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Clashing Blades - Arc 7

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Arc 7 of Sword Art Online: Clashing Blades.

Chapter 32

Fighting like this felt… exhilarating.

I zigzag between enemies before cutting into one, bringing him down to red before going to the next and doing the same. I had been doing this the entire time I was fighting. I had accidentally killed a few players during the fight but… I didn’t have time to think about that. My friends were counting on me right now. I rush up to another and dodge two of his strikes before infusing my blade with flames and throwing them out, scorching him and doing some good damage before moving in and cutting him down.

“DAMMIT!” I hear Trinity shout over the noise. When I look over to her I can see her fighting a high level player as… Agravaine fell to the ground.

“Bastard!” I say, rushing over to the scene and cutting Trinity’s opponent down as she distracted him.

“Asuka!” She says, surprised.

“Agravaine.” I kneel down to look at her. She was injured and her HP was going down.

“I’ll take care of her.” I see Misanthres come up and pick her up. “You two keep fighting, I’ll take her out of the castle to treat her.”

Trinity and I both nod and move out, continuing our fight for just minutes longer, until, finally, the fighting ceased.

I look around at the destruction we caused… we lost a lot of men… more than we should have. Almost all of our forces were killed. That was more than just 500… that was more like 1000.

“Damn…” Iskandar said, slightly injured. “That was way more than just 500.”

“Yeah…” Knight said, wiping his cheek. “Hao seems to have made a bit of a miscalculation…”

“Where is Hao, anyway?” Trinity asks, looking around.

We all do the same.

“Where is Ishi?” I add, looking around for him as well.

“He had gone after Kamui.” Knight said. “But that was hours ago… he should be back by now…”

“You don’t think he…”

“No, Asuka.” He raises his hand. “Ishi wouldn’t be beaten by him… not a chance… but right now we can’t worry about that, we need to assess the damages to our forces.”

We spent the next half hour assessing our losses. We lost most of our forces, with only 58 out of the 300 we had surviving. On top of that, both Ishi and Hao were missing. I didn’t trust Hao as far as I could throw him, so I really didn’t care about him, but Ishi… I really hoped he was alright wherever he was.

“Knight.” I walk up to him as he discussed some things with Iskandar. “We need to find Ishi.”

“Right…” He said. “Hao as well.”

“Sure…” I mutter.

“Trinity.” Knight calls his subordinate over. “Go with Asuka to find Ishi. I think I saw him leave out the back gate of the castle.”

“Right.” We both say in unison, and we both run towards the back of the castle, looking out of the back gate of the castle, which looked like it had been broken through.

“Asuka.” Trinity caught my attention as she pointed to the ground at a group of tracks. “Hoof prints.”

“Kamui must’ve tried to escape with some of his men.” I say. “Ishi went after him.”

“Come on, let’s follow the trail.” Trinity said, as we begin to walk along the path set out for us.

---

It didn’t take too long for us to find the first body. It was bloody, and had a knife imbedded in his head. It was one of Ishi’s knives. Further down we see a few more. One with a pierced neck, one with an arrow in his eye and another with a knife in the face. We continue walking and find another with a deep cut in his chest and another that was almost cleaved in two at the waist.

Not long after we see two more bodies. One was Kamui’s, Arondight stuck in his leg… the other was Ishi. He was face down on the ground, blood splattered all over him.

“Oh no…” I say quietly, picking up my pace. “No… no!”

I make a break for it towards Ishi, sliding down onto my knees and raising him off the ground. I gasp when I notice the wound in his chest, black from blood. I look to his face. His eyes were half open and had a foggy look to them, their fierce golden hue dulled, almost looking gray… they stared blankly out at nothing. He was cold…

“Ishi…” I shake him lightly. “Ishi?”

Trinity looked down on me cradling his body, clenching her fists and stamping on the ground once, before walking over to Kamui and spitting on his corpse.

“Rôtir en enfer, vous racaille.” She spoke harshly in her native French.

I choked up a bit, tears beginning to streak down my face.

“Ishi…” I stammer. “Ishi, come on… wake up…”

Trinity looked back to me, a solemn look on her face. She hid her face from me as she began to tear up as well.

“Ishi, please…” I can barely talk without crying. I bring him closer, holding his lifeless body tightly as my vision is impaired by the tears. I close my eyes tight, trying my best not to just completely lose it.

Trinity knelt down beside me and put her hand on Ishi’s shoulder, Arondight in her other hand.

“Come on…” She said. “We should… probably go back… tell them what happened.”

“He’s… he’s not dead… is he?” I look up to her over his shoulder. “He’s been through worse… right?”

“Asuka… I…” She had to take a sharp breath to keep herself from crying. “I’m sorry…”

I hang onto him tighter, clutching onto his clothing for dear life, not wanting to let him go. I felt empty inside… like something was just torn out of me… I felt sick and weak… I imagined this was how he felt when he had lost Misaki… now he lost his own life too…

“Kamui didn’t do this…” Trinity said suddenly.

I look up and see her holding Kamui’s broken blade, shattered from the middle.

“Kamui couldn’t have stabbed him with a broken sword…” She thought. “Someone else killed him.”

“Hao…” I say. “Hao is missing too… he disappeared shortly after Ishi went ahead.”

“You’re right…” Trinity said. “I never trusted him… not for an instant! He’s going to pay for this!”

I release my hold on Ishi and let him lay on my lap, his lifeless eyes still gazing up at the darkened night sky. I cup his cheek in my hand, rubbing it gently. I wish I had told him how I felt… how much he really meant to me…

“We should take him back.” Trinity said, picking up Eternia from the ground next to Ishi. “Come on… the others are waiting.”

I hesitate as Trinity begins to walk back, but I eventually get up, carrying Ishi in my arms as we walked back, Trinity silently leading as we hung our heads, our hearts just as low as we suffer through the loss of our greatest ally… our greatest friend…

---

We make it back to the bombarded ruins of Castle Arundel as they sky turned completely to night. We worked our way through the rubble of good chunks of the castle and pass through the first courtyard to where everyone was waiting. Everyone notices Trinity first… then me… then Ishi.

“No…” Knight says quietly. “Oh FUCK no!”

“Oh, God…” Avro whispers to himself.

Iskandar just stood there, breathless as I carried Ishi’s body over and gently laid him down on the ground, while Trinity put Arondight and Eternia on the ground next to him. I didn’t say a word as I stood over him, looking down at his face…

Iskandar stepped up with tired steps and stopped to his knees, clutching his head as it lowered to the ground. I could see tears streaming between his fingers as he covered his face.

I looked over to Kana and Diana. Diana had her face buried in her sister’s shoulder, while Kana just stood there, wide eyed, tears running down her face.

“Who…” Iskandar said, in an almost terrifying tone. “Who did this…”

“Hao.” Trinity said for me. “Hao did this… he betrayed us…”

“That’s why the enemy numbers were wrong…” Knight said. “He expected all of us to die…”

“He was using us…” Iskandar said maliciously. “All this time!”

He punched the ground so hard it almost cracked the rock his fist hit.

