With an elbow to my sides, Bo literally shook me out of my stupor.
“Hey… are you ok?” he whispered. “You are looking very weird. Is this what we came to see?”
“Um, yeah I’m fine,” I said as I tried to regain my composure. “And yes, this is it.”
Members of the audience had noticed our presence but they ignored us otherwise. Their generally darker skins and furs made me assume that they were all young members of the Red Cross, with ages ranging from early teenager to young adult.
Their attention was fully given to the two warriors in front of them. And so was mine.
It was hard to tell whether they were fighting, sparing, simply performing or doing all of those at the same time. While their blades never met, they often split the air where limbs had been a fraction of a second ago.
This is beyond anything I have ever seen.
I couldn’t see any signs of aura being used but they were still beyond abnormally fast and precise, despite the fact that they were both missing an arm.
Maboru’s dance was domineering and confident, without flourishes and putting her on the offensive more often than not. Her feet moved in sweeping motions when she lunged and parried, rarely leaving the ground and never at the same time.
Her style felt proudly militaristic, in the sense that it made no attempts to be anything other than a way to kill the opponent. In that aspect, the man’s style was the opposite.
With a cocky grin, he evaded her blade with acrobatics that not only defied gravity, but seemed to alter it to his advantage. He would make his body fall slightly slower or faster during his somersaults, jumps, and backflips, which made his rhythm and attacks unpredictable.
His sword always came from surprising angles and when they weren’t expected, trying to catch Maboru off guard.
She was chasing him, waiting patiently for the moment he would slip up. He was escaping, always gaining just enough lead to tease her with the prospect of a capture.
It sure was beautiful, but the longer I watched, the more I felt like there was something wrong. Something frustrating that I couldn’t put my finger on since both dances were unfamiliar and far above me in terms of skill.
They are both smiling, even though I’m sure they can tell what the issue is.
Of course, it could be explained by the fact that this wasn’t a fight to the death, but I still felt a need to get up there and demonstrate to show proper respect to the dance and honor the music. I felt its call in my chest and in my bones. I knew what it promised.
However, even if I was perfectly aware that I wanted to answer it, I didn’t know if I should.
I glimpsed at my companion in an attempt to distract myself. We were now both crouching behind the rows of attentive spectators. Even though Bo had seemed as fascinated as me at first, his eyes currently showed a detached lack of interest, which seemed crazy to me.
It was my turn to get his attention with a tap on the shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” I asked in a whisper that helped me mask my irrational shock.
“Wh- oh, nothing,” he said with a strange smile. “They are very skilled. Clearly strong people… it’s just that I don’t find this very enjoyable. You clearly are though, so I don’t mind.”
I blinked. Was I that transparent?
He probably can’t understand what’s going on since he doesn’t have this very specific class, I thought. All he sees is an impressive fight.
And that was assuming that someone without a perception attribute could even make sense of what was going on.
Now that I think about it, what are these kids doing here in the first place?
While they were obviously doing their best to not miss any part of the fight, they didn’t seem to be entertained either. Their serious faces made them look more like diligent students.
But why? There is no way they can learn anything from this.
“Don’t get me wrong, I understand that they must have spent a lot of time and effort to get to this level,” Bo fumbled. “And I would have gladly offered an arm to be as strong as them one day, but… They are gifted people who aren’t free to do what they want with their gifts.”
“No one is really free to do whatever they want,” I said.
“I know that,” he shrugged. “But maybe being a hero has nothing to do with being weak or strong. Maybe it’s more about doing what you can for those around you… or not. But I know that’s what will make me happy, whether I end up dying here in a few months or not.
“I agree,” I said. “Being a hero has nothing to do with how strong you are. It’s about what you are ready to sacrifice for others.”
“Doesn’t that make you a hero, then? Since you’re going to save the temple from the fog.”
“Definitely not. It doesn’t really cost me much and I am mostly doing it to save myself.”
He laughed and caused a few glares in our directions.
“I am going back to the mine Tomorrow morning,” he whispered.
I looked at his eyes and they were firm with conviction. “Why?” I said. “You hate working there, and you know you don’t have to do it anymore. You could work at the bar, I’m sure Laure would take you.”
“She cannot possibly match the pay of the mine, he said with a dismissive wave. “Yeah, I hate it but I will be fine. Maybe it’s because I am no longer scared of dying, but I thought about what you said and I think that… I found my meaning. What I want to do.”
He picked a rock from the ground and stared at it as if the answers he was looking for were written on its surface.
“I just really want to see Lima and Sarn be happy,” he said with a chuckle, but I could see that his eyes had gotten red. “They are the only family I ever had… I love them. Nothing says that the mistress will be able to support everybody in the new shard, and saving a lot of money will help if we have to find a home. Simply supporting them as much as I can would make me happy. Is it… Do you think it’s wrong?”
