Chapter 31: Keeper
Tobias woke up to the sight of a clearing surrounded by trees, lined with countless scorched lines, and a large patch stained with blood in the very middle of it all.
And then – his memories came back, and he let out a groan. His hands drifted towards his stomach, and carefully touching it only gave a twinge of pain. Yeah... that giant hole in his tunic and coat should have told him that much, but the similarly gigantic scar only made it too clear.
Similarly, his limbs felt heavy. Not impossibly heavy, but definitely sore.
Assessment of himself was complete. Looking towards the clearing, it seemed like Stella won the fight, even though she was nowhere to be found. But why would she leave him all alone in there?
“Finally awake, are you?” A man’s voice asked from somewhere. Tobias’ head snapped towards the direction, and found Magician, lazily leaning against a tree while reading his grimoire. So he wasn’t hallucinating, after all.
“Where... where’s Ste – Witch?” He asked, and his voice came out rough. His throat was unbelievably dry; why?
“I told Witch to return to the infirmary.” Magician replied back, not even bothering to remove his gaze from the leather-bound book. “If you can stand and walk, then that’s real nice. In case you don’t know, we’re currently in a forest in the middle of the night. Not a very safe place now, is it?”
“Why?” He asked, the man merely looked back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Why did you help us? I thought you retreated?”
“Bastard killed my party member. Now that was personal.” He replied, almost indifferently. But where he should have shrugged, there was nothing. His mannerisms were like that, and that made Tobias pause slightly.
He blinked. Then he let out a slow nod. “Sorry to hear that. And thank you.”
The older man snorted, and only leaned away from the tree. “I don’t wanna hear that from you of all people. If you don’t move, I’m gonna leave you behind.” And just like that, the man proceeded to walk at a brisk pace, fully intent on committing to his words.
Tobias pushed himself up, and found that his sword was retrieved at some point and sheathed by his side already. That was convenient, and he gave a pleased nod. His dagger was nowhere to be found though, but he didn’t particularly care about it. He could always get another one later on, after all.
And while his body was in no state whatsoever to fight currently, he was more than capable to simply walk, even at a brisk pace. He managed to quickly catch up to the older man, and trailed behind him, a few steps away.
They wordlessly walked, and then Tobias froze when he realized something. “By the way, you didn’t trigger any trap while walking towards here?” He called out, and the man turned around.
“What do you mean trap?” Magician asked, and while his face was covered by his mask, even Tobias could tell that the man was confused.
“Get away from the path.” Tobias ordered, and while the man was reluctant, he followed. And there. He found the string, which was incredibly subtle and hidden from the ground. To think that the man was only a few steps away from triggering it...
He walked to the base of the tree, where the string was held in place. Then he idly stepped on it, and the bladed branch sprung out. Because Tobias was at the very base, his foot only got weakly whacked by the stick near its fulcrum, and was more than far away from the blade.
Yeah... He should probably spring all his traps, before someone gets hurt. On hindsight, this was pretty dangerous, after all. But it did save his life at some point so...
So he dismantled the trap, throwing away the string and retrieving the stuck knife in the branch, before throwing away the sticks and kicking the mechanisms behind it. In this darkness, they were barely seen – even to him, who was aware and was the one who personally constructed these traps.
Imagine how invisible they would be to a person who was just passing by.
“That’s one nasty trap, kid.” The older man idly commented, no doubt having caught it in action.
“This is only one of them.” Tobias said back, and gave a sigh. Maybe he overdid it with the quantity of traps he’s laid out... “You can probably go back now, I’m going to dismantle all of these.”
“You do understand what you’re saying, right?” Magician retorted back. “I’m not going to go back when I know there are traps around.”
“Oh, right.” He replied, shrugging. Maybe it was sheer luck that the Magician didn’t spring any trap and got his leg injured, or maybe... No, not luck.
He really did design the string to be low enough to not be touched by any person who was running. So that only meant that Magician was sprinting his way towards them.
So that probably meant that his party teammate only died while they were already fighting the Warlock in combat, was it? He didn’t know fast the older man could run, but judging by the sequence of things...
