It’s halfway into the night and the liberation of Kasseus village is finally complete. After Enbos singlehandedly decimated most of the enemies’ number, all that was left were a dozen or so cultists scattered throughout the village. The cultists soon surrendered, although they were almost killed out of vengeance by their former captives. With great difficulty, I managed to persuade the villagers to entrust their fates to the Order of Holy Knights. It is not their right to punish captured heretics, and as uneasy it is to admit, this situation calls for the Order’s expertise. But until I can contact the Church of Eden, all I can do is tend to the wellbeing of everybody here.
While some are reclaiming their homes and cleaning the aftermath, many are now preparing for their first proper rest after weeks of traumatic captivity. All of them are tired and not everyone is filled with the euphoria of freedom. To our dismay, we couldn’t find any more prisoners within the village. Many of their loved ones have been taken beyond these lands. For some, they found their missing kin among the dead…
With deep sorrow, I watch from the broken window of the first floor as a mother carries her deceased daughter to a waiting cart. Some of the cultists were former neighbours who turned away from the light. Fortunately, it seems no one resents Enbos for cutting them down. It’s disheartening to imagine that in the depths of their despair they were desperate to embrace a pagan deity rather than God in all His glory. I’ll have to pray for the lost souls and console the survivors tomorrow. There is much to do when you consider the scars left on their hearts.
“What are you doing!? Stop trying to eat with your left hand!”
“S-sorry Minna. I thought it would be a good idea if I got used to missing my finger, so…”
“Well you thought wrong! Now stay in bed and let me feed you.”
“You don’t have to go that far, Minna. My right hand is fine, you know.”
“J-just shut up and drink the soup!”
Although for some, those very scars are readily fading away. It’s good to see Minna has regained her composure. After her initial shock upon discovering Sen, I was honestly more worried for Minna as she refused to release him and apologised profusely for being absent. As for Sen, although he has lost his finger and a fair deal of blood, I’m relieved he has retained his cheer. On an adjacent bed, Norf is sound asleep despite the boisterous pair.
“… Sure, it’s depressing to lose my finger, but at least I’m still alive.”
“H-how can you say that so easily!? Is anything short of your life fine!? Just imagining you being whittled down piece by piece is horrifying enough, b-but knowing I won’t be around to do anything…”
“Actually, I was more worried that you were watching, planning something rash. In the end, the fact that you’re all in better shape than me is comfort enough. I’m really sorry for all the trouble I caused.”
“Y-you don’t have to apologise for anything, you idiot. Just lay down and let me take care of you.”
“Eh, but aren’t you-”
“Please Sen, listen to Minna and rest as much as you can. Exerting yourself now will only slow your recovery.”
“O-okay, but I don’t think Minna should be pushing herself either. You too, Lili.”
“Sen is right. I think you need to turn in for the night as well. We all drank the same laced brew, and while it had varying effectiveness, you should be haggard by now. Even Enbos and Hachirou retreated to their room. I apologise for asking you to check on Sen again.”
“Don’t say that, Minna. You can call for me anytime you please. It’s not just by God’s will but also my own.”
“Thank you, Lili. You really are a treasure.”
Minna spreads her arms to embrace me and I warmly receive her. However, while my head is over Minna’s shoulder, I realise Sen is looking outside the window. He is gazing over the remains of Enbos’ battle with a hint of melancholy.
“Lili, Minna, do you reckon Enbos is okay? Did you see what he was like when he snapped?”
“I’ll take that as a yes. While I’m happy he come out of it in one piece… I’m not so sure he feels the same.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. He was so distraught after the battle. It was the first time I’d seen him so shaken, and the crowd’s cheering only made it worse.”
“His life’s mission was to save others with necromancy, but being forced use human lives as weapons must have been emotionally devastating. Although it was brief, his own undead were even shambling towards us.”
“I don’t believe that’s the main reason, Lili. I think he simply abhors killing people. Do you recall the rumour that he never takes human bounties or escort missions? Also, on the night we first met him, he captured those bandits rather than executing them outright.”
“Yeah, I remember Sen. Some adventurers even called him a spineless slime. Quite frankly, I don’t think it was wrong for him to kill those cultists at all, but it seems he has yet to accept these kinds of things. It’s an inevitable step for anybody who lives by a weapon.”
“I-I don’t think that’s all, Minna. Y-you have no idea what it was like to stand in front of Enbos when he was ready to kill. The bloodlust I felt was not something that could ever come from an unsoiled adventurer. I-it was cold. It was suffocating. It was enough to make me wonder if he was a different person. If you ask me, I reckon he’s scared of losing himself in that rage.”
