perish,” he told her and looked her in the eyes without blinking, to show her his resolution.

He knew she was aware of his stubbornness that was just as solid as the mountain he was to climb; she could not budge his decisions without the aid of an almighty power. Inaho was known for his determined nature, and no one else knew about his tenaciousness better than his sister. That was why he was one of those who walked the furthest every day, and that was why he could convince himself to rely on the hope of finding this god he had heard about all his life.

Now, however, hopelessness looked back at him as the sister stared at her brother with pleading eyes.

“And without you to hunt and gather food, we’ll perish within just a couple of weeks,” Yuki scolded and looked around to make sure no child was close by to listen to the siblings argue. “Listen,” she then said and looked back to her brother. “You’re the only one keeping us alive with your hunting skills and knowledge of the area; no one knows the forest better than you. You can’t go!”

When Inaho had been young and had lived in the same orphanage he and his sister maintained now, he had been a victim of bullies. To escape their harsh games, he had sought shelter in the forest and hid so deeply among the trees his tormentors had not dared to follow. Because of this, he had gotten to know the forest well – like he was a creature of the forestry rather than a child of the village.

Inaho knew that what his sister said was true: He was a great asset in keeping the village alive and if he died on the mountain the life in the village would disappear in a faster pace than it already was.

How desperate are we to trust the myths and legends of a deity we have only heard about but never seen?’ he asked himself. ‘But if what Yuki said about the traveller from ten years ago is true, then there might be a chance the god will help us, too – if the god exists.

Were gods not intended for the purpose of keeping order in the world they governed?, he wondered. Should the gods not save those who were in great need and begged for assistance?

“I know what worth I have in keeping this village alive – especially the children – but you know how serious our situation is,” he told her. “Okisuke died this morning after days of bodily misery. You know a child can smile even when in pain.” Grief was dragged back into Yuki’s eyes, and he watched her grit her teeth while probably thinking back to the deceased boy’s fate. “That is why we must act now. Even if the children don’t show their pain, it doesn’t mean it’s not there; another child might die tomorrow, or even tonight. We mustn’t forget that,” he continued and took a hold of Yuki’s wrists and pulled her hands off his shoulders. “No one will come to save us, sis,” he said quietly. “You know that, and that is why I have to go.”

“But going up there for a god that only lives in legends and myths…!” she said and finally snivelled. A tear dropped down onto her cheek and then fell on the straw mat between the siblings’ feet. “Can’t we make a new attempt to find and clear the blockage of the water?” she then hopelessly suggested.

“There’s no one strong enough left in the village to aid us with a task like that; we need more than one or two people who aren’t affected by a hungry stomach,” Inaho reminded her. “We’re already condemned. Only a god can save us now.”

A pained whimper escaped his sister’s throat and her lower lip trembled from sorrow.

She knew he was right, but she had tried to believe their situation was not as impossible as it was by trying to find hope in even the smallest of signs of the starvation coming to an end. Whenever a flower bloomed in the yard, she would smile with hope that perhaps the land was recovering. As it withered, she would say it was because the temperature had been too low or found another excuse that would not trample her hope.

“Even I am growing weaker by the day,” Inaho said after his sister had battled her sorrow for a while. “I won’t be able to hunt much longer. If I don’t go now, my chances to come back alive will eventually diminish into none.” Yuki lowered her head to bury her face in slender hands, and Inaho took that as her blessing of letting him go on this outrageously desperate journey. “Yesterday’s food will keep the children fed for at least three days if you won’t share any of it with the neighbours,” he said and turned to leave the room and prepare his gear that was needed when climbing the mountain. “Be firm and explain to those who ask that the food is only for the children, because I have been forced to go for a several days’ journey,” he then advised her, and that was when his expedition to find the legend began.

∞Ϋ∞

“An aeon hath pass’d since I sought shelter here. E’en the mountain spirit besleepeth since many summers agone.” A leaf from the old and wise maple tree fluttered down into his lap where he sat next to the quietly rippling stream of water. The surface of the water glittered in the summer sun. “For me?” The tree’s leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. “Woe? Nay, I am fain to belong here, yet I thank thee.” The grass tickled his bare legs each time it swayed in the gentle wind, which also shook the leaves of the tree once more. “Be not discomfort’d: Solitude is Fate’s endowment to me, it keepeth me safe; I crave for no human company, for all of ye art the lone company I would for. I am your guardian and father; I can not forsake this place.” Another leaf fluttered down, but this time landed in his blond hair. “Wholesome my heart and mind is; thou worriest in vain.” The breeze stopped and the leaves went silent. He smiled: “Nay, no human hath durst venture up the slopes, e’en now as the mountain spirit slumbereth; I am protect’d for as long as I tarry here.” The green hill was a paradisiac sight from where he watched it; blooming with life that spoke with loudness only he could hear. “This is all I need.” The old and golden shackles rested heavily around his wrists and ankles. “All I need…”

∞Ϋ∞

A strong and freezing wind blew against him, and the arrows in the quiver on his back rustled like they were protesting this journey along with the unstrung bow he carried in a sheath. He squinted to protect his eyes from drying out in the wind but could do nothing to ease his breathing; the wind was strong that it seemed like it blew all the oxygen away, making his breathing difficult. In turn, Inaho was out of breath much sooner than he should have, and he began to doubt his ability to move forward.

This mountain had nearly lived up to its notorious reputation thus far. The hills were all covered by sharp and pointy rocks, and gravel and dry grass made him slip and slide if he was careless of his foothold. He had already fallen over a couple of times, which had resulted in a bleeding cut on his leg and scratches and bruises on various parts of his body.

For how long had he been climbing? He had gotten quite high up by the time the sun was setting, and his bones ached while strained muscles burned from exhaustion. A stop was needed soon; he had only made four stops during the day to eat and rest, but now he had to find shelter for the night; once darkness fell, the hills and slopes would turn deadly.

What puzzled him about his climb was that even if he had been hurt and felt exhausted, he had still managed to stay alive and well. He had only heard horrifying tales of this mountain during his short lifetime, which made him wonder at his relatively unscathed condition; countless people had died while climbing its hills. Inaho momentarily wondered if his parents’ corpses still decorated the mountain somewhere but knew that even if he found them he would not recognize them. He had no memory of them after all, and their corpses were most likely decayed to mere skeletons by now.

Merciless exhaustion struck him abruptly, and he lost his balance. His right foot slipped on the gravel and dry grass, and his left leg was too weak to support the suddenly shifting weight. As he slipped down the steep slope, he instinctively grabbed for something to hold on to, to prevent falling down the path he had climbed; if he fell, he would likely hit his head and keep falling, or risked having his body severely injured, leaving him helpless on the mountain hill.

A sharp rock offered him support, and he grabbed it for dear life. Instantly, a cutting pain coursed through his hand and arm. A moment later, the bow sheath he wore across his back hooked onto a rock, forcing the leather strap against his neck, cutting the skin and pushing against his windpipe.

“Agh!” he gasped, choking, and desperately tried to find his footing by kicking and scraping the soles of his leather boots against the ground to clear the treacherous gravel away.

The moment his foot found support in the crevasse of a rock, he pushed his body up to free the bow sheath and ease the pressure from the leather strap from his neck. Then, after securing his footing, he let go of the rock and coughed violently when his windpipe was freed. After a moment of rest and once his breath and strength had recovered, he looked at his stinging hand. It was bleeding from a cut.

I’m too exhausted to continue; I’m becoming disoriented,’ he concluded and looked around to find a place where he could stay the night. A small alcove cave came into view when looking to his right, and he decided to stay the night there.

When he reached it after carefully moving closer to the cave – keeping a watchful eye on the ground as he could not afford slipping again – he took his bow sheath and quiver off and put them safely down on the ground.

While cleaning his wounds with water from one of the leather pouches hanging on his belt, he wondered how the children and Yuki were faring in the village. Were they safe and coping well after Okisuke’s death?

Yuki probably doesn’t expect me to return,’ he thought and looked out over the mountain area. It was desolate; not covered by the wonderful greenery the so-called god had supposedly planted here. Dry grass and dead bushes had accompanied him thus far, and Inaho began to doubt the legend of the god with green and gilded powers. ‘Should I head back once daylight breaks?’ he wondered and ripped some cloth from the hem of his tunic, to tie the rags around his bleeding hand and wounded leg. ‘This was ridiculous of me; a mere desperate act and nothing more. I’ll have to figure out something else.’

After securing the knots and after a couple of gulps of water, he pulled his mantle tightly around himself and sat down next to the rocky wall, leaning against it and closing his eyes to get some sleep. No firewood lay around, which forced him to endure the night without a fire to keep him warm. Because it was summer, Inaho was confident he would be safe in the alcove cave despite the temperature drops; with the mantle around him, sleeping would be somewhat comfortable even though the night was chilly.

There, in the shadow of the cave and darkening world, he fell asleep after an exhausting climb.

∞Ϋ∞

The trees were relaxed and in slumber. They breathed heavily, standing silent with drooping branches and leaves. Most of the plants were imbibing the precious air while resting after sunset, except for the plants that either already had or were about to open their flowers to gaze at the slowly appearing stars. The birds were either asleep or watched him with sleepy eyes, and the diurnal beings had hidden away to give room for the nocturnal animals that were waking up.

The path he walked was quiet. The grass had pulled back to offer him a passage he could walk on with a clear conscience, and he looked around to make sure the life around him was safe and well. When coming across a patch occupied by humble yellow flowers, a bud yawned open and spread its petals, stretching itself into full bloom while gazing at him with a friendly spirit.

“Good evening,” he wished it and squatted down to watch its siblings wake up as well. “Hast ye beslept well? The day was quite hot.” He chuckled. “Good. The vesper welkin dome is bare; the stars art yours to watch and admire all night.” A second flower yawned and stretched, opening itself entirely. “Oh, thank thee for the summons, howbeit I shall withdraw to my chamber for the night.” Then a third flower opened, also curious to see if the stars were visible. He frowned while looking at the first flower. “Others hath express’d concern as well. Do I wear an aspect of a heavy heart?” A breeze caressed his pale hair, sending a strand across his cheek to tickle his lips. He brushed it away with nimble fingers, lips pressed tightly together, before saying with a mellow tone: “The traveller? His presence is long gone; a decade hath pass’d. I am well; worriest not.”

The newly awakened flowers looked back at him while he told them this, and he felt the dead heart warm up inside him by their whispers. It had been a passionate heart in the past, and it was slowly awakening for each day that passed, beating again after hundreds of years of slumber. After the visit of the human who had been brave enough to climb this mountain many summers ago, his heart had grown to want to leap for a second time. Then again, the golden corpses shackling his wrists and ankles reminded him of the dangers below, and he knew he could not abandon this place.

“Ye mayest be right; I have wast’d agood years on these hills, yet I must assure ye this be where I stay; descend the mountain I will not. Ye art awarest of what awaits me down alow, and ye – my children – shalt wither in the cold whenas the autumn god wakes. I can not allow ye to be replac’d by stone.” The stigma of the yellow flower rose slightly and the petals shook in the gentle breeze. “I would for no human at my side; this place is all I need.”

Although he said it with a confident voice, he suspected it to be a lie. Ignoring the heart that had grown excited after his previous visitor was an awfully difficult thing to do.

After wishing the flowers a good night of stargazing, he withdrew to his resting place beneath a willow tree’s heavy and thick crown. He went inside and lay down to rest on top of the soft moss, and – by him caressing the ground gently – the branches came together into a thick roof and sealed him away from the outside world. A heavy breath later, he closed his eyes and listened to the moss that softly whispered him to sleep.

∞Ϋ∞

The sun tickled his nose when it rose from behind the horizon. Inaho opened his eyes and squinted in the bright light, recognizing the rocky scenery as the mountain he had climbed the day before. His body felt heavy and ached, and it felt stiff at the same time. Lying on the hard ground for several chilly hours always led to this, giving him a slow start. When the mantle fell open after sitting up from the ground, the chilly and moist air prickled his skin.

The wind had calmed considerably, he concluded, and the morning seemed to develop into a beautiful summer day – unlike yesterday’s hard wind.

While rummaging through the leather bag of provisions, he wondered if he should continue climbing just for a little while more now that the weather allowed him to. Even though he had decided to head back to the village after declaring this mission to be a failure the night before, he had to admit he would have come this far all for nothing if he decided to abandon his hope of ever finding the god that – according to the urban legend – had saved a traveller ten years ago. If he moved now when the sun was still climbing, he should be able to get back down to the forest below the mountain before tomorrow night.

I shouldn’t give up now, even if the legend turns out to be nothing more than a legend,’ he thought and felt perplexed by the strange feeling that told him he had to continue climbing. His sister always told him to trust his gut feeling even though he thought of it as illogical and risky, but – this time, during the riskiest time of his life on the hills of a deadly mountain – he felt he had to follow her advice and listen to the hunch that tried to convince him to continue the climb. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he could not help but to think.

After eating a poor breakfast, consisting of nuts and foul-tasting but nutritious roots, he stepped out of the alcove cave and warmed up the tired muscles and stiff joints before continuing to ascend the mountain. The injuries from yesterday ached, but he paid them no mind as the pain was not alarming enough for him to want to turn around.

Without the wind to suffocate him and disorientate him, the climb went smoothly despite the slippery gravel and dry grass covering his path. The brightness of the sun also helped him to see where he put his feet, and the slowly heating air kept his spirit up. As long as the sun shone on this side of the mountain, he could see where he was going.

This is too easy,’ he thought after a while and got up onto a ledge, where he decided to take a break, and looked down the slope. ‘This mountain should be deadly.’

Perhaps it was unwise to scale down the dangers he had heard throughout his life by underestimating the mountain this early despite yesterday’s difficulties, but Inaho felt disappointed by the sudden easiness. So many people had died up here that the mountain had become notorious, but here he was and gazed down the path he had taken with just a couple of cuts here and there; he was still alive.

After a short break, he continued climbing, finding a way toward the summit that was still overwhelmingly far away. The disappointment continued to dwell in his thoughts, occupying his mind and distracting him somewhat, but when he got up onto another ledge – much smaller than the previous one – his thoughts stopped along with his breaths.

A white flower swayed in the gentle wind.

A flower? Up here?’ he thought curiously after releasing his breath and walked up to examine the floret closer.

It turned out to be a flower that had thrived in the forest around Shinawara before the forest had begun to die, but here it grew on this cold, rocky mountain, far away from its usual latitude and completely exposed to the weather.

It’s not supposed to be able to live up here,’ he thought and looked around the area.

A second flower came into view, and a third. Inaho got up from his crouching position and followed the small trail of white flowers with a heart that pounded harder for each flower he saw. The longer he walked – moving further away from the sun and into the shadows – the more flowers and bushes he encountered. This surprised him greatly and he hurried his steps, eager to find out where this trail of strange plant life would lead him.

The steep slopes turned into gentler hills – rounder and softer than the sharp rocks on the mountain’s morning-side – and he found his way to a dark cave. When looking inside through the mouth of the cave, he could see moss on the walls and plants that thrived in poor light conditions replace the bright flowers and bushes growing in the light. When he stepped inside the cave, the sound of running water murmured not too far away from where he stood, and this sparked hope in him.

The water,’ he thought and walked deeper into the cave, hearing a body of running water for the first time in his life. ‘The water that used to flow to our village is still here.

All sorts of thoughts began blowing through his mind when chasing the sound of the streamlet that beckoned him deeper into the cave. He had found the water, which meant the blockage must be somewhere below him. If he could clear it, the precious water would find its way back to Shinawara and the crops could grow once more.

The cave ended abruptly when he hurried around a rocky corner, but the opening revealed a scenery of an elysian paradise in slumber, greener than anything he had seen before, hidden away in a small dale created by the mountain walls.

Strong banyan trees with bewilderingly huge crowns cast a beautiful shadow over the area that was covered by grass and bushes, moss, flowers and mushrooms. The trees were growing out of the trunks of much taller trees, and they reached toward the sky with confidence. Fruits and vegetables thrived at the base of the trunks in groups wherever he looked, and a softly puddling brook cut through the still greenery. The beautiful branches from heavy willows next to the brook swayed in the weak breeze, which had sneaked through the rocky walls surrounding the dale and softly tickled the greenery. The trees caressed the streamlet with their silvery leaves that shone and twinkled at him as if welcoming him to the valley, and a couple of birds chirped tiredly from the top of the trees, as though they had woken up recently. Some looked at the young man with tired eyes from where they rested on the branches, puffing their feathers after stretching their sleepy wings.

The forest was inexplicable; it was completely out of place here on the murderous mountain. Nothing of what bloomed in front of him was supposed to be here. The plants created a soothing and harmonious stillness, making Inaho feel like he had stepped into a sacred place made for the gods, and had he had the luxury of time and unconcern, he could have appreciated the calmness of this peculiar dale to its fullest.

After a short and dumbfounded while, a deep breath of the fresh and humid air that had the smell of a healthy forest cleared his mind, and he stepped out of the cave while thinking this was a hallucination born from light-headedness of being high above sea level. His first and careful step landed in the grass, and the softness of the ground let him know there was a lot of soil beneath the green. It was in stark contrast to the rocky side of the mountain which he had climbed.

A second step, and then a third, and he kept walking deeper into this majestic forest.

He wondered why it was up here but stopped abruptly in front of a shrub of black berries growing in small clusters on the twigs. He recognized them as eatable and reached out a hand to take a berry and have a taste.

As he pulled, the leaves shook slightly when the berry was released from the twig, sprinkling drops of morning dew onto his boots. The sweetness spreading on his tongue sent a shiver down his spine when crushing the berry between his teeth, and it turned out to be sweeter than anything he had eaten before.

Rich with nourishment,’ he concluded and looked at the other fruits and berries in the area. ‘There are too many kinds for this place to be natural.’ A young tree of plums beckoned him closer, and he studied the fruits. Everything seemed ripe. When he tasted a plum, the juice overflowed and dripped down his chin. ‘How is this possible?

After brushing away the spilled juice, he headed for the brook and knelt next to it. The water was crystal clear, which most likely meant it was safe to drink. He leaned closer and watched his distorted reflection on the surface, and after taking a deep breath, he bravely dipped his head into the water. It was cool and pleasant with a soft stream playing with his hair, and he opened his lips beneath the surface and swallowed a mouthful of water.

Clean.

The water ran off his head when pulling his head back up again. While inhaling a large portion of fresh air, the water continued dripping and soaked his back and chest.

I’ve never tasted water this clean before,’ he thought curiously and opened his eyes to stare at the glittering stream. ‘Is this the water that used to run down into the village?

If that was true, then there had to be a larger river somewhere. If he followed this stream, would he find it? If he did, he would find the blockage as well, and – if he was lucky – he could clear the water’s path.

Thrilled, he got up from the ground and walked along the brook – careful to not slip on the roots that coiled beneath the grass with feet as light as feathers and heart beating in his throat. If he could clear the blockage, the children and elderly could take a proper bath. The land would grow again, and the threats of winter would be no more.

Hope spurred his steps to quicken when thinking of what could be, until he finally ran next to the brook. The arrows rattled in the quiver when his steps pounded against the ground, and the sound of the streamlet slowly increased in volume.

The brook ended abruptly in a small waterfall, and he stopped at the edge of the cliff and gasped for air.

A nearly perfectly round lake spread out beneath. It was unexpectedly big to be located on a mountain, and many small streams from all around gathered in it. The greenery continued here as well, with trees and flowers spreading across the land like a carpet of life. A river continued further away, down the gentle hills, and Inaho decided to follow the stream and see where it took him.

Right as he grabbed the branch of a tree and prepared to climb down from the ledge, the first rays of the sun reached this side of the mountain. As the green valley was illuminated by the late morning light, he saw a flash of pale gold and movement in the corner of his eye. Immediately, like a predator hiding to locate a prey, he ducked behind a flowery bush and looked at the creature that had attracted his attention. What he saw made him confused.

A human; some young man the same age as himself.

The other was dressed in something that looked like a silky robe. It was burgundy in colour with beautiful white embroideries on the outer front panels, and on his wrists and ankles golden bracelets glimmered in the light. The expensive-looking clothes and jewellery made the hunter wonder if this stranger was royalty. The stranger had pale golden hair that glistened healthily, and his skin was as white as the porcelain from the capital city.

A foreigner?’ he thought while watching the other slowly but graciously walk to the edge of the lake and stop beneath a willow tree.

It was hypnotizing the way the green beauty around the stranger seemed to pale, and the hunter was nearly spellbound by the young man’s appearance and movements. His thoughts stilled for a while when watching the other kneel next to the lake and cup his hands in the water to wash his face, and then he saw his lips move. He seemed to speak to himself, but then chuckled and looked up at a tree, speaking directly to it.

Inaho’s heart ached from anxious bewilderment when the sudden realization hit him, and then he took a deep breath to calm down:

The god?!

Could it be possible that the god from the legend was real? Could it be possible he was right there next to the lake, unaware of him being caught in Inaho’s gaze? If it was so, then it would explain why the paradisiac forest existed this high up, in a place where it was not supposed to grow.

If the god was real, then what would Inaho do? Capture him? Beg him to help his village? Ask him to turn the provision he carried into gold?

The latter option was the easiest and least productive. If he asked him to turn the nuts and roots into gold, Inaho would only be able to buy food for a limited amount of time and then the villagers would live in hunger once more.

A permanent solution was a must, and perhaps asking the god for help was the right one? Even so, it was also the riskiest alternative. If he would beg the god for help, the god could deny his request and banish him from his presence. There must have been a good reason why the god lived up here alone, after all, and Inaho had a feeling he would not be welcomed by him.

But if I capture him, he won’t be able to refuse helping us.’

Carefully, Inaho began climbing down the cliff by the tree closest to the edge. He made sure he was not seen or heard – a task easy for the experienced hunter – and once he landed behind bushes, he took the bow from the sheath and strung it with slow and careful movements to not alarm his prey. Once he was done, he took an arrow from the quiver and moved closer.

Chapter Text

The morning was as peaceful as ever. With the life around wishing him a good morning, he walked closer to the lake to soak his face in a desperate attempt at washing the sleepiness away. Even though he had slept throughout the night, it had taken him a while to get peace. Again, his thoughts were haunted by the memories of the traveller; the first human he had met since three-hundred years. Not even the moss had managed to whisper him properly to sleep this particular night; his heart had ached a little too much.

I do not feel lonely,’ he told his heart, reminding himself of the lie he had to live by, although the truth was already showing through his mask; the nature around him sensed it, but he could not allow himself to speak the truth in fear of it becoming reality.

The grass tickled his bare feet where he walked on the thick, green carpet, and the breeze caressed his hair and robe softly. A ray of the sun reached him from between the foliage, immediately offering him gentle warmth, and he shivered from pleasure.

It was another usual morning in a lonely paradise.

“Oh, thank thee, and aye,” he answered the willow by the lake after being complemented. The tree always welcomed him with kindness when he woke up in the mornings. He knelt next to the lake and looked at his own reflection in the water before cupping slender hands beneath the surface. When he washed his face, he listened to the willow, and answered while the water dripped from the tip of his nose: “The mornings art chilly; I durst not forget a robe when leaving my chamber.” Then he chuckled: “Methinks the present day is a special day, indeed; I shall wash all my robes, for I have none clean left except my finest one.” Then, the corners of his mouth dropped, and he answered the willow: “Nay, I have not. I have not a loving partner nor family or acquaintances to dress up for…” A wind blew through the trees, and he sighed: “Peradventure I am lonely, yet I can not leave ye here.” He raised the golden corpses around his wrists toward the willow. “Bethink thyself of what cruel deeds they forc’d me to do, and knowest what they shall maketh me do again. They showeth little regard to those who can not speaketh their language; they doth not understandeth the life they maketh me quench in their search for bootless wealth. I would to ne’er kill again, and thus I shall stay here.”

While the wind blew carefully, making the silvery leaves of the willow rustle, no answer came back. Those he had fathered had shown great concern for his wellbeing the last couple of days, telling him how lonely he seemed, and even if he knew they were right – admitting he felt horribly lonely – his fear of the human greed kept him from seeking out the joys of kindred company – the company he had enjoyed before his life had become an eternity.

During the many years he had spent up here, his heart had been perfectly cold until he had met a freezing traveller on the mountain’s barren side. The man had been on his way to a market, desperate to feed his family by selling seeds of beautiful and rare flowers to the gardens of the rich. When he had found the traveller, he had discovered the seeds had been dying and would have born no flowers when planted. Because of the seeds dying, he had done the only agreeably right thing he had thought of, which had been to ask the seeds for permission and turn them into gold, and made the traveller promise not to tell anyone about him. After that, he had allowed the traveller to regain his strength before he had returned the way he had come with the golden seeds securely in his pocket.

