He didn't know what the future would hold for him after being branded, and a part of him was afraid. Somewhere inside, there was also excitement. That frightened him as well. Why would he be excited for essentially, being enslaved? Raithe knew that what the man wanted him to do, wouldn't be easy. It would be potentially dangerous and life threatening tasks. Of course, they wouldn't have chose him if they didn't believe he was capable. Maybe that was where his excitement came from.
It was the thrill of being needed, the thrill of adventure and the willingness to do anything to please his master. Raithe stopped walking. Master? Where had that come from? He shook his head, trying to push those thoughts to the back of his mind.
“Are you okay?” Mika asked.
“You're an idiot you know?”
“Idiot?” Raithe said exasperated. “It was you who got mixed up with them in the first place.”
Mika looked down and ran his toes along the ground. “It wasn't like I had a choice.”
“There is always a choice,” he said and then started walking again. They were almost to the exit and Raithe could see the tunnel turn off, just up ahead.
“Well it was... your fault for following me.”
“You mean, it was my choice to follow you?” Raithe turned. The ladder leading up was now only ten paces away.
“It was...” Mika said. “But... you... you were stupid to do it!”
“Maybe,” Raithe said, drawing out the ay sound. “But it was still my choice. Besides runt, you stole my only money.” he ruffled the boy's head, before placing a hand on the ladder. Raithe started to climb.
“Dumb idiot,” Mika muttered.
Raithe smiled as he poked his head out of the hole. Soft sunlight brushed up against his face and a cool wind blew passed. He glanced into the sky to see red where the sun touched some clouds. Tiny dots of lights began to appear faintly, as the sky was beginning to darken. He pulled himself out and turned to give Mika a hand. The kid was probably lighter than he should have been.
“I'm going with you,” Mika said.
“I'm the one who got you into this mess so... it's what I have to do.”
Seeing the seriousness on the kid's face, his resolve, Raithe didn't want to refuse him. He knew however, that what he was being asked to do was dangerous. He couldn't put the boy in that situation, so he shook his head. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I can't let you go with me.”
“Why not?” Mika asked. He furrowed his brow.
“Well it's... not like I haven't been in places like... look... I know how to take care of myself.”
“Is that why you were being held captive?”
“It... it wasn't that.”
“Then what was it?” Raithe asked.
“Well... I uh... I owed him mo-”
“I know, but that didn't excuse his actions and you still shouldn't have let him pick you up like that.”
Mika looked away.
Raithe could see the shame on the boy's face, he decided not to push it any further. “Alright,” he said. “We have to return this.” with Mika behind him, Raithe began to walk in the direction of his sleeping tree. The two kids were there waiting, by the time they returned. “Here,” he said and then handed the boy his satchel.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Um... Sorry for taking... that,” Mika said. His head was still bowed.
“At least... it's been returned,” the boy said. “Let's go Lia.” with the girl behind him, he ran into another street and around a corner, vanishing from their view.
“Well?” Raithe said turning to Mika. “Shall we get going?”
“Go where?” Mika asked.
“Isn't there some kind of... festival for newcomers?”
“There is,” Mika said. “For new comers and I'm obviously not new to this world so...”
“So you're not allowed to come? Ha! They probably wouldn't even notice you. Besides, you look a little thin and I heard that there will be some good, free food there.”
“Nah! You're comin' with me Mika!” Raithe took him by the hand and led him through the streets. This was one case where he wouldn't take no for an answer. Mika looked incredibly thin, he was too light which told him that the kid hadn't had a good meal in a long while.
They emerged into the plaza where they paused. Raithe's eyes went wide and he thought Mika's had as well. The plaza was full of decorations. Streamers, images of fake heroes defeating fake monsters. Tables were set up and they were lined with food. Most amazing of all, were the hundreds of paper lanterns floating in the air.
Raithe glanced around and he could see people dancing, singing and playing music. There was a juggler and a small troop who were performing circus tricks.
“Wow,” Mika said. “Let's go!” he ran off toward the tables of food.
There were more entering the plaza, all from different directions. Glancing out to sea where the fire reflected off the glass like surface of the water, Raithe could see an enormous ship. It appeared like the one that had brought him, or perhaps it was. Someone slapped him on the shoulder and he turned.