He figured out nothing. His brain already made a surprising leap of logic, and couldn’t handle anymore speculating. So with a shrug to himself, he returned his focus back to the task at hand.
Remember where the traps were. And this time, since he didn’t need to make a demonstration, he decided not to spring them anymore. He just dismantled them from the mechanisms themselves, and threw away the components at a nearby brush or something.
He didn’t worry.
Aside from the knives he collected, then his traps are 100% organic and natural. Ropes were merely fibers derived from plants, and the wood-carved mechanisms were made of wood for a reason (Mostly because it’s all he could use in such a short notice, and could be easily disposed of).
Or something like that. Why were his thoughts suddenly sharper than usual...? Was it post-near-death clarity? What the hell was post-near-death clarity even? And so, he let out a sigh. No use getting distracted like that.
For the next hour or so, Tobias walked around and dismantled his traps. When he finally retrieved all of his knives and threw away the mechanisms, then he let out a sigh of relief. His body might have been sore, but moving around slowly was relaxing, but also tiring...
And just like that, Magician wordlessly began to walk back towards the direction of the City. Yes, at this distance, even through the foliage of the trees, he could see the faint light that the City emitted.
He was still somewhat surprised at the fact that there was a night life when it came to the City, but he had gotten used to it over the past month or so.
Well... he was tired. But they won the fight, did they not? In the grander schemes of things, he wasn’t quite sure what his purpose during that fight was. At face value, all he did was take the attention of the Warlock away from Stella, and a few tendrils, while countless tendrils and beams of light fought in the background.
It reminded him of Bastille back then in the Dungeon – where his world-engulfing beam of fire somehow melted a Dungeon Boss’ metal armor, and somehow set stone on fire. Because truly – it was simply that hot.
How was a simple Soldier like him supposed to contend against those?
His gaze turned towards his sword. In comparison, his own feats were probably nothing in the face of magic. The capability to fire countless beams of light, and to summon self-regenerating tendrils to block them... Magic was truly amazing.
He let out a sigh, and begun to walk towards the City. Maybe he might ask Bastille to teach him a spell or two – if he could even cast Magic to begin with.
But for now... He was tired. Unbelievably tired. He just wanted to see his friends again to see if they were fine, before he would sleep for the night. And with a resolute nod, he pushed himself forwards to walk.
For the first time, his footsteps met against the tiled lines.
“Where... am I?”
Those words echoed through the endless darkness around her – yet at the same time, her voice only sounded like a figment of her imagination. In this Abyss where her eyes saw naught, and her ears heard naught, she quickly became distressed.
Her arms flailed about, as she tried to touch something... anything to give her a sense of reality.
But no. There was nothing. Even the very ground itself was questionable at best; she didn’t even know if she was falling, or if she was standing. There was nothing beneath her feet, yet there was nothing to indicate that she was falling.
It was simply an Abyss.
“Where am I?! Get me out of here! Anyone, please!”
Total sensory deprivation. It was a particularly special hell by itself; one that should only be used against the most heinous of humans. And yet, what was this innocent girl doing within this Abyss?
Her panicked cries grew stronger and stronger which each passing second, yet nothing greeted her back. She couldn’t even properly hear her voice, and she was most likely only imagining what she was saying.
“Ah, you have arrived. My apologies for keeping you waiting.”
The voice was significant, and its strength pierced through the veil of the void. The girl froze, as she stopped yelling, and she carefully looked around to try to find where it came from. She wondered if it was just her imagination, but she had a feeling it wasn’t...
“Who... are you...?”
Her voice came off as smaller, and much weaker in comparison. And duly afraid – rightfully afraid. After all, within the endless Abyss, that voice could only belong to some unknowable horror.
“I am... known by many names, truly. But who I am matters not. Instead, we will talk about what you need to do by now.”
“What I... need to do?”
She was confused. Terribly confused. She was simply resting and talking to her friends, and she suddenly gets whisked away and placed in this terrible Abyss for seemingly no reason.
And then this terrifying, featureless entity comes out of nowhere, and proceeds to talk to her about something that she apparently needed to do.
It sounded like the start to some terrible joke to her, truthfully be told.
But no. She felt that she should participate and talk with this entity which felt powerful. It would be too rude to simply shoot down its offer of civility. They would simply talk, right?