When lowering his hands, he looked at them, unable to relate to the body he had. During the long years in solitude, he had pondered on how to end his life and get the well-needed rest he wished for, but no matter how he had twisted and turned his options, he always came to the same conclusion of not having a choice but to continue living in solitude.

Solitude itself was a cruel tormentor, for he could not remember the feeling of a human touch – making loneliness all the more painful. He had attempted to end his eternal life once, and it had ended in failure and given birth to devastating consequences. If he decided to try again, he knew the same failure would repeat itself with the same kind of consequences as the last. On top of that, there was a reason which had regrettably lessened in importance, yet it was still something he had to live by:

The image of the long-gone princess floated into his mind, and he realized he had forgotten her face. He turned to look at his reflection in the water and hated the sight, for the body he had was alive because of her.

Tiredness engulfs me; I can not be grateful anymore; her soul is an encumbrance… Though, if my demise I tempt, I shall not do well and thousands upon thousands of spirits shalt be lost and surfeit the emperor with ghastly gold.’

The golden twigs around his wrists and ankles felt cold to the touch, and he played with the left one and remembered the moment he had been forced to snuff out the life it had carried hundreds of years ago. All four golden twigs were corpses; the remnants of lives he had murdered under the command of his captor – lord and emperor Saazbaum. They had been used as manacles around his wrists and gyves around his ankles; to chain him down and prevent him from running away; to be forced to create gold out of living things. The gold, in turn, had been used to pay for the mindless wars that had raged throughout the nation in the past.

How dark!’ he thought and felt the curse weigh heavily on his narrow shoulders. ‘To be chain’d down by corpses – a crime so vile!

Ever since he had escaped to this mountain, he had carried them with shame, for they had been impossible to remove without proper tools. Now, they served to remind him of how dangerous the world down below could be whenever his heart tried to convince him of leaving this paradise. If he descended the mountain, to reside in the human world once again, he was sure history would repeat itself; he would be captured and used to murder innocent lives by turning them into gold, to finance another war. Saazbaum’s descendants had not forgotten about him – he was sure – and were searching for him, for not enough generations had passed for his legend to have died.

My refusal shalt not be accept’d once I find myself captur’d. If into durance they condemn me, I shall miscarry in their hands wheneas they depriveth me of my body, and then I am born again.’ As a child, he would be mouldable and loyal to his caregivers and do what they told him to – just like last time. ‘The human realm is haunt’d by moral vacuum; I can not risk going thither for the mere reason that I am lonely.’ It turned out to be a painful decision this time, but also his truth; no matter how strong his hunger for human touch was, he had to be strong and determinedly stay on this mountain. ‘I can ne’er return to my birthplace.

As he sat there with painful thoughts, the voices surrounding him grew unexpectedly loud. When sweeping his gaze over the area in a perturbed manner, he noticed the plants felt uneasy. In search for answers to what was happening, he looked up at the old and wise willow. A wind tore through the harmony, making the willow’s branches sway violently, and the voices around him grew louder until they screamed in a chaotic choir, warning him of an intruder. At the same time, a presence of a dying life he did not recognize made itself known, and it felt wild and stubborn like an animal’s, although heavyhearted like a human’s.

Confused and panicked, he looked around and stopped to stare at a young man who stood on strong legs frighteningly close, aiming an arrow at him. The wind tugged and pulled at wet locks in his dark hair and dirty clothes, and the vision of this human proved he had struggled to get here.

“Don’t run,” the young human ordered with a soft but stern voice, speaking the modernized language from down below, just like the traveller years ago. The burgundy eyes were focused on him with great attention, though stolid in nature, when he warned: “Or I’ll release the arrow.”

There was no time to think. Escape was an immediate must whether he risked being shot by an arrow or not. Anything was better than being captured without resistance, as he had vowed that no more lives would be quenched by his power.

Without hesitation, he dashed up from the ground and ran toward the shallow river. His bare feet stomped loudly against the wet and green carpet, and the human’s steps chased after him. The intruder was fast and a capable hunter; his steps were perfectly firm and steady, and he held the bow and arrows in a way that made it seem like they were an extension of his own body; the way he had held them gossiped of many years spent on perfecting his hunting capabilities. Additionally, the air around him felt persistent, like he would not back down once he had decided upon a prey – that no matter what, he would capture the target.

He hath not come to killeth me; he would to seizeth me!’ he thought in panic and threw out a hand and commanded the grass and flowers to grow rapidly, stretching up toward the sky to shield him from the hunter’s line of sight. ‘I must hide! I must escape! Aid me, my children!

The hunter ran into the tall grass but continued the chase in a wilful manner, like he was unfazed by the sudden appearance of a grassy jungle. The only thought he seemed to harbour was to capture him no matter what the cost, and great anger born from fear exploded within the hunted.

Never would he allow anyone to capture him!

“Stop running!” the hunter warned, and an arrow whistled past his head. “I will hurt you if I must!”

Silence!’ the hunted thought and continued running, his anger burning all the hotter within his tender chest. ‘I know why thou hast come hither, human, and I shall not act according thy greedy wishes!

To stop his persistent hunter, he had to do something drastic. The life around him screamed aloud with voices his hunter would never hear, telling their precious source of life and father to use them in whatever way he needed to ensure his own safety.

Forgivest me!’ he thought and jumped over a thick root, and commanded it to grow. In an instant, before the hunter could react, a large tree – stout and proud with a trunk so thick it could not be fully embraced by a human alone – shot up from the ground to block the hunter’s path, allowing the hunted to build distance. ‘Where do I escape?’ he then worried and headed toward the same direction the river flowed. Another arrow shot past him moments later, letting him know the tree had only distracted the hunter briefly. ‘Art his arrows avoiding me?’ he realized, thinking it as strange that the skilful hunter had not hit him yet.

When he ran close to a tree, trying to find shelter from the arrows in case he was wrong about the hunter’s intentions, he felt a violent tug on his robe and then heard the sound of fabric tearing. The hunter must have shot an arrow and aimed it against his robe, which had been pierced against the tree.

He avoideth me!’ he could safely determine, understanding that the hunter was merely here to capture him.

The hunter appearing in this protected paradise was unexpected. How had he managed to get up here in the first place? No human had succeeded with climbing the mountain’s hills and slopes to reach this place; the mountain had protected him from anyone who had been a possible threat – all except for the … traveller a couple of years back.

The mountain spirit besleepeth!’ he remembered when suddenly realizing the consequences of the great mountain taking a rest. ‘Alas, that is why the traveller surviv’d all the way hither, and this hunter, also.

With the mountain spirit asleep, no one guarded the little paradise. Anyone who dared to venture up the mountain could find him, which meant it was not safe here anymore; he had lived merely on the notorious reputation of the mountain and not because he had been protected by its spirit. If Saazbaum’s descendants would dare to climb the mountain and search for him, he was sure he would be found and captured.

Walls I must build to protect me!

But first, he had to get rid of the persistent hunter.

Another arrow whistled past his ear and the young man behind him yelled to him to stop once more. Despite the hunted’s silent refusal to obey, the hunter seemed not to fulfil his threa-

“Agh!”

A horrible sting beamed out from a fixed point on his neck, followed by a wet sensation. An arrow had grazed his neck and cut a wound that soaked the robe’s collar with blood, proving he was underestimating the hunter’s intentions. Then, a second arrow wounded his left leg abruptly and his mind became disoriented from pain.

With a loud gasp, he clumsily tried to keep his balance by shifting his weight, but it was already too late. When he saw the water rush up toward him as he fell, panic erupted within him. Then, when falling into the cool and shallow river, he broke the fall with his arms and was about to get up to run once more when an arrow flew past him again, cutting his left cheek and hit the water in front of him.

He froze. While the stinging feeling began to spread like fever on his cheek, another arrow pierced his robe to the left and pinned it against the bottom of the river, and a third arrow did the same to his right. Then, a fourth arrow pinned the robe by the back panel, and that was when he knew he had been caught.

With flames in his eyes – flames that had been dormant for three hundred years – he looked over his shoulder toward the hunter. The human stood there at the river bank, aiming an arrow toward him with a chest heaving heavily. When their eyes met, they glared at each other while catching their breaths. The little heart within the hunted’s chest hammered angrily, wanting to explode with fury; it was afraid of the intruder.

“Don’t run,” the brown-haired hunter gasped and kept the bow high-strung. His right hand bled through fabric that had been wrapped around it, and it seemed to hurt, for the hunter gritted his teeth between his words.

I shall not run,’ the hunted thought and stayed silent. ‘For I can capture thee, as well.’

“I’m here to take you to my village,” the hunter said with that gasping but soft voice that sounded determined enough to have a threatening character despite its stolidity. “Don’t resist, or I will have to hurt you.”

This demand did not surprise the soaked prey. The captured had known exactly why the hunter had come here the moment he had laid his eyes on the intruder. To be this rudely disturbed infuriated him that he did not notice the stinging feeling from his wounds, nor did he see the blood dripping into the water stream. Instead, he felt the bottom beneath the palm of his hand and heard the life around scream curses at the intruder.

With gritted teeth, he searched for a root of the nearest tree by listening for its presence, and once he found it, he asked it to grow.

And it did.

∞Ϋ∞

Finally, he had managed to chase down the god he had heard stories about since childhood, and he had also gotten proof the god’s life-giving powers were true. Perhaps the power of turning things into gold was true, as well?

The god had tried to distract him by making the grass grow and force trees to burst from the ground, and it had shocked Inaho to witness such aggressive wonder. Even so, he had not been fazed; he had hunted animals for so long that he was a capable hunter – wielding a focus unlike anyone else’s – who did not let a prey escape his sight no matter what distractions he encountered during the chase. All of that could be processed once the critical phase of the hunt had ended.

Right now, he had to figure out how to bring the god with him. The other looked anything but pleased, and Inaho was certain he would try to curse him the moment a chance emerged.

That’s why I won’t give you the chance,’ he thought and felt his arm that held the arrow begin protesting, and his wounded hand ached the longer he held the bow.

The god’s green-blue eyes were burning with hatred Inaho had never seen before; he looked like a cornered animal; a feline ready to attack; a dragon who hated his mere presence and would scorch him the first chance he got. Whenever he found such a moment, Inaho knew he would be helpless against the god’s powers and curses. That was why he could not lower his bow.

What do I do now?’ he thought somewhat nervously.

“What is your name, god?” he asked the human-looking deity.

“God?” the other suddenly spat, and continued with a low, murmuring voice that sounded almost like a growl: “Ne’er confusest me with them; I am nothing of their sort.”

It sounded unbelievable; Inaho had witnessed his powers in person and even been a victim to them.

“Don’t lie,” he said and stared at the lying deity.

Is he a trickster?’ he wondered, but just as he had thought the thought, something grabbed him from underneath with such force the air was knocked out of him.

Something hard wrapped around his waist and lifted him off the ground. His hands lost their hold on the bow and arrow in the sudden shock, and when he tried to pull himself free, his hands grabbed smooth bark.

A thick branch – growing out of a banyan tree that had appeared out of nowhere – had coiled around his waist, and small twigs continued winding around his arms and shoulders, legs and neck; disabling him from moving – and once the tree’s movements came to a stop, he realized he was trapped. When trying to pull his arm free, he discovered it was held fast by a branch. The green leaves only rustled lightly from his forceful pull.

“Ugh!”

A gasp was forced out of him when the thick branch around his waist tightened.

It was terribly tight; his chest could not move in the banyan tree’s grip, which forced him to take shallow breaths. The bark stabbed him all around through the clothes, and the twigs around his limbs cut against bare skin.

“A liar?!” the god exclaimed with fury. Inaho looked up at him with a start and watched him pull one of the arrows that pinned his robe to the river bottom. After throwing it away into the water, he proceeded with pulling the rest before standing up. “How durst thou accusest me of being dishonourable, human?!” The water poured from of his silk robe and the fabric hung heavily over his shoulders, revealing a delicate body beneath. “Furthermore, thou troddest upon sacred land with the purpose of apprehending a god. What an insolent and naïve creature!” he continued with a powerful voice that did not seem to fit his frail frame; he sounded older than he looked.

He spoke strangely, like the way people spoke hundreds of years ago, almost as though he had been stuck in time; while the world had continued changing down below, it had stood nearly perfectly still up here.

When Inaho stared at him, unknowing of what to do or say, he noticed the other was bleeding from his neck, cheek and leg where the arrows had cut him. Surprised, he stared at the blood.

“You’re bleeding,” he said with a strained voice; the most of his weight was concentrated on his stomach, on which he rested against the branch holding him. It forced air out of him each time he exhaled, making speech trying. “A god doesn’t bleed. Then what are you?”

The soaked young man walked up to the tree. The water continued dripping from him, but he did not seem to mind it. When he stood right beneath him, looking up at the gasping hunter, he narrowed his eyes.

“Wherefore would thou fetchest me to thy village?” he asked, ignoring the question, and Inaho wondered what he should say. Should he tell the truth? “To hast me unravel thy issue anent gold?”

“We are starving,” the brunet gasped and felt out of breath; he grew increasingly exhausted from not breathing properly. “I come from a village called Shinawara on the other side of the mountain. We were dependent on the river that came from here, but about fifty years ago the water stopped flowing. Now, the forest is dying and all the villagers who could afford it has moved. Now it’s only the poor, elderly and orphans left, and they are slowly starving to death.”

“And thou wouldst for me to bless thy fate with gold?” the pale-haired deity asked. “Thou understandest what thou art requesting of me? I escap’d my prison for I desir’d to ne’er slay again; changing life into gold is murder.”

Inaho stared at him for a short while as he tried to understand what the other was saying. The history said that Lord Saazbaum, the former emperor from five-hundred years ago, had rebelled against Emperor Rayregalia in a bloody revolt and then established the empire that ruled the nation now. The legend of this deity, however, said he had served the empire for nearly two hundred years after Lord Saazbaum had found him, before escaping to this mountain three-hundred years ago. This meant that the person standing beneath him – the blond man with scorching fire in his eyes – was five-hundred years old.

No matter how Inaho looked at it, the other was not human.

Is he a demon then?’ he wondered.

“Murder?” the captured hunter asked after a while, and the deity nodded and deepened the creases on his brow.

“Life and death,” he hissed. “A power like mine hath not solely a single aspect to it; it is not about life or death; it consisteth of life and death. Whilst I made this tree grow with the power of life, I can slay it with the power of death by transforming it into gold. Howbeit, all ye humans bother to be concern’d about is the latter part of my power, for ye art all avaricious sinners.”

“W-what are you-?” the restrained brunet began to ask, but the lack of breath hit him in the form of exhaustion, and made his words die out.

When the deity saw this happen, he held out a hand toward the tree, which in turn began to move. The smaller branches and twigs pulled Inaho up from the hanging position, while the thick branch around his waist turned, and he was positioned upright; he hung from his bound arms but was offered better support by the branch around him, allowing him to breathe.

“Thou camest hither, to forcest me slay life and thereby remove death from thy village,” the deity continued. “Whate’er misfortune ye hast encounter’d, ‘tis your matter and not mine!”

This enigmatic being’s words gave Inaho the feeling he cared much for living creatures. Perhaps it would be impossible to get him down to the village considering how angry he seemed. He had no choice but to give in to the other’s anger and negotiate, for he was in a situation where he could not state demands.

“I’m not asking you to kill creatures,” he said after regaining his breath somewhat. “Just like you did with the traveller I heard you found up here ten years ago, you can turn the nuts and roots in my pouch into gold, or perhaps a couple of flowers.”

The thin branch around his throat tightened, and he regretted his words immediately.

“Such impertinence!” the nameless deity yelled. “The nuts, roots and flowers thou speakest about art all beings!”

This deity sounded delusional – crazy even – the way he spoke about plants. According to him, they were all beings equal to animals, perhaps even to humans. Was that why he had spoken to himself moments earlier when Inaho had observed him at the edge of the lake; had he truly spoken to the tree because he could communicate with it, or had he spoken to it because of a delusion?

Inaho had a feeling that no matter what he suggested, he would insult his captor.

“Why do you have such power then?” he asked after a while, expecting the branch around his throat to tighten again after asking a possibly provocative question. “If you’re not going to use it to save those who need your help, then why do you have that power?”

“Gold is not a condition for life!” the angry deity answered. “’Tis only worth to die for because ye humans hast decid’d upon it; an overwhelming majority of life in this world careth naught for gold except for humans, who art destructive creatures.”

“That is why it is a condition for life in the human world,” Inaho argued and felt the branch tighten around his neck again. “We in Shinawara haven’t decided that gold is desirable and yet we’re forced to rely on it; we are starving because the current emperor has increased the taxes.”

“And that is why it being not a problem of mine to solve!” the other answered immediately. “Alas, thou conformest to the emperor’s foul politics and thinkest thou needest gold to survive, for he hath decid’d so!”

“Then what should we do?” Inaho finally asked, feeling frustrated; he could not die up here, and he could not return to the village with nothing. If no solution for the dying village was to be found here, his absence from the village would have been in vain.

“Doest what humans hath done sith the birth of time and rebel against the injustice that maketh ye starvest,” the blond answered poisonously. “What happens in thy village is not my concern.”

“Rebel?” Inaho asked, and his frustration grew. “None of us can fight.”

“My problem ‘tis not, human!”

The other was persistent; he refused to understand, or then he understood but had little to no empathy. The way he guarded himself, and the hostile stare in his eyes, gossiped of a hard life in the human world. Whatever had happened to him was probably awful, but Inaho could not back down and abandon the village.

I haven’t tried hard enough.

“The river flowing down from this mountain disappeared fifty years ago,” he said, and the deity raised his knitted eyebrows from surprise as though he knew something about the matter. “Did you punish us for being spoiled?” The other’s furrowed brows relaxed somewhat; he seemed confused about what Inaho told him. “Our forest is dying. Nothing eatable grows there anymore, and every day I must walk further and further away from the village to find food. The elderly people are giving their rations to the children and starve themselves, and some even go out into the forest to get rid of themselves, thinking they’re a burden. I later stumble over their corpses when I go out to find food.” The god, demon or whatever he was, stared at Inaho with sudden horror, like the his words had stung his heart. “Why did you kill our village?” he then asked, and the other took a step back from him.

“Thou camest hither for retribution?” he asked, and Inaho wanted to shake his head, but it was impossible; the tree was holding him fast all over. Instead, he was forced to speak:

“No. I came here to take you with me and help us.”

“By hunting me?” the other asked and frowned angrily again.

“I didn’t expect you to come willingly,” Inaho said honestly. “I also now know that you won’t. Whatever my ancestors did, we won’t repeat their mistake. Let life come back to our village again; I can’t return without a solution to our starvation.”

“Thou camest to savest the people of thy village, and nothing more?” the deity asked and stared at Inaho for a while, and he looked back at him – determined – and said quietly:

“I buried a child yesterday morning.” The hostile expression on the other changed to discomfort from hearing the horrible truth. Inaho knew he had caught his attention and willingness to listen, and continued: “He was only seven years old and starved to death. You must understand: I had no choice but to come here, because we have nothing left.”

The other’s expression slowly softened, and within seconds the tree began relaxing its branches. When Inaho’s feet finally landed on the grass, he was released by the tree except for his wrists, which were held fast by the strong twigs. The pale-haired deity stood in front of him with a disheartened look on his face, and when their gazes met Inaho noticed guilt in the other’s troubled eyes.

“Thou believest me to be felonious?” the other asked quietly and stared at him with caution.

“Aren’t you?” Inaho asked, provoking him to continue talking.

The deity went silent again for a couple of breaths, collecting his thoughts before looking up again. He shook his head in a slow manner. Inaho could have imagined his fine, blond hair to flutter when doing so had it been dry, but now – heavy from water – it lay plastered to his temples and cheeks.

“Nay. Thou saidst it was fifty years agone,” he answered shamefully, quietly like he hesitated to speak of what had happened. “Soldiers attempt’d to climbeth this mountain. The mountain spirit protect’d me and caus’d a rockfall…”

That was what had happened. It had not been an act of punishment dealt upon Shinawara by this deity, but rather the mountain’s way to protect him from soldiers. But…

“They still chase you?” he asked, to understand what was true and not. “I’m only partially familiar with the legend of a god who served the founder of our nation, and later sought protection from this mountain.”

A devastated look came over the now lonely-looking deity, and he turned his face away from the hunter, wrapping weak arms around himself as though protecting himself from cold. Inaho frowned.

“A god I am not…” the tired creature said after a while, nearly mumbling his answer. “I ne’er was and shall ne’er be. Were I a god, the wrongdoers would be petrified of facing my wrath. I am nothing but a demigod; a human madeth into a deity by the whim of the gods, and thus having a curs’d fate.”

“Demigod?” Inaho asked, curious to know why this person had been made into such a thing.

The demigod looked miserable.

“A broken heart leadeth to a broken soul,” he said with sorrow forcing his voice into a tremble. “And a broken soul is pathetic as it can not live. Only another soul can saveth it, and whilst I was lucky by expressing such misery to interest the gods, their gift of saving my soul with a dying maiden’s turn’d out to be a curse.”

A broken soul mended by another’s soul – in this case a woman’s who this stranger seemed to have loved – sounded sacred and divine, and yet this demigod detested it to such degree he expressed hate toward the gods who had saved him.

“The gods are real?” Inaho asked as he was told such an otherworldly truth.

The deity’s disheartened expression morphed into anger once more, and he shook his head, clearly frustrated, as if to clear it from gloom.

“Alas, they art,” he murmured while squeezing his soaked body harder with his arms. “Though, they hath gone silent, to watch o’er me.” He turned his face up toward the sky, looking through the foliage, and knitted his eyebrows tightly again, creating deep creases between them. Hate contorted his face: “Watching me… Only watching me!” He turned his face toward Inaho, looking at him with anger, and continued: “Aroint thee, human! Thou hast no business here! Go back to whither thee camest, and ne’er speakest of me!”

Abruptly, their conversation seemed to have come to an end. Inaho felt desperation pierce him, making him lose his thoughts for a short moment before regaining them. Then, when the demigod turned to leave, he could not accept the other’s refusal and began pulling at the twigs.

I won’t let you leave just like that!’ he thought and saw the orphans’ hungry expressions in his inner eye. Okisuke’s small corpse floated in his memory, and his guts boiled with hopeless frustration. ‘I won’t let more of them die just because you’re selfish. I can’t just sit there and do nothing.

∞Ϋ∞

This hunter… He seemed unnaturally rash, just like a distressed man with only the most important thing left. What he did was honourable and pitiful, but it was outrageous to follow the intruder’s request to descend the mountain even if it meant children’s lives would be saved.

According to the hunter’s story, the water that had flowed from the mountain and into his village had disappeared fifty years ago. The hunted felt guilty over the fact that children were dying from him needing the mountain’s protection, but many additional lives would have perished had the mountain not honoured their agreement and kept the hunted demigod safe.

To think the mountain was angry then, to blocketh the river flowing down into Shinawara,’ he thought surprised. He could still remember the last time the mountain had rumbled for his sake. ‘Yet the fault layeth not with me; I can not be held answerable for such a thing!’ Despite hopeless tries to convince his heart of the truth, he could still feel it ache in protest – refusing to accept his desperate convictions. ‘My heart and soul quiver for the sake of the pitiful he speaketh of.

A warning reached him from the tree spirit behind him, but it was too late, for its warning turned to a painful wail. Then, rough hands grabbed a hold of the startled deity, and he was effortlessly wrestled to the ground. When his back was forcefully pushed into the grass and he looked up at his shadow-caster, determined eyes met his.

“They should not be held responsible for what others have done,” the hunter said with his determined voice. “I cannot sit back and do nothing. I need your help, and if it’s required, I’ll take you with me by force. No more children can die.”

Words spoken by the most desperate of men, and the glare of the most determined of souls… What he saw was an opponent who refused to back down, and perhaps it was unwise to anger him further? Even if the hunted had a dreadful power, he would never use it to hurt a life, as that had been his vow since he had cut himself away from his master’s cruel chains. The hunter had proven to be a skilful and persistent pursuer, wounding the demigod three times already with the intention to only wound; not kill.

“Why art thou so foolishly brave? E’erything thee hast done could have end’d in death,” he asked instead, and the hunters determined eyes slowly softened.

“Death makes us brave,” the other said. “While death is frightening, it also brings out the best in us; we become the bravest and do things we otherwise never would.”

