“I don’t recognize the area,” Tess muttered, brushing the dirt off her black jeans.
“What do you mean you don’t recognize the area?” I asked.
“Every connection I should have knowledge of but this one….,” Tess spoke to herself, not looking at me.
“What now?” I questioned.
“We have no choice but to scout out the area. Stick close by me. I don’t know what kind of things are present,” Tess decided.
We were in a medium sized track field with a building in the distance. A low link fence separated the field from a nearby sidewalk and road. Wait, was this the field I saw before?
“We can’t proceed past the fence. We’ll head toward the building. Michi took that path,” Tess stated.
“Are you sure? If I know Ichizen, he probably would have climbed the fence,” I disagreed.
“He couldn’t. Try for yourself,” Tess said.
I walked toward the fence and heard sounds of traffic. I reached out toward the link fence. However, something prevented me from making contact with it. My hands were repelled back by some unknown force.
“It’s just that kind of place,” Tess said, appearing beside me.
“How is that possible?” I protested.
“This world doesn’t operate on those principles,” Tess cut me off.
“Are you implying that we’re in a some kind of different world?” I asked for confirmation, attempting to make sense of her words.
“An adequate enough description for now. We’ve wasted enough time,” Tess replied.
I expected a grand structure but only encountered disappointment. The exterior was falling apart. A statue perched on top of the building was missing a piece of its head. Tess entered the building without saying a word.
“Come on, Yuki, get it together. Let’s stop overthinking and just follow her,” I told myself.
I caught up to Tess as she pulled out a key. The interior resembled a large warehouse. The lighting was dim and items were strewn about with no recognizable order. We maneuvered our way around the crates and other junk, finally arriving at a door. I turned the doorknob and shook my head at Tess.
“I’ll leave it to you,” I said.
Tess moved her left hand around the door but nothing appeared. She removed two hairpins from her head, sticking them into the keyhole. After a few seconds, there was a click. Tess slowly opened the door and waved at me to follow. I took one step through the door and heard…. running water? Yet, I didn’t see a possible source for it. Further in, I noticed a small crack in the ceiling. Light shone down from it onto a podium containing a book. Ichizen approached the podium, extending his hand toward the book.
“Ichizen!” I shouted.
“Yuki. This place is amazing. I received a message on my phone after the doors shut and found myself here. It sent me another map directing me here,” Ichizen replied.
“How would that even work?” I questioned.
“Someone from here is messaging you,” Tess offered an explanation.
“Who is it?” I muttered.
“Could it have been her? It could have guaranteed his survival…. yet I didn’t find anything,” Tess whispered to herself.
“Guys, you’re missing the point! This is the treasure at the end of the path of heroism. All I have to do is pick up the grimoire and I will finally achieve one of my dreams!” Ichizen announced.
“Michi, don’t touch it!” Tess yelled out, a sense of urgency in her voice.
She rushed towards the podium but was repelled back. Tess clicked her tongue and wrapped a key chain around her hand, punching the air. I heard shattering glass and Tess advanced. However, Ichizen already opened the grimoire, excitement in his eyes.
“Michi, stop!” Tess shouted, striking Ichizen in the face with her right fist.
Ichizen remained stationary, undeterred by the hit. Pages separated from the book spine and floated into the air. Ichizen’s normal bright eyes went blank. I ran up toward the podium, hoping to smack sense into my childhood friend.
“Tomo, stay back!” Tess admonished, dashing toward me.
I ignored her warning, going straight for Ichizen. The pages formed a barricade, denying me further access. A force pushed me back and I landed flat on the ground.
“Wow, Ichizen, I’m impressed you actually resisted,” I said, getting back up.
“Tomo, I’m afraid my powers alone aren’t strong enough to defeat him,” Tess said.
“Defeat him? What are you talking about?” I asked with a quick glare.
“The contents of the grimoire have consumed his body,” Tess explained.
“We’re saving him, no matter what, okay?” I pointed at Tess.
The pages forming a barricade dissipated and ascended through the hole in the ceiling. I looked upward, waving at Tess.
“Tess! Can you plug up that hole?” I asked.
Chains appeared in the air, covering the hole. The grimoire pages shattered Tess’ chains upon contact, continuing their ascent. So much for that plan. Was there anything else I could do?
“Fine, we’ll just have to get to Ichizen some other way,” I decided.
He stared at the blank pages flying up and then grabbed one of the pages. Unrecognizable symbols appeared on them now and Ichizen muttered inaudible words. A circle with a star formed underneath his feet. Ichizen’s eyes reverted back to normal for a brief second.
“Ichizen! Come on, Ichizen, I know you can hear me! If you don’t snap out of it, I’m going to hit you and you know I will!” I warned.
Ichizen cackled and the pages ceased their upward movement. A few blank pages glided down onto the floor. The numerous pages plugged the hole, blocking any light from entering. The only light source now was the strange circle on the floor.
My childhood friend departed from the podium, tucking the grimoire underneath his left arm. He stopped three feet away from us, a cold expression on his face.
“Tomo Yuki, it seems you’ve been friends with him for a long time,” Ichizen spoke.
This was not Ichizen’s voice. His mouth moved but nothing out of it resembled the person I knew. It was sinister and brooding.
“The same obedient Gatekeeper as always. Did you really think you and those other so called heroes managed to seal the Traveler away? It was only temporary, you know,” Ichizen continued.
“And?” Tess responded, a scary expression on her face.
