Frey spent the better part of the morning following Shin, much like a tourist following a tour guide, minus the trivias. Personally, he felt like a bull getting led around by the nose. Outside the cabin was a clearing matted by thick green grassblades, bound by the treeline on all sides. Past the treeline, into the woods, west from the cottage, perhaps a hundred meters walk, was a babbling brook. It stretched toward a deeper part of the forest, and he remembered how the forest almost took his life, in the form of a not-so-friendly reptilian-canine hybrid with larger-than-life claws and more-painful-than-death fangs.
The narrow brook had glass-clear water, foaming white against the rock heads jutting from its volatile, noisy surface. Shin said they were grabbing lunch, but he didn't say anything about getting wet. Frey peered beneath the water's clean surface and saw a family of silver-scaled fishes a bit larger than the palm and only swam close together. The fishes were burying their faces into the gravel below, working up dusts of gray and dirty brown, and he thought, this time clearer, "lunch".
Shin carried a wooden pole as tall as Frey, sharpened brutally at the end. "Now, you think you're not hungry, but," Shin walked up to the brook edge. "believe me, once you're used to that body, you're gonna be. In a week or so, you'll feel like a human again, in your perfectly normal human body."
"I don't think so." Frey said, almost a snort.
"Physically, anyway. I know mentally, you'll never be the same." Shin lifted his spear--which looked more like a sharpened staff--and pierced the flowing water. "With that said, food, you're gonna need it everyday." he had impaled a silver-scale fish square in the middle of the body. "Or every other day, if your body is efficient in burning energy."
"Is this part of your training already?" Frey was inclined to ask.
"Yes?" Thrust. Another fish was caught, a bit larger than the first. It flailed its fins and tail, in a futile attempt to slide free off the pike.
"I thought you said we were going to discuss it at lunch. I haven't yet agreed, and you haven't yet told me what your second condition was."
Shin glanced at him--a confused, unamused glance, the "what's your point?" kind of glance. "You ought to chill my boy. I'm not conning you into working for me or something. And, this is a very important fact: my second wish isn't even close to being as hard as my first."
While the man was talking he had already caught four fishes, all plump and all shiny, scales glittering like beads of paste under the sun, a little like fishes decorated fully by Swarovski crystals.
"I'd prefer you just say it now, so I can think clearly." Frey said.
"Impatient, as all youth are. I've been impatient once, so I understand." Shin speared another fish, and another, pushing the fishes farther into the pole to make room for more fish. He looked at Frey, and smiled. "I hope you were watching how I caught fishes. I would've taught you hands-on how it's done, but your arm is not yet up for strenuous exercises, so maybe later this week. Back to the topic, I'll tell you what I want.
"After you've won, I want you to find my daughter. On Earth. You don't have to greet my family, just my daughter. I want you to tell her I loved her, and that I was alive, not on Earth but alive, and thinking of her dearly everyday. I'm not sure how time works between here and there, but I'd assume she's still at her teenage years. And she'd be the color of pure white snow, and she'd be beautiful, I hope anyway, that she looks like her mother. Her name would be Aoi, as her mother promised me she would name her." Thrust, another fish skewered at the midsection.
"I want you to do that, and in exchange I'll teach you how to live, if only for a month, but I'll make sure I'll have taught you all you need to know about the game by then." Shin pushed in two more fishes before calling it a day, totalling to eight Silver-scales. He smiled at Frey, annoying, but somewhat pained, and Frey had trouble answering. "Well? What do you say?"
"I don't have a choice, do I?"
"There's always another choice," Shin said, ripping off what must have been a cliche line from a popular movie. "In this case, it's going off on your own and figuring stuff on your own."
"That doesn't sound as good an offer." Frey agreed, almost reluctantly.
They walked back to the clearing, a patch of yellowing grass vast as a basketball court, only that it had an unidentified shape, resembling a rough circle. On their way home Shin had picked snapped-off branches sticking out the mud and managed to collect a dozen of them, fit for a fire. He set up the twigs by the cottage, in crossing piles, and started a fire by rubbing two of them expertly.
The spear became the rod of a spit, with the fishes skewered into its pole. Shin roasted the fishes, rolling the spear over the fire, until the scales became equally healthy brown on all sides, and let it cool off. As they waited for the food to be edible-warm, Frey had declared his stand.
"I," he stared at his feet, awkwardly. "I'd never been much of a fighter. As a child I didn't go out much to play hopscotch with the neighbor kids, and my P.E. teacher always threw a fit because of how I ran behind everyone else. I never fought for my life, before I came here." he almost chuckled, remembering the eldritch abomination that had killed him. He guessed that one didn't count as "fighting" for his life but rather "running" for it, and it didn't end well.
"I guess, I did well in class. When I graduated, immediately I was offered an okay-paying job, working as a librarian-slash-curator of a private library, and I was getting engaged, to a wonderful woman, before I died."
"Well," Shin pondered, in an objective way, "Do you want to return to that life?"
