"Get to the point, Shin." Frey said. "This thing on my arm--"
"--is a demon, Frey." Shin sheathed Mori and strapped it back to his waist. He grabbed the left shoulder of his white kimono, and without hesitation pulled it down, revealing the entirety of his left torso.
"What... the hell?"
Green roots webbed all over his chest, like overgrowth protruding out of the land. They pulsed and throbbed, along with the rhythm of his heartbeat as if they were a part of his body. Beneath the roots Frey could see bits of dark, jagged, circular scars that made gunshot scars pretty in comparison.
"If Mori didn't take over this part of me, I would've died." Shin slipped his robe back on. "The Player who attacked us, he was no longer human. He was faster, and stronger, moving as though he was a beast, a frenzied monster. His weapon was a silver arm guard like that one, but with a key difference. It had many blades, and they moved on their own, seeking enemies, as though they were alive.
"A friend of mine was unlucky, got impaled by one of them blades, and he was already dead. You'd think the blade would leave him alone because he was already dead but no: the other blades followed suit and dug into his body over and over, as if they were feasting on his flesh."
Frey listened to Shin's narrative with hollow eyes, faced contorted with horror more than disgust. He remembered how Shin's body looked, feeling in his bones how much torture it had been.
"While the blades were busy desecrating my friend's dead body I moved in, chopped the Player's head off. I thought it was over, but it wasn't. One moment of carelessness and the blades had gone through my chest. The bastard could move without his head. That's when I realized I wasn't fighting a human. He'd been consumed by his weapon, and I was fighting the Artifact, itself."
A big lump got caught in Frey's throat. He looked at the silver arm blade like it was the most repulsive thing he'd ever laid eyes on. The idea that something so malicious was on his body terrified him the most. If it really was the same weapon as the one in Shin's memory, he may very well share the same fate as that Player--a slave to his Artifact.
"We should destroy this… this thing." Frey said.
"Because we don't know what would happen to you if we do that." Shin sighed. "Artifacts bind with the wielder in some way. The growth on my chest is the connection between me and Mori. Now your weapon, it's already bonded with your arm. If we destroy it now, you might die. Or not. Maybe something even worse will happen to you, since you're already dead, and you're just in a body given to you by that bitch Victorina. You can't take the risk.
"I know you can't."
Elise's smiling face flashed before Frey's eyes. Seemingly satisfied with Frey's reaction, Shin nodded.
"However, to prevent it from growing, I suggest you avoid using it, as much as you can."
"Easier said than done." Now that he thought about it, he would need another weapon, if he was to survive this game at all. A weapon that wasn't going to eat his soul, preferably.
"Hey you're worrying too much." Shin chuckled. "I won't throw you into the battlefield without bullets." Shin kneeled to the ground, his left leg folded beneath him. He drew Mori and planted half the blade into the dark forest soil. Shin began digging the ground with it.
That can't be good.
"Hey Shin," Frey called. Shin returned a 'hmm?' without looking his way.
"Wouldn't your sword get mad? I mean, you're using him, literally, to dig dirt."
"Oh that? Don't worry about it. Artifacts, well, each of them contain the soul of a powerful creature. Some house fairies, others, gods. Mori, he was a forest deity once before he died. He had a different name then, but I named him Mori, as in the Japanese for 'forest'. Believe me he likes the dirt."
"Stop babbling nonsense human and get to work." Mori growled.
So the sword that talks incidentally likes the muck. This can't get any weirder, Frey thought.
"Slave driver." Shin mumbled before picking on the ground double-time.
Before long, Shin had hit a hard object beneath the dug soil. He shot Frey a playful wink. He dusted off the surface of the object with his hand, revealing the wooden planks of a chest at least a foot wide and two feet long.
"The Player Weapons? No." Shin said. "I've buried those much, much deeper. And besides, I can't give them to you, even if I want to. Since I've killed their Players, game rule is that they're mine now, meaning only at my touch will their special... properties, become usable."
"I see." Frey nodded, storing the information into the back of his mind.
"Unless you kill me, then they become yours."
"I don't think I can do that, even if I want to."
Shin laughed. "Nothing's set in stone kid. You're just half my age, yet you've learned in a month what I've trained in years."
"Just proves you're a good teacher." Frey meant it. If Shin hadn't found him in the forest that night, he would've died from blood loss. Or he could've been eaten by scavengers.
Shin pulled the chest up the ground with a grunt. "I'd rather be called a good father, but that's not gonna happen anymore." he said with a wry smile.
Shin didn't know much about his daughter, aside the fact that he and his lover agreed to name her "Aoi". However, their child was only three months inside the mother's womb when Shin died. Frey may never understand his pain, but at the very least he knew that never getting the chance to see his own child, was a scar worse than what Shin had on his body.
"You're a good father, Shin." Frey began. Shin looked up at him, tears welling up on the corners of his eyes.