They were well-thought out words from a young mind and heart, which settled the problem they faced now:

Flee I can not,’ he thought and frowned while looking up at the once again determined eyes. ‘I find myself apprehend’d by his desperation; escape it I can not.

“Tell me your name,” the hunter suddenly asked, displaying the will to show enough respect to want to learn his prey’s name.

My name…’ he thought with the command echoing in his ears. ‘So rarely spoken it is, I can not promise for it to soundeth right when uttering it.’

“Slaine,” he decided to whisper, voicing his own name for the first time in three hundred years. It sounded surprisingly accurate even though he found it odd the way it rolled on his tongue, like an unusual taste spreading in his mouth. “Slaine Troyard … is my name.”

It was strange; he had forgotten how his own name sounded over the course of the many silent years he had lived on this mountain, and now that he said it for the first time in a while, he felt an uncomfortable nostalgia rise within him. None of his children spoke his name, for a human name was not possibly expressed by the life he surrounded himself with – which spoke with their spirits rather than lips. Speaking his name should have been forbidden, for he despised the thought of still being alive; a dead man’s name is forgotten over time, and being nameless was the closest he could get to dying.

“Slaine…” the human said quietly and stared at him with a softening expression.

My name…’ he thought again after hearing it being spoken by this stranger. It felt frighteningly comforting to hear someone tickle his ears with the sound of it. ‘Speakest it once more!

A hunger he could not remember he had sensed before grew in his heart, making him want this stranger to say his name again and again – repeating it until he was perfectly content. It was dangerous. It was unwise! His heart began quivering, and he feared it. He should not be joyful about it; he wished to perish! Yet, by having his name being spoken by another human, he felt pleasantly alive. Why? Why did he feel like this? It was painful, as he reasonably knew nothing good came from the company of humans.

Yet…

Sayest it!’ he thought with a breaking heart; it threw a child-like tantrum for wanting to hear it again. ‘Sayest it, I beg thee!

“I’m Inaho,” the brunet said instead. “Inaho Kaizuka, from Shinawara Village.”

When the stranger introduced himself, tears flowed down the hunted’s temples. Loneliness flooded his being, tormenting him with a void he could not bear any longer. Three-hundred years had left unforgivable traces in his heart and soul, and he was once again reminded of his human nature; to want someone’s presence and acceptance; to hold and be held; to give and receive promises a human only exchanged with someone they cared for. The children he had fathered on these hills – the trees and grass, bushes and flowers amongst some – were all loved by him, but he was lonely and abandoned in their company, for they were not human; they could never replace the presence of man.

Ever since the traveller had nearly lost his life on this mountain – ever since Slaine had encountered another human being for the first time in three-hundred years – he had sensed something beckon him toward the direction of the mountain’s base. It had tried to lure him down the slopes, telling him about fellowship and belonging that awaited him down below.

Yet, I can not descend this rock,’ he thought and gritted his teeth to battle the emotional hesitation storming within him. ‘Down alow maliciousness and bereavement awaiteth me.’

As he cried, the hunter – Inaho – froze. The young stranger stared at his prey with confusion, not understanding why the tears flowed down the hunted’s cheeks, and Slaine closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“My soul hath wither’d, and my heart is lonely,” he whispered to him, shamefully acknowledging his children’s worry of him being painfully isolated to be true. “I can not recall when a human touch bless’d me last,” he continued and opened his eyes. “Though thy hands art violent, they art warm, and thus I cry. ‘Tis something I lost as I ascend’d this mountain; the human touch.”

Inaho stared at him in silence, watching him cry while wearing a barely visible expression of curiosity in the otherwise impassive eyes. The withered prey held his words as well and closed his eyes to escape the intense stare of the other, wishing he could be left alone to cry in peace. Even so, he also wished him to stay. His hunger for company could not be quenched, and Slaine sighed again, exhaling slowly.

To his surprise, the weight from his wrists lifted, and Slaine opened his eyes from puzzlement. Inaho rose to stand on strong legs and took a step back to watch him with distant eyes.

Had the prey’s status changed into something else?, Slaine wondered.

“Come with me,” the young stranger said, not aggressive in his tone. “Help me save the village. Clear the water’s passage, or-“ He made a pause and dug in the pouch hanging from his hip, to present a hand-full of seeds to the lonely deity. “Or – if nothing else – turn these into gold so we can move the children away from the village. These won’t grow anyway.”

Slaine slowly pushed up from the ground to stand in front of the hunter. When he looked at the seeds, he listened to their faint voices. The hunter and the hunted exchanged glances before Slaine cupped his hands, and Inaho poured the seeds in them.

Hunger. Thirst. Exhaustion and tiredness. The seeds cried in his hands, and the deity frowned from sorrow.

“These art alive,” he said and gave them back to Inaho. The hunter accepted them but looked up at the other, confused of why he got them back. “End their lives I can not; all they needeth is nutrition and water,” he then explained and frowned.

“But they won’t grow,” Inaho insisted and took a step forward, holding out the seeds toward Slaine again, who stepped away from him.

Force me not,’ he thought warningly, answering:

“They will, if they could.”

The young man refused to listen, looking tense:

“There is no water down there; they won’t grow, so turn them into gold,” he insisted again. “Help us.”

Slaine knew this stranger would not allow him to disagree or refuse. Inaho was already at his last option. This human had nothing else to lose, making him dangerous and hasty. The blood that was drying on Slaine’s cheek reminded him of that, and he slowly raised his hand to brush it away and smeared the redness over his pale skin.

“I can not,” he told the hunter, putting himself at the risk of being a target for his anger. “My hands will not murder the innocent lives thou holdest in thine.”

He expected the hunter’s answer to be of the disagreeing kind:

“But then you’ll indirectly murder the children in our village.”

And yet, he felt frustrated from the other’s persistence:

“Then they shall dieth!” Slaine finally burst, raising his voice. “Human life hath no grander value than the rest! I can not relax my principles e’en once, for if I do, I find myself at risk of losing my way of life.”

The human young man did not accept such a simple reason:

“I don’t care about the lives of animals or plants; I cannot talk to them or appreciate them the way I do other humans,” Inaho argued back, now slowly warping his otherwise stoic face into angry.

“Thou expressest a clos’d mind!” Slaine yelled back, his heart beating wildly.

“That’s because I’m human; I’m not like you,” the other informed him, and Slaine immediately felt like he had to yield.

The hunter was right; there was no reason for him to appreciate all life equally. The language other lives spoke was a language Inaho could not hear or understand. He could not communicate with them, which made it sensible for him to care so much more for those of his kind. That was the way of humans – of all life in this world.

Slaine was the single exception.

When he stayed silent, Inaho took another step forward, saying:

“Then let us find the blockage and clear it so we can get water back into our village.” He sounded naturally calm, but the words he chose gave his thoughts and emotions away. “If that succeeds, I’ll leave you alone and not mention your existence to anyone. If you refuse,” the hunter then said, and the hint of desperation disappeared and turned into a threat: “I’ll tell everyone that you’re real and still up here.” Slaine froze and stared at him, sensing fear slowly erupt when realizing the other was threatening him. Inaho seemed to notice this, and pushed on: “I know you won’t kill me; you’re even prepared to let the children in the village die. In other words, I’m free to walk away from here and spread the news of you being up here. It was fairly easy to find you, as well.”

A threat he could not escape.

Something had to be done! This stranger was determined and dangerous – or at least Slaine had to assume he was, as he could not afford thinking otherwise. If he forgot about this detail, he risked being snatched away before he could react accordingly.

“Thou doest so wrong; being so foolish and rude and e’en offereth me a show of violence! I shall imprison thee here!” Slaine threatened back, desperately, as the fear increased.

He found he was backed into a corner, and he had to fight his way out by any means.

“Then I’ll break free and run,” the hunter answered, as persistently as his nature seemed to be.

This human – this obnoxiously obstinate human! – would not back down. The cornered demigod knew this stranger would give him resistance he could not defeat, for Inaho had the air of a wild animal, as though he would bear his fangs and claws and not hesitate to use them. To think this young man – who had just grown up from boyhood – was from a village! Had Slaine gotten a chance to guess, he would have believed Inaho was a wildling rather than a villager by the way his spirit breathed.

What should I do?’ he wondered and chewed on his lower lip. ‘I can not contain him, and I can not kill him.’

This new presence caused him awful confusion, for he noticed ever more he was terribly hungry for company. The stranger’s touch still lingered on his skin around the wrists, soothing the heavy feeling of the corpse-manacles. A secret wish to be touched beneath the corpse-gyves went through his heart as well – a wish he quickly snuffed.

And yet…:

I need no threats to go with him.’

He had to stay strong! It was forbidden to give in to pathetic emotions like this! If he assisted this stranger and cleared the blockage, perhaps that would be the end of this dislikeable encounter and he could go on with his usual life.

His lonely life.

The life in solitude…

Oh, how painful!’ he thought the moment his heart stung, making him hold his breath momentarily to not groan. It seemed impossible to resist his urges. ‘I greatly enjoy his presence e’en though I fear him, so much that I would to help him…’ he then realized with concern and released his breath to speak:

“The mountain spirit besleepeth,” he said quietly, succumbing to his innermost desire. Fearfully, he realized he was sick of being lonely. Even a strained communication like this felt satisfying enough for him to wish for it to continue. “I can not grant thee promises.”

∞Ϋ∞

“You agree to help me find the blockage and clear it?” Inaho asked this strange individual, who had turned his expectations of what to find up here on end.

The demigod frowned from dislike and breathed a sigh, before saying:

“I do. Howe’er, as the water hast entirely stoppe’d flowing to thy village, methinks the mountain spirit hath block’d it properly. If the case is such, I can not clear the blockage, for my powers art weak to heavy stone.”

He was awfully compliant, Inaho thought – making him suspect this divine human with godlike powers was planning something. Even so, his suspicions were calmed by the gloomy look in the pale eyes, which looked at him with willingness despite the great caution shining in them.

Could he trust him?

“If that is the case,” Inaho said and watched the other’s movements and expression with great care in case he would attack him. “Then you will either turn my seeds into gold or come with me to the village.”

The demand he gave this young man called Slaine seemed to provoke him; his aqua-coloured eyes sharpened instantly, and Inaho opened his right hand to ready himself to grip his bow. The stranger stared at him in silence for a while, water still dripping from his ruined silk robe, before sighing and closing his eyes, saying:

“I admit defeat.” Inaho’s heart nearly stopped hearing this. “In case the blockage can not be cleared, I shall come with thee to thy village, only for a while,” the other continued and gave the hunter a meaningful stare. “After that, thou shalt leavest me alone.”

The answer he got was baffling simply because it was so welcomed. Inaho’s knees shook for a moment when he understood he had saved the village. Everyone – not only the children – had been saved!

“I will,” he answered with gratitude.

Whatever Slaine’s reasons to be this compliant were, Inaho would not complain. He was well aware he risked a lot by asking this human god for help, and he knew that if he pushed with more demands he would eventually push his own luck down the hill. For Slaine to be this compliant meant Inaho was in incredible luck. Whatever his reasons were, Inaho would accept his offers if the other respected the deal they had just made.

The soaked demigod watched Inaho for a moment, making sure he was not a threat, and then turned around and followed the river, walking carefully on the riverbank on wet and bare feet. Inaho watched him move softly – like he strode with quiet steps – before he hurried after him in silence.

They encountered a change in the scenery; from green and gentle to rocky and steep. They had stepped over the border of Slaine’s realm and treaded onto the land of the mountain spirit. Inaho followed the other in silence and focused on watching his step, while Slaine seemed used to this terrain. The bottom hem of the other’s burgundy robe was slowly tarnished by the gravel and rocks, but he did not seem to be bothered by it even though the robe looked like it had costed more than a house in a large city.

Inaho swept his eyes over the area once they stopped on a cliff, but Slaine was already pointing out the large lake that had formed in front of a large heap of massive boulders lying in a passage between the mountain walls. The walls looked broken, like they had crumbled because of a large force.

“My powers art uncapable of a miracle,” Slaine said and turned his green-blue eyes to Inaho. While he lowered his hand, watching the young hunter with a steady gaze, he said the words Inaho feared to hear: “The mountain spirit besleepeth, and thus the boulders art impossible to move.”

It cannot end this way!’ he thought worriedly, for he knew this was devastating. Inaho knew it would only be a temporary help to take Slaine with him to the village; once he returned to the mountain, his green gifts would die and the village would starve again.

“Can’t you wake it?” he wondered, immediately seeing the already tense look in Slaine’s eyes turn angrier.

“That is highly disrespectful,” he answered with a hissing tone, reluctant to honour the hunter’s wish.

“Won’t you try?” Inaho asked curiously, watching the other without blinking.

Slaine clearly disliked the idea, but after a short while of glaring at him, he looked at the blockage again and said gently:

“Hearest me, mountain spirit. I plead for thy forgiveness for bringing thee out of thy sleep.” He waited for a short while, but when nothing happened, he tried again: “Spirit? I request thy assistance. Thou hearest me not?”

Suddenly, fearfully, Inaho took a step back as Slaine swung around with a colourless face that was distorted by horror. The divine human looked around in a state of shock, and – before Inaho knew it – he ran toward him and shoved him out of his way.

Hurriedly, Inaho regained his balance and ran after him, fearing Slaine would try to run away again. However, when Slaine got back into the elysian forest, he stopped to look around at the life surrounding him, turning around again and again with a gaze jumping from one tree to the next. When Inaho caught up with him and got a glimpse of his face, he saw terror in the other’s eyes.

“I can not hear ye!” the demigod exclaimed suddenly, sounding panicked. “Wherefore art ye silent?! I know ye hast a voice!”

“What is it?” Inaho asked, alarmed by the horrified being.

“Wherefore hast ye gone silent?!” Slaine exclaimed and ran to a tree to put his hands on the trunk. “I can not hear thee!” he cried out. “I can not hear thee…! Anyone…” His shoulders shook and he spoke with a voice thick with sorrow: “Wherefore? Wherefore is it so that I can not hear ye?”

Inaho was oblivious to what was happening. He could only watch the deity cry against the tree and listen to him whimper about how deaf he had become.

What is going on?

Chapter Text

The life around him was unresponsive. The life which he had listened to and heard every wakened moment for five-hundred years could not speak nor be heard. Merely the rustling of the leaves that fluttered in the wind gave him proof they were still alive.

Why? Why had the world gone silent? It terrified him to be deaf like this – to not be allowed to hear the children he had fathered on these hills. It was as terrifying as losing one’s heartbeat.

“Slaine,” he heard the human say behind him, but his voice offered no comfort. Instead, it made his heart heavier from being reminded of his home being intruded on by a tenacious trespasser. “What happened?”

Even if it was a voice – a voice of someone like him, although still very much different – he could not appreciate it this time even though it spoke his name. The terror from not hearing the life around him was earthshattering. All he could do was weep and grieve in confusion; he could not understand what had happened.

The gods playeth tricks on me,’ he thought, his heart squeezing together. ‘They doth this!

“Gods!” he yelled loudly, screaming the next words with such volume his voice threatened to tear his throat sore: “Wherefore hast ye punish’d me again?! What is it ye wouldest me to do?! I do not understand!”

Instead of getting the usual answer of silence, an icy wail of a thousand voices reached his ears. It came from a far distance, reaching up onto the mountain like a violent wave crashing against the slopes and drowned Slaine in the horror that it brought. The screaming cries of dying beings overwhelmed his heart and mind, and he turned around to look toward the source of the fearful screams, hearing them come from the other side of the mountain. He had never heard such noise before, and it tore his heart to shreds and shook his knees, for it pierced right through him.

When he fell, the air in his lungs slipped out of him in a deafening cry, and when he landed in the grass, he doubled over with hands covering his ears in a try to desperately block and drown the tormented screams from below.

His name was being spoken – sounding muffled and barely audible in the chaos surrounding him. Hands took a hold of his shoulders, and, despite his protests, he was forced up from his defeated position to stare into the burgundy eyes of the hunter.

“Slaine!” Inaho said and squeezed his shoulders. “What is happening?; I cannot help you if you won’t tell me.”

“They cryeth,” he said out loud, forgetting the young man could not hear the choir of screams. “A screaming cry of despair and pain. So loud ‘tis! My thoughts I can not hear!”

“Who are crying?” Inaho asked, squeezing his shoulders.

“The woodland,” Slaine cried out in agonizing terror. “It must be the woodland!”

It had to stop. This torment he heard was beyond what his heart could bear. It was the cry of children, adults and the old and sickly – all screaming from absolute despair of a prolonged agony that would only lead to death. The life screamed madly like it had come to the breaking point where it could not handle the pain any longer, and the only outlet it had for the violent emotions was to scream with everything it could. There was no hope in the scream; no wish for someone to hear them and save them. It was merely a violent display of maddening agony.

Slaine knew this was the work of the gods – the beings that had cursed his life since five-hundred years ago. They were amplifying the cry, carrying it to the mountain for him to hear, and their goal was to force him to follow the hunter or he would never have peace again.

Yet, why? Why were they so inclined to force him away from his home; from safety? Was the mountain spirit asleep so it could not protect him from this hunter or the traveller he had saved? Was it put to sleep by the gods to force him into this position where he had no choice but to go with the hunter, and leave his children behind?

“Wherefore?!” he cried out and grabbed hold of Inaho, clutching his arms in terror. “Wherefore art they making me leave home?!”

“Who?” the human young man asked in bewilderment.

“The gods!” Slaine cried. “The gods art plotting! It pains me, for they wouldeth for me to leave this place! For heaven and earth, I can not understand them!”

The hunter merely stared at him, unable to say a word, as though Slaine’s words had shocked him. It was unfair. Why could he not hear the cries Slaine heard? Why could Inaho not be tormented by them as well? Did he understand what he was going through? The look Slaine got was not emphatic enough as it was merely studying rather than emotional, which angered him.

∞Ϋ∞

The deity’s behaviour confused him. It seemed like Slaine was tormented by a horrible noise by the desperate way he tried to cover his ears. He looked heartbroken and cried from horror, clutching his head and rocking back and forth like a mad man. Inaho was oblivious to what he heard, but he knew it was something he should not wish to hear himself. This made him feel pity toward the other, and he sat down in front of him and put his hands over Slaine’s, to help him in whatever way he could, and he was grateful the deity did not push him away.

After a while, as though something had heard the deity’s cry and showed him mercy, Slaine’s posture relaxed in relief.

“This noise I hear…” his prey said while tears continued flooding his cheeks, and Inaho released his hands and stood up again. Slaine pulled his arms around to hold himself tightly and lowered his head. “Thou art constantly surround’d by it down there; thou livest in this agony without hearing it. Is it because of me? Is it because this mountain protect’d me from wicked men?” Inaho could not find words to say, for he was still shocked and overwhelmed by the noise only Slaine could hear. Instead, he stared at him trying to hold himself from falling apart. “I shall go with thee…” he then whispered and released a pained whimper. “I will come with thee to thy forest and calm their suffering, for I have no choice.”

With those words ensuring the hunter’s hopes, Inaho watched him bid the paradise farewell while crying from fear and guilt of what would happen to the forest once his presence disappeared. Then, the demigod followed him reluctantly through the cave, and they began their careful climb down to Shinawara.

When night fell, they stopped in the alcove cave where Inaho had found shelter the night before. Slaine was not dressed for traveling as he had no garments other than silky robes. To prevent him from freezing, Inaho offered him to share his mantle and body warmth. The deity did not protest and leaned against him underneath the mantle, and after wrapping them up in it, Inaho listened to the deity quietly cry himself to sleep.

As Inaho sat there with Slaine sleeping against his shoulder, he wondered what would happen once they got down the mountain. Slaine had expressed worry and fear of descending the back of his protector, and the hunter was concerned with what waited down below.

Was he still being chased by the empire?

Inaho had to make the villagers swear that they would not spread the word to anyone outside the village borders. Shinawara was located deep enough in the forest that no outsider would notice if the forest around the village was blooming once more. All that mattered was that the people were allowed to eat themselves full from tomorrow night and onward.

Don’t let this be a mistake,’ he thought and looked up at the dark sky. No stars were visible. ‘You gods seem to be real. Don’t punish Shinawara again.’

Perhaps, he thought, he had to begin praying to the gods like the elders did back home, starting with today.

 

In the morning, Slaine woke up looking exhausted. He followed Inaho in silence again, now and then throwing glances over his shoulder as if to see if the paradise, which had disappeared from sight a long time ago, was still there. When he could not see it, his downheartedness seemed to get heavier, until he looked dazed and distant. When seeing how affected Slaine was by being torn from his home, Inaho began wondering what would happen. During their descent, he kept a watchful eye on him to make sure he would not collapse or run away.

When they reached the foot of the mountain once darkness had begun to fall – taking the same path Inaho had taken three days ago – Slaine released a horrified gasp and stopped. Inaho, who stopped as well, turned to look at him, only to see Slaine’s eyes widened by horror. A couple of breaths later, he hurried into the forest and looked around at the old and worn trees and dry plants. Only the greenery that was resilient was still properly alive, even though they, too, looked like dying.

The deity looked erratic, unable to decide where to look and touch first, but then he spoke a couple of words and swept his arms over the ground he stood on. Immediately after, Inaho was taken aback by the breath-taking green that spread like a burst from where Slaine stood. It spread like a carpet over the earth, covering it with healthy grass and flowers. Life was breathed into the dry bushes and filled the roots with power. The moss crept up the trunks of the dying trees – bringing small leaves and flowers with it – and the trees’ branches grew strong and pushed up from their droopy positions until they presented heavy and green crowns; majestic and present.

It all happened in such pace that Inaho could not believe his eyes at first. All he had seen during his life was the dead forest that had looked worse for each passing season, until the berries he had enjoyed during the summer were gone the next year. Now, the area had been purged from death in a heartbeat.

“You said you’re not a god,” Inaho said and looked at the other, who turned around to meet his gaze while surrounded by wondrous green. “But, still, you can do all this.”

“The truth I have told thee,” Slaine answered and looked somewhat relieved now that the green had come back to a small section of Shinawara forest. “A god I am not, but a human grant’d godlike powers.”

A godlike human… It made his hairs stand on end as the realization of Slaine’s enormous powers instantly became graspable by human reason. Now that he had seen his ability in its largest form by watching him breathe life into a dying forest in the blink of an eye, Inaho understood how powerful this being was.

“A demigod?” Inaho asked to make sure, and Slaine nodded with saddened eyes looking back at him.

“A daemon, a being of divinity, or deity… Thee should choosest whiche’er thou preferest,” he answered and reached up to a branch of the nearest tree. A flower bloomed and turned into a plum, which grew obediently into his hand, and he plucked it and threw it to Inaho, who caught it with skill. The fruit was perfectly ripe, just like in the paradise. “Showest me to thy village.”

Inaho felt grateful for the other’s sudden cooperation. The young hunter could not wait to see the children finally be allowed to eat their tiny stomachs full, and he was eager to serve them proper breakfast in the morning that consisted of things that had grown in their own yard.

When they reached Shinawara, hungry people looked out through the windows and doors. An old woman – shaking from weakness – hurried as fast as she could to meet up with the young hunter, who stopped in respect to wait for her to reach him on her slow legs. When she stopped in front of him, her wrinkled hands reached out to take Inaho’s and give them a gentle squeeze.

She was cold; an effect of starvation.

“Oh, dear boy, how worried I have been!” she said with a voice of many years. “I’m so glad you have returned safely.” She then looked at Slaine who stood behind Inaho, and the hunter turned around to look at him as well. Pity swam in the demigod’s eyes when looking at the old lady. “And this is?” she asked curiously.

“The god from the mountain,” Inaho said and saw her expression turn from curious to shocked. “I found him.”

The old lady stared at Slaine for a good while with shallow breaths and mouth agape. Then, after noticing the small trail of grass and flowers that had followed Slaine through the forest, she fell on her knees in prayer – her forehead pressed against the grass surrounding Slaine’s bare feet.

“Thank you, Thee all mighty, for coming to save us!” she yelled out loud with a trembling voice.

For a moment, Inaho hinted terror in the demigod’s eyes – as if he feared the old lady’s humble gesture – before Slaine blinked it away and knelt in front of her.

“That is not requir’d,” he said trembling, confused with what he should make of her bow. “I beg thee, risest from this unnecessary bow. Thy knees hurt in vain.”

The old woman began to pray, chanting the same phrases she had been taught since childhood, to show her worship to the demigod. Slaine begged her to rise once more, but she continued praying as though she had not heard him.

