“*Hah, hah* Finally, w-we’re here. W-we can finally take a break.”
“Thank goodness, we’re safe… Um, i-it is safe here, r-right Mr Kell?”
“Haha, ya don’t hafta worry about anyfing, kid. Dis spot is da safest place in da whole Vivian Forest.”
“I-I’m just glad to be out of the rain. I can barely feel my fingers or toes.”
“I’ll go get a fire started. I should haff a pile o’ wood stashed around ‘ere somewhere.”
“Please do. In the meantime, I guess I’ll go check our supplies.”
“I’ll illuminate the cave.”
“I-I’ll lay out the blankets and-”
“Don’t you dare do anything, Sen! Let Norf and Hachirou take over. That applies to you too, Enbos!”
Half an hour has passed since our sudden confrontation with the Treant. After reuniting with our surprised guide, we followed him to this cosy little cave. Unlike the other safe spots, the entrance is hidden behind a camouflaged door. The fact we can spend the night undisturbed is a godsend, especially for Sen who appears haggard after the ordeal.
Feigning exhaustion with a walking stick in my hand, I sit against the earthen wall and remove my ruined rain cloak. My clothes underneath are similarly dirtied, but as worried as I am of stains, a certain someone is giving me privacy concerns.
(Don’t look in her direction. Just keep unpacking our supplies and talk quietly.)
(O-okay, but w-what should do now?)
(I’m not too sure. We may have to retire the moment we reach town.)
(I-I see. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop Lili at the time.)
(Don’t be. Rather, it’s thanks to you that she didn’t stay around to check.)
After landing in the thicket with two dislocated arms and a twisted spinal column, all I could do was lie in the mud and slowly regenerate my HP with <Life Tap>. Helpless, I dreaded the idea of Lili coming to “heal” me, but in the end, I was ironically saved by my assumed death. After Hachirou reassembled all my bones in their correct(?) positions, we stealthily returned to the battle and watched from the sidelines. I was ready to swoop in and save them like a stereotypical hero if need be, but otherwise, I planned to fake my death and have Hachirou leave the forest ahead of me. Regrettably, I forgot about my cursed sword and had no choice but to reveal myself before he lost his mind. At the time, I was worried Lili had already informed everybody of my “fate”, but it seems she never got the chance.
(Should we tell her the truth, Enbos?)
(No, I don’t think it’s come to that just yet. Since she’s the only one who saw me in that state, we’ll just have to convince her it was all in her head.)
(I-I don’t believe it will be so easy. Lili was sure of your death when she found you. I-if she uncovers any more...)
(She won’t, and if push comes to shove, I still have a card left to play.)
After all, we’re not the only ones harbouring a secret, and I even know her true name to boot. All I would have to do is play up my connection with my “good friend” Xur and she’ll be living in fear of becoming an exotic item for the rest of her life. It’s such a tempting idea, but I shouldn’t be so quick to burn our bridges just yet.
(Besides, even if we don’t trick her, it’s not like she can call upon the Church without any proof. If she does tell anybody, they’d just say she imagined it.)
“Hey Enbos, Hachirou! We got a fire started! Come warm yourselves!”
“We’re coming, Sen.”
Joining the rest of the party, we huddle around the fire and take in as much heat as possible. Unfortunately, we can only afford a small flame out of fear of filling the enclosed place with smoke. Most of the surrounding light is coming from Lili’s magic instead. Worringly, I notice the person in mind is disconcertingly absent from our circle, and is busy doing something in the corner of the cave…
“I’m not sure we haff enoff dry fuel for da night. Does anybody haff anyfing ta burn?”
“What about Enbos’ walking stick? It’s a nice size and if we peel away the wet bark-”
“Rejected. I still need this and I can always use <Draw Water> to dehydrate the wet stock.”
“O-okay den. Anyways, is everyone good fer tomorrow?”
“I think I'll be fine, but my shoulder is killing me! I think I pulled a muscle from being dragged by the Treant.”
“Me too. We should ask Lili for treatment now that we have the chance.”
“You all went through a lot to save me. Thank you for coming back to get me.”
“It’s nothing. We would never abandon you after everything you’ve done.”
“I thought you were a goner, but I’m sure glad ta be wrong. Honestly, I’m feelin’ guilty for leaving ya behind.”
“Please don’t, Mr Kell. My master and I wouldn’t hold anything against you.”