“He killed Ishi!” Iskandar said, his voice cracking up to tears. “He… he killed Ishi…”

I kneeled down beside Ishi again, placing my hand on his chest, as if I’d feel a heartbeat… but there was nothing… I didn’t feel anything… he was gone… he was really gone…

Suddenly, though, I see something on his face. In his right eye, I saw a spark of blue flash. It flashed again, and for some reason, I looked over to Arondight. It laid on the ground next to me, the blade still as sharp and shining as it had been when Ishi was alive… I felt drawn to it… something was pushing me towards it. I reach out carefully, and touch it.

Instantly… I saw everything.

My head reeled back in pain, and I yelp out sharply, clutching my head as the sharp but extremely brief pain went away. I just saw everything Arondight had been through with Ishi in one touch… but… how?

Just then, I noticed Ishi take a breath.

“Asuka!” Trinity put her hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Corbenik…” I say.

“What?” Knight asked.

“Corbenik kept him alive.” I said. “He’s breathing…”

Everyone looks to him, and sure enough, his eyes had closed and he was breathing… slowly and very drawn out… but at least he was breathing.

“What the…” Avro said. “But how?!”

“I don’t know…” I say. “But Corbenik had been keeping Ishi from being taken over by Skeith… maybe it can do more than just that…”

“God damn…” Knight says. “We need to take him to Bedivere, now.”

“I’ll take him.” I say, snatching him up.

“I’ll go with.” Trinity says, picking up his two weapons.

“Alright…” Knight says. “Keep us posted on his condition, okay?”

“Yeah.” I say.

I look to Iskandar, who seemed to be a little shaken by the whole event, but was looking much more relieved knowing Ishi was alive at least.

Now the question was if he was going to be okay…

---

Trinity and I waited downstairs at Adeline’s while Bedivere took care of Ishi upstairs. She had told us to wait down here and that she’d call us up when she had gotten him into a stable condition.

That was an hour ago…

We had said nothing to each other for a while, now, and I was frequently hitting Adeline for shots of apple juice. Wasn’t alcohol, but it still felt like I had a horrible hangover. I slam my head into the table, physically and emotionally exhausted by this whole ordeal.

“Okay, I think that’s enough juice for you, sweetie.” Adeline said.

I grab the jug of juice before she took it away.

“No!” I say. “I know when… I’ve had enough…”

I tipsily start chugging the juice, and down half the entire thing before having to take a breath and slamming the thing down onto the table.

“Asuka, calm down…” Trinity said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “We can’t do anything for him, right now. Bedivere’s working her best. We have to have faith in her.”

“Agh…” I cough twice. “I guess… I just… I really thought he was dead… I’ve never felt so awful in my life…”

“I know what you mean…” Trinity said.

We stay in silence for a few more minutes before Trinity speaks up.

“You love him, don’t you?”

I freeze where I am, staying silent, but I decide to come clean.

“Yes…” I say quietly, burying my head into my arms on the table.

“I can see why.” Adeline says. “He’s always been so strong… he has a lot of qualities that are worth admiration. Hell, I’d go for him myself if I didn’t see him as more of a younger brother.” She sighs, resting her head on her hand. “That and I don’t think he’s into older women.”

At this point, Kana and Diana walked into the restaurant.

“How is he?” Kana asks.

“Don’t know yet.” Trinity replied while I kept my head down. “How’s Agravaine?”

“She’ll be fine.” Kana said. “She wasn’t hurt too badly, thank goodness.”

“That’s good…” Trinity looks over to me. I still have my head down in my arms.

“So… how’s Asuka?” Diana asks.

“She… um…” Adeline starts. “She’s not really taking this well… Ishi means a lot to Asuka and coming that close to losing him… it shook us all up, I think.”

“Well, we just wanted to check in.” Kana said. “We have some things we need to take care of. Keep us posted, alright?”

Trinity nods and the two sisters head out the door.

It took another hour and a half for Bedivere’s assistant to finally come down the stairs.

“We’ve done all we can for now.” Vimana said. “You can come up.”

Trinity went first, but I hesitated. I didn’t know if I could handle seeing him in such a condition… but I went anyway. I slowly ascended the stairs and walked down the hall to Ishi’s room. When I walked in, I saw Bedivere still caring for him… he was out of all clothes but his boxers, with gauze wrapped around his waist, chest, a few places on his legs and arms, and over his left shoulder.

I walked up to him, just staring at him… he was barely breathing… but still, I knew he was alive. It still hurt to see him like this, though…

“He’s in a coma.” Bedivere stated.

“A coma in the game?” Trinity said.

“I know, strange…” She said. “He’s stabilized at least, but… I don’t know if he’ll wake up.”

“What happens if he doesn’t?” Trinity asks.

“More than likely the shock of what happened to him will keep him in a coma for the rest of his life, even outside the game.” She said. “Unless he can break out of it… but that’s up to chance right now… could be a few days, a few weeks, months, years even… there’s no telling.”

Trinity looks to me as I gaze down at him. She could tell just by looking at me.

“Bedivere, Vimana…” She whispered to the other two girls. “C’mon, we should leave them alone.”

“Ah… right.” Bedivere said, as the three left the room and shut the door quietly behind me. I stay standing for a few more minutes before grabbing a chair and sitting down next to him. I feel tears start to well up in my eyes again, and I have to wipe them away frequently. I cup my hand on his cheek again… it felt warmer… but not as warm as it ought to be.

“Ishi…” I say quietly, moving up to him and kissing his forehead gently. “My mom taught me that… she says it brings good luck.”


I crack a smile, but it fades quickly. I cross my arms across the left side of his chest and lay my head down on it, the exhaustion from the day fully setting in. I drift off to sleep quickly after that, listening to Ishi’s slow but steady heartbeat.

Chapter 33


I wake up a bit slowly. I raise my head and look over. Ishi was still asleep… in a coma, rather… I sigh sadly… I was kind of hoping that he’d wake up by now… but I guess I can’t expect that to happen.

I suddenly hear the sound of loud snoring, and shaking my head startled, I look over to a large chair in the room, seeing Iskandar seated there, head to the ceiling and mouth wide open as he slept noisily. I could see some drool leaking from the corner of his mouth.

I get up and wave my hand in front of his face rapidly, rousing him from his sleep. He yawned loudly, stretching his arms wide and sleepily looking down at me.

“Oh…” He said. “Hey there, young lady.”

“What’re you doing here?” I ask.

“Oh… just wanted to check up on Ishi… make sure he’s okay.” Iskandar looked over to him on the bed. “He’s been through a lot… it scared me when I thought he was gone…”

“How well do you know Ishi, anyway?” I wonder.

“Ah, Ishi and I go way back.” He pans his hand outwards to emphasize it. “Knew him when he was still in Pendragon Court. We met when we ran into each other during a mission.”

“What mission was that?”

“Can’t remember… but we were after the same thing… I think… well the point is we made friends pretty quickly. I always knew he was a fighter, and I always respected the fact that he stood up for what he believed in… no matter who said no and no matter what the outcome may be… to think he was so close to being brought down just… it makes me feel sick.”