The cynic in me wanted to tell him that making anyone the source of his happiness was an incredibly bad choice, but I couldn’t.
That’s what he’s really doing, anyway, I reasoned. His actions do not guarantee gratitude, but since that’s not what he is after, who am I to tell him that they are a bad idea?
And I doubted that Sarn and Lima would change into amoral monsters overnight.
“I don’t,” I finally said. “I think that it makes you their hero.”
Bo’s bright smile made me feel guilty for my thoughts. Him being able to willingly change his worldview in the span of a day certainly made him much more mature than I was at his age.
“Also, people are making a lot more money at the mine nowadays, since they can stay as long as they want,” he said. “The guards are clearing even lower levels, and there is so much more silver down there… Well, I’m sure you know since you’ve actually seen it.”
I lost my train of thoughts as I noticed with regret that the music was dying down and the warriors themselves had already stopped their deadly performance. One wouldn’t be able to guess what they had been up to just by looking at them though, as they didn’t even look slightly out of breath. Maboru’s eyes landed on me.
While I didn’t like her, I had to admit that it was probably due to the circumstances in which we had met each other. And at the very least, the smirk that was always at her lips made her look much more welcoming than her daughter.
“I hope you all paid attention,” she said with a smile toward the audience. Some of the viewers nodded enthusiastically, others made sure to avoid meeting her gaze.
Are they trying to take advantage of some kind of loophole?
I knew that the banned ones weren’t allowed to train the younger generation, but maybe there was no rule against passing on their knowledge in an indirect manner. It would explain why they would organize this event for those without classes to try to gain some insight.
“There is someone I would like to introduce to you tonight, though some of you saw him at the guild already,” Maboru said with beckoning wave to me. “Edward, come over here.”
A path was made, and I was suddenly standing with the fire behind me, between Maboru and her partner.
“Treat him like a member of our family, understood?”
Was that an introduction or an order?
“Really?” said one of the younger kids at the front who were looking at me suspiciously. “Why? Because he’s a delver? We have Maru, we don’t need another.”
Oh boy… They don’t know about the deal. Which means… they haven’t told the brats that some of them would have to leave their parents behind.
“Well, even though Edward isn’t from the Pearl like us, he would be worthy of living there. He is a blade dancer…”
That first bit of information caused some surprise, but not as much as the second.
“… with a style,” Maboru finished.
“… Not from the pearl with a style?”
An older boy stood at the back, locked eyes with Maboru and pointed a shaking finger at me, “Why are we not making his master teach us?”
Maboru cocked her head, “And how would we do that?”
“We have the student here! We could force him to tell us where his teacher is, then-”
“Lonee, would that be fitting behavior for one with your lineage? What would your mother say?”
“My mother is why I would not hesitate,” he hissed.
“Then put your butt back down before I have her tan your hide again for saying nonsense.”
The boy begrudgingly did as ordered, though he kept glaring daggers at me.
“The elders have spoken and this in effect as of now,” Maboru said to the audience. “Leave the worrying to us, and never forget to act in a manner that will make your ancestors proud. Everything in this world can be lost, but your honor as children of the Pearl can never be taken without your consent. It is your most valuable possession. Cherish it.”
She let her words linger a bit before speaking again.
“Are there any questions?”
A younger kid sitting in the front raised his hand, “What’s his style?”
“It’s a secret,” I said.
“Secret?” someone snorted. “We can recognize any dance.”
“… Pretty sure he doesn’t have one.”
“Yeah, we’d be able to tell if we saw it.”
“That gives me a great idea,” said the man at my side. It was my first time hearing him speak, and knowing he was a smoker, I wasn’t surprised by how hoarse it was.
I don’t even know if this world has nicotine… It probably has something worse.
The man spread his arms open and announced his grand idea.
“The first one to guess Edward’s dance will get to ask Maboru whatever he wants!”
She gave him an annoyed side glance, but his smile didn’t waver. The idea had clearly caught the audience’s interest.
“Anything allowed by the code,” he said with a waving finger.
“Her cooking recipes?”
“A date with Maru?”
“Oh, I see we have a courageous young man over there!” he said with a wink. “Why yes, of course that’s possible! I give you my word!”
The gasps of surprise and eagerness of the crowd didn’t stop Maboru from stepping in.
“Pietro, stop this nonsense,” She said through her teeth. “And I do not think Maru would appreciate hearing her father giving her up in a game.”
However, Pietro wasn’t at all worried, “ You always have to make everything so serious Ruru, it’s just a lil’ game, and it would just be a date! And I remember you saying that she should enjoy herself more.”
“I think she’s right,” I intervened. “I don’t think me showing anything here would be a good idea.”