“Geez, kid, thanks. Ya know, I was expectun ya ta chew me out da most, so dat means a lot. As fer you guys, I’m impressed ya little group took down a fully grown Treant! I’ve known bigga parties gettin’ smashed, let alone in da nite.”
“Well, we wouldn’t have fared half as well if it wasn’t for Enbos here.”
“Yeah, I mean, if it wasn’t for whatever you did to the Treant, Norf’s arrow and Lili’s magic would never have gotten through.”
“No, no, today’s victory was because of everyone's contribution. It wouldn’t have been possible without any one of us.”
“Or so you say, but let’s not forget how you saved Lili and risked your life to draw the Treant away. It’s kind of touching how far you would go for us.”
“There's no need to be so reserved, Enbos. You’re definitely the hero of today. In fact, I’m so impressed that I have half a mind to hire a bard once we reach the village.”
“That’s a great idea, Sen.”
“No, it isn’t, Minna! After surviving that ordeal, I don’t want to then die of embarrassment!”
Infected by everybody's merriment, my voice soon joins in open laughter. However, as we unwind from today's stress and fatigue, I notice Norf is not the only one being uncannily quiet. For some reason, Hachirou appears to be in solemn thought, staring at the ground like a downcast statue.
“Hachirou, is something-”
“Oh, dat’s right! Speakin’ of ya dyin’, but how did ya survive anyways? I mean, I’m surprised ya could even walk.”
Ah, right. Of course this question would come up.
“I activated a skill before I was hit. Otherwise, I would have been beyond saving.”
“Funny. I don’t rememba seein’ ya cast any magic.”
“I didn’t. I used a technique called <Fortify> to endure the blow.”
… which is a complete lie. At the time, <Fortify> was on cooldown after I had used it to land on the Treant. Instead, I had to resort to that ability to avoid shattering into pieces. After all, I do have a natural weakness to blunt attacks, and Hachirou would never have put me together otherwise.
“By da spirits, I can’t believe ya had da reackshun and focus ta pull dat off. Is yer <Fortify> a high rank skill? Just how beat up were ya?”
“W-well, I did lose consciousness the moment it happened, so I’m not sure how bad my condition was. B-by the way, do you reckon meeting the Treant was part of the so-called quest's curse?”
“It was certainly dangerous enough to be so! Hey, maybe everything will be okay from here on out.”
“You know Sen, that’s actually a nice sentiment given all our trouble…”
Good, I managed to change the topic before they could ask Hachirou. Hopefully they’ll assume Lili patched me up after my landing. If she reveals she didn’t heal me at all, Hachirou can always say he also mistook my death at first glance. That way, Lili will be more inclined to doubt her memory and all our testimonies will line up.
Come to think of it, is Lili still tinkering in the corner of the cave? Just what is she-
“Excuse me Enbos, may I have a moment of your time?”
As I’m about to turn around to check, she suddenly calls out to me instead. Startled, I look over my shoulder to find she has finished inscribing a wide magic circle… infused with holy energy. Holding back my internal screams, I drag my feet over to Lili while the rest of the party remains oblivious to my crisis.
“Y-yes, can I help?”
“Well, I’ve just finished creating a <Circle of Healing> and I was thinking of treating you first. May I?”
“… Thank you. I’ll be in your care.”
As reluctant as I am, I can’t give Lili any more reason to suspect me. Wary of her intentions, I quickly inspect the runes and confirm nothing out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, it’s still a nimbus of soul-shredding energy. The fact she bothered to physically draw the magic circle is a means to maximise its effect. Clenching my teeth, I sit in the middle of the array as she begins channelling her mana…
... I regret.
“Are you feeling better, Enbos?”
“Y-yeah, I am. Thank y-y-you, Lili.”
Thank you for reminding me what it’s like to be human… in boiling water!
“Is there a particular place I should focus my healing?”
“N-no, no, you’re doing fine a-as is.”
“Or so you say. Honestly, I wish you would let me inspect your injuries.”
“I-I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but I h-have my reasons.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do... By the way, are you really alright? You sound to be stuttering.”
“N-no, I’m j-just feeling a tad… cold.”
“I see. I’m sorry for drawing the circle so far from the fire, but the floor is too uneven elsewhere. But don’t worry, I won’t take too much of your time.”
I sure hope not! Right now, I’m using <Life Tap> to neutralise the damage but it’s not making the pain any lighter. I have to divide my attention between the pain, my spirit art and our conversation!
“… Thank you, Enbos.”