“I know what you mean…” I walk over to Ishi, sitting back down in my chair and feeling his forehead. He didn’t feel hot… I guess that was good, for what it was worth in comparison to being in a coma.

“I tell you, Ishi really is something…” Iskandar says. “He has spirit like I’ve never seen… people say I have spirit but they clearly have never seen him.”

“I guess so…” I stroke Ishi’s cheek gently, smiling a bit.

Bedivere stepped into the room at this point, noticing Iskandar immediately.

“What’re you doing here?” She asked.

He shrugged.

“Well… I need to check on Ishi’s condition.” She said, walking over to him and performing her examinations.

Iskandar and I watched as she examined Ishi head to toe to make sure nothing was wrong and that he was in stable condition. It didn’t take her long to confirm that this was the case.

“Alright, everything seems normal.” She said, sitting down in another chair in the room, sighing with relief. “I never thought I’d end up treating Ishi of all people like this.”

“We need to go after Hao for this.” I say.

“But we have no idea where he went.” Iskandar said. “He just… disappeared. There’s no trace of him anywhere.”

“Even so.”

“Right now I think Ishi’s the greatest concern.” Bedivere said. “If he can get back into action we’ll have a much greater chance at combating Hao… that and… well of course I’m worried about his health too…”

“Right, right.” I say, smiling lightly. “We know what you mean.”

We sit in silence for a few minutes before I stand up, turning to leave.

“Where are you going, Asuka?” Bedivere asks.

“I’m going to HQ.” I tell her. “I don’t want to just sit by while Hao is still out there. Just because Ishi’s out for now doesn’t mean I need to be.”

“You’re right.” Iskandar said, standing up. “I will join you.”

“Well… alright.” Bedivere said. “I’ll keep you updated on his condition. But be careful, alright? There’s no telling what Hao is up to now.”

I nod and leave with Iskandar, leaving Adeline’s and teleporting to HQ.

---

I walk into HQ with Iskandar at my side. Knight, Trinity, and Avro were at the table, as well as Agravaine, who thankfully looked well.

“Asuka.” Knight greeted. “How are you?”

“Fine enough.” I say.

“Good to see you as well, Iskandar.” He added.

Iskandar nodded.

“Is Hao still missing?” He asked.

“Yeah…” Knight said. “He made sure he left no trace left… it’s like he… just vanished. Not even Trinity has been able to pick up on his trail.”

“Well what can we do?” I ask.

“Not much…” Knight answered. “We took a big hit during that battle… honestly I’m surprised any of us made it out alive.”

“Hao set us up for quite the fall…” Trinity said.

“What about the Royal Knights?” I ask. “Didn’t we have an agreement with them?”

“The Royal Knights are gone, Asuka.” Triniy told me. “They were wiped out.”

“What?!” I say. “When?”

“A few months ago, I think… around the start of the year.” She said. “I don’t exactly know what happened.”

“Galant as well?” I ask.

“I doubt it.” Knight said. “Knowing him. He’s at Ishi’s level when it comes to being hard to kill, but there hasn’t been any word about him either, so there’s no telling for sure.”

“So we have nothing?” I ask. “Nothing at all?”

“No.” Knight said. “What can we do, really?”

“We still have most of Iskandar’s army, don’t we?” I say.

“But what can we do with them?” Knight says. “We have no clue where Hao has gone, what he’s planning, how many he has backing him up… we don’t have anything, Asuka.”

“Well I’ll find something, then.” I say without hesitation.

“How?” Trinity questioned.

“I’ll look around.” I say. “If I search enough something is bound to turn up.”

I turn to leave, but Knight stops me.

“Asuka, no.” He says. “We can’t have you going out and getting yourself into trouble.”

“All due respect, Knight.” I say, a bit angrily. “I’m not in Pendragon Court.”

I leave the building, deciding to head to Ravenwing to visit Scott. He’s a man who tends to hear things… maybe he’d know something I could use.

---

I walk into the tavern at Ravenwing after a bit of hestitation. I really didn’t feel too safe without Ishi being here. His reputation around these parts alone was a deterrent, but I didn’t really have anything backing me up. I knew how dangerous this place could be, considering it was founded by player killers, but this place was also a great place to get information, so I didn’t have much choice.

I didn’t feel comfortable with all the eyes on me as I made my way towards the bar, sitting own there.

“Ah, fair lass!” Scott says bombastically. “Tis great tah see yeh again!”

“Hey, Scott.” I say.

“’nd where’d Ishi be?” He asks. “He not with yah?”

“No…” I say. “He… he’s, well… there was a bit of an incident that he needs to recover from.”

“Somethin’ took Ishi down a notch?” He asked. “I’d be damned if that aint a frightenin’ thought! Give ‘im me warmest regards.”

“I was hoping you could help me, actually.” I say.

“Ah, what with?”

“I’m looking for someone named Hao.” I say. “Have you heard of him?”

“Hmm…” Scott scratches his beard in thought. “Can’t say I ‘ave. Never even ‘eard the name spoke ‘round here. Yah sure he even exists?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Well then he’s damned good at hidin’ ‘is tracks, he is.” He says.

“Dammit…” I mutter, just as I catch a guy walking up behind me.

“Hey, there, princess.” He says, getting right up in my face as I turn away from him. “What’s a pretty face like you doing around here?”

I don’t answer, choosing to ignore him.

“Aw, now don’t be like that, sweetheart.” He says in an annoying tone. “I’m sure me and the boys could show you a good time.”

He reaches a hand out, trying to go for my breast.

“Why dontcha-”

I cut him off with a solid punch right in the face, charged by fire, sending him flying across the bar and wrecking a few tables before he slammed into the far wall.

I casually walk over the guy on the ground and place my high-heel right on his face, before stomping down, putting him down for a good while before casually walking back flicking a bit of fire outwards as a warning to everyone else before sitting back down.

“Well, then.” Scott says, impressed. “I see Ishi’s had ‘is effect on yah.”

“I guess so…” I say, as the entire bar descended upon me.

---

So I had to beat the shit out of the entire bar. Literally everyone in the bar except for Scott took a whack at me, missed, and received a much harder whack right back. But after all was said and done, I had no leads, unfortunately.

Well what was I supposed to do, then?

“Wait…” I think quietly to myself. “I’m pretty sure there’s a Laughing Coffin base of operations somewhere here… I bet they have some information I could use, sensitive information that they wouldn’t discuss in a bar.”

So that was it, then. Back Ishi and I had chased that one Laughing Coffin courier through this town we found that place… I remembered where we went. I retrace the path from my memory and sure enough I’m taken to the furthest outskirts of the town. The place in question was a warehouse of some sort… there weren’t any Laughing Coffin members around either. Made sense considering this was more of a secretive base and having guys constantly around would arouse suspicion. I didn’t see how it mattered in a town like this, but it was lucky for me, so I wouldn’t question.

