Somewhere, deep in the forest under the orange dusk sky, I bury the five deceased adventurers. I finish their graves with wooden crosses, place a small offering and finish paying my respects. Just like with my conjurer, I’m doing this solely for my own humanity rather than any affection for these people. History seems to be repeating itself and I have to wonder if anything has changed…
No, I’m well aware that I have changed, I just… don’t know who I want to be. Hachirou believes in my compassion, and I’m sure Helena and Yuki believed in it as well. After all, one of the reasons Helena gifted me this mask was to symbolise my kindness. Still, I cannot deny these emotions dwelling in the corner of my heart.
Once again, I feel as if a part of my soul has been gouged by a spoon, leaving an even emptier sensation alongside the void that already afflicts me. Once again, I’ve lost somebody dear… and I couldn’t do a damn thing when I was needed most. But this time… there was someone I could blame. There was someone I could direct all my pain and occupy my perpetual cold with seething hate… and the thought scared me. I had already broken Gavel’s spirit beyond repair and doing anymore would only take away from my own being… especially in front of Hachirou. That’s why I tried to stop… but in the end…
“… Was it so hard… to keep living? Did you have to… force my hand instead of taking it yourself!? Answer me, Gavel! Was sparing you really so unforgiveable!?
Damn it… Y-you… you had to give me an excuse… to stain my hands…”
I didn’t have to kill Gavel. He was in no condition to pose a threat and I’ve lived as a skeleton for far too long to be startled by such an attack. I could have allowed the blow then taken his knife. I could have ordered the corpses to restrain him. I could have done a thousand other things besides run him through with a cursed sword. I never did forgive him for killing Yuki, and it showed when I took his life with this very hand.
In the aftermath of the battle, Chiyoko immediately ordered the branch to prepare for departure before the inevitable investigation from Lennon. The hunters were sent to recover Yuki’s body, but when they returned they wore pale expressions and had carefully wrapped his remains, unwilling to reveal his desecrated form to the light of day. News of Yuki’s fate caused many of the branch members to vomit in horrified revulsion. As for me, I couldn’t shake the sickening images birthed from my mind due to prior experience skinning hares. Yuki deserves a proper funeral, but because of the urgency to leave, it will not be held until later, and a part of me resents myself for building graves for his killers.
“… You were so young… Y-you were supposed to grow up and travel the world by my side! Why… Why did this have to happen to you? I-I wish I took you along when you asked… I wish I could spend time with you and the others once more…
Tell me Yuki, if you’re still wandering on this side…”
Should I find his soul and take it with me? Would he be happy if I resurrected him? He grew up learning to respect life and death as absolutes. Should I consult the branch? No, nobody deserves to decide Yuki’s fate, not even me. Unlike Helena, Yuki had a place among his kind, but if I brought him back, will he lose it? No, the truth is, I would be the one losing my place among them…
As I ponder these thoughts, staring blankly into the twilight, I’m suddenly approached by a wounded soul bearing a warm light.
“… Chiyoko? What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be leaving?”
“We’re almost ready to leave for the Wasteland, but before we part ways I want to talk to you.”
“Take it easy. Your body is still recovering, and yet you’ve dragged yourself this far into woods.”
“Then don’t waste our time telling me to go back. I just… want to have an honest chat.”
“… Of course.”
“… These cross-like grave markers, are they a tradition from your world?”
“Yeah, they are, although it’s symbolic of a religion not followed here. I guess it’s my way of respecting the dead… No, I can’t really say that now. Honestly, it’s more for my own moral fortitude.”
“… Tell me Chiyoko, was it right for me to try to spare Gavel, or was his death the best option after all?”
“After everything they have done, I think it was better that he died. He tarnished Yuki’s memory and remained a threat to the bitter end.”
“It’s just… by the end of my battle, I was no longer fighting for my branch. I lost sight of what I wished to protect, and all I could think about was crushing them for my own satisfaction. Worse… the spiral of hatred did not end. I filled the adventurer Gavel with so much sorrow that revenge was the only solace he could find… I-I’m sorry I forced you… to do what you did.”