“You now have a mission... No, you have an obligation now. And that is to serve as Tobias’ System Keeper.”
She felt her eyes blink, even if she didn’t need to. She stopped, and stared towards the (perceived) direction of the entity.
Why does she have an obligation now? Who is Tobias? Why does she need to be Tobias’ System Keeper? What is a System Keeper?
But her most prominent question was such; “Why me?”
“Out of all the questions... You asked that question. How interesting.”
The entity seemed to laugh. It sounded like the entity found what she said amusing at worst, and downright hilarious at best. But strangely enough, she didn’t feel offended. She found no traces of mockery or disrespect, as they seemed to laugh purely and freely, just because they found something interesting.
“Why you, I wonder. First and foremost, the most important reason is because you are more than well-acquainted with Tobias.”
“But... who exactly is Tobias?”
“Tobias... He is Marcus, and yet, he is Tobias. In a way that you can understand, he simply decided to use Marcus as his name. But his real, true name is Tobias.”
What? No, she understood what they said. But then... why?
“Why would he call himself Marcus, then?”
“It is not my place to tell you that.”
“... I see.”
It was personal to him, then. She should ask him that at some point later on – but not now. She still had different questions in her mind.
“What am I supposed to do for Marc – Tobias, then? You mentioned me being his Keeper...?”
“You are to be Tobias’ System Keeper...” They seemed to emphasize the strange, oddly out-of-context word. “You are to touch what lies underneath him; and awaken his potential. And to that end... You will serve as his Anchor in this World.”
Touch what lies underneath...? Awaken his potential...? Anchor in this World...?
“For he is a transient human... whose own quest will lead him to meet his untimely demise sooner or later...”
Transient creature...? Untimely demise...?!
“W-what do you mean? Is he going to die?!”
“Everybody dies at some point. But for him, his life is... unpredictable. He was supposed to be fine... but a twist of fate happened, and now, he almost died recently.”
“H-he almost died recently? How...?!”
“Tobias confronted the... infidel who coordinated the attack upon you, and your party. He came to avenge all of you, and he is grievously wounded, as a result. If you wish to hear the list of his extensive injuries, I am more than willing to disclose it to you. A warning, though. It will be gruesome.”
Even within the Abyss, her stomach seemed to lurch, and she felt her head swirl. If she could see a mirror, she would no doubt have found herself pale – paler than she had ever been.
“N... no... You don’t have to go that far...”
“Do you wish to be useful to him?”
She stopped. Was she ever truly useful to him? She had seen him dive into the heart of a den of strong monsters, slaying his way out time and time again. She had seen him take on three orcs much bigger than him at the same time, and emerged victorious. She had seen him move, his figure turning into a wild dance of strength and speed.
Yes, indeed... Was she ever truly useful to him? It felt as if her existence was... just there.
The Swordsman was there to follow him in his dance of death, and helped to cover his angles that his sword did not reach. While he wasn’t as brutal as him, he made it up in fearlessness and decisiveness, and gave critical advice when needed.
The Sorcerer’s spells were Legends given form – as each spell came to life, and unbelievable magic spewed forth. He did not even need to chant unlike other Mages, as all of his spells were silent in nature, and he, himself, seemed to push the boundaries of human intelligence.
And her... What did she offer in comparison? Too weak and scared to ever fight in front lines... Too talentless to ever learn how to cast spells... Compared to them, her arrows were like small annoyances at best.
Compared to everyone else, she felt like she was just an addition. She was offered a chance and was asked to join them, but she felt that deep inside, that it was just an offer of pity to her poor, sorry self.
Her fists tightened, and she strengthened her resolve.
“I... I want to be useful...”
“Then do you agree to be Tobias’ System Keeper?”
And when she said those words, the Abyss shifted, and lurched. Then she felt her very soul being touched by something that could not be explained.
And then... she felt her very existence being changed into something else – being rewritten into something else... She subconsciously knows that it should have been wrenching, disgusting, and violating – and yet...
This entity’s touch was nothing but careful. Their touch was light, and each touch barely felt like anything. Their touch had purpose, and each touch had absolute precision.