I make my way to the front door, which was actually just a big sliding door like you’d usually see on warehouses, and I bring out my blade, cutting the lock on it cleanly and allowing me entrance. I slide the door open and close it behind me, looking around. It was a warehouse, alright, but it didn’t look like there was much I could use. I thought for a spell and figured that most warehouses had some sort of top floor office or something. I find the stairs and head up, walking across a catwalk and sure enough to a top floor office.

I head to the front desk and see a bunch of files that I immediately begin to sort through, trying to find Hao’s name on anything… there were a lot of papers to sort through… it took me half an hour but I find a special file in a drawer in the desk. I pull it up and read it to myself.

“No way…” I say, analyzing the words on the page a few more times over just to be sure. “Hao is… second in command of the Guardians of Darkness? Right next to Kamui… he was with them all along. So why did he let Kamui die, then… did he set that up too?”

“Hey, who busted the lock?” I hear a voice downstairs say.

“Shit… should’ve taken the back door.” I say quietly to myself as I drop the files and quietly sneak over to the catwalk, looking down from a floor up to see Laughing Coffin members pouring into the place.

“Someone’s here.” One of them says. “I can feel it…”

I back up quickly and look around the office, trying to find a way I could sneak out. Then I figured I really didn’t need to, actually, so I just fired up a rune and punched the wall, making a good sized hole that I jump through and make a run before any of them knew what had happened. With new information, I head back to Luciad to see if anyone else could help make sense of all this.

---

“What?!” Trinity exclaimed after I had explained what I had found out.

“So that’s how he knew…” Knight said, fingers interlaced in front of his face.

“I should’ve suspected…” Iskandar remarked.

“But then why would he set Kamui up to be killed?” Knight said. “Just to take power for himself?”

“No…” Iskandar said. “I can tell the kind of person Hao is… it can’t be that simple. He got something else out of it…”

I think on it, but am unable to come up with an answer.

“Did the files you find give any clues as to where he is now?” Knight asked.

“No.” I shake my head. “They only explained a meeting that happened a while ago and Hao was there.”

“What was the meeting about?” Trinity questioned.

“Discussing plans of attacks on us.” I say. “It’s not anything important now that Kamui is gone.”

“But Hao has taken control.” Knight said. “And I have a feeling he’s even more dangerous than Kamui was.”

“We’ll see how dangerous he is when I have my sword to his neck…” I mutter.

“Easy, Asuka.” Trinity said. “We’ll get him, don’t worry.”

“Well we need to find him, first.” Avro said.

“Shut up, Avro.” Trinity snapped.

“I’m gonna go check up on Ishi.” I say. “Tell me if you find out anything.”

I leave the building, teleporting to Talmia when I get out.

---

I enter Ishi’s room, finding him still asleep in his bed. He didn’t look like he had even moved at all in the past day, which worried me… the only thing that really moved at all was his chest while he breathed.

I walk over and sit down on the chair next to his bed, looking at him, as I could imagine that he was fighting through his coma with everything he had.

I reach out and gently take his hand in mine, bringing it up and kissing it lightly before placing it back to his side.

I look over to Arondight, which was propped up against the wall in its sheath, same as Eternia. I stare at it for a few seconds before going over to it and picking it up.

“What else can you tell me?” I wondered aloud, holding the blade in my hands.

I concentrate as hard as I could, focusing on only Arondight, trying to elicit a response like before… I stay fixed in my position, eyes closed, trying to listen for it… it took more than an hour of me just sitting there with the blade in my hand to hear it, but when it did, what it said shocked me.

“Hao took Skeith…” I say quietly, looking to Ishi. “He took Skeith from you, didn’t he?”

He doesn’t respond… like I expected him to.

But now I knew that Hao had stolen Skeith… which made him much, much more dangerous than before… still… I had to find him.

I didn’t know what would happen once I did.

Chapter 34


2 Weeks Later

I sit staring at my dinner on the table, a blank look in my eyes. My mind was clouded with thoughts so much that I couldn’t think straight or focus on any individual thought… too many things has happened lately.

“You alright, Asuka?” Adeline asks, sitting with me and snapping me out of it.

 “Oh… yeah…” I say slowly, staring out the foggy window to the nearly empty late night streets.

“You know I can tell when something is up, right?” Adeline presses. “What’s on your mind?”

“Just… too many things at once.” I say. “With Ishi in a coma, Hao on the run, and me trying to find him… it’s almost too much for me to handle… I never realized how much I depended on Ishi until now… I kind of feel… weak. Like I was just hanging onto him for everything… like I really can’t do much on my own…”

“Don’t say that, Asuka.” Adeline says with a reassuring smile. “You’re just as tough as anyone in this game.”

“I don’t know…”

“Come on, cheer up.” She says. “Ishi will come out of it, I know he will.”

“It’s been two weeks…” I say, laying my head down onto the table. “I’m really worried about him.”

“Well worrying isn’t going to help any.” Adeline told me.

We spent a few minutes in silence before I got up.

“I’m gonna go for a walk…” I say.

“A walk?” Adeline asks. “But you hardly touched your food.”

“I’m not that hungry.” I say, leaving the building and heading out of town. I could use the fresh late night air to clear my head.

---

It was around 1 in the morning by the time I decided to head back… I had been wandering around the floors for quite a while. On my way back to Talmia, I pass through the fields just outside. The light from the full moon lit the place more than enough to see, as I walked slowly, with the soft night breeze rolling over my and fluttering my jacket. I look up from staring at the ground towards the tree at the top of the hill… the one Ishi sometimes went to. I see someone there. For a moment, I think it’s Ishi, but as I get closer, I could see it wasn’t.

It was Yamato.

“He was lying against the tree, blood staining a side of his white haori. He was breathing, but I could tell it wasn’t without effort. I run up to him and crouch next to him.

“Yamato?” I say.

He doesn’t answer. It seems he was unconscious.

“What happened to you…” I wonder aloud.

I look around, seeing nobody in the area… I couldn’t just leave him like this. I carefully scoop Yamato up in my arms and carry him with me to Talmia.

---

I had fallen asleep in the room Adeline let Yamato stay in. It was morning by the time I woke up, and Yamato was still out cold. I had taken his haori and shirt off to inspect his wound, which thankfully didn’t seem to have hit anything too important. The most I could’ve done without Bedivere was to clean it up and wrap some gauze that she had left here for Ishi around his torso. He was breathing calmly now.

I still couldn’t figure what had happened to him… something bad if it managed to hurt him like that. I supposed I’d have to ask him whenever he woke up.

It didn’t take long for that to happen.

“Ngh!” He shot right up, startled and a bit confused. Then he noticed me and he calmed down a bit. “Asuka… well, this is strange.”

“I don’t remember telling you my name.” I say.

“You didn’t have to.” He says, looking down at his injury. “Where am I?”

“A tavern in Talmia.” I say.

“Why’d you help me?” He asks. “Last I checked we were enemies.”

“I really don’t know, honestly.” I say. “It’s just… I couldn’t bring myself to leave you there.”

“Huh… I see…” He looks out the window.

“So what happened to you?” I ask.

“I’m not entirely sure… where’s Ishi?”

“In the next room.”