“… As mighty as he may be, Enbos is not a man of conflict. H-however, it’s a fact he himself struggles to believe…”
“Excuse me, everyone. I think I need to my leave…”
“And talk to Enbos?”
“Yes. While he may reject me, I’m also concerned for Hachirou’s condition.”
“I see. Well, what are you waiting for? Just go.”
“Tell him he can always count on us. He doesn’t just have Hachirou anymore”
“I will. Sleep well, everyone.”
Leaving Sen and Norf to Minna’s capable hands, I leave the room and go downstairs to Enbos’ and Hachirou’s room. However, as I approach the door, I realise something is amiss.
There is no magic barrier over the entrance. On every other occasion I’ve been outside their door, Enbos had always cast one. Worried, I reach for the handle to find the room is unlocked. I then open the door to find… the room is completely empty.
“Oh no, don’t tell me…”
Don’t tell me they’ve decided to leave the village!
I immediately run out of the inn and follow the path towards the Vivian Forest. While it would be near suicide for anybody else, I have a feeling they would find a way. It would allow them to inform the authorities sooner whilst soundly parting ways without a word.
As I channel mana to light up my sceptre, the smell of blood reaches my nose. I stop to contemplate the source and soon find two pairs of footprints leading down an alley. A budding suspicion forms in my mind as I follow the signs to a large barn. A wooden bar is sealing the door from the outside, but the sound of splashing water and restless animals can be heard within. Opening the door and peering within, a shadowy figure is kneeling with his back turned towards me, working over a large basin of water. It is too dark to make out who it is from this distance, but his aura feels all too familiar. I enter the stable and approach the preoccupied man, but as I do, I realise three things.
Firstly, there are beasts of burden in the room, and all of them are huddled away, too afraid to make any sudden sounds. If they weren’t firmly secured to where they were, they might have fled through the way I came. Secondly, the man in question is certainly Enbos as I can tell the distinctive silhouette of his mask with what little light I have. However, the most shocking revelation of all is that said mask is being washed in the basin: Enbos is currently unmasked.
Obscured in darkness, he continues cleaning his bloodstained possessions with a mix of care and magic. His indifference to my presence despite his prior secrecy is so disconcerting that I’m hesitant to step any closer. It feels as if he’s daring me to expose his form to the light, and I begin to wonder for whose sake he wears that mask.
“Hello Lili, and to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Instead of a sombre reply, I am instead greeted a shockingly cheerful tone. It contrasts so much with his current visage that it’s making my skin crawl. Breaking into a hollow chuckle, he continues talking in a cheerful manner with his back turned towards me.
“What’s with that reaction? Were you expecting me to sound depressed?”
“W-why, yes. What are you doing here?”
“As you can clearly see—well, maybe you can’t—I’m cleaning all this blood. I wanted some privacy, but I never thought you would come this far to find me.”
“O-okay, but where’s Hachirou?”
“He tried accompanying me but he was in no condition to be walking about, so I asked him to return. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m a bit bare-headed at this moment, so could you please-”
“Stop it, Enbos.”
“… Stop what?”
“Stop using that voice to hide your pain. I know you’re changing it.”
“I’m not changing anything, Lili. I’m okay now, really. I had some time to clear to my head and I feel much better. I’m sorry for worrying you, but-”
“No, you’re not! You’re lying not only to me but to yourself. Please don’t make your voice another wall to your heart.”
“… Not everything I said was a lie. Well, in a sense, it is.”
“I’m not changing my voice, Lili: I’ve never had one to begin with. Every syllable, every nuance, every gasp, pause and whisper has always been under my control. Of course, I’m not suggesting everything I’ve said was with careful intent, but even something as innocuous as a stutter is a conditioned response rather than a genuine mistake.”
“W-what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the voice you’re hearing right now is nothing but a flawed replica from a bygone life… along with the rest of my persona.”
Throughout our brief exchange, his voice shifts between an elderly man, a child and a young woman. He returns to his usual voice by the end, and although there is no difference, it now sounds uncannier than ever before. As I ponder the meaning of his words, I only now realise how effortless his movements are; even his body is under his absolute thrall.
“Enbos, no matter how unnatural your words and actions may be, it’s only a lie if the heart and intent behind them do not match. Even if your voice is a fabrication, the emotions you show are undoubtedly your own.”
“Sadly Lili, not even my heart is above question,” he says in a monotone voice.
“W-what do you mean?”
