When I opened my eyes, I saw a rocky ceiling covered with vines. I sat up and looked around.
I was in a damp, dark cave and couldn’t see anyone in front of me. Just as I was about to call out, a hand suddenly stretched out from behind me and covered my mouth.
“Shh! There might be monsters outside, whisper if you wanna say something.”
I nodded and the hands withdrew. I turned around and saw a scruffy, brown haired boy wearing a ragged leather jacket, a dirty blue shirt and a pair of muddy gray shorts. He was the boy I’d saved from that horrifying black smoke.
“What was that…thing?” I whispered.
“Where are we?”
“How did you get here?”
I stared at his brown eyes for a while before my gaze drifted to the side. I saw the little girl from before, leaning against the cave walls. She had brown hair just like the boy but where the boy’s hair was short, rough and unruly, her’s was long and silky. Her clothes were in better condition too; her baggy blue shirt and gray shorts weren’t caked in mud and there weren’t any noticeably large holes either.
I shifted my gaze back at the boy.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Name’s Jeffi.” He said, then he pointed towards the girl, “That’s my little sister Yunni. My turn now, who’re you?”
“Aia Genrion Ignis.”
“Wow, sounds fancy! I’ll just call you Aia then.”
“Uh…okay?” I frowned. This child is a little…
“Oh yeah!” He said, interrupting my thoughts. “How did you do that Aia?”
“You know! That scary red aura and those flaming fists! They were so cool!”
I hesitated. “I don’t know…I just felt…angry.”
“Angry? What for?”
“That thing. When it attacked me, it made me remember…the haze.”
“The haze? What’s that?” He furrowed his eyebrows.
“Do you not remember it? Do you not remember being trapped in that state for who knows how long? Unable to move. Unable to feel. Unable to think.”
“Oh…that.” His expression darkened.
We were silent for a moment, solemnly recalling our experiences from the haze.
“Where do you live?” I said, hoping to break the silence.
“Dunno. We were in the middle of this forest for a really long time. Or maybe it wasn’t that long? I don’t even know why we’re here. I mean, why would a couple of kids like us be in such a scary place with all of these monsters roaming about? And I remember that we were smiling all the time, like we didn’t care about the danger at all. Some guy in shining armor or a shadowy figure in black would come by and talk sometimes but I don’t remember what we talked about. But this morning, I felt a cold breeze and I could hear the leaves rustling. But I couldn’t stop and enjoy it for long because then there was this loud roar and I just grabbed Yunni and ran as fast as I could but then we ran into that smoky thing and I felt like…like we were going to die. And then you showed up and beat it up!” He said, his eyes sparkling near the end.
I thought for a moment and then decided, “I will take you back with me then.”
“Do you know where your home is? How are we going to get there?” He asked.
I felt a strong pull on my soul.
Just in time.
I grabbed Jeffi as well as the sleeping Yunni who was jolted awake. Before either of them could protest, I hugged them and allowed myself to be pulled by the tug that seemed to be coming from behind me.
We started crashing through the trees while I tried my best to shield the two children in my arms. Soon, the forest was just a blur as we rushed off in the direction of the pull.
We were rushing through the forest and my back was sore from all the constant collisions with trees, rocks and sometimes even monsters.
However, I suddenly felt the pull on my soul vanish just as we crashed into another tree. Our momentum carried us for a few more miles until we gradually tumbled to a rest in a large clearing.
Either because I had already experienced it before or because we didn’t stop as suddenly as last time, I wasn’t very dizzy so I immediately sat up and looked at the children in my arms.
Jeffi had fainted but Yunni’s face was frozen in an expression of fear. I tried calling to her but she didn’t respond at all.
I concluded that they were uninjured and began surveying our surroundings.
We were in a small clearing in what seemed to be a different forest. The trees here were taller and probably belonged to a different species.
Although I didn’t understand why the pull had vanished so suddenly, I decided to think about that later. For now, the best course of action would be to walk towards the direction where I felt the most tugs, since that was likely to lead me to the shrine.
“H-huh? Yunni? What’s the matter? Wher- Wa! Aia! What did you do? Why’d yo-”
I quickly covered his mouth. “Shh!”
He nodded and I removed my hand. “But what was that! Don’t do it again! You scared Yunni you know?” He pointed towards Yunni.
The little girl blinked a few times, then nodded. “Hmn!”
“I was taking you home.”
“Huh? Is this your home Aia?” He looked around. “It’s…er…a little…”
“This isn’t my home. We got cut off for some reason but we can walk the rest of the way.”
“Do you know where to go though?”
“Yes. Follow me.” I started walking.
“…hey Aia…ha…We’ve been…ha…walking for…ha…hours. We should…ha… rest. Yunni’s tired you know?” Jeffi said, pointing towards Yunni while gasping for breath.