“Can I see him?”

“He’s in a coma.”

“What? How?”

“He was nearly killed… and had Skeith stolen from him.” I say. “Corbenik kept him alive.”

“Skeith was… so that’s who I fought…” Yamato said.

“You fought Hao?” I ask hastily.

“So Hao’s his name?” He asks. “If that’s the case, yeah… he was carrying Skeith in some amulet or something… I think it’s keeping Skeith from taking him over but at the same time he can’t completely control it… something happened… Skeith did something to him.”

“Like what?” I question.

“It… he had some ability… it allowed him to… I don’t know, summon weapons out of nothing… some sort of portal opens behind him and weapons come through. He got me with one of those weapons he threw at me…”

Yamato reached down and puts a hand over his wound.

“Where’d he go?” I ask.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go after him.” Yamato says. “I mean, he has Skeith. And that new ability… whatever it is. It’s strange… I’ve never seen Skeith do something like this before…”

“Well it doesn’t matter.” I say. “I need to find him.”

“Why’s that?”

“He almost killed Ishi!” I shout. “Why wouldn’t I go after him?”

“So it’s revenge then, is it?” He says.

“I don’t know.” I say. “Honestly I don’t even know what I’m going to do when I find him… I guess I want answers more than anything.”

“I see… well, then.” He rolls out of the bed and lands on his feet, walking over to his shirt and haori and putting them on. “I guess we’ll have to go after him, then.”

“What?” I say. “We?”

“Yes, we.” He picks up his katana, fastening it to his side. “We should probably hurry if we want to catch him.”

“But he hides himself well…” I protest. “How are we going to find him?”

“You’re looking at one of the best trackers in Aincrad.” Yamato says. “If I can pick up on his trail at all, I’ve got him locked in… and…” He pulls out a black piece of cloth from his pocket. “I got this off his jacket. Should be easy enough to track him down with this.”

“And what will we do once we find him?”

“Well… dammmit, actually I’m not sure we can do anything about Skeith…”

“Why not?”

“Skeith can only be wielded by certain people. I’m incompatible with it… so the only way we’d be able to get it back is if either Ishi woke up right now and came with us… or if you’re compatible with it as well.”

I froze up a bit when he said that.

“Is… there any way to tell… if I am?” I say hesitantly.

“Not that I know of.” Yamato says. “The only real way to tell is to try it out… but the problem with that is that just trying is liable to kill you.”

“But what about that amulet Hao has?” I say. “Couldn’t we take that from him?”

“Doubt it.” He says. “Skeith isn’t that easy to control. The fact that he got it in that thing is something I can’t wrap my head around… more than likely the only way anyone else can get it is to break it out of its containment.”

“So… when we find Hao…”

“There’s a high chance you’re going to die.” He says, taking on a more serious tone. “Are you sure you want to take that risk?”

“I… I don’t…” I think to Ishi… how Skeith had affected him… how close he had been to being killed by it, more than once, and that was with Corbenik as well… how would I handle Skeith on its own?

Then I weighed my options… I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted Ishi to be okay… I wanted to tell him how I felt about him and I really wanted to finish this game and be with him in real life… I didn’t want to die before then. But with Hao and Skeith… we all might die anyway.

It was a choice between the death of few and the death of many… either one I was going to die in…

“Asuka, if you don’t want to I can find another way.” Yamato says. “I know you care about Ishi… I won’t hold it against you if you decide to stay with him.”

“I’ll go with.” I say. “If there’s a chance then… I’ll take it.”

“Odds are about one in eight thousand, and that’s being generous.” Yamato says. “You sure?”

I nod.

“I’m sure.”

Yamato just looks at me, as if expecting me to back out any second now… but he just smiles and snickers a little.

“Alright then.” He says. “You know, Ishi’s rubbed off on you.”

“I guess so.” I manage a small smile.

“Alright, then.” Yamato says. “You ready to head out?”

I walk over to a nearby chair that I had placed my jacket over and sling it on, before strapping Flamberge to my back.

“Ready.” I say.

We both leave Adeline’s and head out of town, teleporting to the spot where Yamato had fought Hao.

---

The place we ended up at was a relatively empty snowfield on the 47th floor. It was cold enough to snow, but not too cold to be too uncomfortable.

Then again, anything under 20 Celsius is too cold for me.

“What were you doing here, anyway?” I ask.

“I’m not called the Wandering Swordsman for no reason.” Yamato says, looking around the area.

“So what, you just wander around floors?” I say.

“Nothing else to do.” He says, still looking around. “I am probably the most wanted and dangerous player in this game, not counting Hao at the moment… and Ishi.”

“Why Ishi?” I question.

“Well…” He inspects a spot on the ground for a few seconds before moving on. “He’s a special case… he’s compatible with Skeith AND Corbenik, on account of him having had both.”

“What happens when… both are in action at once?”

“Well… either Ishi basically becomes a God, in the simplest way of putting it… or the entire game implodes.”

“Oh, lovely…”

“Ah, here we go.” Yamato says, looking at a slightly darkened spot on the snow. “Here’s a trace of Hao right here. Should be easy enough now to follow him with this.” He waves the piece of cloth in front of him.

“Well, lead the way, then.” I say.

And lead the way he does, as Yamato follows Hao’s trail.

My mind once again goes back to Skeith… beating Hao seemed not too difficult with Yamato backing me up… but… would I be able to contain Skeith? Would it just outright kill me? It didn’t matter… Ishi took the chance once, and I had to as well. Hao couldn’t be allowed to keep Skeith while he continued whatever sick plans he had.

We’d stop him one way or another. We had to.

Chapter 35


A Week and Five Days Later

Yamato and I had been spending almost two weeks tracking Hao down. We were getting close now, but we had to be careful. Yamato said that Hao would more than likely know that we were after him, so we couldn’t go too fast or else we’d miss our chance. Right now we were at an abandoned pagoda on the 51st floor. We were sitting on the porch of the place waiting for the storm to pass over us. Yamato sat facing the rain, legs crossed and his sword in his lap, his eyes closed. He looked like he was in deep thought.

I sit quietly next to him, periodically looking over to him to make sure he was still breathing. With how he barely moved it was sometimes difficult to tell.

“What’re you thinking about?” I ask him.

He doesn’t answer.

“Yamato?”

“Agh…” He opens his eyes and shakes his head. “Huh? What is it?”

“Um… nevermind.” I say, turning away.

“I was thinking about how you and Ishi remind me of myself and… someone who was close to me.”

“Sakura?” I ask.

“You met her, I see.” He replies.

“Yeah, Ishi and I had trained under Master Kyosho and she was living with him… if you don’t mind me asking… what exactly happened between you two?”

“Well…” He begins. “It’s something I’d rather not talk about…”

“You left her.” I say. “I know that much… and you did it to protect her. But I still don’t think I understand…”

He sighs and looks out into the rain.