It oddly reminded her of her mother’s gentle, caressing touch.
And then – she knew it was done. She let out a breath she didn’t know she held, before realizing that in this Abyss-like place, she didn’t quite need to breath.
Because there was no air to begin with.
No... that thought was inconsequential.
That entity touching her soul gave her what she needed to know. She knew what her duty is from this day on, and she knew how to do it well.
“Then you are Tobias’ Keeper. You are responsible for him, just as he is responsible for you.”
She blinked. And then the Abyss around her – it disappeared. Like some distant, fragile memory of eons past – it simply ceased to be.
“Come on now, this isn’t that bad.”
And then... She felt a hand against her shoulder, and she felt herself getting turned around. The dim lanterns and the night sky weren’t bright at all, but compared to the Abyss, they might as well have been blinding to her.
She blinked repeatedly for a few seconds. Each blink made the light much more bearable than the last, before finally, she saw properly once more.
There was Jacques – the one who made her turn around, as his hand still touched her shoulder. There was an unknown woman, whose black hair reminded her of the Abyss, and whose eyes seemed to glow a crimson red, like blood. And there was also Bastille, who stared at her with a worried expression at first, before turning into one of severe disbelief and confusion.
And then... Where was he? “Where... Where is Tobias?”
Everyone turned to each other with expressions of confusion, and wonder, as if they didn’t know what to say to her. She only narrowed her eyes, and gave a light glare towards them, before softening her gaze. She knew why they were confused; they did not know that Marcus’ true name was Tobias. That mistake was hers.
“I meant... Where is Marcus?”
“No, before that,” Bastille interrupted, as he idly turned his head to lock gazes with her. His pale, red eyes seemed to be interested in something about her. “What the hell happened to your eyes?”
She blinked, from the sheer confusion that question brought her. “What do you mean?”
Bastille and Jacques idly shared a look. “It’s better to see it in a mirror or something, or else you’ll never believe us.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t have time for that. I need to find Marcus, now.” She said, standing up from her seat.
“Wait.” The unknown woman said, and moved to step in front of her. “I still need to examine you for any Hexes –”
“I really do not have any time for that.” She hissed, and only looked up at the taller woman with open hostility. “You can step aside, or I’ll make you.”
“Calm down, Clara.” Jacques said, raising his arms to try to pacify her.
She paused at his words. Clara... That was her name, wasn’t it...? Yes. It was. How could she have forgotten?
Was it because of the Abyss? Was it because of the newfound obligation she obtained from a deity-like entity of the Abyss?
... No. Right now, it did not matter in the slightest. But it did give her back something which had been missing for the past few minutes (or hours, she did not know how long she was stuck in that dreadful nothingness).
“What got you so worked up? Is it because of your eyes?”
Clara blinked. There it was, again. Them mentioning something about her eyes. What happened? Why were her eyes drawing everyone’s attention? Were they not always the same sky-colored blue they always were? Was that not a common enough trait among humans in this kingdom?
The words Bastille mentioned; ‘It’s better to see it in a mirror’ echoed throughout her head.
“Just... what happened to my eyes...?” She finally asked, giving up from trying to get away from them. They seemed persistent enough to not let her leave, until they figured out the mystery at least.
And maybe... she might come to realize something from it, as well.
“Your eyes...” Jacques began slowly. “They’re black. What happened, Clara?” He might have asked that question – but his eyes seemed to have the faintest idea of what happened to her... But he said nothing else after.
... That was it? She had expected something more drastic than that. But no, she figured out why that was the case. But she didn’t know if she should share it right now, or keep quiet about it.
“Do you really want to know?”
Wait... Why was she being secretive to begin with? Were they not her friends and allies? She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She should probably begin to explain, before anything else. They probably needed to know that much, at least.
“That would be helpful.” Jacques nodded.
“If you’re going to start explaining, do you mind if I start diagnosing you while you’re doing it?” The woman said, as she scooted closer towards Clara. “I figured you might want to kill two birds with one stone, or that’s how the saying goes.”
Clara looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Who... Who are you?”
The older woman slightly tilted her head, before giving a sigh. “I am Stella, a Witch. Pleased to meet you.”