“Come,” Inaho said and looked at the kneeling deity. “I’ll take you to the orphanage where I live, so you can rest before you-“

Slaine immediately stood up to back away when lifting his gaze. Fright decoloured his face, and when Inaho turned to see what he was staring at, he saw villagers appear from all around, gathering on the streets. They had heard the old woman’s scream; voices travelled freely through the quietness of the dying village; the bustling on the streets that would have drowned her loud words was non-existent. Slaine was shaken by the sight, fearful of so many humans watching him.

“Inaho, you’re back,” someone said quietly.

“Who is that with you?” another asked.

“Where did you find him?”

“Were you really up on the mountain?”

Their curiosity became overwhelming, and Slaine sought shelter in the shadow of an old oak that had stood without a crown for many years. He watched the crowd be bewildered by the green that had followed the hunter and his prey, and slowly move closer toward him, stopping next to Inaho as though they formed a human fence to capture him. The weather-bitten buildings were emptied of women, children and men of all ages, who stepped outside to stare at the terrified hider with hope and plea.

Inaho knew he had to offer the demigod security, or else the possibility of him running away from fear would come to be.

I can’t let him get away.’

“Inaho?” he heard his sister’s voice say, and he saw her standing in the crowd with the children clutching her tunic. “You’re back!”

She exclaimed in such a way Inaho understood she had not expected him to return. Tears formed in her eyes and expressed how relieved she was to see her brother alive and well, and the children were confused at the adults’ sudden strange behaviour.

“Come,” Inaho encouraged the children, waving them closer. “I need your help.”

Inko, carefully and hesitantly, took steps closer while looking at Inaho with a steady stare. She then looked at Slaine hiding behind the oak, and then at the hunter once again – asking him silently what he needed her for.

“That person there,” Inaho said to her, jerking his head toward the deity. “He’s scared of all the people. Can you help him to the orphanage?”

“Me?” she asked and looked shyly at the hider.

“Yes,” Inaho insisted. “You once told me adults can be scary even if they’re nice.” Inko nodded and pressed her lips together, looking determined. “That is why I need you to take him home, because he won’t be frightened by you.”

She looked at Slaine again, and then at Inaho one last time before nodding. She walked with hesitant steps closer to the divine hider, holding her knitted hands pressed against her tiny and meagre chest, and Inaho watched Slaine’s fearful expression turn confused and curious.

When she stopped next to the tree to look at him, she reached out a hand. Inaho waited patiently to see what happened, and, to his delight, Inko’s hand was accepted. Slaine’s pale and slender fingers wrapped carefully around her tiny hand, and she beckoned him out from his hiding place with gentle pulls. The demigod resisted at first, but when the little girl continued pulling, he finally gave in and stepped back onto the village road.

Like that, he was shown deeper into the village with slow steps; Inko’s footsteps were small due to her short legs. The people around showed great interest and fascination in the demigod, and some followed the old woman’s example and knelt to bow and pray when seeing the dry grass turn green behind the deity. Slaine looked displeased by their display of respect but said nothing to interrupt them. Instead, he looked carefully around as if to prepare himself for something unexpected to happen and bravely followed the little girl, who showed him the way through the crowd.

Inaho, after being busy keeping an eye on the people who followed the visitor in a quiet manner, followed to keep a watchful eye on Inko and Slaine. The atmosphere was saturated with reverence and respect, but also expectation and eagerness. Yuki and the other children joined him, and once they got through the gates to the orphanage, Inaho closed the gates behind them and threw a glance at the people who gathered outside.

They all stood there hauntingly silent – meagre and harrowed by starvation – and stared at Slaine with hope and wishes for a better future.

When Inko stopped at the steps to the worn wooden porch, she let go of Slaine’s hand and turned around to look at him. The emotion expressed in the demigod’s eyes was of the deep and sorrowful kind, and Inaho found himself fascinated by the communicative expression. Inko seemed to notice this as well, and her smile faded.

Will you stay and help us?’ Inaho thought and tried to understand what was going through Slaine’s mind.

Perhaps he was not allowed to wish for something like that from a free individual; to trap them here just because it was convenient for him. Yet, he was well aware of the impending future if Slaine would return to the mountain. A mere deal had brought a miracle to this village – a deal that meant the demigod would leave once his work here was done.

It was important to find reasons that would make him want to stay, such as a nice home, freedom to do what he wished, protection, and to feel welcome. Luckily, there was something Inaho could use to convince the deity of not returning, for he remembered that Slaine had expressed intense loneliness when they had met.

He wants to belong with his own.’

Slaine, after staring at the little girl for a while, looked over to the other children, who all hid behind Yuki and Inaho. The demigod knitted his eyebrows in sorrow, and then looked around the withered garden. Without a word, he stepped over to a plant that had been dead for many years – Inaho had even forgotten what kind of plant it was as it had been lifeless for so long – and wrapped his fingers around the trunk right above the ground. A breath later, the bush exploded with rustling green. The people watching gasped and exclaimed in awe when the leaves fluttered open and the grey bark turned thick and brown.

Once the growing berries changed into a dark and plum colour, Slaine plucked a cluster and offered it to Inko. Frightened by the stranger’s powers, the little girl stepped back and stared at what he offered her. When Slaine noticed she was too afraid to take it, he squatted down in front of her and held the cluster out for her, saying softly:

“I promise thee these berries art delicious. They will maketh thee strong and healthy.”

It was a friendly but clumsy attempt to make Inko understand the berries and him were not dangerous. Slaine did not seem used to children, which Inaho thought was natural considering his solitary life on the mountain.

Inko dared not to eat the berries; she was too shy, which made Inaho step up to Slaine and hold out his hand like asking him to hand the berries to him instead. The demigod stared at him for a short while – wondering what he was doing – before lowering the berries into the hunter’s hand.

Inaho tasted one of them. It was perfectly ripe; soft and juicy, and pleasantly sweet and sour – just like the fruits and berries he had tasted in the paradisiac dale the other day.

“These are good,” he said and took another one. “Really good.” He looked at Inko and held out the berries to her. “Have a taste.”

The little girl hesitated, but then blushed and took the cluster. She studied them; her eyes had never seen such ripe berries before, and, after nibbling on one of them, her eyebrows knitted together from surprise. In order to understand what she was eating, she pulled the half-eaten berry away from her mouth to look at it while tasting the lingering sweetness on her tongue.

“How is it?” Yuki asked, and Inko licked her lips and then gobbled up the berry.

“It’s so sweet!” she exclaimed and got a bright shine in her eyes. She ran over to the other children and offered berries to all of them. “Try them!”

They were all shy about tasting them, but once they did they looked hopefully at the demigod, who slowly stood up to look at the rest of the dead garden, saying:

“I sojourn here to enrich thy village with green, and once that is done I will return to whence I came. That is thy promise.”

Slaine’s tone was harsh and communicated his refusal to stay with perfect clarity, but Inaho could not allow him to return to the mountain. One way or another – most preferably in the right way – he had to make their saviour stay.

“I think we should rest,” Inaho said instead. “You can get a private room in the-“

“Nay,” Slaine interrupted him immediately. “I thank thee for thy offer. Howe’er, I have slept under the thick crowns of willows for centuries; being confin’d twix walls disturbs me.”

Inaho had to accept that, and instead of offering the finest room in the house, he had to find the finest tree in the back yard. A willow… Did they have a willow? Inaho could not tell, as the trees they had in the back yard were like the rest; dead or dying and had always been that way. It was difficult to differentiate trees from each other. Slaine, however, found one next to the dry pond behind the orphanage, and gave it a spellbinding crown.

That evening was the strangest one Inaho could remember experiencing. Slaine walked around the garden and whispered life into the dead plants that were apparently slumbering rather than dead, giving the villagers who were all watching an unintentional but beautiful and powerful display of hope.

By the time the sun had set behind the horizon, Slaine looked exhausted. He sat among the green with slumped shoulders, resting his body against a tree and looking thirsty. Inaho had only murky water to offer him, but even so, he stepped up to the demigod and held out the leather pouch after filling it in the barrel with rainwater.

“Rest for tonight,” the hunter said and met the pale eyes looking up at him.

A strange shine glistened in them, like he was in the middle of a conflict between grief and joy.

Slaine did not say a word. Instead, he accepted the pouch with water. Before pouring water into his mouth, Inaho noticed the demigod threw a glance at his wounded hand – making the hunter close it and hide it behind his hip. Then, Slaine raised his body from the ground and let the young hunter know he was tired and wished to sleep. Inaho did not stop him and watched him wander over to the willow, of which the crown reached for the sky.

∞Ϋ∞

The air was dryer than he was used to. The grass and moss on which he rested had different voices than those he was familiar with. The presence of his guardian – the willow that protected him from the outside with hanging branches, majestically thick with silver-coated green – felt different as well, like it was unused to communicating with a human, just like the grass and moss. This change stirred him from sleep, but he continued slumbering as the surface beneath him felt wonderfully soft and the dimness around him was soothing. Something comfortable covered him also, cradling him back to sleep with warmth, which made him reluctant to get up from the flirtatious bed.

Then, when he was about to fall asleep again, he woke up with a start after recognizing the presence of more unknown beings. When opening his eyes, the sight of children peeking at him through the heavy branches surprised him. Once they realized he was awake, they got a sudden shocked look on their little faces and disappeared on running legs, leaving Slaine startled.

To calm his heart, he pushed his body up from the-

The thought halted when he saw the futon beneath him. Then, a soft blanket fell off his shoulders and landed in a heap at his waist, and he stared at its worn fibres while his mind was busy remembering where he was.

I am in a village,’ he thought and felt his heart still hammer in his ears. ‘And the hunter insist’d on me accepting a futon and a blanket.

Why was that? The air around the human had felt somewhat ingratiating. Slaine was sure the other was trying to enchant him to stay in this village, and he feared that if he refused, Inaho would imprison him here. The atmosphere of desperate hope was oppressing, and he dreaded he would be suffocated by the expectations everyone had; they would squeeze him dry of good will.

The positive aspect of him venturing down to the human realm was that the voices around him had mostly returned to normal, as though the tormented woodland had sensed his presence and gotten its pain numbed. It made him feel better to know he was offering relief to some of the lives that had been struggling for an awfully long time. By living in isolation on the mountain, he had been spared from the agony down below, and now – after learning the conditions down here – he felt guilty.

Yet, I can not do anything more; I must return once my work here is done. The empire might be after me still.’

How much did the villagers know about him? Did they know what he was risking by being here?

Albeit, I know little about how things art today. It has been so long sith I hear’d about the circumstances here.’

Even so, he suggested to himself not to ask, for he did not need more reasons that would convince him to stay down here.

With a deep breath, he unburried himself from the bed and offered the willow his gratitude for its shelter, before stepping out through the organic curtain into the cooler air. The children, who had curiously watched him, were all gathered on the porch that ran along the walls of the orphanage. They sat on the edge of it, their tiny legs swinging back and forth while watching the young masters of the house appear in the doorway, balancing bowls in their hands and on their arms to serve the children berries and fruits from yesterday’s harvest.

Hesitantly, he walked over to the porch. When he did, everyone looked up at him, making him want to halt his steps. Inaho seemed to notice this and reached out a wooden bowl with food, as if to welcome him to join the small crowd for breakfast.

The gesture was kind, but even though he accepted the invitation, he could not help but to feel like the hunter was not being hospitable because he saw Slaine as a guest, but because he was desperate to hinder his return to the mountain. Despite his suspicions, he sat down next to the small steps leading up to the porch, and watched the others enjoy their morning meal.

The children wore faces of joy as they ate. They threw happy looks at each other while eating their stomachs full probably for the first time in their lives. They spoke positively and giggled and laughed whenever a new sweetness spread on their tongues, and their dangling little legs swung with greater enthusiasm.

With lives so weak… And yet, such joy they conveyeth.’

“I can’t express enough gratitude for you helping us,” the woman suddenly said, and Slaine looked up at her like being woken from a daze, realizing he had been busy watching the children eat rather than eat himself. “It’s amazing what you managed to do last night. The entire village got a little of everything from our garden,” she continued, looking greatly relieved while holding a bowl filled with sweets from nature.

She sat down on the porch two steps away from the demigod.

Her relief sounded greater than Slaine thought was comfortable, for she, too, was expecting much from him. For now, however, he had to relax somewhat; his teeth were aching after grinding them from stress, and his neck hurt from built-up tension.

Instead of answering with the truth of him not being here mainly for the village, he gave her a mechanical smile and said quietly:

“I hope thee enjoyest the food.”

Her smile faded instantly, probably from understanding she was wrong about his reasons for being here by the tone of his voice. Right after, her lips pulled into a mechanical smile as well.

“Oh, yes,” she answered politely. “I haven’t had anything like this for as long as I can remember. Our forest began dying already before I was born, although it wasn’t as bad when I was a child.”

Slaine chose not to reply and took a bite of an apple picked from the apple tree in the courtyard instead. If he would answer, he knew he would likely say something that would offend her. A human mind could not survive isolation without being tarnished by loneliness, and Slaine knew he was more than tarnished; his social skills were completely broken. His answers would reflect his thoughts rather than adjust them accordingly to the situation.

“Will you go out into the forest today, to fix it?” she asked after a short while, and Slaine instantly felt offended by her choice of words.

Fix it?!’ he thought angrily and looked up at her cluelessly smiling face.

How dared she say something outrageous like that?! With those simple words, she had insulted the life dying around her village and backlashed his ability to save it. Life could not be broken and fixed like a child’s toy! Sickness and cure, hurt and heal, death and nurture…

Broken and fixed?!’ he repeated in his mind. ‘How little dost thou thinkest of life?!

Just as he was about to part his lips to give her a scolding, he was interrupted before he even had time to take a breath to speak:

“The forest isn’t broken,” Inaho said behind them, miraculously wording Slaine’s thoughts. “You can’t fix something that’s not broken.”

After sitting down with his back against a dark wooden beam holding the roof, Inaho’s eyes briefly met with Yuki’s. The woman seemed to catch a hint from the simple gesture, unaware that Slaine saw and understood it too, and then cleared her throat awkwardly.

“Ah, how silly of me!” she exclaimed and chuckled a laugh that sounded like a mere imitation of a polite snicker. “I chose my words poorly. Forgive me.”

Slaine let his eyes rest on her for a moment longer than necessary and then turned his attention back to his bowl of food and looked around the garden that was blooming healthily. The forest was still crying and screaming outside the village, and it hurt to hear it, but – to his relief – the regenerated plants close to him had become peaceful.

This made his never-resting thoughts travel back to yesterday’s unbearable events, and he could conclude that the gods had forced him away from safety by silencing the life on the mountain and amplifying the tormented beings down below. Slaine knew that if he had opposed the gods’ wishes and stayed in the paradise, he would have lived a life ruled by the horrifying screams by being forced to listen to it day and night. It would have made him mad in the end, for his heart ached the most when hearing something die.

What choice did he have but to do as the gods wanted him to, to stay sane? They were not asking him to do anything. They simply gave him a choice between something bad and something less bad, like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Ye good-for-nothings!’ he cursed them silently, feeling a gloomy atmosphere float around him.

How conceited was he not, to be this openly angry at the gods? He despised them, hated them and wished them all the misfortune in the world they had created, and he did so without shame or guilt. Gods or not – they did not frighten him, because he had no reason to live.

I would to give my life away, yet ye refusest me…’

“Do you want to have a look around in the village today?” Inaho asked, and Slaine felt his shoulders stiffen from being spoken to.

Their gazes met when he turned his head to throw a look over his shoulder, and they stared at each other in silence for two breaths. When Slaine finally nodded, Inaho nodded back before continuing with his breakfast, and once Slaine did the same – sitting next to the hunter’s sister – he listened to the hunter’s presence.

Still wild.

Still stubborn.

Still dying, but less heavyhearted than yesterday.

Why was his health deteriorating?, Slaine wondered. Because he was starving? Because he was exhausting his life by searching for food both near and far? The entire village felt like this; like they were all withering in a slow and painful manner, just like the forest around them. Somehow, it gladdened him the hunter’s heart had grown lighter even though the deity knew he was relieved because Slaine had been forced to save them.

Did he know his life was worn? Slaine had noticed yesterday the wounds he had attained on his way to the top of the mountain were infected, as though his body had difficulties healing. Slaine worried the young hunter’s life would grow weaker even with proper nutrition, and the infection would spread.

I worry … as though I forgive him,’ he thought while listening to Inaho’s tired life.

The thought troubled him, because he was aware that if he decided to be forgiving, he would grow to like this village and the rare company it offered.

The lonely deity sighed and decided to do what he had come here to do, and then let it be the end of it. Once it was done, he would return to his paradise – if the gods and the young hunter allowed him to.

 

The day swept by faster than anticipated. Slaine breathed life into the dying plants in the moribund village, and the area looked miraculously alive by the time the sun hid behind the mountain. The trees had begun blooming with large and vivid flowers, and the crops were growing strong and ripe. The villagers helped by cleaning the fields and nearby forest of the plants that were completely dead, making the village look like an idyllic place, and gleeful laugher began to slowly fill the narrow streets.

The heavy expressions of the villagers grew lighter, until they finally lifted into smiling faces. The children helped the adults to pluck eatable fruits and vegetables from the trees, brambles and ground to fill their baskets with awaited food, and the elderly prepared a large fire on the village square where everyone would gather and have a feast. The food was prepared according to old recipes that had not been used for many years, and an old and nearly forgotten tradition continued immediately with the elderly showing the young generations how to cook.

When the sun had finally disappeared behind the mountain, leaving golden rays to light up the sky, Slaine looked at the village that had come alive from where he stood on a side street next to the dynamic square. In just a single day, the dying village had become a thriving one, and even though he knew he was being used by these humans, he could not help but to feel relieved when watching their smiles.

He had saved them from a certain death, and the horrible screams from the forest had turned into pleasant breaths.

“Thank you,” a stolid but soft voice said next to him. Slaine looked at the young hunter who had followed him around the village throughout the day, not leaving his side even once. “I haven’t seen people smile like this before.”

The deity stared at him in surprise while breathing with tiny breaths, wondering why the other said such a sad thing, before he remembered Inaho had explained to him the village had been dying for fifty years.

Time did not concern Slaine, which made it difficult to relate to humans who were bound by it. He had lived for so long that all the years had become a single interminable timeline which not even night and day could break – dulling his mind. While the humans were still thinking their time alive was long – so long they had a need for seasonal holidays to make time feel like it was moving – Slaine had been isolated in such a monotone environment that he could not tell the difference between each day that passed – until now.

“The choice was not mine,” he told Inaho, pointing out he was not here out of benevolence. “Treacherous beings the gods art.”

Somehow, a feeling of dishonesty made a bad taste spread on his tongue – almost as if he lied to the village’s host who had taken such good care of him.

Inaho offered him a leather pouch with water, and Slaine had not realized he was thirsty until he heard the water cluck.

“You keep saying that,” Inaho answered while Slaine had a gulp of the muddy water. Even if the villagers had learned how to filter it from the worst filth, it still had a strange and ill taste of mud. “But you always look relieved when something comes back to life,” he continued. “What’s more, you smile when watching the people here enjoy the fruit of your work.”

The young hunter made it sound like he attempted to persuade the demigod into staying, making Slaine’s foul mood worse. Even the terrifying thought of being forcefully trapped in this village crossed his mind anew and made him fear the people here the longer the thought lingered.

“I must return anon to the mountain after this is done. The perils here art too great,” he informed again, but Inaho began walking toward the fire in the middle of the village square, saying:

“When you leave, we will starve again.” The truth of his words hit the deity, who followed him with feet aching from today’s long walk. “As long as the boulders we saw are blocking the water from flowing down here, the plants you grew will die.” He sat down on a piece of a tree trunk that had been placed next to the fire to serve as a bench, before asking Slaine to follow his example and take a seat next to him. “If we’re to survive here without you,” he said. “The blockage has to be cleared so the water can flow down to our village again.”

It was the truth, but Slaine’s emotions were tangling up, making it impossible to have his heart agree with his reason. If he only stayed – if he was allowed to – his life would not feel so long anymore. When the feeling became stronger, he felt the impulses demand of him to agree with staying in the village, and when the feelings intensified, he became anxious; if he gave in to his impulses, the risk of being found by the emperor’s men would increase.

“Whilst the mountain besleepeth, I can not help thee,” Slaine answered with a quiet voice, staring at the flames dancing in the pyre while his weakening reasoning battled against a brave heart.

“But you are welcome to stay,” the young hunter said immediately, and Slaine’s heart beat a sudden beat from excitement.

If he could, would he? If he dared to, should he? Was he allowed to end the loneliness? Could he find peace and happiness here and dwell in human warmth? If he stayed, he would be happy – but if he wanted to become happy … he would be captured by those he had run away from for centuries.

“I must decline thy offer,” he finally sighed, his excited heart growing heavy with melancholy. “There is no corner in thy world that can offereth me shelter.”

The silence that lay to rest between them invited a bad feeling to visit in his innermost soul. He disliked his own words, because now he was the loneliest he had ever been.

I am so close to thee,’ he thought while hearing Inaho’s stalwart but tired life breathing next to him. ‘And yet, I can not allow myself reaching out to thee.’

∞Ϋ∞

Inaho had to accept that the deity’s worries were well-founded, and he could understand his reasons for wanting to return to the protected world on the mountain and paradoxically leave the world down here to die yet again.

This forest is not supposed to be alive; it lives only because of him,’ he thought and looked up at the forest around them. Was it a taboo to refuse Fate this way?

It was difficult to understand the complexity of the other’s reasons, but Inaho had to trust they were based on honest fear and worries rather than unwillingness to help. The vulnerability in the other’s eyes was unmistakably honest.

“Merely fifty years hath pass’d sith the emperor’s men cameth to findeth me,” Slaine suddenly continued with a lowered head. “I feel threaten’d still. I can not tarry here for too long.”

“Because you’re afraid they’ll make you turn lives into gold?” Inaho asked and watched Slaine finger the golden bracelets around his wrists while pressing his lips together.

“Aye and nay,” he said beneath his breath, sighing heavily. His shoulders slumped further. “The life I would kill in the emperor’s name would dieth for the sake of war, and more lives shalt perish. That is an unworthy reason to dieth.” Then, with his brow furrowed, he looked up at Inaho with eyes large from worry. “Whate’er happens here hath nothing to doth with me, and thou must understandest that; the forest is confus’d and perturb’d for it knoweth the life it got is brief. A hapless bird I am; nothing good comes from including me in thy world.”

While Inaho knew the frightened demigod was rightfully afraid, his constant refusal to help was frustrating. Perhaps it was selfish to agree with his frustration, but Inaho was the one who was forced to watch while those he cared about died from starvation, and he was the one to bury them. No matter what Slaine’s reasons were, Inaho could not ignore his tiredness of death’s constant presence.

Now that hope had arrived at their village, it was impossible not to count on it.

“We’ll protect you,” he promised, uncertain if it was at all doable. “And for as long as the word won’t come out that you’re here, you’ll be safe.”

Slaine stared at him with raised brows, immediately letting Inaho know there was doubt in the air. Why? Why could he not lie to him? If the divine stranger believed him – no matter if it was a truth or lie – he could at least try to fulfil his loose promise.

“Impossible,” Slaine answered and looked at the fire growing brighter in the middle of the square. The heat radiated to them. “My corpses art a reminder from the time I was in the emperor’s power.” He raised his wrists to show the gold bracelets to the hunter. “These chain’d me so that I could not escape. I was made to snuff them myself.” When he made a pause to collect his thoughts, Inaho let his eyes rest on the worn bracelets. Now that he took a closer look, they looked like someone had unsuccessfully tried to pry them open. Had this deity truly carried them for hundreds of years? “The silence that remaineth after a life is similar to the feeling thou feelest when watching someone dieth. Something happens with the air that is vulnerable and appallingly intense,” Slaine explained with quiet words. “’Tis necessarily not frightening, for death is not dark or wicked. Still, wheneas something dieth without finding peace at the thought of dying, they dieth in fear, and their death leaveth a silence behind that maketh their demise morally wrong.”

The quiet words made Inaho’s heart quiver from recognition. Okisuke’s death lay still heavily on his mind; he had not forgotten about the hollowness left behind when the boy had died so suddenly. The rooms in the orphanage had still not recovered from the loss. Along with that awful and nostalgic memory, other past deaths came back into light after hiding in darkness.

His heart grew heavy.

“That is why I cannot allow myself to simply accept that you’ll leave us soon,” Inaho said, knowing the awful feelings would increase if he let the deity return to the mountain. Slaine shook his head in apology. “No one can stand anymore grief like the one you described. We cannot deal with it. We’re at our wit’s end.”