“This vessel is quite interesting. He believes so much in heroes and I can’t help but laugh at his nativity. It really gives me a good laugh,” Ichizen replied, shrugging his shoulders in a nonchalant way.
“Give him back!” I shouted.
“Oh I would love to do that, but I need him and guess what, both of you aren’t at my level. It’s quite a shame, I expected more from the Gatekeeper,” Ichizen refused, shaking his head.
I balled my right hand into a fist and took a few deep breaths. Clearly, this was not Ichizen. If Tess couldn’t touch him, then how could I? Three daggers suddenly flew at Ichizen. Ichizen laughed and with one wave of his hand, all the daggers clattered to the floor. Another three flew in, approaching his backside, missing as well.
“Oh come on!” a voice shouted.
Ichaival appeared, wearing a puffy vest and jeans. Tess acknowledged him with a slight nod. Ichizen glanced at Ichaival with an amused expression.
“What’s this? Ichaival Darryl! I still see you possess the portal archer power. Useless as always,” Ichizen mocked, picking a blade off the ground.
He examined the dagger with a grin. So much like Ichizen except for the warped sense of malice. Daggers converged on Ichizen from both the left and right side. Ichizen sighed and with the blade in his hand, knocked every single one down. Ichaival rushed at Ichizen, revealing a hidden blade from underneath his sleeve. Tess also joined in on the attack.
“I get tired of you lower tier heroes. When will you start bringing me a worthy challenge?” Ichizen remarked, knocking the two away with a simple wave of his hand.
One of Ichaival’s blades slid over to my feet. He appeared distracted, occupied with mocking the two people on the floor. I made up my mind and charged at Ichizen. Damn it, you’ll have to pay me back for this! I aimed my knife at the grimoire Ichizen held and prayed for contact. My hand went numb from the sudden fear entering my body. No, I needed to go through with it no matter what!
“I can’t believe I have to do this again,” a familiar voice said.
I noticed a surprised look on Ichizen’s face for the first time. Yes! I actually plunged the blade through! I stepped back, unsure of my next action. Zhuyu, wearing a zipped up gray hoodie, yanked Ichaival back up onto his feet. He gave me a brief glance and turned his attention to Ichizen.
“Michi? No, of course not. Man, I thought we were finished with this already,” Zhuyu said, pushing his hair up with his right hand.
“Oh, an actual challenge…. No, you’re weak now. If only you didn’t….,” Ichizen remarked, pulling the blade out of the grimoire.
The damage done by the dagger disappeared. Ichizen gave it a quick pat and smirked at Zhuyu. Zhuyu gave a serious glare in return.
“So that’s how she managed to hit my book. Your powers have changed,” Ichizen nodded with a knowing look.
“What do you want with Michi?” Zhuyu dismissed his comment, disinterest on his face.
“This boy is quite a specimen. A burning sense of justice and willingness to follow through with things. A very good vessel indeed. You believed you managed to destroy the Traveler, right? Your mission failed! He was part of a much bigger plan than you ever knew,” Ichizen explained, giving Zhuyu a thumbs up.
“The Traveler lives?” Tess asked, anger in her eyes.
“Very much so,” Ichizen replied with a big smile.
“Look, all this crap about the Traveler and heroes, I don’t care about any of it. Ichizen’s a dumbass, there’s no denying that, but even he’s not stupid enough to deserve this,” I shouted, fed up with the entire mess.
“Tomo Yuki, you actually should care a lot. You have a big role in all of this so don’t go denying anything. It’ll be bad for your health,” Ichizen revealed, stroking the grimoire as if it were a cat.
I stood there, shocked by his words. No one said anything. Really? The one time I needed information and nothing. I should have never agreed to go with Tess in the first place. If anything, it was Ichizen’s fault for my current predicament.
“What do you mean Tomo is a big part of this?” Ichaival questioned, looking at me and then Ichizen.
“Tomo Yuki, why don’t you enlighten them about those messages you’ve been receiving from me? They will be very interested,” Ichizen suggested, pulling out his phone.
“It seems to me it was always Ichizen destined to be the hero, not me,” I countered, shaking my head.
“Was that really the case? Did you ever consider the messages you received were intended just for you?” Ichizen asked, waving around his cell phone with a big smile.
“It’s obvious the recipients of your messages has always been Ichizen. You’re possessing him right now!” I demanded, not following his logic.
“Those other messages you received, well, that wasn’t me. Tell me, Tomo Yuki, who really is the intended hero?” Ichizen asked one more time.
Zhuyu, Ichaival, and Tess glanced at me. I didn’t know what the hell that bastard was talking about. All the messages I got were the same as Ichizen’s.
“No, no, you’re lying. Everything I received, they came from the same numbers that sent Ichizen’s message,” I replied.
“Are you absolutely certain you read every single message or did you just make assumptions? Tomo Yuki, look at your phone one more time!” Ichizen directed.
“I’m not going to check it,” I shouted.
Tess glanced over at Zhuyu and he shook his head. Could it be they were going to abandon me and leave? No, no, I would get out of here alive.
“Tomo Yuki, all you have to do is check your phone,” Ichizen prattled on.
My right hand shook. Was it fear or just nervousness? I unlocked my screen and went to my messages. Scrolling down, my eyes fell upon a new message, different than the ones from before. How could I have missed this? This message must have been sent now. The contents contained a contract, specifically asking for my confirmation of becoming a hero.
“The look on your face tells me that I was right. You can no longer deny your involvement in this,” Ichizen lectured, putting away his phone.