"Horace, does Ms. Cynthia hate us?"
Horace stopped the ax mid-swing right above the half-cut log. He turned to address his sister, sweat making running down his head, "What?"
Gloria kicked at the ground while fiddling with her long hair. Her eyes were pointed towards the earth, but her lip quivered nervously as she waited for his answer. Horace looked at the half-cut log, then the pile of untouched ones littering the ground to his right. With a sigh, he dropped the ax before answering, "No, of course not."
"You sure?" his sister's eyes remained on the ground as he walked to her side.
"Yeah," Horace rubbed his arms to drive the pain away, "I mean, she never said she did. Why are you asking anyway?"
"Because she's left us. Again. With strangers. Again."
"Why does she keep doing that? Does she not want us?"
"That's not it, Gloria."
"Then what is it? Did we do something bad?"
Horace thought he heard the sound of a sniffle and dashed to his sister's side. He immediately hugged her while shaking his head, "No, no, no, that's not it at all. It's just...well...Ms. Cynthia is really busy..."
The boy's eyes scan the area behind his sister, jumping around in a panic as he searches for something to say. His eyes moved from the sky to the earth and stopped on the rectangular backside of the manor that had become her home. The orange light from the setting sun danced like fire along the stone exterior. Their movements were strangely hypnotic and made the house look even more inviting in comparison to cutting wood out here.
Words came to him as his eyes widened in revelation, "She's...busy fighting bad people."
His sister pulled back a bit to look him in the eyes, her head tilted in confusion, "Bad people?"
"Like the ones she saved us from," Horace kept going with a nervous smile on his face, "you remember when she came back for us after she bought us? And what about when she came upstairs last night? You remember the...the noise, right?"
Gloria shook a bit, slowly nodding as echoes of the sounds from the night before rung in her ears.
"That's what she's out doing! Fighting bad people who want to hurt us and others. She doesn't hate us, she's just busy making sure we're safe. So, there's no need to cry. Everything will be. I promise."
His sister doesn't respond at first. Then she leans forward and rests her head on his shoulder, gripping his shirt with both hands. A short sigh escaped her as in a small voice she said, "Ok."
She could tell he was just trying to make her feel better. He knew she could. But he didn't know what else to say. He wanted to believe that Ms. Cynthia loved them. That her taking them in was a random act of kindness. She had done so many things for them since she found them in the Slums. Given them a home, given them clean clothes, washed them and made sure they were safe.
But despite all that, their doubts wouldn't abate. Because they had been lied to before.
And Horace wouldn't put Gloria through it again.
He hugged his sister as tight as he could, while his eyes focused on the back of their new home. Jet came around the left corner of the house and called for them. Told Gloria to go inside, watching her run back the entire way. When she was far enough, he moved back to the stump, picked up the ax, and started cutting into the log again.
When he finally split the first one in half, he immediately moved to the next, even as Jet started calling his name again.
Spencer woke to the rough, familiar feeling of his back on the ground. He groaned as his mind caught up with his body as his nerves tried to get his limbs moving again. The sound of crackling and popping made him toss and turn uncomfortably, the smell of burning wood filling his nose.
"Oh, you're waking up," Spencer jumped from his position, eyes going wide as they searched for the owner of the unfamiliar voice. He felt his chest tighten in fear as he beheld the black-clad figure sitting with their back against a tree. His hands frantically searched for and found his staff next to the cot he was on. He shot to his feet...then stopped as the figure leaned closer to the fire.
He felt the tension in his body lower as the stranger's familiar masked face was lit by the fire's blaze. Her hat was gone, letting the fire light up the short crimson hair that framed her hard face. Her black eyes seemed to judge his every movement as she stared up at him, "Calm down, Spencer. Everything is fine."
The young man's eyes darted across the ground, his nervousness fading with each passing second. The four cots set up around a roaring fire pit, the pale light of the moon brightening their surroundings, the sound of horses snoring nearby, and the stranger's calm yet firm voice slowly soothed his mind. He sat down on his cot while trying to keep his eyes away from the stranger, "Um, uh, ok, then. What happened?"
"You passed out and we gathered your body," the stranger stood up as she explained and moved to a small brown pack to her right, "I shared my horse with you and we set up camp when it got dark out."
"Ah. That ex...wait...," Spencer's face got redder as what she said started to register, "W-w-we sh-sh-shared a h-horse?"
"Yes," the stranger took a water skin out of the bag before walking towards the young man, "You sat behind me while I led the horse."