“Couldest thou forgivest me?” Slaine’s mellow tone wondered. “I can not let the emperor findeth me, lest many more shall dieth. My captors knoweth how to handle me; ‘tis impossible to refuse them. Understandest though must,” the deity said. “I will go mad in the temple where I will be made to extinguish lives faster than I can shed tears o’er them. Once that happens, I will refuse the emperor as I can not handle my sins, and the emperor will taketh my life.”

It was a strange wording:

“Take your life?” Inaho asked instantly and stared at him curiously. “If he kills you, you won’t be able to make more gold.”

“I attempt’d to take my life once, and I succeed’d. It was, and still is, my greatest error,” the other answered, furrowing his brow enough that deep and troubled creases formed between his eyebrows.

What followed was beyond what Inaho expected to hear. It was a story told from the beginning, about a boy who travelled around the world with a father who recorded folklores. This boy fell in love with a princess – a young girl just a year younger than the boy – when he and his father decided to visit a blooming and peaceful empire, where they stayed for many years due to the emperor’s welcoming nature. The children played with each other, laughed with each other, played some more – meanwhile as the boy’s love for her grew. The love became absolute the day the boy’s father died after lying ill with an uncommon cold for many days. The princess consoled the boy and gave him hope in the middle of his grief and promised him they would be friends forever.

Disaster struck two years later, with the princess being murdered by a revolutionist who disagreed with the direction the empire was taking – thinking the nation needed more than what it already had. The revolutionist sought for war. The thirst for blood was endless and their leader riled up the people with angry and aggressive propaganda to make them follow his cause. The royal family was executed during a bloody revolution, and the boy – who saw it being done – got his soul ripped apart by heart-breaking grief. The screams his throat emitted tore through the violent palace halls, resonating like an abysmal cry, and then went quiet as he lay down next to the princess’s shell. There, in the hall filled with bloodied soldiers and revolutionists, the proof of pure love was expressed by him taking a last whimpering breath before his broken heart silenced.

This innocent and anxious display touched the gods, who pitied the boy and wanted to grant him an honourable gift. They took the princess’s soul and merged it with the boy’s, making him whole again, and gave him the power to save the lives of those he would love in the future; the gods could not get enough of the untainted love the boy had displayed. Along with it, a darker side followed, which the revolutionists quickly found out by the boy taking the life of the man who had murdered his precious. When the man turned into gold and his life extinguished, the boy fell into hopelessness as he was once again alive – this time without her.

The revolutionists won, and the boy was taken in by their leader and new emperor, who convinced him to serve him with the divine powers. Merely a handful of months passed, and the boy – who had slowly begun to understand his own powers – felt all the meaningless deaths he spread around himself close in on his conscience. He learned to listen to non-human lives and heard their desperate cries for mercy the moment before silencing their voices. He learned about the intense emptiness after death, and he learned about the existential fear for the absolute loneliness death implied. While the guilt ate away at him, he also learned the gold he had created was financing the continuation war that served to expand the empire.

The knowledge made his heart nearly burst from dismay; the boy became horrified with what he had done.

To escape the terrorizing guilt and stop it from growing, he told the new emperor he would not kill. A promise had been made with himself: no more lives should be taken for mindless reasons. The emperor, however, refused to grant him his wishes, forcing the boy to continue the destructive deeds in a newly built temple made of fantastic marble. There, the boy was captured and sealed away, and once the boy’s heart ached unbearably yet again, he decided to end his life.

The gods were not done with the boy’s tragedies – for who could get enough of passionate human misery? – and gave the boy new life in the womb of the woman closest to the place of his death. She was the wife to an imperial officer, and they were overjoyed with the baby boy that was born. Within the first year, however, the woman walked into a nursery where the surrounding flowers were growing and blooming in the quirkiest of ways – in ways only a child’s imaginative mind could picture. The news spread fast, and the emperor understood the divine-gifted boy was back in the form of a new-born, and he took him under his wing for the second time.

Years went by and the boy grew. He was taught to obey the emperor, doing his bidding and taking the lives of many during his growing up, and the war continued. Then one day, strange images floated into the boy’s mind. At first, he thought nothing of them, but when he was asked to turn a beautiful flower into gold – which would be a gift to a foreign royal – he heard the horrible existential silence when the flower’s life went out.

In that instant, years of grotesque memories came flooding back to him, and his mind was set in turmoil. Screams tore through the palace, alerting the emperor that the boy’s memories had returned, and the boy was chained down again in the temple made of marble. He cried and screamed for days, refusing to kill the animals and plants presented to him at first, but … the threats of killing him and be forcefully reborn were immediate, and he succumbed to the fear of being moulded into a murderer yet again.

The boy grew, and the boy’s mind deteriorated. He became numb and listless, doing the emperor’s bidding without struggle since he knew he would lose to his captor either way. To stay alive and avoid rebirth, he ate barely the minimum his body required, making him look like an empty and wordless corpse as the years passed.

The generations of emperors went and came, and the nameless servants who tended to the boy’s needs changed along with the passing decades – until two-hundred silent years had gone by. Malnourished, weak, and disoriented by the long years of torment, the boy finally felt his heart weaken to the point he knew he would pass away unless someone showed him mercy.

When a new servant – a beautiful young man with dark hair and sharp features – came to change the bedsheets, the boy decided he would beg for his life once more. As the servant raised him into his arms, to carry him to a temporary bed, the boy whispered the same plea for mercy from two hundred years ago. The servant was stunned and decided to listen to his story. The young man had never heard of such a tragic tale before, and the servant’s willingness to listen encouraged the boy to tell him everything his exhausted body allowed, and he pleaded for the servant to save him. The next day, the servant returned with the usual tray of food, and promised the boy he would help him escape.

After months, the boy became strong enough to walk on his own, and once he was ready, the cloak-covered servant unlocked the gates to the temple during a deep night and hid him beneath his cloak. The boy followed the servant’s hurried footsteps that led him to a stable, where they stole a horse and rode out of the emperor’s palace grounds without discovery. However, when they had come close to the woods, someone at the palace had noticed the temple was empty, and riders were sent out to find the boy under the chiming of loud bells.

“The servant was kill’d, and I rode to the mountain base,” Inaho listened to the demigod say. Slaine took a deep breath after his long and complicated story and raised his head to look at the sky above. The stars were out, twinkling happily. “I found refuge on the mountain, following my offer to gift it thousands of acers-worth of life if it protect’d me from man,” he continued. “And now, I find myself here anew as the greedy gods findeth pleasure in my misery.”

He sounded heavy-hearted. Inaho could not ignore the tone that made him sound terribly brittle. It made the young hunter’s realize that perhaps he was the cause of a dangerous future that waited to arrive.

The previous emperor had known Slaine was real; fifty years ago, his men had tried to climb the mountain in search of the deity. This also meant the current emperor was aware of him as well, while the story of the deity had become a myth or legend for the common people. What would the current emperor do if the precious deity was found?

“I didn’t understand your history, because I never knew the details of it,” Inaho suddenly heard his own voice say, and the other turned to look at him with surprise. “Down here, you are a mere legend and nothing more. This has clouded my mind.”

What else could he do but to allow the deity to return to the mountain? He pitied him, for he knew Slaine would be emotionally tortured if he was captured again. The story he had been told had instantly changed his mind about all of this; he no longer wished to keep Slaine here against his will – even if the village still needed the life-bringing powers.

And if the emperor’s men come, I won’t be able to protect him and this village will starve anyway,’ he thought and felt conflicted. ‘There’s nothing we can do; nothing that I can do, to save this village…’

It was the cold truth, and a difficult one to accept.

“I must return to the mountain,” Slaine said after a while of silence, sounding tired. “I would I could do more, but I beg thee to not hope against hope and confine me here.”

He’s afraid of me,’ Inaho thought and looked up at him again. Slaine was hanging his head and clutching the worn robe with slender fingers. ‘He’s terrified even…

“Slaine,” Inaho began, to ask him to stay again, but the deity interrupted him by shaking his head.

The strands of pale golden hair fluttered around his head, and he exclaimed:

“I still hear them; how the emperor and his men did laugh like gods at the sight of glittering death!” Inaho was startled by the sudden outburst of emotion. “What wouldst thou dost if someone hath killed a child from the orphanage to tradeth their corpse for arms, laughing like madmen whilst doing so?!”

It was simple: Inaho would be infuriated.

When he did not answer, Slaine looked at him with tears in his eyes:

“What about two-hundred years of such senselessness?” he whispered and searched for Inaho’s gaze. “And stop it thou can not…” A shivering breath silenced him.

After everything Slaine had gone through, Inaho thought of it as admirable that he had not grown accustomed to death and developed a power-hungry nature. After being forced to murder so many living things, he appeared to still grieve over each one of them.

What a heavy burden to carry…

“E’en though I was made to kill,” the deity continued with a quiet voice, and Inaho looked up at him again. “Accountable am I for what I have done. I will spend my eternity begging forgiveness, for not a single plea mayeth excuse the sin of murder; hence, I can not kill again and ease my guilt with remorse; that is not what it is for.”

The words were an excellent expression of someone who knew the wrongs of murder. The deity did not fear accepting the torment of guilt even though his sins weighed heavily on his shoulders; Slaine was ready and brave enough to face his headman, and until then he would live a humble and honest life; as purely as nature allowed.

I must let him go,’ Inaho concluded and threw a look over the village square where the food was close to ready. People stood in lines to the different food stands while music began to play.

“I understand. I won’t force you to stay,” he finally said and looked down at his wounded and hurting hand. Slaine looked at him with surprise wading in his pale eyes. “We will find a way for us to abandon this village by ourselves once we’re strong enough from the food you have provided.”

The moment he said those words, he was surprised by arms swinging around him and a body pushing against his. A cry of gratitude reached his ears along with a hot breath, making the hairs on his neck and arms stand stiffly, and the touch of the deity sent a powerful surge of life through his veins. At that, his mind was silenced and his heart took over.

Thump.

Thump.

Thump-thump.

“Forgivest me for not being of any more value,” Slaine said with both relief and apology, but all Inaho could focus on were the breaths brushing his ear, the warmth of another calming him, and the bustling life coursing through him that soothed his aching hand and everything else that was tired. It was such a wonderful and fulfilling sensation – as though his body had accepted a deep breath exhaled by a god – that he wished for it to never stop.

Once it did stop – just like the wonderful things in life always do – and his body returned to normal, he suddenly felt ill. The life that had filled him when being held by Slaine had been of such contrast that he found his normal state sickly. While his hand began aching again, he realized he had – for an awfully short time – felt immortal.

This shocked him enough to stay silent for the rest of the evening. Even when participating in the festivities, he barely spoke a word and ate the cooked food he had never enjoyed before without appetite. Instead, he silently stared at Slaine, who was dragged around by the villagers who wanted to include him in their traditions, and – for the first time since he had found the deity – Inaho saw him smile the warmest of smiles.

I cannot keep you here.’ He was spellbound by the smiling demigod. ‘You belong to no one, not even the gods.’

Chapter Text

The evening was filled with happiness. Everywhere he looked, Slaine saw smiling faces and heard joyful laughs. The food was something he had not enjoyed for centuries, and he was sure he would miss eating a hot meal made by humans once he returned to the mountain. The warm company of children, adults and the elderly overwhelmed him with delights he had forgotten, and the interaction they offered was refreshing as he felt something within him respond to them in a different way than with other living beings.

The cooked food tasted wonderfully. It was made with root vegetables and herbs, which gave off a slightly spicy taste. The rhythm of the music that echoed across the square seeped into his blood, reminding him of the cultural being he was as it caught a hold of him, and the bustling of people around gave him a rush of joy.

At one point – right before the moon had begun to climb the Stygian sky – the old woman he had met when he had first entered the village appeared before him, offering him a large but flat box with something precious inside. A white robe made of tightly woven and fine linen rested therein. It had black embroideries of small birds on the hem and the ends of the sleeves, with a black sash to tie it together. The old woman told him she had been a seamstress back in the day, and the river had partially been used to colour linen in the finest of colours. The white robe was special and the finest she had ever made, as it was difficult to keep the threads so purely white throughout the process. The robe had taken six months to finish for a wedding that had never taken place due to a tragedy, and because it had been made with linen rather than silk, it had not been sold, for silk had become the new standard for the empire. Now, she said, she was ready to pass it on as a gift.

Slaine was horrified at first. He thought she should be the one to wear the robe that had taken her many months to prepare, but the old lady insisted and told him she could never wear something so precious and do it justice.

“A divine being such as yourself deserves the purity of white attires, as the red you wear now is the colour of royalty. You are larger than that; you are our deliverer,” she told him and raised the robe from the box. “It deserves to rest on your shoulders.”

As it fluttered in the breeze, Slaine understood he could not refuse her precious gift whether he thought he deserved it or not. Without prudency, he untied his worn robe and let it fall to the ground, and he allowed her to dress him while thanking her humbly for the wonderful gift. When she was done, she presented him with a pair of sandals with a dark wooden base, slightly elevated at the heel, and black linen straps to hold them to the feet. Once she was done, she picked up the red silk robe and brushed the dirt on it away while promising him she would repair the rips and mend the worn patches.

Dressed in the new robe and sandals, he was invited by the villagers to have a taste of a beverage made with boiled berries that had been prepared during the evening. It was sweet and full of flavour, and the warm liquid was so smooth to drink it gave him an illusion of if having a healing quality.

I want to belong here,’ he caught himself thinking repeatedly throughout the night and tried not to think of things further away than tomorrow morning.

For the first time since his cursed life began, he wanted to stay in a moment and take it in – to live it to the fullest and make a good memory of it. After all, the memories he had were of torturous hardships, making him feel like he was forever drowning in black water. Perhaps it was not as forbidden as he thought, to occasionally surface and take a deep breath of fresh air?

Yet – even though he was aware of him not belonging here – he felt dangerously at home. Would he be able to return to the mountain as soon as tomorrow? The thought made gloom come over him, and he stopped to stare at the joyous villagers being busy with festivities.

I would to ne’er return to the mountain…’ he realized with a heart that ached quietly, knowing it was a dangerous truth.

A strange sensation of him being watched brought him back from his momentary hesitation, and he saw a red-haired girl stare at him from behind the large pyre in the middle of the square. She was an older child – one of the oldest in the orphanage – and old enough to think by herself. The look in her eyes was unpleasant, as though she was an angry child, and Slaine and she stared at each other for a long while, while oblivious people danced and ran past between them. The deity felt uncomfortably arrested in this girl’s stare, like she was unreasonably emotional in nature and unpredictable because of it. Even though she was a child – a being always innocent no matter what their crime was – Slaine did not like the look she had when looking at him.

“Come and dance with us!” a woman’s voice said from his right, and he turned to look at this person and met the eyes of Inaho’s sister waiting for him with a blush from heat on her cheeks. She had been dancing for a good while now. “This festival is possible because of you; you should enjoy a dance, too!”

Slaine got no time to protest, for he was dragged along by Yuki who had taken hold of his hand. They merged with the people who had finished their meals and were celebrating their satisfied needs by dancing to the music, and – just like that – Slaine forgot the unpleasant stare of the red-haired girl and gave way to the rhythm.

The pulse of the night continued, forbidding him to rest even for a moment. All his worries disappeared and were replaced by gladdening illusions, and – when the moon was high in the sky and the pyre had turned to flickering coal – he found Inaho sitting on the same spot where he had left him. The hunter was hanging his head and had knitted his hands together with arms resting on his knees like in a prayer. It was the posture of a troubled man, and Slaine sat down on the trunk next to him.

“What art thou thinking?” he asked quietly and threw a careful look at the young man.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” the other asked instead, and Slaine found the tone of his voice slightly different than before.

“I am,” the demigod answered and frowned when looking at him. “What troubles thee?”

The hunter went silent and a strange atmosphere lay to rest between them. Slaine instantly blamed himself, thinking he had done something wrong – but he dared not to say a word. Instead, he sat there next to the other, squeezing his hands together and waiting for the heavy atmosphere to clear.

The festivities continued around them, and Slaine watched the blissful people celebrate to their heart’s content. They had probably not had a reason to celebrate during the recent years, making this night wonderfully special, and Slaine had a feeling this festival would continue tomorrow as well.

He smiled again. The villagers’ happiness to finally have more than enough to eat was contagious to watch, and he enjoyed seeing them like this despite the awkward atmosphere between him and Inaho.

Time went by, and Slaine’s energy began to subside. A yawn escaped him, with tears wetting his eyelashes, and a shiver ran down his spine now that the warm fire had burned out. He was tired. Exhausted would be the right word for it, for he had not communicated with so many people for hundreds of years. All the impressions in the form of sounds, colours, forms, scents and sensations were new to him, which overwhelmed and exhausted his mind.

“Do you want to go to sleep?” Inaho asked so suddenly after a long while of silence, that Slaine jumped from surprise.

“Aye,” he answered hastily and turned to look at the young man again. “I am quite tired.”

“Will you take me up on the offer to sleep in the house tonight? You should rest properly before traveling up the mountain tomorrow,” Inaho said, and Slaine wavered for a moment.

To sleep in a house… He had not done that for an awfully long time, which made him hesitate, for he was not used to sleeping in a chamber where life did not whisper him to sleep. Then again, he thought he should agree at least for one night, because no matter how much he had feared and disliked humans just a couple of hours earlier, he now found human company likeable.

I am back with mine own,’ he thought and looked Inaho in the eyes. ‘And I can not let it end yet.’

“That I would enjoy,” he said quietly, barely audibly through the loud music and merry voices. “Albeit,” he continued and lowered his eyes, saying: “I would to not sleep alone. When sleeping in the nature, I have life around me that maketh me feel safe. A room in a house, howbeit, is not alive.”

The young hunter stood up from his seat and waited for Slaine to follow his example, and said:

“That is fine; there is something I need to ask you.”

Curious, Slaine accepted his proposal. He followed the young man through the festive streets, to the orphanage where Inaho prepared a bedding for him in the same room where he slept in the weak light of a lantern. Slaine watched him unfold and fold the worn bed linen in silence and wondered what Inaho needed to speak to him about. The atmosphere was still strange, making Slaine wonder what was going on with the other.

Awkwardly, Slaine looked around while waiting for the silent young man to finish preparing their beds, and – to his dismay – he got no visual of the world outside the house. The room was closed off by covered windows and doors. This sealed room served to keep those asleep protected from the cold, but, to Slaine, the room could have been a dungeon or a prison; he felt nervous of the walls surrounding him.

A promise he gaveth, of letting me leave,’ he thought to calm his quivering mind. Secret thoughts formed that he was not fond of, but he could not help himself from thinking them either: ‘Hinderest me from returning to whence I came. I am not ready to leave!

Inaho lay to rest beneath a comforter made of wool after removing all his garments and changing into a comfortable night robe. Slaine, who had no other clothing except for the beautiful white robe the old woman had given him, removed it and spread it over the comforter on his bed. Then, to escape the cold air, he crawled under the comforter and rested his head against the pillow made of dry buckwheat hulls. The soft flooring beneath the bedding made it quite comfortable to sleep on, and his warmth spread beneath the comforter in a way he was not used to.

It was so warm and comfortable, he felt like he was cradled to sleep.

“When you touch other people,” the hunter’s voice suddenly said, forcefully jerking Slaine back from his near sleep. “Do you make them feel anything special?”

“Special?” Slaine wondered out loud, confounded by Inaho’s strange question, and looked at him in the darkness. “What is it thou meanest?”

“Earlier, when you touched me, I felt myself being invaded by something,” the other said with the quiet and stolid voice Slaine had grown accustomed to. “I cannot explain it another way than feeling immortal. I haven’t seen anyone else react to it, and that is why I must ask if everyone feels the same way when you touch them.”

“Immortal?” the confused demigod wondered out loud, finding Inaho’s experience puzzling. “Nay, that is not what I-“

The moment he was about to finish his sentence, he realized there was something he had not taken into consideration during the evening. The feeling of being home… The false belief of being protected and safe… The deluding thought of belonging and being included…

And he,’ he thought while watching the shadows dance on Inaho’s face according to the lantern-flame’s undulations. ‘He hath torn my guard down.’

It was the only possible reason to why he could make the hunter feel such a magnetic sensation as immortality; the safety Slaine felt around him allowed him to relax and unnoticeably pour his powers into the human during the moment of a touch.

“It startled me,” Inaho said quietly, staring at Slaine like he was battling with both fear and painful curiosity. “And it reminded me of my mortality; it made me realize my body is decaying.”

This spread worry in Slaine’s being, making him sit up in bed and stare at Inaho. Had Slaine grown comfortable enough to unknowingly give life to the other with a touch? It was unheard of until now! Never had he even thought of giving life to a human before, and – yet – Inaho had been granted the blessing.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” the young man continued and sat up from his bed as well, looking straight at Slaine. “My body feels heavy and ill in its natural state.”

What was he after?, Slaine wondered. He felt dangerously cornered in the house, fearing the hunter had changed his mind of letting him leave now that he had sensed the effect Slaine’s powers could have on a human body.

“Can you heal the ill?” the hunter asked and shuffled closer on his knees. Slaine backed away as the other’s intention was impossible to detect in those stoic eyes. “Or make a weak man strong?” he then asked and stopped in front of the deity.

“The latter I can not,” Slaine said breathlessly, fearing Inaho would imprison him now that he had gotten a taste of immortality. “I can not create superhumans.” He took a deep breath and felt the cold crawl over his naked skin after leaving the warmth of the comforter. “Yet, I can perform healing,” he fearfully admitted with a whisper. “That is why … the forest and fields groweth.”

“Can you heal me?” Inaho asked immediately after Slaine’s confession, and the deity moved away from him again. “Is there anything in my body that needs healing?” the hunter continued, following the deity.

There was. Slaine knew about it but had not mentioned it because of his fear of human greed. If he healed this young man, what would become of himself?

“Methought I could trust thee,” he said and trembled from the unpleasant shift in the room. “Can I still?”

Inaho came closer, still staring at the demigod with hidden intent, and answered:

“I’m important to this orphanage and village. There are only so many of us that can help to gather what we can eat.” Slaine’s back hit the wall and his heart skipped a terrified beat, and soon Inaho reached him and watched him from just a breath away. “I mustn’t get ill or die. If there is anything wrong with me, can you heal me?” he asked and reached out a hand to touch Slaine’s shoulder.

The demigod held his breath until the warm hand landed on his skin, and then gasped from nervousness at the touch. The hunter pulled his hand away instantly when life coursed through him, like he had been startled by a shock, and then reached out to touch the deity again.

Stop!’ Slaine thought and found it strangely impossible to stop his power from flowing out of him. The warm touch landed on his naked shoulder again and fingers squeezed it gently. Slaine gasped at the roughness of the hunter’s hand with a body quivering with delight from the touch’s human quality. ‘I can not stop it!; I can not contain my power because of the warmth of thy touch!

Fear grew along with anger from having his powers used like this, and he finally gave way and yelled:

“Thou violatest me!” Inaho pulled his hand back at hearing the deity cry out, and Slaine pulled his arms around to shelter his body from the hunter. “Thou can not takest such liberties!” Slaine continued angrily and looked up at the other with accusing eyes: “Is this why thou aske’dst me to rest in this house?; so thee can claimest healing?”

“No,” Inaho answered bluntly and backed away, staring at the shaken demigod with a hint of surprise. “You’re wrong about my reasons. I didn’t want anyone to hear me speak of my condition out there, because I don’t want to worry those closest to me; death is a common visitor here.”

Hearing those words calmed him somewhat. Perhaps his fears had played with his heart and mind, and turned a non-hostile situation into an intimidating one? It was difficult to read the hunter’s intentions after all, due to his ability to hold them secret. Yet, he thought Inaho had done him wrong by touching him without asking for permission first; of course, he would be angry for being cornered like this!

“Still, thy ways art insulting!” Slaine cursed at him. “Whilst I find myself here in thy village, I am in disadvantage. Thou must respectest me, for I, too, am a human.”

They stared at each other. The quietness that lay to rest in the orphanage was communicative since both understood what the other felt and thought. Slaine, in this confusing moment, finally accepted that this was where he wanted to be; to return to the strange solitude on the mountain would kill his heart, for human touch was what he longed for and needed. The gods had had a grand plan with this – he had known this from the very start – by testing his hunger for human company by allowing the traveller from a decade ago to reach Slaine’s paradise. To protect his reasons for staying on the mountain, Slaine had refused to accept this, but now, after Inaho and his village had cluttered his heart with hopeless want, he could not deny it any longer.