That was... certainly faster than she expected. But she gave a nod back. “Clara, an Archer. Nice to meet you too. You can go for it.”
The Witch let out a pleased hum, before moving to stare at her in the eyes. And then – her left eye changed color. From its vibrant, yet dark crimson, it became golden – much like the color of the sun. And then, she stared closely at her.
“Oh, don’t mind me. Just start explaining and pretend I’m never here. Don’t worry about what I hear, either. I swear to keep everything a secret. It’s the least I could do for you.”
While Clara found the arrangement less than agreeable, she figured that she didn’t quite have time to waste. So trying her best to ignore the observing gaze of the older woman, she began to think about what she needed to say.
“So... how did your eyes turn black?” Bastille prompted, and she let out a hum. That was a good question. But she knew the reason why, even if she wasn’t quite told what it was.
“Something from within the Abyss offered me a deal.”
The way she said it was so unbelievably casual. And yet – the people surrounding her only gave mixed reactions. Jacques’ eyes blanked into one of... she didn’t know how to describe his expression. Bastille’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. Stella only froze, and looked at her with widened eyes.
Clara blinked. Was it really that bad...?
“A deal, forged in the Abyss you say.” Stella said tonelessly. Her voice was dangerously low, and her fingers twitched every now and then – as if she was ready to cast something magical. “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t get rid of you by now.”
“Are you threatening her?” Jacques warned, and his eyes were narrowed. His arms were tensed, and even though they were still covered in bandages and had splints to support them, his eyes only told him that he had the resolve to use them if necessary.
“It’s complicated.” Bastille said, with a torn expression. He seemed like he knew what the Abyss was, but at the same time, still hesitated because he was dealing with a close friend. “The Abyss... what did it tell you, Clara?”
“It told me to become Tobias’ System Keeper.” She winced, then shook her head. “No, his name is Marcus... Marcus’ System Keeper.”
“What...? Is Tobias supposed to be Marcus?” The Sorcerer asked, and she nodded in turn. “So that’s why it’s always been strange to call him by that name...”
She gave another nod. On hindsight... it really was. Why did he hide such a perfectly fine name? She was just about as lost as they were in that department.
“So you were told by the Abyss to become Marcus’ System Keeper.” Stella repeated, with a nod to herself. And then, she let out a heavy sigh. “What the actual hell is a System Keeper...?”
“I am to serve as his Anchor in this World.” Clara echoed the words that the entity told her. “I am to touch what lies underneath him, and awaken his potential. And I am responsible for him, just as he is responsible for me.”
Yes... now that she was reciting them out loud – her duties out loud, she only resonated with them. It was almost as if her entire existence was to fulfill them as best as she could.
It seemed only too natural to her.
“So basically... you blanked out for a few minutes, got your consciousness kidnapped by the Abyss for some reason, and it offered you to basically marry Marc – Tobias, which you graciously accepted as evidenced by your eyes.” Bastille summarized, with a hum to himself. Then he snapped his fingers, and gave her a knowing grin. “Actually now that I heard about it, I don’t think that’s too bad.”
Clara blinked. And she blinked again. Then she absorbed the meaning of those words. And then her face heated in embarrassment. “Y-y-you didn’t need to put it that way...!”
“The Abyss really is unpredictable, as always...” Stella let out a relieved sigh. “But you don’t seem to be lying, so I guess you’re fine for now.”
“About this Abyss...” Jacques slowly asked from the corner, and everyone turned to face him. His eyes seemed to be narrowed, and she wasn’t able to figure out why exactly that was the case. “What do you people exactly know about that place?”
“The Abyss is a great unknown.” Bastille replied. “Nobody knows what it is, how it works, or even where it is. We only know that it does exist, somehow. And that’s why it’s enough to put most Mages on guard. And you know that Mages don’t like not knowing anything. I guess it’s somewhat of a taboo or a scholarly thing to talk about depending on who you ask, really.” He finalized with a shrug.
“For us, Witches and Warlocks, we believe that the Abyss serves as a gateway to Hell – where the worst people could offer something about themselves in exchange for something else. Maybe an eye for the capability to see into the future, or maybe one’s soul for power.” Stella shivered, as if the thought was somehow personal. “Those kind of things, really.”