"T-that-that means that-that...," the boy's face became redder than a beet. His imagination ran wild with thoughts of what had happened, leading him to cover his face with his cloak. He shouted out in a high pitched, squeaky voice, "I am so sorry! Please don't be mad at me! If I touched you anywhere inappropriate I-"
He heard her put something down at his side before she started walking back to her original spot. A peak from under his cloak revealed the waterskin she took out of the pack. Surprised, he stared at the stranger who was occupying herself by sharpening a wicked looking weapon. Some kind of macabre combination of a cleaver and a saw. It was horrific, yet somehow fascinating. He had neither seen nor heard of a weapon like it. Curiosity over how one would be possessed to make such a thing, let alone wield it in battle, overcame the uneasiness he felt looking at it.
He didn't notice how long he was staring until after the stranger said, "You were out for some time. You should drink to regain your strength."
Spencer shook his head in confusion, "Huh? Oh right, right! Hehe." He snatched up the waterskin, opened it, and chugged the water inside. The cool liquid going down his throat quenched a thirst he hadn't even noticed until that moment. A happy sigh left his mouth involuntarily when he finished. There was silence between the two of them save for the crackling of the fire pit. Then Spencer said, "So, um, what happened after I uh, passed out? And, how do you know my name? I don't think I got a chance to tell you when I...yeah."
"Hector, the male Inquisitor, told me when I asked," the stranger put her weapon down next to her to give the boy her full attention, "It was during our journey away from Pran. After settling up with the Guard Captain, Felix, Hector and Mars suggested I follow them to see about this 'test' of theirs."
She leaned her back against the tree while straightening out her legs, turning her gaze to the stars above, "They say if I do well they'll consider making me an official member of the Order."
"Really? That's great!" Spencer nodded with a bright smile, "I'd love to fight alongside you, um...I'm sorry, but I don't think I ever got your name."
"Call me Cynthia," she answered shortly, before turning her gaze back onto the young mage, "And allow me to apologize for causing your state, Spencer. I hope I didn't cause you too must distress."
"What are you...oh! Right, that...," Spencer's eyes looked towards the ground as the image of that thing he saw when he first glanced at Cynthia flashed across his eyes. That unending pitch blackness that coveted the Mana trying to make its way into the woman's body. How the lines of magic that flowed within all living things were sucked into that never-ending void. When he saw that...that absolute wrongness that went against everything he stood for as a mage...he just couldn't take it. Even now just looking at the woman gave the boy a headache.
His teeth grit together while his hands pulled at the legs of his trousers. Shame and frustration welled up inside of him at the thought of his reaction. Unintentionally, magic began to gather at the tips of his fingers. It built until it shot out into the fire pit, making the fire roar as it climbed higher. He gasped in surprise while backing away from the increased heat. He laughed it off when he spotted Cynthia watching him with worry. He quickly thought of a way to change the subject, "So, do you know how they're going to test you? Or even what the test is?"
Cynthia shook her head, "No, unfortunately. All I know is that we're going to a city named Vinvers. It's deeper in Order Territory than Pran, and requested assistance with some matter important to the Order."
"Vinvers?" Spencer placed a hand on his chin, "That's strange. Why would they want us to go to a neutral town?"
"Neutral town?" Cynthia's voice carried clear interest in it.
Spencer looked at her with surprise, "They're places that have officially refused to be apart of the war. They side with neither the Mamono nor the Order. Instead, they act as Safe Havens where Monsters and Humans can live together without conflict. Supposedly, anyway. Surprised you haven't heard of them, as they're talked about a lot. I've only heard stories about them. Haven't actually been to one myself."
"I see," Cynthia stared into the fire with squinted eyes, "But how are they able to do that if they're located in Order Territory?"
Spencer shrugged, "I don't know. There are plenty of cities that have done the same, but the Order hasn't taken any serious action against them. Their numbers seemed to increase after what happened to Lescatie. They still don't outnumber the cities officially under the Order, but it's a bit worrying."
Cynthia tilted her head, "Why do you say that, Spencer?"
"W-well, I mean, it's just impossible, right?" hesitation laced his voice as he searched for the right words, "Humans and Mamono living together just can't happen. Not when the Mamono are hellbent on raping and corrupting every human they can get their hands on. It just won't work."
"And, have you ever tried speaking to-"
"Once," the young man blurted out without looking at Cynthia, "And it ended badly."
Cynthia didn't press the boy on details. They both sat in silence, watching the flames dance in the fire pit while the young mage took swigs from the water-skin. Eventually, Cynthia broke the silence with a question, "So, what's your relationship with Ms. Holden?"