The little girl who was chasing a butterfly stopped and blinked. Then she nodded. “Hmn!”
“So soon? Very well.” I stopped.
“Huah! Finally- I mean, make sure to rest properly Yunni!” Jeffi said, before collapsing onto the ground. “How far is it now?”
“I am not certain, but I am sure it isn’t much f- What was that?” I quickly turned around.
“Yunni!” Shouted Jeffi, before he jumped off the ground and started running towards the scream.
Of course, I started running too. I rushed through a bush and saw Yunni trembling while staring at the monster in front of her.
It was a giant ape-like monster with four arms, each thicker than my entire body. Under the bright midday sun, its red fur was almost as glaring as its bright scarlet eyes.
It stared at the trembling little girl in front of it, but didn’t move to strike.
Just as Jeffi broke through the bush, the ape monster growled and reached for Yunni with one of its hands.
“S-stay away!” The girl shouted while running in the opposite direction.
Just as the monster’s hands were about to grab her, I jumped at her and dragged her out of the way.
The monster roared while beating its chest and smashing its fists against the ground. The sky was filled with birds that were flying away, spooked by the monster’s actions.
It is too loud! I need to finish this quickly.
I flung the terrified little girl at Jeffi and looked at the monster’s bright scarlet eyes.
It hesitated, noticing that my eyes were an even brighter shade of red.
I grunted and then lunged at it.
There was a loud crash and then a thicket of trees fell over.
It isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
I got up from among the broken tree trunks and winced as I felt something warm trickling down my left arm.
I looked at the monster and saw its mouth twist into a smile and though it angered me, I also felt a little smile breaking out on my own face.
I lunged at it again, this time punching out with my right fist. It was shocked by my speed but barely managed to meet my fist with one of its own.
Blood erupted out of its crumpled fist as it roared in pain. I was surprised by my own strength and stopped.
And then I went flying into the trees again.
Where did that come from?
The pain in my left arm intensified, making me gasp as I picked myself up again just in time to dodge a tree that the monster had thrown at me.
Blood dripped onto the ground beneath my left arm but I ignored the pain and looked up at the monster again.
I rushed towards the monster, dodging the trees and stones that it was flinging at me. It grabbed a particularly large tree and uprooted it, then swung it at me with two of its arms.
I leaned back to dodge it but my eyes widened as I saw its third arm coming at me. I was in no position to dodge so I raised my hands in front of my fists.
I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder again as I was pushed back by its attack, but I ignored it again while racking my brain for a way to end the fight.
I could feel my anger rising but surprisingly, rather than obscuring my thoughts, it made them clearer instead. As I looked at the monster, I realized that the fist that I had blocked was also bleeding. I looked into its eyes, saw the fear and uncertainty within them as well as a little…unwillingness?
The beast roared and this time, it was the one rushing towards me. I smiled, before kicking off the ground.
It saw me in the air and its mouth twisted into a grotesque smile again as it swing the tree at me, confident that I wouldn’t be able to dodge.
It was right.
As the tree approached me, I grabbed onto one of its sturdier branches and pulled myself towards it. I felt the wind get knocked out of my lungs as I slammed into the tree trunk, but most of the force of the collision was absorbed by the branches.
I felt the tree stop moving as the monster grew confused by my sudden disappearance. I felt it bring the tree close to its body again as it assumed a defensive stance.
I smiled and jumped out of the tree, punching at the monster’s head with my right fist. I felt something get crushed just as I was showered in blood.
Its body fell back by several feet before collapsing onto the ground while I fell on my knees, gasping for breath.
As I stood up and my breathing started to calm down, I felt my anger drain out of me along with the mental clarity and focus that had unexpectedly come with it. I saw something move in the corner of my eyes and instantly turned to face it, certain that another monster had come to finish me off.
But it was just a stunned brown haired boy and a frightened little girl.
I calmed down and took a deep breath. “We should leave before more of them show up.”
They flinched, before nodding and following me as I continued walking towards the shrine.
I cleaned the blood off myself as well as I could while Jeffi helped me bind my injured left arm with leaves and vines. Yunni was drinking water while watching us but when I met her gaze, she quickly looked away.
We kept walking until it got dark but I couldn’t tell if we had gotten any closer to the shrine.
“Aia it’s late isn’t it? We should make camp for the night so we can go to sleep. Yunni is…uw~a…sleepy you know?” Jeffi said, pointing at Yunni while yawning.
The little girl’s eyes were drooping but she still managed to nod before falling into Jeffi’s arms.
I stopped and looked at them, puzzled.
“What is ‘sleep’?”
“What do you mean ‘what is sleep?’ It’s sleep you know?” He said, looking at me as if I had gone crazy. He gently laid Yunni down on a bed of leaves.