Clara blinked. The first explanation was too vague to be wrong, but at the same time was too vague to be correct. The second explanation was more concrete, and yet... on second thought, she didn’t know enough to form a valid opinion about it.
“Oh, and can you stick out your tongue?” Stella announced casually. “Don’t worry, I’m just going to look at the top and the bottom.”
Clara blinked, and stared at her. The sheer audacity of Stella’s words made her look towards her party members for help.
Bastille and Jacques shared another look, then shrugged in unison. “It is what it is.” They both said at the same time.
So she reluctantly did. The good part about it was the fact that Stella seemed to know what she was doing, and didn’t do anything weird to her.
“Alright, looks like there’s nothing there. Would you mind sitting on the bed for me?”
Clara blinked, but did as she was asked. And then – the curtains were drawn around her, blocking her vision of anything outside, and vice versa. And Stella’s next words were absolutely sacrilegious.
“Do as you’re told.”
“Come on, we’re both girls here, it’s fine... Oh my, you’re growing modestly.”
Jacques and Bastille watched the curtains. Yes, the curtains, which seemed to jostle about as Clara’s sounds of struggle and embarrassment were heard. Then they looked at each other again.
“They must be having fun.” Jacques idly commented. “Then again... Stella looks like she’s fun to be with.” He said, giving a not-so-subtle wink of appreciation towards the Sorcerer.
“Indeed.” Bastille let out a sagely nod. “Truly, you have good taste in women. I approve.”
“Not as good as your tastes, wise sir. I don’t even know half of it.”
“Eastern-eyed, fair-skinned, short-hair about shoulder-length, wears spectacles – preferentially the large, round, and rimless kind. She must be good at cooking, she must be kind to me but somewhat rude to everyone else, and she must be loyal to me.”
Jacques let out a sagely nod. “Truly refined tastes, wise sir.”
“Why, thank you, good sir.”
“We could hear you two, you know?!” Clara’s yell came from the curtains, and right when she said that, the curtains were drawn back. She leveled an angry glare towards Stella, while giving the two of them an annoyed glare.
It seemed like inspection finally was done.
“Looks about right. Nothing happened to you three, at the very least. Anyways, I still need to check everyone else.” Stella nodded, then moved towards the other curtains with beds. She wordlessly hopped into one of the curtains, and light emerged from it.
Was it some sort of silencing Hex?
“Now that I think about it, I’m surprised everyone else is still asleep even though we’ve been shouting and all.” Jacques wondered, and then looked at the windows. The sight made him sigh heavily, and the implications were just as weighted as his sigh.
It made everyone remember what just happened an hour or so before... And just like that, the air instantly turned somber again.
“I think the curtains are enchanted.” Bastille replied, looking at the objects he mentioned. “Yeah, I can feel that those curtains are imbued with magic, maybe so that they wouldn’t be disturbed too much. I’m not really sure if they’re enchanted, or if the magic was woven into the fabric... but then again, what’s the difference, right?”
Jacques gave a nod. “Yeah, doesn’t sound like a whole lot of difference to me.”
“Wrong. There’s a lot of differences between them.” Bastille suddenly said, and Jacques let out a flinch. But then, the Sorcerer sighed. “Then again, I’m too tired to tell you all about it. Maybe next time.”
“That explanation sounds oddly half assed, though...” He muttered.
“Don’t worry about it.” Bastille waved his hand, to dismiss the thought.
Clara silently watched the conversation between her two party members. Everything was back to normal, wasn’t it...? Then her eyes widened.
She almost forgot about what she needed to do...! She still needed to find Marcus – no, Tobias. So she stood up quickly, and bolted towards the door.
And she opened it –
“Is that you, Clara...?”
She flinched, turning towards the boy who entered the door.
Yes... that face. The unruly, wavy hair which faintly resembled ashes, and those pure, earth-like eyes of his which shone of confusion – most likely at her newest development.
A smile flitted across her face.
“That is I, Tobias.” She nodded, as her hands reached down to the hems of her white dress, and she gave him a humble bow. She did not fail to notice the expression of shock which ran across his face. “I am your Keeper.”