Spencer choked and spat up the water in his throat, doing his best to not splash any on the fire. Cynthia rushed over and started patting the shorter boy on the back as he cleared his lungs. He took in three deep breaths, before looking up at the black-clothed woman with another blush coming over his face, "W-w-why are you asking that?!"
"I apologize," Cynthia's eyes softened as she helped the boy to his feet, "But I am genuinely curious. Not many would willingly put themselves in harm's way to stop a battle. Yet you stepped between the two of us as we prepared to re-engage each other. You wouldn't have done that unless you seriously cared for your friend."
"Well...you're not wrong," he uses his staff to push himself up, "But, still, you could've phrased it better."
Cynthia nodded before gesturing for the boy to elaborate. He bit his tongue and kept his eyes off the woman's body, "It's, well, we've been together ever since I can remember. We played in our families' estates together, became Heroes together, even been on five missions together. She can be a bit...aggressive and jump to conclusions, but she does it out of a genuine want to do good. Braver than most, stronger than most, and with a passion for defending the innocent, she's everything a Hero should be."
"But more than that, she's been with me from the beginning. Everyone said I couldn't make it as a Hero. Even my parents. But not her. She encouraged me, push me to be better, even introduced me to my Master. She's done so much for me. So, yeah. I guess I am her friend," his voice lowered to a whisper, "But I'd liked to be more than that."
Cynthia spoke faster than he could come up with an excuse, "You have feelings for her?"
Spencer felt his heart skip a beat as he realized she heard what he had said. He turned his back on Cynthia while shouting, "I-I didn't say that!" His mind drew up the numerous phrases he knew people would say if they were to find out.
'You're both Heroes! You can't think of her that way!'
'She's outta your league, give up.'
'She doesn't even know you exist.'
"Have you told her?"
'I bet you just want to fu-'
His mind stopped as it focused on the fourth sentence. He turned his head slightly and spoke in a tiny, nervous voice, "W-what...was...that?"
"I asked if you had told her," Cynthia replied while shrugging her shoulders, "It's a simple yes or no question."
"...Oh," Spencer felt a large mixture of emotions. Confusion at how Cynthia just accepted what he had said with no issue raised. Surprise that she would ask something so sensible. And the most important of the three, relief that she hadn't ridiculed him.
He took a moment to clear his throat before turning to look Cynthia head-on. He focused his gaze on her eyes to mitigate his headache, "Well, ah, um...not really."
"Why not?" the directness of her tone made Spencer jump a bit.
"B-b-because I...can't? Our families would never allow it, it's improper to think about other Heroes that way, I don't have nearly as many redeeming qualities about myself, and I doubt she'd say yes. It's a foolish...um, something wrong Cynthia?"
Cynthia had her head pointed towards the grass below. A gust of wind made her cape billow like wings behind her. Her shadow seemed to lengthen across the campsite as the fire started to die down.
Spencer gulped while gripping his staff tight in one hand. He took a step forward just as Cynthia turned and started walking to the east of the camp, "Follow me, Spencer."
Her voice was neither a whisper nor a shout, but the authority behind it made him follow after her. He gulped as they got further away from the fire until the darkness swallowed them. He mumbled a spell that made his staff emit a pale blue light. It illuminated the area around him, helped by a lantern Cynthia had attached to her hip. He stared at it in confusion. When had she brought that out? And where was she taking them?
Just when Spencer was getting nervous, Cynthia stopped and said, "This is far enough. Now we can begin."
"Begin what? Why are we out here?" Cynthia didn't reply to the boy's questions, which made him ask himself why he followed her out here.
"You'll see soon enough. Stay here, please," Cynthia stepped away from the boy, her lantern light illuminating the area around her feet as she walked forward. She stopped when she was fifteen steps away from Spencer. The look in her eyes when she turned around made a shiver run up his spine. An extreme sense of unease came over him, along with the knowledge that the two of them were alone.
In the middle of a dark forest.
While everyone else was busy with a different task.
"Tell me, Spencer. In battle, what do we always fight against?" her voice felt cold enough to freeze the air around them.
"Um...uh...enemies?" he ventured.
"Partly correct, so allow me to rephrase. What are we constantly struggling against our enemies to achieve?"
"Urgh, to survive?"
"Correct. That is what a battle truly is about. Survival," she raised her right hand and...when had she picked up that saw-cleaver weapon? Spencer hadn't seen her touch it, yet there was in in her hand, and looking extra sharp in the moonlight.
"Now tell me, what do we struggle to survive against? What is the ultimate goal of living to see the next day?"
"To...live? To not die?"