“When I said I was a flawed replica, I wasn’t referring to my delivery… but to my very character. Even I don’t know where my lies end and the truth begins. Although I resolved to accept my new name, I am intricately bound to my former life. Without them, I’d be an abomination, like the one I became this very night.”
“No, you’re wrong Enbos. You’re nothing like the cultists who hide in the skin of others. While your rage is great, it is also just. You fought to rid evil, save Sen and free innocent lives. How can any of those things be called a sin?”
“Then what of the jealousy I felt as I stole their pathetic lives? What of my self-loathing and guilt as I sought solace in a shower of blood? I may had been fighting out of hatred at first, but by the end, I was consumed by it. I didn’t even recognise you until our eyes met. I didn’t hesitate as I cut down men, women and children without distinction. Can you honestly say that none of the things I’ve said isn’t reproachable in the least?”
I don’t know what to say. It would be a lie if it wasn’t concerning, and yet, the very fact he’s trying to reflect puts him head and shoulders above others who would justify their victory or grow apathetic. In my eyes, he’s still one of the kindest people I know, but to Enbos, he believes he is but a shadow of his former self. He must have lived a peaceful life once, but now he seems to despise himself relentlessly. What did he see in those cultists that could evoke envy?
Taking my silence as confirmation, he continues to berate himself in an unchanging and emotionless tone.
“I’m convinced the man I was would have acted differently in this wretched form, regardless of the outcome. I’m not even sure if the distress I feel now is real, or if my memories are telling me I should act this way. All I know is that tonight I’ve taken another irreversible step to becoming a monster.”
“No, please don’t refer to yourself as such. Not now, not ever again. While I’m ignorant of your former life, there’s no mistaking the virtue in your heart. You’re a good man Enbos, and in the eyes of others, you’re also a hero.”
“I don’t give a damn if the masses call me a hero. It was never my goal from the beginning. Not gold nor glory nor god nor power nor infamy… my only goal is to unravel the secrets of life, and yet, I’ve just stolen a dozen out of rage, envy and despair. Who would want to be healed with these bloodstained hands? I certainly wouldn’t… and neither would she.”
He doesn’t answer, but he raises his deer-like mask against the moonlight pouring overhead. While he holds the glistening face with genuine affection, I begin to wonder what fantastical story lies between him, the mask and this enigmatic woman. Regrettably, it’s still stained by heathen blood, and his disappointment shows as he drops his shoulders.
“I won’t say, but she gifted me this mask so that others could see what she saw in me. Now, it’s a constant reminder of what I must remain. My adventure will end with that person, and the last thing I want… is for her to wake up to see somebody different.”
I see now. Like me, he left a loved one, possibly family, for a distant goal. Although I never questioned the life I chose, what if I returned home and my father refused to acknowledge me? What if fear and disgust replaced his former love? I-in all honesty, I would be devastated. It’s a horrible thought to entertain, and yet, it’s a reality Enbos is convinced will come to pass.
“Enbos, all men change with time, and like you, many harbour darkness in their hearts. But struggling with your inner demons is different from being a demon yourself. Everyone is capable of great or terrible things. While God could make us virtuous and perfect, without the freedom to err, even the right path to Eden would be meaningless.”
“Then are you saying this is normal? That I have to be cruel before I’m kind?”
“No, I’m saying you can rise above your sorrow, to become a better man than you ever were. You’re not a lost cause, but a chalice that has been widened by life’s trials. Instead of lamenting the happiness that has been spilt, you should find new joy to fill your soul. I understand why you don’t want to lose yourself, but I’m sure that special person will welcome you once more. After all, there is something truly precious about you Enbos. A beautiful and incorruptible core…”
All of a sudden, Enbos freezes in place like time has stopped around him. Unease fills my heart as water drips from his unmoving hands. Even the animals around me can sense something is amiss as they become more restless.
“… Honesty Lili, you couldn’t have picked a poorer choice of words.”
“I-I’m sorry. Did I offend you?”
“You did not, but there’s nothing left you can say to sway me. Just leave me and go back to the inn.”
“Please, don’t be so distant. We’re no longer strangers and Hachirou is no longer your only confidant. Sen, Minna, Norf and I—we all want to see you through your hardship. You don’t have to face your darkness alone.”
“A moth may flutter like a butterfly, but it can never be rid of its poisonous scales. It can only drift aimlessly towards the light… and be burnt by it.”
“Enbos, we are all children of God, and every one of us are born on the Path to Eden. That’s why I dream of the day humans and demi-humans can coexist. It doesn’t matter who or what you are, I will never abandon a soul in need, especially a man, or mortal, as kind as you.”