“I am sorry, I do not understand. Have you ever experienced sleep before?”
“I-I dunno. Maybe? I just know what it is. I mean, it’s basic human knowledge you know?”
I frowned. I really didn’t know what sleep was supposed to be and finding out that it was basic human knowledge made me even more confused. “What is it like?”
“Er- Well, it’s what Yunni is doing over there.”
“Is she not simply unconscious?”
“No, she went to sleep because she was tired.”
“Oh? Then is it like losing consciousness of your own will? Strange, I always assumed that losing consciousness would be an unfavorable experience.” I frowned, deep in thought.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll get around to it when you’re tired enough. But seriously, you have amazing stamina don’t you? You fought two tough and scary monsters but you still aren’t tired. You’re amazing!” He said, his eyes sparkling again.
“I…thank you.” I replied, surprised by the sudden outburst of admiration.
Yunni made a small sound before turning over to her other side, and I happened to see Jeffi’s eyes as he looked at her. There seemed to be a very strange emotion in his eyes but I couldn’t understand it at the time.
“Jeffi, why do you care for Yunni so much?” I asked.
“She’s my sister. She’s family! The only family I have, you know?” He whispered to avoid waking her up.
“Sister? Family? Are these things important to you?”
“Huh? Of course they are! Don’t you have a sister Aia? Or any other family?”
I was about to say no but then a few faces came to my mind. “Maybe.”
“Maybe? You have to take family seriously, you know? They’re really important! You have to love them and take care of them. Especially little kids like Yunni. It’s my job as her big brother to protect her, you know?”
“And always listen to what they say! Helping your little brothers and sisters whenever they ask is also a big brother’s job, you know!”
As the night wore on, Jeffi lay down next to Yunni while I stood guard because I still didn’t feel tired at all.
Jeffi’s words were still floating around my head along with some faces that I couldn’t quite recognize.
“H-hey A-aia. C-c-could you l-light up a f-fire? Y-yunni is f-feeling c-cold, y-you know!” Jeffi said, his teeth chattering as he pointed towards Yunni.
Yunni was wrapped up in Jeffi’s jacket and covered with long leaves so she was sleeping peacefully.
“I do not feel cold though?” I said. It really didn’t seem cold to me at all.
“Y-you’re strong Aia! B-but Yunni is w-weak s-so she n-needs a f-fire!”
“Very well.” I replied. “Where is the fire?”
“Huh? A-aia, you h-have to m-make the f-fire!”
“And how will I do that?”
“M-magic of course!”
A pale red screen appeared in front of me. I saw that my level had risen again without me noticing it. I scrolled down to the ‘skills’ section and found the ‘fire magic’ skill. It was at level 10 and when I focused on it, it opened a list of magic that I could use.
I read through the different magics and decided to use the level 3 magic ‘Flames’ to light up a fire.
I focused on the skill and said “Flames!”
The space in front of me lit up in a roaring blaze that reached far above the tree tops. The forest around us started burning. Hot embers floated above our heads and fell onto fell onto more leaves, spreading the fire even faster.
I quickly roused the sleeping Yunni and stunned Jeffi and dragged them away from the center of the fire. However, I suddenly heard a loud snarl from behind us so I threw the children ahead.
Something slammed into my back, sending me hurtling towards the burning trees.
Although I felt a dull pain in my back, I forced myself to turn around so I could see what had attacked me.
Just as I did, a claw tore into the ground where my head had lain mere moments ago.
I immediately kicked the beast off me and shakily stood up.
I’d managed to fling the monster several feet away but it didn’t seem to be hurt because there were no cuts or bruises on its smooth golden skin.
As it turned around, I saw a feline face with black stripes over the golden skin that also covered the rest of its body. It snarled at me, showing off its large, serrated teeth.
I rushed at it.
The monster was surprised by my aggressiveness and chose to swipe at me with its huge black paws.
As its claws came down on me, I shot ahead even faster and got underneath its outstretched arm. I jumped up while punching as hard as I could and heard a satisfying crunch.
The monster roared in pain and thrashed about but I had long since escaped its reach.
As the fire grew more intense I quickly turned around and ran to the children. The monster noticed my actions and let out a furious roar that made me turn my head.
A large ball of light was forming outside the monster’s mouth.
I dug my feet into the ground and grabbed a large branch that I threw at the monster’s face. The branch flew straight at its target and pierced the monster’s eye.
It howled in pain and fired its magic towards the side before collapsing to the ground.
I knew it wasn’t dead and would probably come after us in a few moments, but the fire was raging so intensely that I had no choice but to turn around.
But just as I reached out to the children, I felt a strong pull on my soul.
My eyes widened as I stared at the frightened brown haired child who was holding his sister to his chest.
No! I…I have to protect-
I started crashing through the forest.