“Raithe!” Sosuke said. “We were looking around for you today but... well, we couldn't find ya.”
“Where did you go?” Luna asked as she walked up to stand beside Sosuke.
“I had to follow that runt,” he pointed to Mika who was now gorging himself at the table. “He stole my teroes.”
“You get em back?” Sosuke asked.
Raithe nodded. “Yeah, wasn't hard.”
“Look!” Luna said. She was pointing to the pier where that enormous ship was now pulling up. A gangplank dropped and a man in a black and white, striped suit, with white hair and holding a cane, limped down.
“Great,” Raithe said. He wasn't at all pleased to see this guy, the man who forced them to come here. The man who caused them to almost die and many others to die. He narrowed his brow, watching.
As Wish entered the plaza with his retainers, people around went still. The music and singing went quiet, the dancers and circus performers stopped. Everyone turned, watching him intently with curious eyes. For those who were still talking amongst each other, not paying attention, Wish clapped his hands loudly three times and the sound reverberated around the plaza, like it would in a large cave. They all went still.
“I know there are many of you here, who are still curious as to how you came to be in this world and why,” he said.
At his sides, Raithe felt himself clench his fists tight. Oh he remembered that and he was curious, but not about the things Wish had mentioned. Why had they been put through three challenges that could have killed them. What was the reason for it?
“And... the reason for those challenges,” he continued. “Let me start by saying that our universe is under attack. In it, there are only two planets left that can hold our kind of life. Some of you, come from worlds that have long since perished and were sent to this one in a last attempt to save your lives. As for your memor-”
“Our lives?” Raithe asked incredulous. He stepped forward with both fists still clenched tight. He wanted to just punch this guys... pin him to the ground, strangle him... but no. That wouldn't do any of them any good. “We almost died going through those... challenges.”
Wish looked him squarely in the eyes. There was no remorse there, no regret. This guy didn't even care. “We had no choice but to send you that way,” he said.
“Then tell us why...”
“There were two reasons we did what we did. First, we needed strong warriors. Champions whom we knew for an absolute certainty, that could take on the monsters infesting this world. Who were strong enough, fast enough, smart enough to make it through the countless dungeons found throughout this world.”
“So you mean... the weak didn't have the right to live?”
“No... that isn't what I am saying at all,” Wish paused, taking in a deep, quivering breath. “No one brought to this world was weak. Everyone here has their own strengths and weaknesses.” he coughed. “Anyway. As far as the second reason goes. Our ships were being followed by those... daemons. We couldn't risk bringing them here.”
How much of what Wish was saying, was actually the truth? Raithe didn't think he believed in any of it, but he stilled his mouth regardless. There was more the man had to say and he was curious.
“Good,” Wish said when Raithe had gone quiet. “It is as I said, there is an evil in our universe and it must be stopped. All of you, represent the hope we have for the future. Learn how to live in this world, with each other. Form teams, take on those dungeons. Defeat and kill any corrupted creatures. You are all new stars, in a strange land and the last group to come here. There will be no more adventurers.”
Despite his calm and uncaring demeanor, Wish's last words sounded sad. He walked further into the plaza, across it. He spoke no other words were spoken as he met the eyes of every other individual on the way by. Then he and his retainers entered the inn, disappearing from view.
The message here, was clear. Do as you want and party on, I don't care. But still think, is that what you really should be doing? The last of our worlds are dying and all you people care about is a little food and entertainment.
“He's right,” Luna said. “I don't think we should be celebrating.”
“I'm not,” Raithe said. “But I uh... it's not my fault they...”
“I know,” she said. The girl smiled at him sweetly and then walked toward the inn. She entered it and was gone.
“Eat your fill tonight Raithe,” Sosuke said. “I've a feeling things are about to get a lot harder.” he nodded curtly and then followed Luna.
He just stood there a time – he didn't know how long – looking at the stars. When the air finally stirred, so did Raithe and with a growling stomach, he walked toward the tables. It was time to dig in, eat his fill and then return to his tree. Tomorrow, would be a long day.