The last time I had held Ikun Omi, I had inadvertently either scared or annoyed most of a city. I needed a safer environment with less possible casualties for my first test run.
Don’t want anyone’s mother telling me I hurt their child.
“Why?” Pietro probed with the same head tilt Maboru sometimes did. “Is it that you do not want to show it after seeing ours?”
I burst out laughing at the sheer absurdity of his words, slapping my knee and genuinely struggled to regain my composure for a few seconds before even realizing what I was doing. When I did, I froze and raised my teary eyes to Maboru, who was looking at me with a raised brow, and Pietro who’s smile now seemed forced.
“What an honest reaction,” he said.
“You know that you have to show us yours now, right?” Maboru said.
I guess that answers whether I am the only one crazy about their dance or not.
“Listen,” I said as I wiped my eyes, “You were in Bunker that day, remember? There is a risk that-”
“That you might not be able to control your killing intent again? That’s exactly why Bokwen sent you here. You need to get a better feeling for your Mindscape Projection.”
I frowned. So that’s what all of this was about?
“I thought you guys couldn’t teach,” I said.
“We can’t,” Pietro nodded. “But nothing keeps us from discussing general knowledge and showcasing a few things.”
“What makes the Blade Dancer class different from most other ones?” Maboru interrupted me with a sudden question to her “not” students.
“Blade dancing is an art,” one of the kids said without missing a bit.
They really are ignoring me, I thought with disbelief.
“It is an art indeed, a dangerous art with a divine origin,” Maboru said. “Similarly to all arts, decent enough practitioners are able to put some of themselves in their performance. A bit of their soul, revealed to the world. That is what we call a Mindscape Projection.”
On cue, the addictive music rose from behind me, making me glance back at the silent musicians. The old men and women had used the break to drink and wipe the sweat off their foreheads, and now their long fingers were back to strumming and tapping the instruments with reckless abandon.
My hand twitched.
Maboru skipped as she took a few light steps back, slowly raising her sword. As she did, I felt the temperature drastically decrease and frost formed on the ground, on our clothes and on our skin.
She posed with one hand behind her back and her chin held high when the thin edge of her blade became perfectly vertical. In less than a minute, she had become the only living thing in a frozen wasteland. A queen of ice with floating hair of fire.
But then she stomped her heel, shattering the ice and breaking the illusion. We were back to reality, with the fire crackling in the night and the music asking, begging for more.
This is exactly the same as what that old hag did, I realized, remembering my meeting with the elders of the Red Cross. But there’s one major difference…
I hadn’t felt any pain or serious discomfort, and one glance at the crowd informed me that neither had the kids. The few who weren’t awestruck and left with their mouths wide open were vigorously clapping.
“Being able to forcefully bring people in one’s mindscape is what separates the experts from the amateurs,” Maboru said. “And those same experts are ranked based on how well they can do it. It does not come naturally, and is the main reason why blade dancers from the great clans are comparatively weaker in their younger years, since they cannot level up until they manage to climb past it.”
She pointed her sword at me, “What you showed in the temple wasn’t regular killing intent. The animosity you projected was part of your mindscape, one of the emotions that define your true self. But it’s only one aspect of the picture you need to learn to paint. And to do that, you need to learn more about yourself.”
She lowered her blade and walked away, leaving me in the inner ring. I looked the other way and saw Pietro raising a thumb up from behind the spectators.
“The music will help and keep you from hurting anyone,” he said. “Come on, even a blind mole would be able to tell that you want to give it a go.”
So the music is what protected us from the pain. Is it a skill?
I saw Bo making encouraging waves from his spot and sighed, before closing my eyes.
The drummers lowered their thunder to a deep rumble. The cords restrained themselves into a soft humming.
I couldn’t find any other reason to not comply with their request since it was apparently a request to improve myself with no risks for others. But I couldn’t help but hesitate to bring her out.
I knew she didn’t mind control me during the dance, that much had been cleared already.
So why? Why am I… scared?
I had lived my whole life as a man. Why did I fear not being able to stay one?
It probably had to do with the fact that unlike my previous attempt to keep her at arm’s length, she wasn’t even trying to convince me. She was silently listening to my inner monologue, probably amused by my indecision because she already knew that I would cave in.
Partly because I wanted to find out the truth about this insidious feeling of unease. Mostly because I simply wanted to dance with her again.
I summoned the sword, threw away its scabbard and got into stance in a single motion.
Just like that time when we first got to know each other. Facing the imaginary enemy sideways, holding her away from them in my slightly raised left hand. All of my weight on my right leg, making me very slightly lean forward, but enough to look as if I was just begging for a beheading
Why be so shy? I heard her whisper in my ear.