"Precisely. We fight and struggle against our enemies so that we may avoid Death. Our opponents struggle to survive against us so that they may avoid Death. Death is the ultimate enemy. Everyone you have ever fought or will fight will do so to avoid that enemy. This is an instinctual part of all living things; The Fear of Death. All have it. Some have let it rule them. They let it consume their lives and drive them to search for ways to avoid it. And, in the end, they never truly can."
She took a step to her right and kept going. Spencer kept her in the center of his vision the entire time. His hands felt clammy as he watched her move without making a sound. She continued, "But others have done the opposite. They have found a way to reject this fear. Though it still exists within them, they do not let it control their actions. They no longer fear Death. Do you know what this makes them, Spencer?"
"Dangerous," it wasn't a question this time. He knew the answer.
"Exactly," she completed a full circle around the young mage and stopped. Wind bent the grass below and rustled the leaves above, "They become extremely dangerous to any who attempt to face them in combat. And that's what I'm going to instill in you. On this night, I will help you overcome the fear of Death."
Spencer took a step back while letting out a nervous chuckle, "Hehe...uh...right. Hey, Cynthia? Joke's over. How about we head back to camp? Val's probably back by now."
Spencer had managed to take three steps back from his original position. There were eighteen steps between the two at that point. The average person would've needed at least five seconds to make up that gap. Within that time Spencer could've hit them with a spell or put up a defensive shield to protect himself.
Cynthia, somehow, closed the distance in two seconds.
Spencer looked up at the cleaver as it came down, aiming for his head, and knew it was his end. His body seized up, muscles going rigid, and stopping any movement he could make. His legs wouldn't move him back no matter how much he plead for them to do something. The staff in his right hand felt heavier than Valarie's sword. Even if he could raise it up, what would it do? It's wood against serrated metal!
There was nothing he could do.
He would die here. Alone. In the middle of a random forest. No one to mourn him.
Time slowed down. The world around him went black. The only thing he could see was the oncoming blade of the weapon that would be his doom.
Why had he come out here?! Why did he trust a complete stranger like that?! Val was right! If only he had listened to...
Her face flashed through his mind. Her soft, slightly pudgy face with that small slant in her nose. How her cheeks would puff out whenever she was flustered or angry. The way her muscles tensed when her blade struck true. The way her hair flowed in the breeze as she rode by on a horse. He saw it all.
But the primary thing he focused on was her smile.
The beautiful smile that would come over her face whenever she spoke to people about her work as a Hero. Or when she would rescue someone from the clutches of a Mamono. That small, yet wonderful smile...
...would disappear if he died here.
Suddenly everything came back.
The rustling of the leaves.
The bending grass beneath his feet.
And the oncoming blade about to end his life.
He felt his body explode into action. With every fiber of his being, he threw himself to his left. The weapon barely missed him, shredding the left side of his robes to pieces as he fell to the ground.
A cloud of dust exploded from where the weapon hit the earth. Spencer covered his head as the debris rained down on him. He quickly stood up and pointed his staff at Cynthia. Rage covered his face as he shouted at her, "WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT!?"
"Training," the cold edge to her voice was gone, replaced with one filled with innocence, "to help you overcome the fear of Death. And it succeeded."
"Oh, really?!" Spencer stomped over to Cynthia until he had to look up at her to look her in the eyes, "Well then I guess I'll just forget about the part where you TRIED TO FUCKING KILL ME!"
He shoved Cynthia as hard as he could, but couldn't make her budge an inch, "Do you expect me to THANK YOU FOR THAT?! You can't teach people how to not be afraid of Death! It's impossible to teach that to anyone!"
"Then explain how you're able to not only yell at me but attempt to knock me over, when not a minute ago you were afraid to look me in eye?"
Spencer prepared to argue...then found it falling flat before he even made it. His gaze fell from her masked face to his own two hands. He flexed them both while thinking back to how he tried to knock Cynthia over. He had to admit, while not completely gone, his fear wasn't as bad before. Whenever he thought of something that scared him, his mind would recall this experience and the fear would decrease. He hadn't totally changed...but he could tell something was different.
"I...guess you're right," he shook his head before continuing, "But, that still doesn't excuse the fact that you almost killed me! Why didn't you warn me, or give me a chance to prepare myself? For that matter, why did you do this in the first place?"
Cynthia kept her eyes locked on Spencer's, but did bow her head in apology, "I understand your concern. However, if this training were to work, I couldn't reveal what it entailed. Otherwise, you wouldn't truly get the full effect. You wouldn't overcome the fear of Death. Merely build barriers to keep Death at bay for a bit longer. As for why I did it..."