“I-I want to thank you for saving my life. You almost gave your own to save mine, and I’m truly glad that you didn’t. In truth, when I saw your… saw you after the Treant’s attack, I... I never thought I would have the chance.”
“I-is that so? Well, I guess th-that’s something we can thank god for. H-haha.”
“Enbos, after you were struck by the Treant, I swore to God I would save you if there was the slightest hope you had survived. However, when I found you, your body was mangled and you were as still as any corpse I had seen in my life. No man could have survived in your place, and yet you returned without a care in the world.”
“C-come on Lili, what are you talking about? T-there’s no way that could be true. Between the stress a-and the dark, I’m sure you m-must have imagined it.”
“… I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself to believe you, no matter how reasonable your words may be. I know it defies all reason, but I have a feeling that’s the kind of man you are.”
“What d-do you mean?”
“Enbos, to be honest, I’ve always found you to be dubious. Even if we ignore today's events, you’ve done many questionable things. On the day we first met, the magic you casted resembled the black arts. When we met in Uradale, you feigned ignorance and changed your mannerisms with unnatural ease. Both you and your apprentice refuse to show even an inch of skin and speak to one another in a foreign tongue. The more time I spend with you and Hachirou, the more I come to understand… you’re hiding far more than your faces.”
“I see... W-why are you telling me all this?”
“Because if I don’t, I’m afraid you two will vanish into the rain like the day we first met."
So she realised it was an option...
"With you being so wary, I no longer know when we may part ways. But before you do, I want you to know… that it’s okay.”
“As suspicious as you may be, no one can doubt your heart. Despite the concerning nature of your magic, you’re willing to use it to save others. You may avoid us at times, but by no means do you treat us as strangers. While today’s events have compelled me to question you, it’s also shone a light on your selfless compassion. You’re a good man, Enbos, more than you would ever like to admit. You use your intimidating façade to repel others before anyone can even try to understand you... but not me. God didn’t intend for people to live in isolation, let alone a pair as kind as you and Hachirou. I-I know you have no reason to, but… will you open up to me?”
What can I say? In all honesty, I’m really moved by her sincerity. Instead of spying behind my back, she’s confronting me directly whilst respecting my privacy. She’s laying bare all her trust on the single hope that I'll respond in kind. At this point, it may be too late for me to fool her. However…
“… I’m sorry, Lili. I wasn’t conscious at the t-time.”
“Wha- Why are you still saying-”
“I don’t know what I-I looked like when you found me but I’m sure… you were mistaken.”
“No… I-I understand. Please forget everything I said.”
“May I leave the circle? T-the pain is… almost gone, and if I stay any longer it might damage m-my dark-attribute enchantments.”
“Yes… of course…”
Although she is trying to be polite, it’s hard to miss the disappointment in her tone. I carefully leave the <Circle of Healing> as she calls for Sen to take my place. After spending some time “warming up”, we begin eating our rations, and like the previous nights, Hachirou and I walk away to eat by ourselves. I conjure a <Kinetic Barrier> and dye it pitch-black with <Reveal Magic>, separating us from the rest of the party.
(… Did you hear my talk with Lili?)
(I heard every word, but given the sound of the rain, I doubt the same could be said for everyone else.)
(Was it right to push her away? Personally, I think we can befriend her without fearing reprisal.)
(No Hachirou, not her, or anybody else here for that matter.)
(W-were you waiting for Lili to reveal her own circumstances first?)
(My answer would have been the same either way.)
(But Enbos, she knows you can be trusted! Just being an undead isn’t enough to earn everyone’s ire. I truly believe she wouldn’t do such a thing.)
(Maybe not Hachirou, but the same can’t be said for everything else about me. Compared to those, revealing I’m an undead is the least of my worries.)
(… I-I see. You don’t want her learning about your sworn goal.)
(If Lili could have sympathised with my cause, I may have considered… but she won’t.)
“I’m so, so sorry. I-I know I asked you to believe in me, but… it’s too late. T-there isn’t a single spell in this world… that can overturn one’s final fate. Y-your master… is gone.”
That’s right. No matter how close I become to Lili, Sen, Minna, Norf or even Mr Kell, there will always be wall. It doesn’t matter if they can accept us, we mustn’t drag others onto our journey. After all, we’re undoubtedly “evil” in the eyes of society. While Lili’s origins are questionable, it’s clear she intends to follow this world’s norms. All we can do is continue sitting in the shadow of my barrier, and spare them the chaos we would bring into their lives.
