A quiet sound of us moving forward echoed throughout the tunnel. It was our way to make sure that we weren’t detected, and we could always hear what was happening behind us. If any other echoes reached us, we would know, and we would start rushing. But until then, we preserved our energy and kept moving forward with the dim light my hero badge spread.
But it was hard. Not the climb, but knowing the truth. The other two didn’t know anything yet, but I did. And even though I tried to figure out how to explain all of it, I couldn’t. Of course, the truth was the easiest, but even that could become a lie. At least once they knew who I was. And they will know. It wasn’t a small adventure where I could keep secrets anymore. Especially once it was over.
So, my choices were either a lie that was a believable truth or the truth that would become a lie. I didn’t know.
Why did I have to lie in the first place? Oh, of course. So the people would take me seriously. So that all those huge and strong adventurers wouldn’t push me down. So that society would listen to me. I might have the title, but is it worth anything if I’m only a weakling? There were a few cases where the hero wasn’t as strong as the others before him, and it was visibly different story.
“No,” a quiet whisper came from ahead, belonging to Arryn.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“It’s a dead end,” she said.
“Is the dirt like really soft?” I asked.
There was yet another moment of waiting. All I could do was talk and wait. For once, I wasn’t in control. I only had to follow as Arryn solved the problems ahead of us.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“That means we are almost at the very top. It must be the fallen dirt around the roots. I’ll give you a spade. Start pulling the dirt down the tunnel. Me and Alice… and Bill will get on a side, letting it slide past us,” I whispered, already feeling disgusted from everything.
But I grabbed the small goblin-sized spade in my backpack that I had picked up before - you know, just in case - and gave it to Alice, who in turn gave it to Arryn. We were underground, so it only made sense to take one spade with me. Both me and Alice pushed ourselves against one side of the tunnel. And then it was yet again waiting, dirt falling past of me. We had to occasionally push the dirt down ourselves, but it wasn’t a huge problem.
It was waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I could feel how I desperately wanted air and wanted to get out of there. But it all was on Arryn’s hand now. All I could do was trust in her.
“H-He’s gone, isn’t he?” Alice whispered at me. I hadn’t expected that.
“W-what?” I murmured.
“A-Arryn might not see it, but I can see beyond your body. T-there’s nobody there.”
I chuckled. “Alice, I-”
“I-it’s fine. I-I can take it,” she murmured. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. “I-I see,” she whispered. There was yet another moment of silence. “A-at least you’re able to manifest your new-found powers,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.
“I got it,” Arryn announced, now just pushing some larger amount of dirt past us, which of course occasionally landed on us as well. Then she began to climb, once more, through the newly made hole. Alice followed her lead. And soon I also saw the small hole Arryn had dug. As I pushed myself through, I could feel Arryn taking hold of my hand and helping me through.
Ah, fresh air, I thought. I immediately tried to clean my face from all that dirt Arryn had pushed down on us. I could see that we were standing in a small hole - almost like a crater. Luckily for us, there was a thick mist around us. I walked up the hole to have a better view of our surroundings.
It was like a graveyard. All the trees were either fallen, on top or against each other. But they all seemed to be rotting away, slowly but surely. The view was truly creepy because the mist hid anything further than sixty feet away.
I took a few steps closer to the nearby tree, examining it. The bark was red, but slightly brown because of the rot already doing its work.
“Hiro?” Arryn muttered as she looked through the hole. “Bill ain’t there!” she said, gazing at me and the hole, finally stopping at me.
It was the moment of truth. It was the moment I had been most afraid of. Both Alice and Arryn looked at me. Alice was probably thinking if she should say anything. But she couldn’t say anything either, and she shouldn’t.
“We stayed behind. As I told him to go, he suddenly hit me, tied the rope on my backpack. You probably remember when it was hard to pull Alice forward, right? It probably felt like dragging someone. That was me. When I realized what he had done, he was already alone with Thomas, buying us some time. Or it seems a lot of time. It would’ve been stupid to go back and waste his sacrifice. So… I... continued forward. I planned to tell you the moment we got this far. I’m... I’m so sorry...”
I couldn’t help but feel how few tears began to gather at the edge of my eyes. It was a truthful lie, perhaps? Not the full truth - but sometimes we don’t need to know the full details.