Chiyoko clutches her weary arms as she recalls what she was willing to sacrifice for her vengeance. Looking at her tired form, I’m reminded of Gavel’s monstrous tenacity when he faced me… and what I did to his friends’ corpses to torment him. I guess in the end we all fell into madness. Worse, I think it almost raised something laying dormant in my being…
“I can’t help but think there was another way. If my father was still leading… things would have turned out for the better.”
“Who knows. All I can say is it would have been much worse without you.”
“No, my leadership today was nothing like my father’s. I left children to wander into the woods, and allowed my anger to dictate my decisions by the end. I-if I had been more capable, if I had paid more attention… m-maybe even Yuki would still…”
“Please Chiyoko, don’t say it… You don’t deserve that kind of criticism, not even from yourself.”
We both fall silent and continue to stare vacantly at the darkening sky. Looking closely at my exhausted companion, her eyes are red and there’s a black ribbon tied around her arm. If I have to guess, she’s mourning Yuki’s death by wearing that black band, which is probably based off the practice of wearing black clothing at a funeral. I consider wearing one myself, but then I realise…
I let out an unnatural and uttering hollow laugh as I realise the irony of being Enbos the Black: I have and always will be in mourning. The thought that this pain and suffering is a constant in my life… Just how much more of this can I take?
“Enbos, snap out of it! What was running through your skull!?”
“-haha… I’m sorry, Chiyoko. It’s nothing, nothing I can’t reclaim… I wish we can talk for longer, but it’s already dark. I don’t think you can stay for much longer.”
“Ah… Yes, you’re right. I can’t afford to delay the branch… I’m glad I could find you for this final chat. Also, I want to say this on behalf everyone of our branch: thank you for fighting for our clan, and for saving my life. We owe you a debt we may never repay.”
“I will always help the Nomura Clan however I can. I’m just glad I made a difference…”
“Still, you even volunteered to take the adventurer crests and act as a diversion. I hope you dispose of them in a river as soon as possible. That way, there won’t be any suspicion directed at you or Hachirou when they follow.”
“Don’t worry, Chiyoko… I know exactly what I’m doing.”
I relax my spiritual shielding and allow Chiyoko to peer into my <Soul Core>. Her eyes widen in surprise as she realises… that I’ve absorbed the five adventurers’ souls.
Using the same method I used to register as an adventurer, I’ve restored the spiritual connection between the magic cores. As far as the guild is concerned, Gavel’s party is still alive despite momentarily losing its colour. It shouldn’t raise too much suspicion as crossing a Dead Zone can sever this link, and the residual mana within is enough to give a two day head start.
“I-I’m sorry if we compelled you to commit such an act, b-but this is…”
“I’ll release their souls when it’s over. However, this is something only I can to do… that I’m willing to do for everybody’s sake.”
“But Enbos, for you to store and use human souls, the very beings you said you aspired to be… this is wrong. You’re a member of our clan…”
“I was a member… and believe me, I will forever treasure my time travelling you over the plains. I have no doubt I will miss those peaceful days, to be surrounded by those willing to accept me, to live in a community reminiscent of my former life. Heck, the fact you finally consider me among your number, after all our bickering and uppercuts, couldn’t make me happier to have joined…”
“… Since the beginning, I knew the path I’ve chosen will conflict with your way of life. The life I want to lead, the goals I want to accomplish, goes against the very foundations Takashi set to guide your clan.”
“No, I was wrong, Enbos! When I said our teachings could never accept an undead, I was-”
“This isn’t your fault, Chiyoko. It’s not about being a kobold or undead, but about me. It’s taken me a year, but I finally realise my values are different from your father’s, and even from the values of men. I… I will never accept Takashi’s ways, but I care too much for the branch to leave you like this.
That’s why I want to tell you… I plan to resurrect Yuki.”
Chiyoko looks up at me in complete disbelief, while I stand back up bearing this resolve. Honestly, It doesn’t matter what she says. She can despise me or agree with me, but she will never cast aside Yuki. This entire tragedy has traumatised everybody in the branch, especially Chiyoko who’s still coming to terms with her responsibility. Telling her I will bring Yuki back to life will soothe her scars, and if she tells the rest it will plant that same hope in place of their sadness.