A gloved hand fell onto Spencer's head. He tensed up, then relaxed at it gently moved back and forth through his black hair before lifting away. He looked up and swore he could see a smile through Cynthia's bandana, "Because you are at War, young mage. And if you are to win a war, you can't let fear stop you. Not only from winning, but from protecting those you care for and finding a reason to win in the first place. If you can overcome the fear of Death, then you can overcome all your fears. Including the one you harbor deep in your heart."
Spencer felt his cheeks heat up as he understood what the older woman was saying. He turned his back to her and started towards camp, "Well, uh, I, uh...thanks, I guess. I'm...still not going to tell Val how I feel...but, I see your point. And maybe...maybe I should stop stalling on that front huh?"
"Take at long as you need," Cynthia nodded, "And if you ever need more training, I'd be glad to be your second Master."
"Right. At least you and her will have the almost killing me part in common," Spencer laughs while Cynthia giggles. He starts heading back to the camp, hearing Cynthia follow him a few moments later.
He thought back to the smile he thought he saw as he walked, and couldn't help but feel...strange. It wasn't a bad strange. But it was weird.
For some reason, the smile reminded him of a mother. Not his mother...just a mother.
The confusion lasted for a moment. Then he waved it off as a trick of the eye.
"We're doing what?" the Huntress asked Hector from atop her horse as Mars led Valarie and Spencer into the small village in front of them. Her steed whinnied a bit but showed no signs of the discomfort that had gripped it when she first mounted up. The beast outright refused to allow the Huntress on its back and had to be held in place by Valarie before it let her ride. Now it was obedient, but she could still feel the rumble of unease beneath its skin.
"Collecting gifts from this small village's populace," Hector explained, revealing his shaved head by pulling back his hood, "Our funds are low and it will be another day before we reach Vinvers. We need to obtain gold, so that we can pay for a stay at the inn when we get there."
"But why are we collecting it from a village like this?" the Huntress waved a hand out at the ten squat buildings that made up the "village". Seven of them were homes, one was obviously the Village Head's home, one was a market, and the last was still being built. The people wore plain clothes and walked barefoot on a rough dirt road as the two Heroes approached the village center.
"All must give penance to the Order. It is in our teachings to be generous to others, and respectful of those above you."
"Even if you're so poor that you can't even afford to wrap your feet? Or are so hungry that your ribs are showing?"
Hector dismounts his horse, "It is the way of the Order. And how it has always been. Come with me, please."
The Huntress' eyes narrowed as she dismounted. She followed the bald, light-skinned man towards the market building as Mars started yelling to the gathered village people. The building had two counters with fresh-looking fruits and vegetables gathered upon it. The owner walked out from under the cover of his building, revealing a slightly hunched man with wild hair and calloused hands. His smile had black spots where his teeth should be, but he spoke with jubilation at their approach, "Ah! Servants of the Order! What might this humble market owner do for you today?"
Hector stepped up and spoke with no kindness in his voice, "My comrades and I are traveling. We require three days' worth of supplies to make the journey. I trust you can accomplish this in record time."
Hector leaned his imposing frame and shadow over the market owner. Sweat tumbled down the man's face, but though his smile wavered it never sank. He gave a vigorous nod before jumping into action, "R-right away, my Lord! I'll have it done before you know it."
"Good," Hector straightened up, then turned around...right into the piercing eyes of the Huntress.
She saw his hand slide towards something hidden in his robes but didn't make any moves. She simply stared the Inquisitor down until she said, "Why don't you go back to our horses? I'll be the one to bring the supplies."
Hector was the first to break eye contact. He walked past the Huntress while mumbling, "Very well," under his breath.
The Huntress watched him go with a frown on her face. Her gaze moved to the two Heroes, and the frown got deeper. She tightened a fist as she watched Mars gather whatever gold coins the people could give into a small bag she held out. Before she could move to intervene, the market owner called out, "I've done it, my Lord!"
She turned around and fast-walked to the man. She stopped a few feet away, grabbed the saddlebags from his hands, and then started rummaging through her inner coat pocket, "What is your name, sir?"
"Domonous, my Lady," he shook his head, "I'm honored you'd ask, but I'm not-"
"Take this," she shoved a bag of coins into his hands. Domonous looked at her questioningly before opening the bag. His mouth went agape at the mound of gold coins inside.
"There should be one thousand coins in there. Promise me you'll distribute it to the rest of the village. Swear by the Gods on this," she looked the man in the eye, searching his for any hint of malice or possibility of lying.
He was silent for a long time. Then he swallowed and slowly nodded his head, "Alright. I...I swear."
The Huntress let out a relieved sigh, "Ah, thank you. Now come with me. I'm going to teach you the best way to give those coins out..."