"I do." Frey said, without hesitation. His brain was hard-wired for a life in a modern world, where the worst that could happen were traffic jams, or thesis deadlines, or peer pressure--none of the monster he had seen on his last day alive, nor the monstrous Hound that tried to chew his head with its kukri-like fangs.
"Then, are you prepared to kill others to have that life back? Prepared to deprive them of their chance to live again, for that life?" it was a question he had no fast answer.
Frey asked himself, was he? Was he prepared? Was his old life more important than others'? And then, as if a reminder of what he had lost, Elise popped in his head, wearing a black dress and had black veil covering the left side of her face. She was alone in a wake, his wake, weeping and sobbing on a white casket that housed his dead body, embalmed and smelling of moth balls and formaldehyde. For a moment he was sadder than he ever was sad for himself, and he opened and closed his mouth, before nodding, hesitantly.
"That's all I needed." Shin, still holding the spear that was at the same time a giant fish skewer, clapped him on the shoulder. "We eat, we let your body heal for a couple more days, and we'll start."
The two sat on the grass, the fire crackling between them. Frey ate fish the way Shin expected him: with bare hands. In one hand he held the smoked head between thumb and finger, and in the other he had the tail. He was munching on grilled fish flesh as he would a corn, occasionally having to spit out sharp bones that stuck between his teeth. The meat tasted of, well, fish, the cream dory type of taste, that, when cooked well, melted in the mouth like good tofu.
He'd already forgotten the last time he ate, much like how his life on Earth, which had ended a mere day ago, was already a memory of a distant past. But, he did not forget Elise. Could still see her, like he always had, in the back of his head, and when something troubled him he'd see her, smiling, and he'd smile thinking "this will be over". Not this time, though.
Frey was not convinced this game will be over, anytime soon.
"Let me with your arm." Shin said, cleaning his fourth fishbone.
Frey was still halfway through his second fish. He extended his left hand, bandaged white from wrist to elbow, with dull blotches of brown-dried blood beneath the rough folds.
"Not that." the old man shook his head. "The other one."
The sun above was a glaring jewel, riding hinged to an invisible path that bisected the sky. The sunlight it threw reflected off Frey's silver arm guard, giving it a painful glimmer that stabbed the eyes of beholder. He held it up for Shin to look at.
Shin crawled up to him and took a closer look at the arm guard (was it really called an arm guard?).
"What's wrong?" asked Frey, mouth full of fish and prickling, hair-thin bones.
The old man scrutinized the weapon as a coin collector would an authentic 16th century coin. He didn't miss an angle. Finally, Shin said, "Nothing. Can you remove it?"
"Tried and failed." Frey swallowed, picking out the bones with his tongue, while letting the soft meat into his throat. "I think it's bonded with my skin. I don't know. Why?"
"You used that to kill the goblin hound, eh? Did it speak to you?"
Frey looked at Shin, puzzled, whether he was asking about the hound or his weapon. Realizing he was asking about the weapon, Frey shook his head. "No. I haven't fallen that far into psychosis."
"There are weapons that talk, though. The strongest kind of weapons, Artifacts. They bond with the owner, the same way yours had, and more often than not the owner and the Artifact would be in some sort of mutualistic relationship. The Artifact feeds on the owner's energy bit by bit, so that when it's used, it dishes out its own energy. They're like magic weapons, but with separate battery. If it talks, you'll know it's an Artifact."
Frey wasn't sure if the man was babbling on himself, or he was expecting Frey to make sense of everything he said, but one thing he knew for certain was that weapons don't talk.
Shin was silent, for a moment, deep in thought, sight alternating from the arm guard that clung to Frey's arm, and then at the sky above, and back to the fire in front of him.
"Um. Shin?" Frey called.
"About the goblin hound." Shin said, snapping out of his head. "Good job killing it. You were either dumb or smart, or stupidly brave, to defeat a monster that would've killed a dozen men in a tussle."
"Thanks." said Frey, meaning it. "I couldn't have survived though, if you hadn't found me. I guess I owe you one."
Shin laughed, heartily, like an uncle in a fairytale, because Frey had known no uncle who smiled and laughed like uncles did in heartwarming fantasy stories. "I don't know about owing me." Shin scratched his graying stubble. "I was kinda tracking the beast for days. Color me surprised when I saw it dead beside an unsufferable-looking brat."
"Well I'm sorry I stole your game."
"No, it's fine. You actually helped me cut it down. I only needed its eyes anyway--good magical items, would fetch quite the ruby at an alchemist."
"So you sold it?"
"The skin and eyes." replied Shin. "I didn't spend it all on myself, mind you. You were the one who killed it, so the money I got from it I used to buy materials for your training, and your food."
Frey just nodded. He wasn't really concerned at all about the proceeds. He hadn't even thought of hunting the hound for money; he just wanted to live. Although, knowing he was dead already, gave the sentiment an almost metaphorical quality to it.