“It’s complicated…” He says slowly. “I’m not sure I completely understand it myself… I did love her… I guess I still do… but I knew that… agh, dammit…” He scratches his head, trying to find the words. “You see, at the time I was fighting Majora, when he had Skeith. At the time I was in possession of Corbenik. One thing about Corbenik is that you have to go through your darkest thoughts and fears in order to unlock its full power. That was the only way I was going to be able to fight Skeith. With the way I was going at the time, when Sakura told me how she felt, I was filled with… how to put it… I felt the happiest I had ever felt in my life, but… at the same time I felt overwhelming grief… I loved her, and I knew she loved me too… but I could never have her. It felt like my chest was being torn in two. I wanted her more than I could say, but when it came down to it I knew I couldn’t… if I did she would more than likely be killed by what I was about to do; by who I was becoming. So I rejected her. Told her that it was impossible for us to be together. Then I walked away… I never saw her again after that.”

He stops for a moment, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly before continuing.

“I’m glad she’s still safe now… I’m sure she understood why I rejected her… but I still feel guilt over it. Every day I wonder what could’ve been… I’d be someone completely different. If Skeith and Corbenik never existed, Sakura and I would more than likely be together… happy. I wouldn’t be the renowned and feared player killer I am now. A lot more people would be alive right now… Ishi and I would’ve never fought and he wouldn’t be down this dark path… the path I’ve walked a long time ago…”

“I… see…” I say slowly, looking down onto my lap.

“One thing you should know.” Yamato adds. “Ishi and I are a lot alike, as you could tell, and I can see how you feel about him. It’s no different from me and Sakura back when… Ishi could reject you the same way I rejected Sakura.”

My stomach drops a bit at that possibility. All this business with Skeith and Corbenik, The Guardians of Darkness, Hao… everything Ishi is going through… it was enough to almost kill him, and put him in a coma… if I tried to go with him I would probably die… he may leave me behind.

“Ishi’s path is actually more dangerous than mine.” Yamato speaks up after a period of silence. “I sort of envy him… he has more character than I ever will, that’s for sure.”

“What makes you say that?” I question.

“Well you’ve heard the things said about me. I’m just a player killer, not much else. That’s the name I’ve made for myself, unintentionally, of course, but still. Ishi’s different in that he keeps holding on to what he believes his right no matter what may get in the way… I gave up on that a long time ago.”

“You’re not that bad, Yamato.” I tell him. “I can tell you’re a good person.”

“Well, I’m not so sure about that, but thank you.” He says, smiling at me.

We both stare back out into the rain, still coming down hard. It seemed to reflect my state of mind right now… how dark and dreary the skies were, with a downpour that seemed to never end. Ishi always loved the rain… I don’t know why.

---

4 Hours Later

Yamato shook me from my nap and I shake my head to wake myself up. I saw it was no longer raining, though the sky was still gray. I rub the sleep from my eyes as Yamato stood up.

“We should get going.” He said. “We already wasted time waiting for the storm to pass over. We don’t want to lose his trail either.”

“Ahm… right….” I say, standing up and pulling a sleeve of my jacket over my shoulder.

We both step out of the cover of the pagoda and Yamato leads the way as I follow, keeping on Hao’s trail.

---

We continued on our way for hours more, and by then it was night time. Yamato said we couldn’t rest up because of the time we lost during the storm, even if I was exhausted. So I kept on, but by the time it hit midnight my feet were barely carrying me.

“Yamato…” I say. “I’m really… really tired… can’t we rest up for just a bit?”

“We’ll lose Hao if we do.” He said. “We have a narrow window to catch him and we don’t want to miss it.”

“But I’m tirrred…” I whine. “I can barely walk anymore…”

“If we keep going we can rest up while we’re ahead.” Yamato says. “Just pick yourself up.”

I can’t.

I pretty much just collapse, falling forward, my face stuffing itself into his back.

“Dammit…” Yamato says as he kneels down and grabs me under my legs, hoisting me up and carrying me on his back. I rested my head on his shoulder and wrap my arms around his neck.

“Sorry…” I say quietly.

“It’s fine…” He says as he keeps walking with me on his back. “Just… get some rest while you’re at it… you could use it.”

I didn’t even need to agree. I close my eyes and I fall asleep shortly after.

---

“Hey.” I hear Yamato’s voice say. “Asuka, wake up.”

“Hmm…” I mumble, lazily opening my eyes, finding myself lying on a soft patch of grass underneat a tree in a forest, the sun shining through the canopy. “Where… are we?”

“We’re close to Hao.” He says. “We should probably get moving again.”

I get up, dusting my jacket off and shaking my head, pushing a lock of hair from my face.

“There’s a cliff around here.” Yamato said. “Perfect place for someone to hide out. It’s far away and hard to climb, unless you know the right way to go about it.”

“And you do?” I ask.

“Yeah, there’s a small path leading up the east side. Barely noticeable, nobody even sees it so barely anyone climbs it.”

“And Hao’s up there?”

“More than likely.”

“What are we going to do when we get there?”

“Hopefully we can take him down and get Skeith… assuming you’re compatible.” Yamato scratched his head. “If not, well, we’ll have Skeith on the loose… again.”

“Sounds like a crap plan.” I note.

“Only one we got.” He remarks.

“I guess…”

“C’mon.” Yamato gestures for me to follow. “We’re almost there.”

We both walk between the dense trees of the forest for about an hour more before we make it out and are faced with a large cliff overlooking the entire forest. I look up the tall structure, at what I assumed would be Hao up there.

“Over here.” Yamato says. “The path’s this way.”

I follow him and before long we come across a long and impossibly narrow path zigzagging up the mountain. I could see why nobody wanted to climb this. Made me wonder how Hao did it. I could tell he wasn’t exactly known for his athletic ability.

“We’re supposed to climb up that?” I ask.

“Yeah.” Yamato responds. “It’ll be a tough climb. Hope you’re a good climber.”

“I’m good enough.”

“Good.”

Yamato goes first, sidling along the narrow walkway and climbing up a few rows before placing his feet down on the edge and shuffling along, his back against the wall. I go next, repeating his method and I find myself sidling along with him. Soon enough, we’re kill height up, after sidling and climbing our way up this crooked and dangerous path. I look up and I can see we aren’t even halfway there. Suddenly, the path gives way under Yamato and he falls, sliding down a way before catching a ledge.

“Shit!” He curses. “Asuka!”

“I’m alright!” I call down to him. “Can you get back up?”

“Yeah… should be able to… lemme just…” He braces his foot along the cliff and kicks himself up to a safe ledge, regaining his footing on it. “There… be careful, this isn’t the safest path in the world.”

I carefully hop over the hole in the ground Yamato had fallen through and continue on my way. Soon enough, through, my foot hits something and I can feel something break. I lift my foot up to look, and I see a small knife in the side of the cliff. I had stepped on it, pushing it upwards into a crack in the cliff face, sending a long break upwards and towards the top of the cliff.

“Uh… Yamato?” I say. “I think I just did something I wasn’t supposed to…”

“Like what?” He asks from below.

Sure enough, a large thump can be heard, and large boulders began to fall out of the cliff face, heading straight towards us.

“Oh, crap!” I shout. “Yamato!”