“N-no, don’t do this… You’ll really be severing your ties to the Nomura Clan!”
“If it will make everybody else happy, if it will give Yuki a home to go back to, I will gladly do it.”
“Listen to me! Do you really think this will make Yuki happy!? You mean as much to him as any of us!”
“Still, he’ll at least have another chance to smile… I’m sorry, Chiyoko. Time’s up.”
My cryptic words leave her in confusion, when the sound of Rei’s voice reaches her ears.
“…-dy Nomura! The branch is ready to set off! We await your return!”
“Farewell Chiyoko. I hope you travel well.”
“Wait, hold on Enbos!”
“Enbos, is that you? Thank goodness! I’m glad we made it in time.”
“Big Bro Enbos…”
Their small voices grip my bones like an iron vice. I’ve never felt more afraid to turn around, to meet the heart broken trio of inseparable friends.
God… seeing only three of them feels so wrong… I can even hear the phantoms of Yuki’s voice among them…
This is why I have to…
“Pl-please, Big Bro, don’t cry.”
“That’s the thing, Izumi… I can’t cry.”
“N-no, you are… because it’s also… m-making us feel… f-feel…”
They break into tears and come running into my hollow embrace. I hold them tightly, seeking as much solace from them as they are from me, but in the end we cannot fill the void left by his passing.
“I-I miss him… s-so much…”
“I miss him too, Izumi, Kaito, Shou… I-I promise… I’ll make everything better.”
“T-that’s why… w-we’re here…”
“… to m-make everything better.”
While I’m left puzzled by Kaito and Shou’s words, I suddenly notice Izumi tying something around my neck. I let go of them to examine their small gift: it’s a plain wooden amulet on a silk cord with Yuki’s name etched on it. I trace my fingers along the rough strokes undoubtedly carved by the children themselves. I look up and notice similar charms around their throats.
“With this… Yuki will always be with us…”
“… whenever we play…”
“… whenever you explore and fight monsters…”
“… Yuki w-will always b-be with us, sm-smiling and… and…”
“… I’m s-sure we’ll all… we’ll all meet each other someday!”
Yuki isn’t gone… he’s still here, inside his friends and in me. By their own strength, they’ve taken a step from the despair, and they’re offering to save me as well…
“T-thank you, I… I love you all so much!”
I cannot shed tears, my voice is synthetic, and yet, at this very moment, I can honestly say I’m crying alongside Kaito, Shou, Izumi… and Yuki. Chiyoko joins our heartfelt embrace, tears streaming down her face with a hint of relief in her eyes. She knows I won’t disturb Yuki’s journey, a journey I finally understand, and yet…
… Takashi, you sly old dog… you wanted me to leave. You wanted to show me… there was another way to ease my pain…
“I’ll never forget any of you.”
“Goodbye, Big Bro Enbos.”
“Safe travels, Enbos the Black.”
“Goodbye, everybody… I-I’m sorry I said I would cut all ties. I was-”
“I know, Enbos. I know.”
I watch Chiyoko and the hunter Rei walk back to the branch with lanterns in their hands and the children following closely behind. I keep looking at their receding forms, as the warm lights they hold become nothing but specks like the stars in the sky.
I take off my mask and allow the brisk night air to flow across my skull. As usual, it has little effect, but a far more bitter chill settles in my bones. It’s a delusion, born from the death of Helena and worsened by the loss of Yuki… and yet, I feel as if something has filled the void, if only by the smallest fraction, in the shape of a certain amulet. In the distance, I notice another speck of warm light draw closer to my location.
“… I see you didn’t go back to the branch.”
“My place is next to you, Enbos.”
“After what happened today, Chiyoko and the branch could use your strength.”
“My sister has everybody supporting her, and I have complete faith she will keep doing her best, as will I. I-I’m the only one who can walk by your side. Please, allow me to continue being your partner, Enbos.”
“… Thank you, Hachirou. Let’s go…
The four of us have a continent to explore.”