“Then rest assured. After all… I’m not either of those things.”
Suddenly, without moving his body, he begins turning his clean-shaven head to face me. However, as he slowly twists his neck, I realise he’s turning his head more than humanly possible. It’s only a few degrees, and yet the hairs on my nape are standing on ends with discomfort. I-is Enbos grinning? No, it’s far too wide for a smile. Also, his dark eyes are as bottomless as when he wears his mask. It’s almost like he doesn’t have-
I’m unable to hold back my sharp breath as the rest of his features suddenly become clear. His appearance is so startling and so instinctively frightening that I’m left as soundless as the animals around me. Worse, weakness reaches my knees, resulting in a truly regrettable act: I take a step back. Although slight, the distance between grows far greater than the step I took. Enbos looks at me calmly as if my reaction was the most natural thing in the world, and I regret the fact I couldn’t show otherwise. In his mind, my prior words now ring hollower than his own.
“It seems you finally figured out what I am, and no, I’m not some victim who was turned into an undead. From the moment I reincarnated in this world, I was already in this wretched state. As a matter of fact, these bones are not even my own, and I feel as attached to them as you would to a common utensil.”
To prove his point, he nonchalantly detaches his lower jaw before reattaching it. The act is so surreal that it’s destroying what’s left of my prior conceptions. Looking away from me, he rotates his skull like a well-oiled hinge to gaze at the pale moonlight.
“Do you see now, Lili? I wasn’t made with God’s loving care, but by the hands of a murderous zealot. Free will has not changed the fact I am a weapon, body, mind and soul.”
“B-but you saved me and came to everyone’s aid without falter. How is that not a sign of a good heart?”
“Like all undead, the spell that holds my unstable existence is formed from the resentment of my previous life. While I cannot recall my final moments, I must have been bitter about my death, enough so that I would answer a necromancer’s call. Like you said, men change, but I don’t have an natural sense of right or wrong to guide me. Once my “good heart” is chipped away, all that would be left would be an ugly squalor.
In truth, I had no right to tell Norf to accept his faults when I can barely tolerate my own “life”. For the sake of your ideals, you best believe God had nothing to do with my current state…”
So that’s why he’s so reproachful towards God. Although we’re both miraculous existences, in every way my life is a blessing, his would be a curse. If the Lord played a part in his fate, then it’s undoubtedly a cruel one, even unjust. I can scarcely imagine the hardships he has endured or the tribulations he will continue to face. There may be some greater purpose, but I doubt it’s something Enbos will accept. He would raise his fist at the heavens until his bones are but dust. However, if God truly had no hand in his return, then he would really be a product of human darkness. An outsider abandoned by God despite being guided by him in his prior life.
“Forgive me, Lili. I know you’re trying your best to help me, but you’re not my Blue Fairy. I need time and you need rest. I’ll have my thoughts sorted out by morning.”
Crestfallen, I leave the haunted figure to wallow in the dark. As my eyes grow heavy, I realise the horrifying implication of his words. I can scarcely imagine how he felt time watching us eat, rest, laugh and bleed while being incapable of such things himself. The very thought brings tears to my eyes and guilt in my heart as I close the door behind me.
“Thank you, Lili.”
Caught off guard, I turn to find Hachirou sitting beside the barn entrance. He never returned to the inn. While I didn’t notice him when I arrived, I imagine he was listening all along. His three words are filled with all the melancholy deliberately absent from Enbos’ own.
“Hachirou, are you al-”
“Here, take my hand. If you keep moving, your wounds may reopen. You shouldn’t have left the inn.”
“I-I apologise Lili, but I couldn’t stand the thought of lying in bed while Enbos was grieving. But in the end, I couldn’t do anything. Nothing at all. Not only am I weak in body, n-not even my voice could reach him.”
“Will you be telling the others?”
“… No, I won’t. Although we can see his heart, Enbos continues to doubt it. In many ways, that mask was his true face all along.”
“It is a loving memento of the one person that gave meaning to his tragic rebirth. Because of her, Enbos was able to move on from his past life. Because of her, he was able to cherish life instead of constantly resenting it. I-I hope that one day, someone could mean as much to him as that person, even if it’s not me.”
While I’m left with many questions about this enigmatic woman, Enbos’ past and his journey, none of that matters as of now. I give a small nod and continue to accompany Hachirou back to the inn. Fatigue, blurry eyes and a slight headache assail me, but knowing of Enbos’ true form, they now feel like God-given gifts. As the sound of splashing water continues, I silently pray for his everlasting happiness.