I want to belong here…’ he thought and took a deep breath to sigh. It was difficult to make the decision himself. He knew he needed to go back to where he had come from, but – even so – he felt right at home here. ‘Entrapest me with ribbons and smiles.’

It was difficult to determine if the hunter had misinterpreted Slaine’s heavy sigh for reluctance, because, to his surprise, Inaho bowed in front of him with his forehead against the woven straw floor. Slaine watched when the young man’s hair fell naturally as his head lowered, and he pressed his lips together in discomfort. To be bowed to felt wrong.

“If my body is ill, kindly heal me with your powers,” he pleaded. “If I cannot help this village or orphanage with physical labour, such as hunting and gathering food, people will grow ill and our village will be no more. I have no intention to imprison you here; I will keep my promise of letting you return to the mountain.”

No… I would not to…

“Thy life…” Slaine said quietly, unsure of how to answer the anxious other. “Is exhaust’d. Those wounds thou hast will not heal, for thy body is weakest sith many months.”

Inaho seemed to nod in the darkness, and his voice – characteristically unaffected – said:

“I have seen this happen to others in this village; people who have been so unnaturally tired that they have seemed cursed, people who unwillingly vomit each time they eat, children that will never grow, and both adults and children dying from the smallest of wounds, like mine.” As he rose, Slaine thought for a moment he saw despair in the otherwise stolid face on which shadows danced along with the flickers of the lantern flame. He reached out the wounded hand that had begun to swell and continued: “I ask nothing more of you.”

Slaine looked at the hand and then at the young man again, and his heart cried out for him. If he did nothing to heal him, Inaho risked dying. Such was the condition he was in; the whispering life Slaine heard told him so. Even though merely two days had passed since they had met in his blooming paradise, and even though Slaine knew painfully little about him, he could not leave this village tomorrow without first healing him.

Slowly, he reached to touch Inaho’s hand, embedding it between his own. The moment they touched, Inaho etched his gaze on Slaine while the divine powers surged into him. Once the wound on the swollen hand closed and the redness faded, a glow spread over the hunter’s skin and a vivid shine appeared in his eyes.

The life grew stronger in the young man, until its whispers became as strong and stubborn as the wild nature that harboured within him. Slaine listened to it intently, for the revival of a strong individual was exciting to hear. It spoke of promises of a better future – of a future where this life would survive – and a smile spread on the deity’s lips.

Now thou art what thou wert meant to be,’ he thought and watched the other without hiding his smile, feeling satisfied and soothed by the strength of the other’s life. ‘Wild, tenacious and strong…’

∞Ϋ∞

It was for the first time in his life that Inaho woke up to the bustling of children and people on the street just outside the orphanage. Because the village had been ruled by illness and starvation for such a long time, this busy morning was something out of the ordinary. The sounds that reached him while lying in his bed were of the sort he imagined a large city would have, with people talking merrily and laughing loudly.

While listening to a couple of friends talking in the distance, the young man sensed a strength in his body which he could not recognize. There was no tension or ache anywhere, nor was his wounded hand in any sort of pain.

To orientate in this unusual and welcomed bustle, he opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. The room was still dimmed by the closed doors and windows, blocking the morning light from entering the house. Then, he turned his head to the right, to look at the slit between the door and floor. The brightness outside told him the sun had risen a while ago, meaning Inaho had overslept.

A quiet breath to his left reminded him he had not slept alone during the night, and when he slowly turned to look at the other lying next to him, Slaine’s sleeping face came into view. The deity was lying on his stomach right next to him, with the right side of his face buried against the pillow and the comforter pulled up high over his shoulders, nearly covering his relaxed countenance.

The quietness of the other’s sleep lent the room a harmonious feeling, in which Inaho found ease he had not known he wanted until now. It was pleasant along with the bustling from outside, and he wondered how long the other would sleep before waking up to the brand-new sounds. Slaine slept heavily, though, not reacting to a single noise, and Inaho found himself uninterested in getting up from bed.

It was simply too peaceful next to Slaine.

The harmonious moment was abruptly cut short when he suddenly heard his sister yell Rayet’s name. It was obvious from the tone of her voice that she was worriedly searching for her, and Inaho had to defeat the longing to continue resting and get up. Slaine did not wake when Inaho dressed – he seemed exhausted from yesterday’s festivities – and the hunter quietly slid the door open and stepped out on the porch. When he closed the door behind, he met his sister’s worried expression looking back at him from the end of the porch, and he walked over to her to ask what was going on.

“I haven’t seen Rayet since yesterday evening!” Yuki said hurriedly. “She didn’t turn up for breakfast, and none of the kids have seen her the entire morning!”

The peaceful morning was brutally thrashed apart by worry. Inaho and Yuki hurried to ask all the villagers on the streets if they had seen the girl wander around, but everyone denied seeing her since the festivities last night. There was no trace of her either, as if she had disappeared into thin air, and horrifying thoughts ran through the siblings’ minds of what could have happened to her.

Had she injured herself and was lying somewhere in the forest?

Had she been kidnapped?

Was she lost?

Or … was she dead?

“Rayet!” Inaho’s sister yelled next to him. “Rayet! Where are you?!”

“I’ll search in the forest,” Inaho said after weighing the possibilities of what could have happened to her. “She might have injured herself. The forest is different to what she’s used to now that it’s growing; it’s thick and brushy.”

Yuki nodded and offered to help, but Inaho declined immediately, saying she should stay at the orphanage with Slaine and the children. Then, without hesitation, he hurried into the forest to search for the lost girl.

The difficulties of finding his way in the blooming forest was greater than he had expected, and he quickly lost his bearings before finding something peeking out from the greenery that he recognized. It was likely Rayet had wandered off on her own and gotten lost and even hurt, but the thought still rang ill in his mind. Why would she wander off? She had never done that before. Rayet was a passive girl, and mostly angry at her lot in life. With a mother dying in childbirth, and a father being killed on the battlefield as one of many of the emperor’s soldiers, the girl had become bitter. She had not done anything like this before, though; always behaving and making as little noise as she could.

By the time the sun had moved to the other side of the sky, Inaho was forced to give up the search and return to the village. He had reached the border of the forest where the trees were still withered, and not found a sign of her. Because the forest was now thick and difficult to orientate in, Inaho had to turn around before darkness would fall and fade out the landmarks he could still find.

As he had taken a last walk along the border to make sure Rayet was nowhere around, he was ready to turn back to the village with the bad news when his ears picked up at loud sound of hooves and marching steps. Immediately, he lowered himself behind a rock and looked at the road where an armoured horseman appeared from behind a hill. Soldiers on horses followed behind him, and then foot soldiers. There were at least twenty men, but Inaho had a hunch there were far more than that.

When he was about to return to the forest and disappear into the village, he stopped to stare at a peculiar figure peeking out from behind the military officer. There, riding with the man, was Rayet, showing the imperial captain the way by pointing at the overgrown road leading to the village.

Slaine’s fear of being captured flooded back to him, and Inaho knew he had no time to spare. Quickly, he turned around and ran as fast as his legs allowed. The healing Slaine had gifted him the night before was doing wonders on his physique, as he reached the village without the need of slowing down.

“Where is Slaine?!” he yelled when he found Yuki and Inko sitting on the porch of the orphanage, keeping an eye out in case Rayet would return.

“He’s in the house with Nina and Calm,” she answered bewildered. “Is everything all right? Did you find her?”

“She’s leading soldiers to our village,” Inaho hurriedly said. “They are after Slaine.”

His sister reacted with shock, and Inko looked frightened from the sudden shift in the atmosphere. Inaho, however, had no time to explain and hurried inside the house while Yuki alarmed the villagers. Slaine was sitting next to the fireplace where a cauldron filled with boiling water hung above the flames, dressed in the white robe the old lady had given him the evening before. Nina and Calm were sitting next to him, and it seemed like he had just performed healing on the children, for the glow on their skin and the crimson lips and cheeks gossiped of health and youth.

“Inaho,” Slaine said and furrowed his brow when seeing the hunter hurry toward him.

“You must run,” Inaho said and took a hold of the deity to pull him up.

“What? Wherefore?” Slaine asked with surprise, clumsily following Inaho’s forceful pulls.

“Imperial soldiers are coming this way,” he answered frankly and showed Slaine to the door. He grabbed his arrows and bow from where they rested against the wall, before stepping out through the door. “They know you’re here.” The deity froze from fear, forcing Inaho to a sudden stop. When the hunter turned to look at him, utter horror had painted the other’s countenance with white. “Slaine,” Inaho tried to reach him, and took a hold of his shoulders, but the other simply stared at him without words. “Rayet went to tell them about you, and you were right about the emperor; he is after you. Run to the mountain immediately; don’t stop on your way no matter what,” he advised, and the wordless deity slowly nodded with tears forming in his eyes. “I’ll follow you as far as you need me to,” he then promised, and Slaine blinked and woke up from incapacitating fear.

“Gramercy, Inaho!” he gasped, and they began running through the village together.

The villagers looked at them with great confusion at first, but when Yuki’s voice reached them, informing the villagers with a loud voice about the nearing visitors, they all released a horrified gasp and hurried to pluck as much food from the nearest trees and bushes as they could carry, before hiding inside their houses. The moment panic erupted in the streets, Inaho and Slaine had already reached the edge of the forest nearest the mountain and dived into its shades. The sky was darkening, deepening the shadows beneath the thick foliage, and they were soon surrounded by night.

Before they had managed to reach even half of the way to the foot of the mountain, strange voices reached their ears and torches danced hauntingly in the distance. Inaho and Slaine stopped immediately and hid behind an old tree, and gasped for breath while their situation sunk in.

“Soldiers…” Slaine gasped with heaving breaths and closed his eyes to find calm. “They wert sent hither to intercepteth me in case I would flee to the mountain. I knew it was a mistake…!”

While he said this, Inaho noticed the white of the deity’s robe stood out in the otherwise dark forest, and it would likely respond as a reflection to the soldiers’ torches and reveal Slaine’s position.

While Inaho needed time to collect his thoughts and find a way to escape, he pushed his body against the deity and gathered the robe between their legs to keep it from sight. This way, Inaho’s neutral-coloured clothes would cover the whiteness, and he could think for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” Inaho whispered while gasping, and Slaine’s arms entwined around his torso and a face pushed against his shoulder. He could feel the other’s wild pulse hammer against his chest.

Slaine shook and his tears wetted Inaho’s shoulder. The deity was terrified and clutched around the hunter, desperately seeking refuge in Inaho’s frame, and a painful twinge awoke regret in the other.

This is my fault,’ Inaho thought and ransacked his mind for a way out of this danger. He could regret later after Slaine had gotten to safety.

“I’ll lead them away,” he whispered after coming to a decision. “We must exchange our clothes for this to work.”

“W-what?” Slaine asked quietly and looked up at him.

Their breaths collided.

“Your robe is too white; it’ll shine in the torchlight and reveal where you are,” Inaho explained.

Their pulses synchronized.

“What about thee?” Slaine whispered while gasping.

Their heat reached one another through their clothes.

“If they believe I’m you, they won’t hurt me. While they chase me, run as quickly and quietly as you can,” the young man instructed him.

To prevent the deity from refusing, Inaho untied the sash to Slaine’s robe and undressed them both. Slaine watched him with anxious worry, and – when the rustling from the searching soldiers grew louder – they finished dressing in each other’s clothes.

“Givest them no excuse to injureth thee,” Slaine whispered while Inaho pulled the quiver’s strap over his head and shoulder.

“You should run when they start chasing me,” Inaho assured him. “And whatever you do, don’t stop running.”

Inaho was about to take a step out from their hiding place when Slaine grabbed his arm and they stopped to stare at each other as though they silently bid farewell. When a branch broke nearby, they awoke from the sudden stillness, and Inaho tore his arm free and began running through the darkness.

“There’s someone there!” a man yelled, and orders to give chase and running steps from dozens of soldiers cut through the darkness – all chasing the hunter.

∞Ϋ∞

The moment the soldiers began chasing Inaho, Slaine collected his courage with a wild heart and quietly ran through the forest once the torches had disappeared from his flight path. Tears flooded his cheeks as he ran, and a suffocated cry of despair lunged out of his throat. He was terrified of being caught, and he was anxious about Inaho being harmed. While running, he was torn between the need to find safety and the longing to belong with his kind – and, as he ran further away from the village, the harder these feelings were to bear.

Inaho…!’ he thought while crying. ‘The villagers! The orphanage!

A branch at head level tore a wound on his cheek; he did not hear the trees warning him.

E’eryone…! Stayest safe!

The sounds of soldiers grew distant the further he ran. They had not noticed him and he soon saw the end of the forest and the beginning of the mountainside between the trees. Painful relief washed over him for being in safety shortly, for the village had likely been invaded by imperial soldiers by now.

The knowledge of this complicated his flight, and he slowed down like by a celestial command.

I must return,’ he suddenly thought and cursed his inability to understand what he wished for before it was too late. ‘Yet if I do, many more shall perish!

He stopped to clutch Inaho’s shirt over his heart and stood trembling from exhaustion that reached all the way inside his chest. What would he do? What should he do? He could not decide, for he was enveloped by indecisiveness on how to solve this grim situation.

While he stood there and battled his reasoning and his heart, a sudden whisper of a mighty life was heard and he looked up at what it was. Hooves pounded against the ground, and a horse with a rider came into view. The rider, armed with bow and arrows, gave no words of warning and did not hesitate releasing the bowstring, and something pierced Slaine’s stomach and sunk deep into him. Then, a breath later, a dull sensation began spreading and his legs lost power. He slumped powerlessly onto the ground and stared up at the starry sky twinkling through the foliage, and a pain so great he could not contain his scream exploded from where the arrow had hit him. The cry tore through the dark evening, and the forest he had brought back to life released a horrified wail.

He could not hear a word of what the soldier said and could not follow his actions, for he was entirely consumed by pain and deafened by the howling forest. Light appeared around him and the stars dimmed away, and soon the ground disappeared from underneath him as he was raised into someone’s arms. Then, a confusing and disorienting time followed of muffled voices and hazy visions, until his mind had caught up with the surroundings and he noticed he had been carried back to the village and laid down on the ground.

Houses were set aflame and soldiers had gathered all the villagers where the grand pyre had burned the night before. They knelt on the ground and wept from watching their homes burn, but, the moment they saw Slaine, they went silent and the friendly faces Slaine remembered from the festivity turned pale.

“Don’t give up!” a woman’s voice yelled from the crowd, and Slaine turned his dizzy attention to Inaho’s sister. “Get up!” Tears waded in angry eyes directed at him, and Yuki yelled again: “Never give in to them!”

“Silence!” a man shouted and moved toward her with a cane in hand.

“Hold it!” another yelled with powerful authority, and the village square went silent. “The villagers have been punished by having their houses destroyed. However, we are not sure if this is the man we are looking for.” A boot appeared next to Slaine’s head, and a hand around his jaw forced him to look into the eyes of a cleanly shaved young man with blonde hair and a sinister smile on his lips. “Are you the one we are looking for?” he asked Slaine, who stared at him without knowing what to say. “If you hold the powers told in the legends, then give me proof. If not, that woman will face her end here and now.”

His face turned toward Yuki once more, who was busy cursing the man kneeling next to Slaine. Rayet stood behind her in the crowd, crying with a horrified expression on her youthful face, knowing she had done something unforgivable.

Slaine knew the man whose being was poisoned by a lustful lifestyle would not give Yuki or any other villager a second thought if the demigod refused him; this man enjoyed power.

To prove who he was and thereby end the villagers’ further horrors, Slaine took a trembling deep breath and asked a flower to bloom in the grass not too far away from him, and it obeyed with pity and unfolded beautiful but frail petals. The soldiers around gasped when they noticed it slowly grow taller, reaching for the sky in a downhearted manner, and the man next to Slaine turned to look at the wounded deity once more, but this time with awe.

The following moments were hasty, as the soldiers understood they had found what they had come for. Slaine was placed on the wooden floor of a tent-covered wagon and soldiers accompanied him. The hunted demigod looked around and wondered where Inaho had gone to and worried he had been shot and left to die in the forest. This time, his heart ached harder, and he released a pitiful whimper and forced the hurting body to sit up. He was not stopped from looking out through the tent opening, and he searched for Inaho amongst the villagers.

Nothing…

“Lay to rest. You have an arrow in your stomach,” a soldier said, but Slaine did not look up at him as he could not bother with it. “It doesn’t look bad; you are not bleeding too much. Let us keep it that way, shall we?”

Hands took hold of his shoulders, and he was carefully pushed down onto the boards again in a manner that allowed Slaine to refuse if he wished to. Slaine, however, did not fight it and did as he was instructed, for he had momentarily lost his reasoning and had no idea of what to do. All he could do was to feel his heart ache, for everything else was dulled by shock from what had just happened. Instead, he stared at the roof of the tent above him without seeing it and breathed shallowly.

∞Ϋ∞

The smell of burnt alarmed him. It drifted through the forest and found him where he hid beneath a large root section of an old and fallen tree. The white robe was tarnished by the bushes and mottled by dirt, and his hair was tousled and full of dry leaves and twigs. The healing he had gotten had been helpful during the chase, and his breathing had just calmed down. Now, however – after the soldiers had disappeared – a terrifying thought emerged, which made his heart pound harder than it already did.

The village!

Was it burning? Even though he was not surprised, it still concerned him. Where would the children sleep if the orphanage disappeared? Where would the villagers find shelter once winter came? What would happen to those who were not strong enough to build and lacked proper skills to do it?

True to his nature, he could not bear staying in his hiding place and smell the acrid smell of burnt and do nothing, and, therefore, he stood up after making sure the area was cleared of soldiers before hurrying toward the village. The smell became a stench while he ran and it invaded his lungs, and soon a golden and angry light came into view between the trees. A large cloud of smoke spread over the area, obscuring the view, and the horrible sound of people crying and screaming amidst the roaring flames reached his ears.

Then, when he reached the road leading into the village, he stopped to see the site where ashes rained from the dark sky licked by fire. For a moment, he could only stare as destruction incinerated the buildings among the devastated villagers – the homes with all their existence and history being turned to ash right before their eyes.

There was no water.

The stars were visible above the smoke clouds, with no rain in sight.

The wind blew.

Inaho could do nothing but to accept it:

Shinawara is gone.’

Before he got to enter the burning village and search for those he held dear, the fire was accompanied by another threat: The ground murmured, and it grew louder. Inaho looked down and saw the small pebbles and gravel bounce stressfully on the road to the village. The earth trembled, and when the murmur turned into a majestic roar, Inaho nearly lost his balance; the ground shook violently, warning him about the dangers of an earthquake.

The orphanage!’ he thought and heard one of the burning houses collapse into the next.

Again, his legs came to a run, and he ran through the streets and yelled out his sister’s name and then the children’s. The loud rumbling deafened him, and he was surprised by a hand grabbing the white robe to stop him, tearing the fabric more. Inaho stopped and turned to look at the village’s rope-maker – a man who went by the name Marito – who stared at him first with hope after mistaking the young man for the deity.

When he understood it was Inaho, he released the robe and backed away, yelling loud enough to drown out the rumbling:

“The children have fled to the forest with your sister. See to them and let us adults handle the chaos here.”

Inaho decided to do what the rope-maker told him and ran in the direction he pointed, and soon found everyone from the orphanage safe and sound at the edge of the forest. Yuki, Nina and Calm had soot on their faces, which told him they had been caught up in a fire and survived. Inko and Rayet had been better off, but the red-haired girl wore an expression of painful guilt where she sat with her back against a tree and hugging her knees.

They were all crying and screaming in fear of the earthquake.

“Inaho!” Yuki exclaimed with a hoarse voice while hugging the children close like a mother would, looking harrowed by the village burning down. “Thank goodness you’re all right!”

“What about you? Any injuries?” Inaho asked when he reached her, and she shook her head.

“We accidentally breathed in some smoke,” Yuki explained and tried to comfort a crying Inko with a patting hand. “Nina ran inside the orphanage to hide when the soldiers came, and when the house was put on fire Calm ran inside to save her. I found them right before the fire reached them.”

Relief. Inaho felt ridiculous relief in this impossible situation. Everyone he held dear were alive and well. Then reality caught up with him like an immediate reminder of their homes slowly disappearing.

“There is something else,” Yuki said loudly, and her downheartedness got heavier. “They took him. They found Slaine and took him.”

The relief he felt turned out to be momentary, for now that he knew Slaine had been captured, not everyone he cared for was fine.

“He had an arrow in his stomach when he was taken to the village before the soldiers left. He looked like he was disoriented and in great pain,” she continued, and a small fire lit in the young hunter’s chest. He felt angry. “Then they took him and left!”

Initially, Inaho wanted to go after them and take Slaine back, because-

The rumbling intensified yet again, and his unreasonable thought was interrupted from him falling to the ground after the rumbling earth broke his balance. The fall reminded him about the dangers of the angry earth, and he pushed himself up and shook away the thoughts about the deity. It was wrong to think of him now that his sister and the children needed him, and, yet, he could not help to feel a need to save Slaine.

When looking up at the mountain towering over the village on the other side of the forest, he witnessed how a dark slope suddenly broke into large boulders that fell and hit the ground in the distance like the hammer of a titan. The hunter understood the mountain spirit had woken up and expressed anger.

Chaos had erupted in the area.

Then, as his gaze wandered across the area lit up by the burning houses, Rayet’s tearful eyes came into view and Inaho understood where he was needed. In the end, Inaho shook off the need to find the deity for now, for the children and his sister were his main priority.

∞Ϋ∞

The smell of sweet incense filled his nostrils, and a soft bed cradled his exhausted body wrapped in a thin and pliable fabric. Immediately, he recognized it as silk.

With weak strength, his eyelids opened, and he found himself staring up into a canopy of beautiful burgundy silk. The pattern of white herons in flight and golden leaves blowing in the air beneath their wings was strangely nostalgic, making him want to turn his head to the side in curiosity. Sluggishly, he did so and, when the room came into sight, he met the gaze of a man sitting in a cushioned chair, watching him with a studying stare.

Golden hair – neatly combed and with a fringe pulled to the left – glistened in the light of the candles flickering throughout the room, and a magnificent silk robe – the same burgundy colour as the canopy – dressed a seemingly strong but slim frame. A slender hand supported his head by the temple, and his pale and blue eyes – strict but not unfriendly – were etched to Slaine’s.

At first, the disoriented deity was unsure of what to think of him. This young man was slightly intimidating with his presence, for his life was hammering forcefully like an unruly stallion. Even so, he did not feel unjust or disordered.

“Welcome back, Your Grace. You have slept for many hours,” the man said with a kind tone, filled with character. “Your wound has been treated. It will heal eventually,” he continued while watching Slaine with curious and interested eyes.

“Who-?” the weak deity began, but confusing memories emerged in his muddled brain, and he then recalled what had happened.

A pang of fright attacked him, knocking the wind out of him, and his thoughts froze for a moment. His breaths deepened and quickened along with his pulse now that he knew where he was. The nostalgia he had felt from seeing the canopy of silk made sense, for it was not from Shinawara village; the people there could not afford such luxury.

Then came the images of the horsemen.

The burning village followed, licked by hellfire.

The cries of the villagers echoed like ghastly spirits.

And the soldiers...

It all came back to him, and the fear for those left behind in the village accompanied the memories. Had they survived the fires and ruthless soldiers? Had the children stopped crying yet? Had Inaho gotten away? How long had it been since Slaine had lost consciousness? How long had he been in the emperor’s keep?

Strangely, the panic he awaited did not emerge. Instead, his pulse quickened, but his mind became hazy; there was nothing he could do to escape as he was too weak.

“I suspected you would react strongly to you being here after you have so persistently avoided this place for hundreds of years. As that is not the case, I instead welcome your calm with gratitude. I hope to have a proper dialogue with you, Your Grace, for I have mighty favours to ask of you,” the man said calmly, his voice charismatically steady and clear.

Slaine already knew what the man wanted from him even before hearing this man’s last words. By impulse, he tried to sit up in bed, but the instant he tried a sharp pain bulleted through him from his abdomen.

“You should not move about with such a wound,” the man accompanying him said, sounding slightly troubled. “Kindly take your time to heal before exerting your thin frame, Your Grace.”

It was impossible to mistake it: It was the emperor who spoke the generous words.