“I see it!” He says, running along the narrow path and climbing as fast as he could while I did the same, avoiding the falling rocks along the way. I take out two of my short blades and jump outwards to avoid a rather large chunk of rock barreling towards me, slamming the blades back into the cliff to stop me from falling, jumping upwards and pressing myself up to the cliff to allow another to sail past me.

“Asuka!” I hear Yamato shout from below. “There’s a big ledge over there! Get to it!”

“Alright!” I say, jumping out and using my knives to keep to the wall as I made a break for the ledge in question along the path. It ended before I got to it, however, forcing me to jump out and grab the cliff to shimmy the rest of the way there. By then, Yamato had caught up to my elevation and was sidling towards me at the same slow rate. I look up and see a pretty damn big rock falling down onto me. I wasn’t going to be able to get out of the way.

Yamato saw that coming, jumping outwards towards me, grabbing me and spinning in the air, grabbing his katana and unsheathing it at impossible speed. The rock above us shattered into pieces before we flew sideways and landed less than gracefully on the small alcove, rolling to a stop.

“Agh…” I cough, getting up slowly as the rest of the landslide fell past us.

“Damn…” Yamato said, dusting off his haori. “That was close, huh?”

“Yeah… thanks.” I say. “That was a trap…”

“Yeah, for sure. But it’s probably the only one he could afford to make.” Yamato said. “I can’t imagine he’d be able to set up more than one of that kind without tearing down the entire damn cliff.”

“Lucky for us then, huh?”

“Yeah… let’s wait here a bit, catch our breath.”

 The falling rocks ended soon after, and we took the moment to take a breather before we decided to resume our climb up. It was a few near falls and slips shy of a smooth climb the rest of the way to the top, but we made it, climbing up over the edge and standing up to once again dust off our jackets, which were by now dirtied up a bit from all the rock dust. I look down over the edge of the cliff.

“How are we going to get down?” I ask.

“It’s probably easier than climbing up.” Yamato assures. “C’mon, Hao’s up this way.”

I had seriously underestimated the sheer monumental size of this cliff. It wasn’t just a cliff, it was a ridiculously elevated plateau. It takes us quite a bit of walking to catch sight of him. He was sitting down at a personal camp he had made for himself… it was actually pretty big for just one guy… and fancy. He immediately took notice of us as we stepped up.

“I knew you were coming.” Hao said.

“That rockslide you sent at us made that pretty clear.” I remark.

“You think I didn’t know before then?” He said, standing up and turning to face me. “Honestly, I don’t even know why you came. Of course I knew Yamato would try at me again but I really didn’t expect you to tag along as well, Asuka. Too bad Ishi couldn’t join you.”

“Shut up, Hao.” I say a bit annoyed.

“And what are you two planning on doing exactly?” He said. “I have power beyond both of you combined. You didn’t stand a chance against me the first time, Yamato. What makes you think this time will be any different?”

“Oh, trust me.” Yamato says, placing a hand on his blade. “You haven’t seen anything yet. You aren’t going to get me twice.”

“Well…” Hao draws his sword from his back, before snapping his fingers. At that, multiple other weapons began to appear around him, seemingly coming out of a portal from nowhere.

“What the hell?” I say, drawing my sword.

“Stay focused, Asuka.” Yamato says, readying himself. “You don’t want to get hit by one of those weapons.”

Hao smiles.

“Supreme Weapon.”

Instantly, the weapons behind Hao began to fly our way. I dash to the right while Yamato goes left. Hao just stands there, watching as he threw his weapons at us. I had no idea what this power was, but it was dangerous if Skeith is what gave it to him. I zigzag between swords and spears and get in close, attempting to slash at him. He blocks with his own blade and redirects my momentum away from him, causing me to be pushed to the side as he sends another weapon towards me. I barely recover to dodge it in time, and I make sure to distance myself right after.

Yamato goes in after me, much quicker than I had, cutting towards Hao so fast I couldn’t even see his blade. Hao defends against it nevertheless, but is set off balance by the power and precision of the strike. Before Yamato can follow it up, however, Hao backs up and throws three weapons his way, forcing him to jump back and over them. When he lands he goes back in, striking hard and fast, only to be met by a shield that appeared on Hao’s left arm.

“Dammit!” Yamato curses, as the blades on the shield spin quickly, forcing Yamato to put up his defense as Hao pushed into him as if he had a sawblade. I move in after that, taking advantage of Hao’s drop in his defense, bringing Flamberge up and charging it with flames, striking at Hao from behind. A blade I didn’t see comes at me from above, however, forcing me to abort and dodge to the left, losing my balance a bit, and allowing Hao to deliver a back kick right into my stomach, pushing me back into the ground. Yamato manages to force Hao back and spins to deliver another strike, but a spear intercepts his blade, striking it off course and causing it to miss, allowing Hao to deliver a slash that just barely misses Yamato as he backs up.

Yamato sheaths is sword before drawing it at blinding speed, projecting a cutting force in front of him and towards Hao. Hao gets cut in the right arm in his attempt to dodge, and begins to bleed, but he ignores it, putting his hand forth and summoning many more weapons to assault him. Yamato is forced to dodge and weave around the storm of metal descending on him, once again allowing me to get in behind Hao. He sees it coming, though, and slashes at me with his own sword. I duck under it, managing a spin and an upwards slash that almost gets him, if it wasn’t for the shield. He pushes the shield into me, forcing me onto the ground, but I recover quickly enough to go for it again, moving through his defense and managing to swipe at him, Hao dodging but more than likely receiving a few singes from the flames. I follow it up with a hard right hook, slamming my fist straight into his face. He is forced back, but plants his foot behind him to keep himself from falling over. He grabs my arm and gives me a furious look.

“Petulant fool!” He shouts, his left eye turning a dark orange as he lashes out at me, sending me back with a yelp as I fly into the dirt.

“Asuka!” Yamato calls me as he moves in again, determined to take Hao down.

I’m kneeling on one knee, holding my forehead in my hand, before looking down on it, noticing fresh blood crawling down my face. The pain followed shortly after.

“Dammit…” I mutter to myself, trying to shake the head pain off and ready my weapon again. That blow took a number on me, though. My vision was a bit blurred and my sense of balance was off as well.

I could just make out Yamato still in combat with Hao, giving it his all but still unable to break through Hao’s defenses as the blades constantly rained down on him. I try to shake it off, moving back in as best as I could to assist. I wasn’t much help, as with the first strike I made my sword was flung from my hand and Hao grabbed me by the neck. Yamato tried to free me, but Hao holds out his hand, and instantly a set of chains wrap around his arm, his blade just centimeters away from Hao’s neck. He’s pulled back, struggling to break free as the chains wrapped around his other arm, his neck, his torso, and his legs, pulling him down onto his knees as he drops his sword.

Hao then looks to me in his grasp, before giving me a solid knee in the stomach, making me cough up blood, tossing me aside like a broken doll.

“Pitiful…” Hao says, looking to Yamato. “It was foolish of me to allow you to keep your life, Yamato. I won’t make the same mistake again.”