She was right. We already knew each other, there was no point in wasting time. Why beat around the bush?
I pulled my right leg and transferred my weight to the other one. This was the stance that helped me reach the intermediate level. Lowered center of gravity, sword now pointing up as I looked down.
My breathing was irregular, my heart felt like it wanted to escape my chest and I could hear the blood pumping in ears.
No one was worthy to be called an enemy, imaginary or not. There was only us.
I opened my eyes.
We spun and the music exploded with us, though it wasn’t loud enough to smother the sweet song of my blade tearing space.
With a smile on my face, I abandoned myself to the delight of the dance.
Every slice, every cut, and every thrust was the nothing but the beginning of another one. I would roll, jump and spin in the air to ensure that we were in perpetual motion. In perpetual communion.
An inexorable death to those who dared to question our superiority. Unrelenting. Inescapable.
Our technique beyond compare.
Our superiority absolute.
Like it had on previous occasions, the world started slowing down around me, looking more and more like it was underwater.
This had always been when something interrupted us, but nothing would dare to this time. We had all the time in the world to make it all sink deeper. Deeper.
The audience, the musicians, the fire. They all faded into the dark waters, one after the other. The music’s turn to be dampened came, and I ceased to hear it soon after.
It was only me and her now, but the world was now so dark that I couldn’t tell where the black blade began, and where it ended.
It was as if I was dancing with the whole world. But I knew I wasn’t. Not really.
I stopped dancing and looked around. There was nothing but me and the sword handle in my hand.
Is this my mindscape?
I remained connected to reality by the tiniest thread of consciousness and could picture myself still dancing.
It felt like I was back in the world inside the sword. I could sense the mind-eroding madness of the water try and fail to find something to latch onto, though it was different this time. Last time, the world under the water had been visible to me. But now it was as opaque as ink.
Well at least I can still see myself, I thought as I looked at my hands.
But how was I supposed to find the reason behind my uncontrollable killing intent in this dark place?
Do you mean to say that you do not know why you hold so much hatred in your heart?
I turned around and saw her. She looked as beautiful as the first time I had seen her, as she floated right in front of me, peering in the innermost regions of my soul with bored eyes.
Her. Ikun Omi.
She was an eruption of colors in this monochrome world, a living universe with shining galaxies forming her body.
My hand almost shot toward hers, but I managed to restrain myself.
I could think of many reasons for that, I answered. No, what I want to know is why it’s uncontrollable.
I had learned to control myself, to do the right thing. To move past my traumas and seek happiness in the light. There was no reason for it all to stop working now.
The goddess just shook her head.
My love, all you have learned to do is cover things up. To bury them so deep that you can pretend they never happened. Pretending… Yes, that truly is something you learned to excel in.
At that point, I realized why I feared using the sword again. It wasn’t because I was worried about her directly controlling me. It was because she knew the words that would affect me the most.
You wore your mask for so long that you now believe that it is your real face.
No, I said. I know it isn’t. I’m well aware. But I’d rather be able to call myself a man.
Because the alternative disgusts me.
You are a fool. A fool who was tricked by lesser beings and chained to rules that were in their interest, values that protected them from you.
She raised her hand and caressed my face. Her fingers left a trail of heat on my skin.
You think yourself aware, but I alone have peeked under the guise, and what I saw was enough to convince me that you were the one. Other mortals broke merely trying to contain me. But there you are, striving after letting me in. After becoming one.
What do you want? I finally blurted out.
The same as you, Edward.
What do I want, then?
She smiled, and in her eyes, I saw unspeakable horrors that made me fear for a world I had no attachment for.
Why? I asked.
Because it is in our nature, she said. A flood’s nature is to break, tear and drown it all. To sink everything at the bottom of the churning waters where we would then dance, forever satisfied.
So that the whole world looks like this?! I screamed as I showed her the pitch black surroundings. Is that what you want?
Edward, do you really believe that you reached the bottom? That you would even allow yourself to come close?
I blinked, confused.
You are not yet ready, she said as she swam behind me with a siren’s grace, but let me show you a glimpse of what’s under the mask.
She wrapped her hands around me, and for a while, nothing happened. Then I noticed the darkness slowly dissipating, making room for blue-tinted water that reminded me of the peaceful ocean. Except we weren’t on the ocean floor.
I… I know this place, I muttered. It can’t-
Before I could finish, the ground cracked and broke under my feet, making me lose my footing. Familiar hands came out of the hole, reaching for my legs, trying to pull me down toward whatever was waiting in the darkness. Whatever I had buried.
Your hatred was born from your pain Edward, Ikun Omi said. It was clever to use it as plaster, but a flood cannot be contained. Your retribution will soon come and we shall face it together. We will free you from your chains, my love, and you will show me a beautiful world.