Slaine turned to meet his gaze again, loathing that he displayed distress unimpededly on his countenance. This situation was overwhelming, disallowing him to mask even the smallest of emotions. For the short days in Shinawara, he had experienced joy and belonging, and he had been spoiled by human touch. Even the warmth of Inaho’s hands had been intoxicating – exhilarating! – and sweet, as though he wanted him to hold him tighter. And, now, all of that was gone.

This was the price he had to pay for breaking the taboo of leaving the mountain, and it struck hardest on those he had grown to care for. Oh, his heart ached terribly from realizing this!

“The village… There was no need to burn it down,” he said listlessly with a hoarse voice. His mind spun the moment he spoke, as though he was awfully exhausted.

The emperor’s expression got a striking concern to it, as if he was genuinely upset by what he heard.

“I learned of this when my men arrived with you. They have been reprimanded, I assure you, Your Grace, as I, too, find the deed most meaningless and distasteful,” he answered with a tone that informed Slaine he condemned his subordinates’ misbehaviour.

Something in his voice also told Slaine he was being honest, and the deity was relieved of the righteousness that made itself known in the room.

“Which emperor art thee?” he asked after a while of silence, and got the answer:

“Emperor Klancain, the ninth emperor of Vers Empire, and the youngest member of the Cruhteo bloodline.”

Cruhteo… Just like the room, the name also had a nostalgic ring to it. Slaine searched his memories and found the image of a harsh and patriotic man, with golden hair in perfect locks and a stature of prideful character.

“Methinks …” he began but had to stop and take a breath; his chest felt tight. “… that thy ancestor serv’t the emperor during my time, hundreds of years ago. An imperial officer was he – an Admiral, if my memory fails me not – and the one who was believ’d to be my father after my rebirth.”

Emperor Klancain nodded with a slight smile on his lips.

“You are correct, Your Grace. In a strange way, it could be claimed that you and I are distant relatives, if only by name,” he said kindly, and continued explaining: “About seventy years ago, my grandmother – youngest daughter of an officer – was married to the emperor of that time and gave birth to my father. I succeeded him after he passed away from illness.”

Slaine had been through many emperors during his time in the royal palace, which granted him understanding of the customs in royal and aristocratic families. Although it was not unusual for highly respected officers to wed their daughters and sisters to other men of war, it was rare for the successor of the throne to keep their mother’s maiden name. Only the daughters to an emperor were named after their mother, while the princes solely inherited the emperor’s name.

“And thee hast thy grandmother’s family name and not the emperor’s,” Slaine mumbled and struggled to clear the exhaustion from his mind. “‘Tis unusual…”

“I can understand why you think that, Your Grace,” Klancain smiled and leaned forward with his elbows supported against his knees and looked at Slaine with intent. “I also understand you are frightened of being here. It must have been quite a dramatic experience what happened in Shinawara village, but know that you have not been taken here for the same reason Emperor Saazbaum intended for you when he first imprisoned you centuries ago.”

Slaine frowned in disbelief. What the emperor said sounded honest, yet he could not believe it to be true.

“And yet, thou needest my favours,” he whispered back, feeling too weak to empower his words.

“I do,” the young emperor answered frankly and sighed. “The nation is falling apart. It has done so for many years – a result of my grandfather’s lack of financial management. Instead of maintaining peace, he rebuilt the already opulent palace and its grounds to overwhelming sumptuousness. Now, two generations later, Vers’ army is bankrupt and nations are gathering their forces to retake lost lands. Vers has been a victim of harmful aspersions from its colonies recently. This is troubling, because along with the threat of civil war rising, the people dare to protest louder.”

There it was: The truth. If Vers had been a prosperous nation, there would not have been a need to find the deity.

“In other words, thy wouldest me to help fund Vers’ military financially once more?” he asked, feeling provoked by the strange lie the emperor had told earlier. “Thou toldest me I am not here for the same reasons Emperor Saazbaum intend’d for me.”

“While I understand it is practically the same thing that I am asking of you, I must stress that my intention is different,” Klancain answered convinced. “While Emperor Saazbaum wanted to overtake and expand Vers, I simply wish to protect it.”

A kind but delirious thought.

“I will not assist thee,” the deity answered boldly, not wavering in his resolve.

“Why?” the emperor asked with trouble in his eyes. “I know from the scrolls in the library that you despise turning living things into gold. You must understand, however, that the people of Vers need protection.” When Slaine did not answer, silently telling the man he was not interested, the emperor showed a hint of desperation: “Please, Your Grace!” he said with a frustrated tone, sounding nearly angry. “If the military has no financial support, Vers will be attacked.”

Slaine turned his head to hide from Emperor Klancain’s accusing stare.

“It concerneth me not,” he insisted, understanding he needed to explain himself yet again: “This situation is the result of thy ancestors’ poor management; I have no obligation to save this nation.”

The emperor offered an unwelcomed and tiring reply:

“I am aware of that, Your Grace, but what is the life of plants worth compared to the lives of humans?”

What the emperor said sparked an angry flame to burn within the deity. How many times had he heard the same reasoning? It angered him, saddened him and harassed him, for humans had always thought of themselves only and never realized the macabre thing they wished Slaine to commit.

“To thee, mayhap nothing. To someone like me, they art worth the same,” Slaine said and turned to look at Klancain with the harshest expression he could muster. The young emperor seemed immediately affected by it; he gritted his teeth. “Methinks thou meanest well, but ye humans tendest to believest ye art the crown jewel of Nature’s creation. I cannot support that kind of conceitedness by helping thee makest it seem true.”

Even so, he knew Emperor Klancain would not let the matter rest.

Thou art predictable.’

“The only reason Vers still stands is because of her history,” the emperor argued. “Vers has always been a strong military power, which is the reason why many nations are hesitating to attack us; we survive merely on our reputation, which is hundreds of years old. Your Grace…” Klancain explained and looked at Slaine with honest plea. “Hope is all we-“

“Hope, Emperor Klancain-“ Slaine interrupted immediately, suddenly with a strong voice. He felt painfully provoked, and the young emperor sensed this, for he went silent and waited respectfully for the demigod to continue: “Hope can saveth lives, yet ‘tis also evil. It alloweth thee to actest with the sense that thou can control the future. ‘Tis nothing but an act under delusion, which is wherefore ‘tis dangerous and evil. Evil, in turn, preaches hope and action with kind intentions, yet once ‘tis dominant, it trieth to end good.”

Again, he knew his pessimistic words would not silence the young emperor’s hope; his eyes were filled with disappointment and calm anger, but he had to voice his moral compass and try to show those of lesser enlightening the proper way nevertheless.

“There is no world without evil, Your Grace,” the emperor answered quietly while staring at the deity with the belief that he himself was right in this matter.

“True ‘tis. Howbeit, thou askest me to do thy evil,” Slaine reminded him, and the emperor pressed his lips together for a breath, before finally exclaiming:

“Then Vers will fall!”

Desperation was eating him from within. It was painfully clear and made him into a pitiful creature.

Slaine, however, did not hesitate to speak his mind regardless of the angry fear the other displayed. This nation meant nothing to him, because he knew it could not prevail – as many nations before it. There was no way to save it, but to only prolong the inevitable.

“Thou buildest a nation with fear and demise. Nations like this must fall; takest the opportunity and let it doth so. Thy solution is negotiations; not gold.”

Slaine’s advice struck a bad chord in the other:

“That I cannot!” Klancain said and stood up from the cushioned chair, staring at the deity with determination. “I will have you help save our home from an impending war, for I will not negotiate with the enemy. Mark my words, Your Grace: This nation will not fall under my reign, no matter what the cost!”

Those were grand words, spoken by an individual in their golden age; still immature but with unquenchable fire in their blood. Slaine had encountered this kind of individual before, making him aware of it being useless to argue back with reason once their fiery temper was lit. Instead, he held his words and listened to the emperor’s steps after he decided to leave and, when silence became his sole company, he held his breath as tears finally overflowed.

No sound of souls could be heard. The room – which he recognized painfully well from his past due to its soundlessness – kept him isolated from the world, and the realization of him being back in the stony womb of limbo began to sink in.

As the day passed, he became unsure of where the sun stood in the sky. By the time he realized this, he began cursing at the gods. The silence quickly made him irate, and he threw every foul word he knew at the gods. They had put the mountain to sleep! They had guided the traveller and hunter to him, and they had silenced his children in his paradise! They had been the masters of the grand plan of getting him down from the mountain, and he wondered for what reason. Were they not pleased with the tragedies he had already lived through?

Damn them! The gods of north, south, west and east wind; the gods of all seasons; the gods in the welkin and underground…! Damn them all!

Like this, he riled his heart up into pounding beats, made his chest hot and scattered his mind out of rage. Then – as though the god of tranquillity had sent a messenger – the door into the chamber was unlocked and a young and obedient soul whispered a hesitating greeting:

“Your Grace,” a male voice said. It was calm and warm, yet nervous. “Forgive me for intruding. I was sent to bring you food and redress your wound.”

Slaine turned to look at the young man who entered the chamber and, with his heart skipping a beat, he could not help but to stare at the servant with wide eyes. The man who carried a basket in one hand and a wooden box in the other looked awfully familiar, and Slaine found himself wordless when the young man – dressed in a dark, indigo robe and with white trousers beneath – walked up to the bed and bowed deeply after setting the basket and box on the floor. His dark hair glimmered like the feathers on a crow’s back and fell elegantly when he lowered his head to the floor, and the moment Slaine met the dark eyes, he nearly spoke a name from his past, before being interrupted:

“My name is Harklight, Your Grace,” the servant said while bowing out of respect a second time and continued: “I have been assigned to look after you. I hope you will find my services useful.”

Harklight… It was a different name to a face Slaine knew he had seen before. Then again, how could the kind servant – the young man who saved him from this chamber three hundred years ago – still be alive? It was impossible, for he had seen him be killed during the deity’s flight and time would have stolen his breath and heartbeat a long time ago had he survived. This man must be a descendant of some kind, or a cruel joke by the gods.

Peradventure e’en both,’ he thought while studying the other’s lowered countenance.

“If you please, I will clean your wound and redo the dressings,” the servant named Harklight said and waited for the deity’s permission to let him fulfil his duty, not looking up at Slaine. “Afterwards, you can eat, for I have brought you food and wine.”

The moment food was mentioned, sickness turned his stomach. It was impossible to eat in a situation like this; a mere moment had passed since he woke up in the prison he had tried to avoid for three-hundred years! He could not imagine eating.

Without giving the young man an answer, he waited for him to do what he had been told to do. Harklight let no time go to waste and excused his intrusion, before untying Slaine’s robe and proceeding with the dressing of the wound. The deity winced at the stinging sensation when the servant wetted the last layer of the dressing, right above the wound; blood had dried onto the cloth.

I must escape from hither,’ the deity thought secretly and closed his eyes at the human touch. ‘If only a little flower could be reach’d, I could force these walls apart.’

Reality was obnoxiously palpable. The walls, floor and roof served as a good insulation from the outside world, with only a small pipe in the ceiling from where the wind blew in fresh air. It was far too long for him to hear or speak to life on the other side. Instead, the only life he was accompanied by was the servant’s.

As Slaine watched him work, he wondered if he could help him to escape, just as the servant from his past. Was this strange similarity between Harklight and the servant from three-hundred years ago a sign from the gods? Was he meant to save him?; could he convince this man to bring him a flower; a fruit with seeds; anything he could grow?

The man’s soul was of the gentle kind. It whispered softly about the past that had formed it; submission, obsequiousness, self-sacrifice and silence. It was everything a servant was supposed to be. Then again, a servant was not supposed to be kind, for such qualities were of no value; a servant was simply to work without concerning themselves with their task or the people around them. This young man, though, seemed brave and righteous. Additionally, he showed pity toward the imprisoned deity by the way he handled the wound – sparking hope within the imprisoned from realizing these qualities.

May I ask him for help? Mayeth he saveth me?’ he wondered, and could not contain this request:

“Mayest thou helpest me?” he asked quietly while the servant wrapped a bandage around Slaine’s abdomen. The young man looked up at the deity. “I can not be here. Can thou understandest wherefore?”

Harklight stared at the divine being, frozen in his movement with the bandage in hand, and seemed for a moment frightened. Slaine understood what he asked for was more than the servant dared to fulfil, but – with a little time – he hoped the plea would settle in Harklight’s mind and bring out the courage his heart harboured.

“Forgive me, Your Grace,” the other said with a whisper, speaking quieter than necessary from fear of being heard. “I am nothing but a servant; I have no such skill that would be required, and helping you escape would be punishable by death.”

It was an answer Slaine decided to accept, for it was based on genuine fear and was therefore reasonable. At least the deity had implanted the thought into the servant’s mind, and only time would prove if the servant decided to help him. In the meantime, Slaine needed to endure the emperor’s visits and continually refute his naïve arguments.

And that he did.

 

As the days passed, the emperor grew all the more stressed for each visit he paid the deity; Slaine refused his demands for gold every day without fail, angering the emperor immediately. Despite Klancain’s irritation and the echoes of his stomping steps when leaving Slaine’s chamber, Slaine learned that Emperor Klancain Cruhteo was kinder than the emperors he had encountered before. It was uncertain if it was because of his young age, but the deity learned to appreciate the emperor’s qualities, which he noticed during his visits; respectful, strict and just – but also wilful.

This grandness in him was relieving; he never threatened the demigod with taking his life and wait for his rebirth with horrible aims, unlike the emperors in Slaine’s past. Instead of intentionally angering him, Slaine let the young emperor know these pleasant qualities, but no matter how he tried to word them, Klancain got frustrated. Additionally, whenever the deity tried to convince him of trying a dialogue with the enemy instead of relying on a military success founded by gold, Klancain’s frustration grew into anger.

Patience,’ Slaine thought to himself whenever his mind wavered. ‘My moment to escape will cometh.’

 

The days turned into weeks, and they felt longer and longer each morning he woke up from the servant’s gentle calls. Being locked inside a solid marble chamber gave him no sense of time of day; the only markings of the passing of time were the quiet announcements made by Harklight.

Morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night… Time was reduced into sole words.

For each morning that he woke up, Slaine felt less vigorous than the day before. The dullness in the chamber dampened his thoughts every day, for he missed the lives around him; the only social imprints he got were the servant’s quietness and the emperor’s anger.

In lack of anything else to do, he sometimes stared at the embroideries in the silk canopy and exhausted his vocabulary by cursing the gods. Other times, he sung quietly and listened to the chamber’s hollowness amplifying his voice, and sometimes he walked around the room along the walls and caressed the smooth and stone-cold surface with fingertips while mulling over that which worried him; the safety and wellbeing of Inaho and his sister, the children and villagers, and the condition of his paradisiac dale on the mountain.

No matter how much he tried to reason with his guilt – that he was not to be blamed for what had happened in Shinawara – his heart would still not stop quivering anxiously, and, therefore, he walked and walked and let the stony sensation distract him through his fingertips.

He thought he was good at handling this strange confinement, but ghosts from his past began awaking during his eleventh day as he stood at the locked doors, rubbing his forehead against the cool marble surface while longing for the world outside. While feeling his moist breath bounce back at him from the door, names he believed he had forgotten appeared one by one: Rayregalia. Asseylum. Saazbaum. Trillram. Cruhteo. Then familiar faces made uncomfortable images in his inner eye, and along with them came emotions he wished to forget again.

In the end – during the twentieth day of confinement – his legs buckled beneath him during a walk along the walls, and a wail filled the majestic chamber.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure about this?”

His sister’s worried whisper reached his ears from behind. The stone wall was wet from rain and soaked their backs when pressing against it to hide in its shadow, and the leaves of plants glimmered in the moonlight and bounced each time raindrops hit them. The night was warm and the air pleasantly moist, and the ground was saturated with water, making the sound of rain heavy in the large pools which had already gathered in the mud around their feet.

“I’m not hesitating,” he answered and listened for human sounds in the area. There were steps coming from somewhere above – probably the guards’. “This is the only right thing to do.”

Despite trying to convince Yuki to not follow him, she had come all the way to the wall surrounding the royal palace in the capital anyway, about a half-day’s walk from Shinawara. The city had been bustling with life during the day, and even now – at night – the streets were lively. Inaho and Yuki, however, had found a quiet and secluded place at the back of the vast palace grounds, where trees hid them in a protective veil.

“But going in there-!” she exclaimed with a whisper. He noticed she tried to get eye contact with him, but he disregarded her. “You’ll get killed! Let’s go back, Nao… We have everything we need now that the water has returned.”

It was better to simply stay silent. No matter what he told her, she would try to convince him otherwise. Then again, he had to admit the truth of this situation was harsh; he knew the risk of dying was greater than surviving this undertaking. Even so, Inaho was confident he should do what he could for Slaine now that the village’s luck had turned for the better:

The night the soldiers had come for the deity, the mountain had awakened and rumbled. This had loosened the blockage that had been the cause of Shinawara’s demise, and water now flowed in the previously dried up river not too far away from the burnt-down orphanage. It had allowed the villagers to quench fires on some of the houses and stop the spreading, leaving a couple of buildings standing that were acceptable for living. Now, twenty days after Slaine’s capture, the ground around the village was perfectly moist, and the forest would hopefully recuperate on its own.

Even if life was returning back to Shinawara, he knew the guilt would eat away at him with time and make his life miserable if he unheeded Slaine’s need for help. He had done what he could for the children and villagers, and now was the time to do something to correct his fault of subjecting the demigod to danger.

I can’t ignore you,’ he thought with gritted teeth while images of Slaine flickered in his mind.

“Take care of the villagers,” he whispered and made sure his gear was properly strapped down on him, and then took a step forward and studied the top of the wall. The flickering of a moving torch danced above him. “If I’m not back by morning, just assume that I’ve been-“

A rough hand grabbed his shirt and forced him around, and he stared into his sister’s angry eyes.

“You shall come back, Nao!” she whispered brusquely, letting him know she would not forgive him otherwise. “I won’t stop waiting!”

There was nothing else to do but to nod if Inaho wished to proceed with his plan. With a nod calming her, she let him go but had her sight linger on her brother before hurrying away into the shadows of the trees and wait for him in safety. Inaho took the grappling hook, which was securely tied to a rope woven by Marito the evening before, and looked up at the wall again to determine its height. It was quite high, but not hard to climb with the right technique. When the torch had disappeared – meaning the guard had passed this area for now – the hunter turned into a dare-deviled housebreaker and began swinging the hook to gain momentum.

∞Ϋ∞

“Your Grace. Would you like to have a bath? I believe the wound has healed enough,” the familiar voice asked after the large doors had closed behind him. The deity did not answer. Instead, he stared at the empty wall in front of the bed where he lay in a lethargic manner with his back against the entrance. Exhaustion had come over him after the emotional discharge earlier. “I brought you food, if Your Grace would enjoy a meal,” the kind-natured servant said instead and stepped up to the deity with a tray filled with the usual seedless fruit, rice and cooked fish. There was slight worry in his voice as he approached the silent deity: “Your Grace?”

Slaine was not interested in interacting with him, nor did he care for a bath or a meal. Instead, he merely wished to slumber, but was too restless to do so; to stare into the wall with a dull mind was all he could bother with. Nothing else was of interest.

Even so, the servant did not leave him. Slightly surprised by the freedom the other chose to take, Slaine felt his body be turned by Harklight’s hand, and when his back sunk into the soft mattress a troubled expression filled his view.

“Forgive me, Your Grace,” the young man apologized. “I must make sure you are all right. The emperor will visit in a moment.”

The servant’s notice made the rest of Slaine’s breath seep out of him. How many times was he forced to deny the emperor the morbid services he asked for? The pleas, commands and kind requests had been forced onto the demigod each time the emperor had paid him a visit, and – every time – he had left the chamber feeling horribly disappointed. Slaine had a strong will, which did not waver in these matters, but it was nonetheless tiring to listen to the desperate young emperor’s words, who also refused to listen to the deity’s advice.

Leavest me be,’ he thought and turned his eyes from the servant, to stare at the embroidered canopy above.

Harklight watched him with a heavy frown – clearly out of pity – and seemed to suffocate a dejected sigh, before he began skilfully changing the soft, burgundy robe Slaine wore. After a while of being handled by him, he took a deep breath and turned to look at the servant again, asking:

“Will thee helpest me? I can not tarry here a day more.”

Again, the servant looked distressed, although – this time – not as shocked as the other times Slaine had begged him to help him; Harklight had heard his plea many times already. The distress he expressed had changed, which made Slaine wonder if he was maturing in the thought of helping him out of this place. If he pushed just a little more, what would the servant do?

“I beg thee,” he pushed quietly. Harklight’s frown deepened. “This tomb shall withereth me.”

The young man averted his eyes immediately and pressed his lips together, continuing his task of dressing the deity in the new, blue robe – a colour that fit Slaine’s mood better. Then, after a short silence, he mumbled:

“Forgive me, Your Grace, but I cannot. I possess no such skill.”

Again…’ he thought downheartedly and lowered his gaze to the tray of food resting on the small table next to the bed. The fruits themselves were withering quickly and helplessly – dying after being slain. ‘How morbid…

“But I hope you find a way,” the servant suddenly said and threw a careful glance at Slaine while tying the sash. “Until then, you should eat, to gain strength.”

The deity stared at the young man while the sash tightened around his waist, wondering what he had meant with such heartening words. He threw a look at the tray again, and then registered a little whisper from one of the fruits.

His breaths stopped and his heart began pounding with sudden thrill. He listened intently to the little whisper, before looking up at Harklight with a questioning look, but the servant lowered his eyes immediately, as if to hide his sin from the demigod’s prying gaze.

“I thank thee,” Slaine whispered instead with a voice that shook from the beatings of his heart and stayed silent for the remaining time until the emperor arrived, waiting eagerly for the right moment to escape.

Emperor Klancain strode inside the marble chamber with the usual expression of strictness on his face and observed the tired deity with concern. After sitting down in the usual cushioned chair, the emperor waited for the servant to leave.

Once Harklight had picked up the burgundy robe and its sash, he bowed before leaving the chamber. As he turned to close the door, he threw one last look at Slaine before lowering his gaze and leaving – shutting the door with a quiet thud.

“I hope Your Grace has changed your mind. You have been in this temple for twenty days now. That is enough time to have weighed your options.”

Slaine sighed heavily to vent out the awful pressure in his chest and turned his face away from the emperor. He was tired of these visits, and he wished to fall asleep to escape the overbearing young man.

“Mine answer remains,” he answered quietly. “I will not assist thee.”

“As obstinate as ever, as expected,” Klancain sighed, obviously frustrated. “That is why I have a proposition.”

“Whate’er thee havest to offerest will not affecteth my decision,” Slaine said, sensing anger bubbling up at being forced into fruitless business.

The emperor paid his words no mind, for he said:

“This temple must exhaust you. The dull and sensationless life you have in here maddens you, does it not?” Although there was kindness in his voice, Slaine squeezed his hands into fists from frustration. He had just cried and screamed moments earlier; he was too exhausted to listen to taunt. “If you accept my conditions, I shall give you a better place than this.”

Slaine closed his eyes. It was a proposal he was not interested in:

“Where I am confin’d matters not; a room or a house is a prison nonetheless,” he muttered instead, and a rough sigh tore through the silence in the chamber.

“Is there anything you want or need?” Klancain queried, searching for a sign of want in the deity.

“There is nothing thee can givest me but to let me return to whence I came.”

“To the village? Is that a place you call home?”

Home… What a fleeting place a home could be. His true home was on the mountain – far away from humans. His heart, however… Where did it linger? Not in the village itself, even though he had only pleasant memories from that place, but his heart was kept by one of its residents.

Inaho…

He remembered his name with warmth, and a small sigh escaped his lips.

“I thought the village perished, but I was wrong,” the emperor said, and Slaine slowly turned his head to look at Klancain, who stared back at him with resolve: “They might surprise me by finding a way to survive, but they have no shelter to offer you.”

Inaho!

The emperor proceeded with his provocations, and even though Slaine was aware he simply vented out some frustration on him, he could not help the boiling in his chest.

“Though I am certain there is only ash left.” Klancain made a pause to let his words sink in and took a breath before continuing: “There is nothing to return to; this is the only place where you are safe.”

Anger finally welled up from a gruesome pit after hearing Klancain say something so harsh, making the deity’s chest and guts burn with passionate affect, and he rushed up from the bed to stand before his imprisoner.

“I have no need for a house to call my home!” the deity shouted with fire in his eyes. Klancain looked surprised when watching the angry demigod curse him: “Dost thee lackest understanding of what truly matters, for thee wert born into a world of richness?! Lives matter, and where’er life is, there is also my home; not a temple made of stone!”