Another blade appeared to Hao’s side, pointing straight at Yamato.

I try to get up, but my body felt too heavy… it hurt too much to move. The only thing I could do was watch with impaired vision as Yamato’s life was about to be brought to an end.

“In a way, I admire you, Wandering Swordsman.” Hao said, as Yamato desperately tried to break free of his bindings in vain. “But just as Ishi had, you’ll fall to my power as well. Embrace your death, mongrel.”

The blade lurched forward straight towards Yamato. I thought Yamato was done for, and I was willing to be he thought he was as well… but something stopped the blade. Through my vision, which kept blurring and sharpening irregularly, I managed to make out blood on the blade Hao had thrown… but it hadn’t gone through Yamato. I can see the blade just barely touching the bridge of Yamato’s nose, but it was stopped there… as my vision begins to come back I can make out that it had gone through someone’s hand, the hilt of the blade stopped at the palm, I look at the figure and see a man there, dark pants and no shoes, shirtless and bandaged up. He had black hair… golden eyes…

“About time I saved your life for once, don’t you think?” He says.

“What is this?!” Hao shouts. “I killed you!”

Hao is then wracked in the head by what looked like an intense pain, before instantly ricocheting back by an unknown force and onto the ground, the chains binding Yamato releasing and falling to the ground, before disappearing back to wherever they came from.

“Ishi…” Yamato said. “Talk about cutting it close.”

“Ishi…” I manage to say, smiling a bit through the pain.

Ishi grabs the blade imbedded in his hand and draws it out, looking at the hole in his left palm before watching as it mended itself rapidly. He inspects his hand, making sure it was healed up right.

“What…” Hao said, standing up.

“Gram…” Ishi said, clenching the blade in his hand and giving it a look over. “What a filthy blade.” He tossed the sword aside. “I won’t even wield a sword as pathetic as that.”

“You dare speak of my treasures like that?” Hao said, summoning more weapons than I could count. “I’ll make you wish you had stayed dead.”

Ishi looks over to me as my vision clears up. His right eye was blue. A storm of blades came down on him, and he didn’t even give any effort to evade. He didn’t need to… they all missed. The weapons stuck themselves in the ground around Ishi without him even taking a scratch.

“What?!” Hao shouted.

Hao is then put to the ground by another splitting headache, and he clutches his head in pain.

“Those resonance reactions are quite painful, are they not?” Ishi says as he slowly walks up to Hao on the ground. “Skeith and Corbenik don’t get along too well when they’re near… even with that amulet you’re feeling it… that isn’t even the full effect either.”

“How… you’re dead…” Hao said.

“There’s something interesting you should know about, Hao.” Ishi said, casually walking up to him, Hao unable to retaliate from the pain. “That amulet from The Chronicler… it suppresses the mind-altering effects of Skeith. But the fact that you hold Skeith in that instead of inside yourself means that you can’t unlock its full power.”

“Insolent little…” Hao began, trying to swipe at him with his sword. Ishi easily moves into his guard and grabs his left arm, wrapping his own arm around and snapping the arm at the elbow.

“NGH!” Hao grits his teeth in pain, letting go of his sword.

Suddenly, Hao charges Skeith in his right hand and begins to corrupt the entire area around him. Ishi quickly lets go and grabs Yamato, bringing him to me before activating Corbenik in his right hand, casting it out to form a shield against Skeith, as Hao released a powerful blast from Skeith that obscured the game around us in a mess of digital particles. Ishi kept us in the shield for a bit until the corruption died down. When it did, Hao was nowhere to be seen. He had disappeared… retreated for now. Ishi released the barrier around us and deactivated Corbenik, sighing heavily and holding his head.

“Ishi!” I clamber onto my feet and hug him. “I… you’re okay! I didn’t think you were going to come out of it!” I pressed my head up to his chest, but he didn’t return any of the affection. He just stood there. I look up at him. “Ishi?”

“You saw it too, didn’t you?” Yamato asked. “Corbenik.”

“I saw a lot of things.” Ishi replied. “A lot of things I wish I hadn’t…”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. “Ishi, what’s wrong?”

“He went through the same thing I did with Corbenik.” Yamato explained for him. “He went through the darkest parts of his mind… conquered them too, by the looks of him not being dead, and being able to wield Corbenik like that.”

“Ishi…” I look up at him. “Are you alright?”

His eyes loomed over me, seeming a little hazy… like he had seen thousands of real nightmares all at once.

“Asuka…” He says slowly, losing his balance a bit. I catch him before he falls, letting him lean on me.

“He’ll be alright.” Yamato said, putting Ishi’s arm over his shoulder. “He’s just going through the aftershocks… I wouldn’t ask him about any of it, I’m sure he doesn’t want to remember. I sure as hell didn’t…”

---

We teleport back to Talmia, where both Adeline and Bedivere were relieved to see Ishi, claiming that he just suddenly woke up and immediately ran out the door without a word. We got him back into bed, which he immediately fell asleep in. It made me feel better that he was actually sleeping instead of being comatose.

After a while, Adeline and Bedivere left us, and Yamato and I were left looking over Ishi as he slept.

We both stayed in silence for minutes, with nothing to really say. I was relieved that Ishi was going to be okay, but… he didn’t seem right. Whatever Corbenik showed him, it definitely took its toll.

“What… what did you see?” I ask Yamato after the silence. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Well… it’s hard to explain.” Yamato said. “I saw everything that made me… me. Mostly bad things… I saw my worst nightmares unfold right before my eyes… over, and over, and over again. In your mind the smallest increment of time can seem like an eternity. With Ishi having been in a coma for a month, he must’ve gone through hell.”

“I don’t think I really understand…” I say.

“You ever have your very soul ripped out of your body and shown to you?” Yamato asked. “That’s what Corbenik does. It shows you everything you are, and forces you to live through torment to see if you can handle it. If you can’t then you die. If you can, you’ll come out stronger… but scarred for life. It forces everything on you at once to see if you’ll break. I only had to put up with it for about two days… Ishi took it for a month. He definitely has more willpower than I ever will.”

“Will he be okay?” I ask.

“Yeah… eventually.” Yamato answers. “Maybe… Ishi’s strong but what Corbenik does to you… it can leave you completely broken for the rest of your life. But I think Ishi will pull himself back together. He has too much he needs to do to lose it all now.”

“I hope you’re right…” I look down to Ishi, a bit of sadness in my expression.

“Well, I should get going.” Yamato says. “Take care of him, Asuka. He’s gonna be having some really bad nightmares for a while.”

He leaves the room, shutting it gently and quietly.


I stare at Ishi for minutes before I reach a hand out and rub his cheek. I could tell he was already having a nightmare by how his breathing was picking up. He convulsed a little bit, and he began to sweat at the brow. I grab a hold of his hand, interlacing my fingers with his. Somehow, it managed to calm him down. His breathing started to steady, and his body relaxed. I could feel his hand slightly close on my own. I smiled and took a pillow, setting it down next to his head so I could rest my own next to his. I close my eyes and fall asleep holding his hand.

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