Arryn stepped up, walking to me. I was expecting a hit, perhaps. I was prepared for anything. But as she arrived, she walked past me, straight behind me. She examined my backpack and rope. Then she began walking back towards the hole.
“Arryn?” I muttered, surprised.
“Only Bill does that type of knot. It’s not your fault.”
She began to push the dirt down the hole and finally began to push the dirt to close the hole, at least.
Alice was sitting on another tree’s trunk, looking at us, breathing heavily. She was still out of magical essence, but it seems she was doing better. The fresh air helped, probably.
And the situation wasn’t that much better. We didn’t know how many goblins were climbing up the tunnel at this very moment. That small thing Arryn was doing would hold them down there only for that long.
“What you’re doing isn’t necessary,” a deeper voice echoed, as a male figure appeared out of the fog - together with many-many others. “And for intruders, you’re quite loud.” Whoever that man was, he had a cane. And whoever this man was with, were with armors and weapons.
Arryn sighed and threw the spade away, not even trying to pick a fight.
This situation was different. These weren’t goblins, but humans.
I sighed. If all my theories were correct, I had a general idea where we were. And it could be either really bad or really good.
“Akagi, I assume?” I said out loud, staying still and looking at the figure.
Finally, the merely black figure became something describable. The figure belonged to a bit older man, Asian. He had a long black cloak, but the bottom side was red, with red trees stretching out towards the top. Below the cloak, he had a long white rope, together with a wide red belt around his waist. He leaned on his cane, which from a closer look was more like a red-colored tree-branch. Perhaps it was made from one of the very same trees that were now dead around us.
But we all knew who he was. He made it very clear. Of course, his companions were well armored, and all of them had a katana and a long spear. In fact, they all had spears out and pointing them at us.
“That’s also not necessary,” the old man said, raising his right hand. All the guards raised their spears. “So, you know who I am,” the old man said, smiling, “and interestingly enough, I also know who you are,” he said, keeping up his neutral smile. “This makes it really intriguing. I knew we would meet one day, but not like this.”
Arryn and Alice threw stare at me.
“Oh, they don’t know?” Akagi said, keeping up his smile. “I’ll leave the surprise and explanation to you when you think the time is right. You are going to tell them, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I assume that you are behind… this?” the man said, raising his hands up, obviously hinting at all those dead trees.
“No,” I said. And this time, I wasn’t really lying. “It’s those hundreds of goblins that might be following us from the tunnel the elf was trying to close,” I said, sighing.
“Well. They cannot harm you here. Not anymore. No goblin will put their foot on my land,” the old man said, eyes flashing for a moment. He looked at the nearby man, who was wearing a slightly fancier armor. “Make sure that nobody comes out from that tunnel.”
“Yes, of course,” the man responded. Most of the guards began to walk towards the hole, past us.
“Well, normally I would ask to come in, but since you’re already on my land, I guess that won’t do. But I do offer some hospitality. You all could use a bath, some clean clothes, and probably some help - if you wish to talk about it.”
It didn’t take long before I slightly bowed. “Me and my companions would really appreciate that. But perhaps we could first talk about that help? The matter is urgent,” I said.
“That is understandable,” the old man said. “I also find this matter rather urgent. It’s not every day when I hear that all of my trees have fallen and are rotting.”
I gulped. I had to keep my backpack close to me at all times.
“So we can talk as we walk to my mansion,” the old man said. We all began to walk towards the mansion, me next to the old man, Arryn and Alice behind me. I could feel their suspicious stares at me.
“I’m deeply sorry if that offends you. I know of Akagi family, but I’m not sure I know who you are. I’m still…” - I gazed at Arryn and Alice, and then continued with a slight whisper - “...taking the reins of my new title,” I said.
The man looked at me. It was obvious that he was slightly unhappy that I didn’t know his name, yet. But a smile appeared, nevertheless, on his face. “Of course. Lu Akagi,” the man introduced himself.
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- Matthew E. Damson
I'm someone whose pen-name is Matthew E. Damson. Some others know me as Elven. I'm also known as elf, elfie, elves, pointy ears, and some more. To be honest, I have no idea why they call me other names, but they create nicknames, not me.
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