Klancain rose from the chair, staring at the deity with anger slowly consuming him as well:

“That is exactly why I need your help; because lives matter!”

“Thy problem thee can solvest without me. If thee abdicatest, there will be no need for war! Vers began falling e’er sith it was born, for the building blocks thine ancestors us’d were forg’d with fear for the royal family!”

“Then fear will keep us alive!” the emperor shouted back and continued with an empty threat that struck an ill chord within the deity: “And it will make you obey! I will find and imprison the remaining villagers, and their lives shall depend on your cooperation!”

Anger boiled itself dry and left scorching fury in its place. The seed Harklight had smuggled into the chamber burst with thick tendrils that flowed out over the floor and climbed the walls in a solid mass like ocean waves crashing against a cliff. The floor rumbled when the violently growing tree pierced the thick marble floor and forced the plates to crack and rise, and the walls began crumbling.

As the deity met the emperor’s gaze, fear stared back at him.

∞Ϋ∞

No guard had reacted to the intruder, who continued deeper into the palace grounds, hidden inside the veil of shadows. The torches and fireplaces spreading out over the vast area bravely fought the darkness away, but – during the night – the shadows were effective invaders. Inaho had moments earlier evaded a strolling guard on the wall and had landed behind a flowery bush in the garden not too far away from the palace.

When looking up at the royal structure, he realized it was the first time he saw the most important building in Vers. It was a sight not many were granted, although he found the imperial palace distastefully lavish. An awful lot of manpower and gold must have been spent to make it possible.

It towered proudly with its five storeys on top of a grand flight of stairs, with steep and stony walls reaching all the way to the ground beneath the supporting mound. The white and curved eaves of the tiled roof extended far beyond the walls and were decorated with golden ends pointing toward the sky. Towers for different uses poked up from the structure, and smaller buildings for servants and guards surrounded the keep. Holy statues of guarding deities stood at the top and bottom of the stairs, and balconies spread out on the highest storeys – the highest of them probably being the moon-viewing balcony; it was facing the brightest part of the night sky. It was too dark to see, but Inaho had heard the structure was nearly black, with white and golden details.

This night, the palace was lit up by torches on the walls, and by the fireplaces and candles undulating inside. Inaho could see some windows flickering, with people moving around within the rooms.

Where is he?’ he thought, and looked around, and set his eyes on a large structure further away from the palace that caught his interest.

It looked like a temple of some sort, but its architecture was strange compared to the conventional temples Inaho had seen. It was completely made of smooth stone that glimmered in the light of torches like the surface of a lake during a calm summer night, and it looked awfully heavy – which it probably was; the base was enforced with robust stone. A gate welcomed the visitors inside, but it, too, had a strange appearance: instead of the traditional arch of the gates, the entablature had a foreign shape of a rooftop, and it was supported by thick pillars decorated with parallel fluting in concave grooves. The entablature looked like it had been decorated with meandering carvings, like that of delicate tendrils. Behind it – on the main structure, right above the entrance – a majestic display of golden figures was lit up by perfectly placed open lanterns beneath. It reached up like a triangle into a sharp point with spiers piercing the sky on either side – like a row of sharp teeth – and a tiled roof protected it from weather. The roof itself was built in different sections, looking like several rooftops had been made into a single large one. Between the sections, more spiers poked up in a strange arch, claw-like in shape, as if to ruthlessly scratch the heavens. Tall, golden architraves decorated the façade, clearly supposed to look like windows, but these windows, however, were filled with stone walls where the opening should be – making these frames merely to useless decoration.

Something told the hunter the gold covering the façade had been living things a long time ago, for the shape of them – even from afar in the light of torches – made them seem more alive than what even a skilled engraver could accomplish. It was stunning to look at, but Inaho understood these decorations had a sad history, enabling him to appreciate their beauty.

Slaine…

After viewing the strange temple, he studied the row of torches lighting up a path that stretched all the way from the palace to the entrance of the temple, to guide potential visitors through the darkness, and they burned brightly, as though someone had just paid the temple a visit. Guards stood outside the entrance doors, armed and ready, and they stepped aside when a young man exited the temple by opening and closing the heavy doors, carrying fabric in his arms.

He’s in there,’ Inaho thought, almost certain of his conviction being true, and steered his slow and noiseless steps toward the temple while avoiding the guards’ and the young man’s attention.

Halfway there, he stopped abruptly. The ground began trembling beneath him for the second time in a short while, and its rumbling noise grew increasingly louder. The guards shouted from surprise while looking confused, and – before they had gotten a moment to act – the stone beneath them rose as though something pushed from underneath and made the men stumble and fall.

Right after, like having been freed from restraints, thick roots blew out from beneath the stone and sent the heavy blocks flying, and the ground began moving violently, like something crawled beneath. Branches, tendrils and stems stretched upward along the temple walls, piercing the marble and breaking it apart, while they quickly engulfed the now crumbling structure. The roof was torn loose from its attachments – tiles raining down on the ground – and the gate was covered by heavy branches, crushing it into pitiful pebbles in the blink of an eye. Fire spread rapidly as the oil in the open lanterns spilled out and, in the next breath, the temple courtyard looked like a fiery nightmare.

Slaine!’ he thought with a heart pounding from the sudden surprise.

Hesitation froze him for a couple of breaths, for the temple area looked chaotic the way it changed with every blink of an eye, but once he gathered his resolve, he ran toward the horrific scene while people gathered outside the palace and surrounding buildings. Some screamed in fear while others shouted fruitless orders to take control of the situation.

Inaho knew: no matter what anyone decided to do, nothing could stop what Slaine was doing. The violent way the branches and stems moved made the hunter understand the deity was furious, and he wondered what had made him into such a vengeful being. The Slaine he had gotten to know was careful and silent; he had never displayed such horrific power in front of Inaho.

As he ran toward the chaos, the ground became unpredictable as roots grew bigger the closer he came. It twisted and turned beneath him, bubbling like a boiling kettle which made him fall repeatedly and scrape up his arms and legs. Even so, he got up each time and continued toward the crumbling temple, jumping from a temporary mound over to the next while avoiding roots and tendrils that threatened to grab his legs. The closer he came, however, the thicker the wood became, until he faced a wall of stems.

“Slaine!” he yelled, to call for the deity’s attention. “Do you hear me?!”

The ground began rising, for it was filled with coiling roots piling up, and he fell yet again. It was becoming dangerous. If his feet got tangled up in the roots, he would likely be pulled down into the slithering wood. To escape the danger while still save the deity, he had to find a way inside the temple which was hopefully less chaotic.

There had to be a way inside, to where Slaine was. The plants moved constantly in a pulsing manner, which gave Inaho chances to jump through gaps that emerged for short periods of time if he was careful enough. He stared at the stems and studied their movements to learn their behaviour and predict when an opening would emerge.

Once such a chance appeared, he hurriedly stepped through before it closed around him.

What waited for him behind the crackling and crumbling marble walls, was a room made entirely of living wood. Countless stems rose from the ground all over the area, making it look like a forest of young trees, and a heavy blanket of roots covered the floor. Deep inside, in front of a broken bed that had been lifted by branches, he saw a terrified man who stood helplessly before he who Inaho searched for.

“Slaine!” he exclaimed and hurried toward the deity who wore an expression that made the hunter hesitate.

Slaine’s eyes were sharp and intense, glowering fixedly at the other who accompanied him as though staring straight into his soul and scorching it with unkind intent. The air was pregnant with the deity’s presence, as if his soul was spilling out of him and consuming the space – filling it with an oppressive power. This made Inaho’s hurrying steps slow down; even though he was here to save Slaine, he became aware of the deity possibly not needing his help at all, and that perhaps he was risking his own life by throwing himself into this scene – a scene characterized by Nature’s disordered ways.

“Slaine!” he yelled again and stumbled closer.

The man who accompanied the deity, looked over his shoulder at the hunter, pale as though his soul had left him, and this called for Slaine’s attention as well. When Inaho’s eyes met Slaine’s, the deity’s glare softened while the rumbling chaos slowly died down, until it came to a complete stop. The moment was suddenly quiet and still, and calm took the oppressive anger’s place.

A sharp breath.

A suffocated whimper.

Then…

“Thou art well…!”

Slaine’s voice shook with relief with joyful tears forming in his eyes.

“I am,” the hunter assured him and dared to take steps closer. “So are you.”

“Only barely,” the deity answered and sighed heavily. “Thy visage relieveth me, ne’ertheless.” His voice was suddenly warped by overwhelming emotion. “I fear’d thou hadst perish’d! Oh, how worri’d I have been! Now, thou camest hither! Wherefore dost thou throwest thyself in danger?”

“I came to get you,” Inaho answered frankly, letting the deity know he had not thought of abandoning him. He walked closer. “You were captured because of me; this is my fault. As soon as I and the others had made the village habitable, I came to find you.”

“Inaho…!”

“Come,” he coaxed the other, who covered his eyes with trembling hands. “The water is back; you should return to the mountain, where you’re safe.”

The deity’s sadness deepened when hearing Inaho’s words, but they were brusquely interrupted by the young man, who took a step forward while looking at them both.

“He shall stay here,” he said – his voice sounding like it was used to giving orders. “The nation needs him.”

The rumbling began anew, and Slaine lowered his hands from his face and stared at the man with reborn fury.

“The nation needeth thee to compromise and negotiate with thy enemy; not my gold!” he shouted – tears streaming down his cheeks – before continuing with a slight composure: “Thou can not win a war with gold. Thy ancestors us’d such recipe, yet thou showest greater intentions. Thou understandest not that thy words giveth the air power, which is all the power thy needest! Wherefore refusest thou to becomest the man thou wert born to be?”

“That is nothing but fruitless reasoning!” the other answered back, and Inaho understood this man was the emperor himself. “I was born an emperor!; I cannot abandon my people!”

That, Your Excellency,” Inaho suddenly said and pointed toward Slaine, to interrupt the looming argument that was about to start between the other two. “– is the reasoning a true ruler should have; there’s nothing fruitless about it,” he continued and closed the distance between him and the deity. He took Slaine’s hand into his and felt the familiar sensation of immortality that followed when touching the other. “You can’t save Vers even with all the gold in the world because its people are already starving. They cannot fight for you no matter how much you pay them,” he then said, knowingly provoking the emperor.

The emperor was offended by the commoner’s argument:

“My soldiers are well fed and strong,” he said, clearly insulted by Inaho’s comment.

“Yet, for how long?” Slaine asked tiredly. “And once Vers is in turmoil, the enemy willeth kill their enemy’s people, who can not fight back due to starvation.”

The emperor knew this was the truth, and perhaps he had always known it, yet he wanted to desperately hold on to the throne. Vers had always been notoriously aggressive, but its current emperor seemed to have a softer heart than his ancestors. Was the young emperor trying to live up to expectations that did not suit him, and was therefore unsure of what to do because of his kindness?

“I cannot rely on my enemy’s good will,” the emperor said while he slowly got calmer, like his heart was already deciding what to do, and yet: “To negotiate with the enemy is dangerous.”

“So is war,” Inaho argued back and met the emperor’s slowly dejecting expression. This allowed him to continue: “I think you should help your people by negotiating instead of risking their lives with a war. I doubt the enemy is interested in murdering the people of a negotiating nation.”

∞Ϋ∞

It was relieving to have someone argue in his favour; Slaine could only remember a single moment in his past when it had happened before – the maiden taking a stand for him after his father’s death when he had still been a mortal. After her, he had always been alone; always running from people due to him failing to argue for his own cause. To become emotional during such moments was fruitless, yet he always ended up overwhelmed by the arguments and dishonourable actions levelled against him, leaving him confused. Only when he could think clearly again, after the emotional storms dying, did he realize he had been left with his intended arguments as ghosts.

For all this time, I needed someone like thee,’ he thought and threw a glance at the hunter next to him.

The hand holding his was hot. The life he felt reverberating in it suddenly leaked into his heart, slowing down its rushing rhythm; Inaho was aware of the danger in this situation, but he was admirably calm. Slaine could not help his eyes from wandering over to him once more, for he needed to see the one protecting him now. Calm swept the chaotic emotions away, and he – for once – felt strong enough to face his captor.

“Understandest, Emperor Klancain Cruhteo, the last of thy bloodline,” he said quietly, and turned attention to the disheartened young man dressed in royal robes. “I can not help thee, for the tools thou needest art already in thy hands. Thy pride can not costeth more than thy people. Thy true foe is Hope, for thou desirest for Vers to surviveth. Makest no evil with good intentions, for that blackens thy kind heart.”

The emperor gave no answer, and Slaine accepted his silence. Together with the one who held his heart when holding his hand, he walked toward an opening in the stems that shielded what had once been the accursed marble chamber. Fresh air filled his lungs, and the life all around celebrated with careful whispers.

I frighten’d ye with mine anger,’ he thought apologetically when watching the royal garden.

People stood gathered outside, gasping from shock and fear and mumbling horrified words to each other while staring at the devastated ground and temple. They, too, must have realized the force of Nature that Slaine wielded, for they cowered away when they set their eyes on the deity.

Slaine did not say a word to them, neither did Inaho. Instead, they headed toward the main gate on the other side of the palace in silence – simply lingering in the warmness that had bloomed between them two. On the other side of the gate, where life slowly turned whispers into song, Slaine would feel safe.

It was a fulfilling experience to walk next to him; magnetic in every way. What the hunter gave him was a thousandfold wonder simply by willingly risking his awfully short life like this. Inaho was not aware of how five-hundred years of life felt like, nor would he ever understand how precious it was to give his time away.

He must becometh aware,’ he thought and suddenly got a sense of hurry. ‘– of how I soar without delay with his hand in mine. Oh, I would I were a mortal, so I can live and die with thee!

To convey what he experienced required more than words, for Inaho’s presence and care was grander than anything he had known. Perhaps staying here, with the humans – with him – would ease Slaine’s rejuvenated soul?

I shall not return to the mountain; mine home is with thee.’

“Inaho-“ he began, excited to tell him what future his heart designed for them, but his words were made unexpectedly short, for this precious future met desolation with the arrow that buried itself into the young hunter’s head.

Time fell to pieces, and the ground and the heavens broke apart the moment the hunter’s hand lost strength and slipped out of his when falling and hitting the soft grass. The sound of his heavy body slammed against the deity’s eardrums and emptied his heart of what he had previously felt, for now their years had crumbled into none.

A sharp gasp slipped out of him when staring at the arrow piercing the hunter’s left eye. Blood boiled from the wound and the strong life turned weaker as it slipped away. Inaho said nothing, nor did he show a reaction. He merely lay on the ground, motionless while facing the sky and stared at it – barely alive. The presence that had the same spirit as a vigorous animal got quiet, and the wilful and brave nature became helpless.

Instead of the hunter’s name, a desperate whimper escaped the confused deity’s throat, for he could not grasp what had happened even though he knew. Trembles grew in his limbs, and his chest tightened enough he nearly suffocated, for his hunter’s wound was something he could not heal with the power of life. The wound was of the fatal kind, and even though he tried to heal it, the damage was still too instant and severe to be reversed; Inaho’s soul was already withering.

After understanding this, a deep and shaky breath filled his lungs and tears distorted his sight. Then, he raised his look from the gruesome scene in search for answers.

When looking up from his broken future, a guard who lowered a bow filled his view. It was a stubborn but reckless creature that wished to become a demon, believing it was the way to save what he tried to protect; the nation and its emperor; his pride and livelihood; his life and family.

Unreasonable anger exploded within him for the second time tonight, but this time it stretched out as far as it could reach. The lives in and outside the garden screamed, for they became terrified of the deity breaking them apart in the storming fury that would strike the guard, yet they answered his command.

Rushing roots and branches welled over the majestic walls shielding the palace grounds from the world outside, and they rushed toward the soldier with horrifying hurry. Blinded by passionate fury, the deity listened to the heart-wrenching cry of the man who carried the responsibility of shattering the future he had just realized, and once it went quiet, the spectators began screaming in terror. Chaos struck the garden. People ran toward the palace, desperately trying to escape the violently slithering wood and, while Slaine did not intend to, some escapees were injured.

“Gods!” he yelled instead, looking up at the starry sky with pouring, hateful eyes. “Wherefore dost ye punishest me?! Yet again, ye wouldest mine soul to be thrash’d for simple pleasure! Why dost ye takest him?!”

Then, the night got silent once more. The roots lay to rest on the ploughed ground, and the branches shook one last time, for the life knew what he knew. His future was dark. Meaningless. Useless. It was a waste of time to greet yet another day in this empty existence, for if his hunter could not live, he could not either.

Anger turned to devastating grief. It cut through the deity’s being and struck his soul with piercing power, and a strange, dull sensation spread from deep within, as though his being began to wither. Essential bonds dissolved, and what got loose poured out of him with each breath – escaping him.

Slaine had naively thought he already knew the cutting pain of losing a love, and he was now proven otherwise. He had simply forgotten. The same kind of pain he had gone through when Princess Asseylum was murdered five-hundred years ago came anew, with his soul being torn yet again.

Princess Asseylum’s soul residing in him fell to pieces, as his own had done with her death.

“This was all a plot from the beginning,” he said and blinked tears from his eyes. “Ye put the mountain spirit to sleep, and ye wert the cause for the traveller finding me. And Inaho… Ye show’dst him to me, and now ye tookest him!”

The sound of the hunter's life weakened, and Slaine fell on his knees beside him, finally releasing a loud and deep cry against the hunter’s chest.

When his breath was exhausted, he sat up slowly to inhale, and then held his breath for a moment. There was something he could do before he met his demise. It was something he had not done before, but everything that could be lost had already disappeared.

“When thy countenance appear’dst before me for the first time, only now the realization comes to me it was life offering me a smile,” he said quietly and looked down at his dying future. “Thou toldest me death bringeth out the best in us; though it frightens us, it maketh us brave.” He made a pause to pull the arrow out of the hunter’s eye and furrowed his brow from the gruesome sight; blood bubbled from the wound before becoming a slow and steady stream. “Like the creator for its creation, I absolutely care for thee.”

Quickly, before he would lose himself, he lowered his lips to the hunter’s, giving him his own soul as healing. The wound closed in the kiss, and Inaho’s body greedily accepted the deity’s soul that was already escaping.

‘I give thee what hath been mine for all too long, and I will lie in the arms of black earth for thee,’ he vowed and felt his own body grow cold and motionless.

“I die now in thy stead,” he whispered when pulling back, and the heart that had been beating since five centuries, finally stopped.

∞Ϋ∞

The sudden burning sensation in his lungs forced him to take a deep breath. A slight and unpleasant tightness around his chest followed, making him grimace. As he did so, a strange sensation made him aware of something being wrong with his left eye. When opening his eyes, his vision was halved, as if he was partially blinded, but he was not given enough time to be concerned about it, for an alarming sight filled his view.

A glisteningly golden face smiled back at him with an expression consisting of sadness and fulfilment. It was familiar enough Inaho said the name that came to mind, but no answer came back.

A statue...

A golden statue.

“Slaine?” he asked shocked and sat up to reach out and touch it.

It was stiff and cold, like a statue of gold was supposed to be. The young man the statue resembled sat on his knees, with one hand placed neatly in his lap and the other holding a piece of Inaho’s tunic between the thumb and index finger.

What had happened?, he wondered. They had been walking toward the main gates leading out from the palace grounds, when he had suddenly gotten a blackout. Now, the area was covered by roots and branches from trees and bushes, and the ground was devastated by violence.

Something crackled on his face when he touched the cheek beneath his left eye, and he pulled his hand back to see what it was. Flakes of dried blood; he could recognize it immediately. His face was covered with it, and it seemed to come from his left eye. Slowly, he touched the blinded eye and felt a horrible hollowness.

His eye... Something had happened with his eye. An arrow next to the statue came to his attention, and the puzzle was quickly put together.

He looked up and touched the statue once more, but it was still cold to the touch. Slowly, the understanding of what had happened began to dawn on him, and an awful emotion spread through him like wildfire.

“What have you done to save me?”

Steps walked closer from behind, and he looked over his shoulder. The emperor – wearing a disheartened smile on his face –  walked up to the hunter and the statue, and said:

“One of my guards shot an arrow through your head. His Grace avenged you and seems to have given his life to save yours; he turned into gold.” Inaho did not answer; he simply stared at the emperor, not knowing what he should think or feel about the matter. Instead, the emperor sighed heavily. “I will take his words of advice to heart, for that is my only option now,” he continued with a calm voice, as though he was ashamed of himself. Carefully, he raised his hands to remove a large decorative button, with the royal signet carved into it, and threw it on the ground next to Inaho. “Take it. It is worth more than the gold it is made of. I am aware of you needing what it can buy.”

What a detestable little thing it was. Inaho would not pick it up to use it, for it was not what he nor the village needed. Good things would come to those who lived honest and righteous lives – a lesson he had learned from the deity. If by buying shortcuts and easy answers with glittering stones and shiny nuggets was a way to handle life’s shortcomings, then no lessons would be learned and more stone and nuggets would be needed. It was a collective problem, with individuals demanding these things from others and obstructing their honest living.

“You haven’t learned anything, have you?: Gold blinds us,” he told the emperor. “The village doesn’t need your gold.”

The emperor gave him a wry smile:

“I thought as much.”

With those being his parting words, he left him with the statue and ordered the soldiers away. Inaho bothered not to look at the button and turned to look at what remained of Slaine instead. He had seen a lot of death during his short lifetime, always surviving the partings death implied, but seeing the golden corpse gave him a horrible sensation in chest and stomach.

Nausea. Light-headedness. Loneliness and grief. It all came over him and filled his being, making him understand how much he had enjoyed the other’s company. This parting was different to the partings he had had with others he had known. It was more difficult and cruel, for the deity had touched him in ways others had not.

“I never asked this of you,” he told the lifeless statue – aware of it not being able to answer him. “You know I cannot bear doing nothing, and – this time – it seems it’s the only thing I can do.” The statue stayed silent. “You can’t do this. You’re going to a place where I can’t follow.”

Breathing became difficult and he inhaled deeply. If he could do nothing to bring Slaine back, then what would he do? He knew he had to return to his sister and the villagers, but he could not leave the corpse of Slaine here, neither could he carry it. There were no wounds to treat nor an illness to medicate, leaving him with nothing else to do but to look at the statue.

Could he hope for a miracle? Could he do what he had never done before and be heard?

When looking up at the sky, the clouds obscured his view. According to Slaine, the gods existed up there. Inaho had never believed them to be real, because – to him – they had always been nothing but superstition, but now, with Slaine being a living proof of their existence, he could not ignore them anymore:

“I know I haven’t prayed to any of you in my life.” He took a deep breath and raised a hand to his blinded eye. “And perhaps I’m being conceited when thinking that you’ll hear me now, but I hope my first prayer is of enough value that it is heard, because I’m not praying for me.”

He told the gods about the joy he had observed on Slaine’s face that festive night in the village; how much he had enjoyed being around humans who wished him no harm. He also told them of how much Slaine wished to belong and asked them to show him the pity he deserved, because he was welcome to stay in Shinawara, where people would love him. It would be his first time to feel such safety and tender care; something he deserved.

To bring him back to life. To let him be with people that cared for him. To allow him being joyous and appreciate the years a mortal life implied.

The more he prayed, the tighter his heart squeezed, until he gasped and finished his prayer:

“I know I said earlier I didn’t pray for me, but I cannot bear watching him in a state like this. Perhaps-” He took yet another breath to ease the tight sensation. “I pray for the both of us.”

∞Ϋ∞

A sensation like water being poured into an empty space to fill it gave a feeling of content. Small sparks of consciousness – like that of slowly waking up from a dream – gave birth to disorientation. Then there was movement. It was mechanical at first, with a loud rhythm growing steady like that of a drum, but soon a single movement, steered by will, allowed a chest to heave. Hazy light followed, and then a warm cradle…

A smell of a living creature.

Sound.

Then a presence…

He took a deep breath the moment he could, and it caused a horrible itch in a dry throat and tickled him to cough. A heavy sensation rested in him, as though his life had been shortened from aeons to decades, yet it did not frighten him, for he knew this was all right.

Then, after lingering in the feeling, he tried forcing his eyes open, and after a couple of tries a hazy face came into view.

“You found back,” the human said quietly, staring down at him from above.

This familiar individual was holding him in careful arms, squeezing him gently as though he was afraid of letting him go.

“I know thee,” he whispered back – his voice broken – and watched the other nod and confirm:

“That you do.”

A smile spread on his lips, and he reached out a hand to touch his hunter's cheek:

“Inaho…”

 

 

 

-fin-