"This isn't out of pity or bullshit like that. Maybe you never had a chance to be a father to your child, but you've been a good father, to me. It may have been for just a month, but you've taken care of me more than a stranger should've. That's more than enough to earn you the title."
Shin had taught him more lessons than his real father ever had. Frey had been a credit card baby ever since he was born, and the most his father had taught him was how to use his credit card to buy anything he wanted. Owning a large software business was tough job, Frey understood, but he just couldn't grow to sympathize with his father.
"Thanks, kid." Shin laughed as he wiped his eyes before the tears dropped.
"I'll win my game. I'll find Aoi, tell her how much you love her. Better yet, I'll finish your game. Then you get to talk to her yourself." He might be getting a little too cocky, but for the minute he didn't care. He was feeling it: the desire to win. The desire to see Elise once more. The desire to pay Shin, his mentor, his second father, back.
"You just focus on your game, kid. I'll play my own." Shin's eyes glowed with determination Frey had never seen before. After twenty years his game had stagnated, finally he had regained the spirit to resume and win.
Shin opened the chest, and Frey peered in.
"Now this is not much, but it's the gear I've used during my playing days." Shin said.
Inside the chest was a black, long coat made of thick-woven, wool-like material. A pair of black leather gloves, black shoes, black pants, a steel plate vest, a dozen steel throwing knives, and the most impressive pieces of the collection: three black Japanese swords, each one smaller than the next, strung to a black leather belt.
"Who needs this many blades?" Frey joked, but deep inside he was excited to try all the swords.
"Each of them have their own purpose." Shin picked up the longest sword of the three and pulled it halfway out of the sheath, revealing a carbon-colored blade. "This is the katana, your main weapon."
He brought the blade back to its sheath and put it back in the chest. He picked the second blade, shorter than the katana but longer than the last.
"Your companion sword. You use this in situations where the katana would be unwieldy."
Frey nodded. Smaller sword for when you're fighting in confined spaces where the katana would be hard to use due to its length.
"What about the last one?"
"This," Shin picked up the last, shortest sword. It was more of a knife, and unlike the first two which were curved, the last one had a straight blade. "This is for close quarter combat, and also for utility purposes. You can use this to skin animals, throw it to distract your enemy, among a myriad of things."
He gave the knife to Frey. Frey pulled it off its scabbard and held it in a backhand grip. It was light as though he wasn't holding anything. He swiped the air in front of him with it a few times. It felt good.
"Now these things are cool and all," Frey clipped the sword back to the belt with the other two. "but I think you're gonna need them now that you've found the will to play again."
"No kid." Shin grasped his shoulder. "I'm giving these to you as your graduation gift. You earned it. And besides, using these things will only bring back painful memories. All the comrades I've lost, all the mistakes, all the Players I've killed. If I'm gonna start again, I have to start fresh."
"I can sense your excitement. Get inside the cottage and try the gear on."
So he did. After thirty minutes and a few struggles getting the steel plate vest strapped, he stepped out the cottage looking and feeling like a bona-fide warrior in black, stealthy gear. The black long coat was a perfect fit, and the steel vest although it looked bulky at first, was light enough to allow swift movement. Strapped to his black leather belt were the three swords, the katana and its companion sword on one side and the knife on the other, along with an array of steel throwing daggers tucked into small holsters the belt had.
Shin was waiting for him outside, under a clear blue sky, in the middle of the little grass clearing that had been his training field for a month. Thirty-six Eidelian days, not that long in others' eyes, but to Frey, it was all he knew of this world. That's about to change today, he figured.
He walked up to Shin and bowed. "Thank you for this. For everything."
"Hey, you're gonna make me tear up." Shin laughed his hearty, old-man laugh. "Here."
He held out his calloused hand to Frey. On his palm were two white fangs each a handspan long. The fangs of the goblin hound he killed, Frey recognized.
"You should save one as a trophy for your first monster kill." Shin said. "The other, use it."
Frey took the fangs and appraised them. The insides of the fangs were black and hard like metal. "Use how, exactly?"
"Go to Redel and, remember that friend I told you about?"
"The smith who makes all your weapons?"
"That. His name's Barton. He owns a workshop there. Bring the tooth to him and tell him you're my apprentice. He'll know what to do."
"Barton... Sounds like a Western name."
"That's because he's also a Player. He's white, used to live in New York if I remember."
"You made friends with a Player of your generation?"
But that meant Shin would have to kill him eventually, or else their game won't end.
"We're in a truce. We won't fight each other until we're the last ones standing. There are still two other Players, so until they die, we're good. You best get going, kid. Redel is five days away from here."
"How do I get there?"
"Go directly north. Within a few hours you'll find a road leading west. Just follow that and you'll get there. Go."
Frey bowed to Shin for the last time, before walking forward. He accelerated to a jog. He didn't look back. His jog turned to a light sprint. Only then did he hear Shin's large voice shouting at him.
"See you on the other side."
Frey smiled. He ran.