(… Enbos, i-if we ever find ourselves in crisis like today…)
(While I m-may be unreliable as of now… I swear I’ll prove myself.)
(Thank you, Hachirou.)
Thank you for staying by my side.
After an entire night of listening to the dwindling rain, our party awakens to another silent morning. Eager to set off before the quaking dawn, we leave the safety of the cave and steadily march through the waterlogged undergrowth. Despite yesterday’s downpour, our guide say we should leave the forest by early afternoon. Naturally, the good news lightens everybody else’s mood as the tempo of our steps subtly increase. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same due to two things.
One: after our firsthand encounter with a Treant, I feel more paranoid than ever before! It’s completely flipped my instinctive comfort of walking in a forest. I have no desire to meet another Treant, even if it’s a sapling in this sunny weather.
(What are you doing?)
(Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just seeing how you’re holding up.)
(I’m fine. I don’t need your help.)
(A lamb may roam the fields without worry, but only the shepherd will notice the branch in its fleece.)
(Have you ever heard of curiosity killed the cat?)
(Actually, never mind.)
Of course she hasn’t heard of that saying, but it doesn’t excuse the fact she’s being a bother. Good grief, why is she so intent on getting involved? I thought we reached an understanding (stay away), but it seems I was wrong. Well, it shouldn’t matter soon enough. After discussing the issue with Hachirou, we’ve decided to forfeit the quest once we reach the settlement. While the quest does have a foreboding reputation, I’m sure Sen and co are capable enough without us.
Focusing on the remainder of our journey, we follow our guide along the high ground for several hours. Gradually, the distant tremors of the Treants give way to the sound of rushing water, and before long, we reach a narrow ravine with a fast-flowing river. Like the bridge we first used to enter the Vivian Forest, we traverse an equally questionable construct and finally leave the Treants’ domain.
“At last, we’re through!”
(Shoosh Sen! I don’t wanna lose ya guys to some beasts jus’ before da end.)
(Right, sorry. How close are we?)
(It shouldunt take long from ‘ere on out. Just keep your eyes peeled fer a big… well, you’ll know when ya see it.)
Curious of his words, I keep my eyes sockets open for whatever he was trying to describe. As we make our way through the thinning woods, the sound of small critters slowly enlivens our surroundings. I never thought the sound of chirping birds and croaking frogs could sound so welcoming, but it just goes to show how oppressive the past few days really felt. Many minutes later, I spy a dirt trail with a huge, grey boulder marking its beginning.
(Is that the landmark you were referring to?)
“It’s fine ta tawk normally now, and yes, dat’s da rock I wanted ta find. If we follow da path, we’ll be outta da forest in no time.”
“Thank goodness! I can’t wait to leave this place and sleep on a warm bed.”
“I agree, Minna. I’m glad we all made it in one piece.”
“Before ya count ya blessings Lili, I fink ya guys should take a good look at da boulder.”
Puzzled by his cryptic words, we make our way towards the large rock for closer inspection. As I approach the landmark, I notice countless scratches on its surface… No, wait. Those aren’t random scratches.
“Mr Kell, a-are these… names?”
“Dat’s right Sen. They’re da names of every poor soul lost over several generashuns of us guides, and dey're only da ones dat we know.”
That sudden revelation unsettles everybody as the number of recorded deaths is no small number. From the moss cover base to the out of reach tip, lines of names have been forever etched into this stone guide post. The sight of this sombre marker has cemented our experience into a lifelong reminder of the Vivian Forest's notoriety.
“M-mr Kell, this boulder is very old and I know what I’m about to ask may be insensitive, but, erm…”
“Sigh, ya want ta know if I’ve ever had ta write a name on dis rock, right Sen? Da answer’s yes, and not jus’ once either. One of dem only three months ago, too.”
“Huh, but didn’t you say you haven’t lost a client in over a year?” asks Minna.
“He wasunt a client…”
As we wait for him to finish his answer, Mr Kell walks over to the boulder and tenderly traces over a certain name: Tom Gill.
“… he was my apprentice. H-his second trek solo… and he neva came back.”
Stunned, I feel a chill in every bone as he subtly directs those words towards me. Eager to end the topic, he brushes past me and pats Hachirou’s shoulder before moving on.
“Stick to ya master, kid. He's a dependable fellow.”
“I’m so, so sorry for asking.”
“Don’t worry 'bout it Minna, jus’ promise ta take care of each other. After all, ya jus’ neva know wat ya last words to dem may be.”