The Fates decided that the knight will believe in self-determinism.
Ah, you’re not ready to show yourselves to the mortal world. As well you shouldn’t. You may hold the strings, but it’s not the role of a divine being to reveal the secrets of the universe to the mortal souls. The universe is too vast for them. Let them think they’re in control while they grapple with the minutiae of existence.
As we all know, knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous combination. I am of course referring to several prophets who used their divine revelations to various disastrous ends. Truth be told, I’m relieved this will not be that kind of story.
Ren shakes his helmet. Gods, destiny — that way lies madness. Strength is to take responsibility for one’s own actions, the good and the bad. He cannot blame anyone else for this catastrophe.
“I write my own future,” he says out loud. “I choose my own path, I’m in control.”
He stands up and tests the condition of his body. The armor obeys him. He rotates the remaining arm and finds it has a full range of mobility. Problem is, his body feels lopsided without his left arm. Mushroom warriors peek out of the armhole, excitedly oohing and aahing with the up and down motion as the knight tests his knees with a few squats. At last, Ren tugs at a scrap of metal still dangling from the broken shoulder pad, rips it free and throws it into the dark. He may only have one arm, but he will kill this monster, get his oar, and repay his debt to Dawn.
A pattering of tiny feet heralds the mushroom scouts’ arrival. “Metal Man,” one of them says, pointing back the way they came. “Noxis ahead. We close.”
“Perfect,” the Eternal Knight says.
A grimace of pain distorts Dawn’s face when Ren wakes her. She looks pale in the purple light of the Violet Alert. Ren hands her a piece of dried fish. While she eats, he clumsily rips two strips of fabric from the long, red skirt attached to his cuirass, and dunks them in the stream.
“Here,” he says, handing them to Dawn. “Bandage your hands with these. The wet fabric will cool down the burning.”
“Thank you,” she murmurs. Then she looks glumly at her hands.
Uncertainly, Ren says, “They will heal, with time. All will be well.”
Dawn sniffs, her eyes filling with tears. “But I cannot levitate things like this,” she explains. “I can’t move my hands smoothly. I’m so sorry, sir prince knight. I’m so-”
Ren kneels in front of her and gently holds her small shoulder with his gauntlet. “I owe you an apology, Dawn of High Hauran,” he says. “I was distracted and sloppy. You sacrificed yourself to save my life and I will make it up to you. From now on, I swear to protect you. I will be your shield while you heal.”
Ren had hoped this would calm her, but Dawn bursts fully into tears and clumsily hugs his metal shell.
“Oh, I’ve never had a knight swear anything to me before! Let alone a prince! This is the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me. Of course, we should have been standing on a meadow or a balcony, not in a dank cavern, but your words were beautiful.”
At least, she seems happier now, her spirits lifted. Dawn wraps her hands, washes her face, slowly braids her hair to keep it out of the burns on her temple, and packs hers and Ren’s bags.
They walk upstream, following the tunnel. The knight notes recent drag marks on the ground made by something heavy. Green pigment streaks mark the trail, like grass stains on linen. The monster must use this tunnel to get in and out of its lair. Good to know, the knight thinks. This will make their way back easier.
Soon they see a shimmering green glow flooding the tunnel ahead.
“Get behind me, Dawn.”
Ren approaches a ruined doorway, its hinges empty, pieces of the wooden door rotting on the ground, along with driftwood, algae, rubble and...
“My oar!” He gasps. Among the dank and rotting litter, he sees the paddle protruding up like a neglected rake. He pulls it out. “I thought I’d never get it back.”
Overjoyed, he watches the green and violet lights glint against the oar’s polished surface, its weight distributing perfectly in his grip. His hand knows what to do, how to handle the weapon from years of practice in-
“It’s a laboratory!” Dawn’s voice pulls him from his reverie and he looks up. She stands in the doorway, peeking in tentatively. Oar in hand he steps protectively in front of her. The source of the green light seems to emanate from another room to the right, while the monster’s tracks point further up to the other side of what Dawn rightly named a laboratory.
The laboratory’s brick walls are lined with overflowing shelves. Books, scrolls, and vials are in abundance. Jars — some empty, some filled with potions, some preserving specimens of plants and tiny creatures — fill one entire cabinet. A dusty table with an intricate distilling apparatus is pushed aside at an odd angle, another is overturned, its contents shattered all over the floor. Glass crunches underfoot as they enter. The Eternal Knight scans the sharp shadows cast by the eerie, green light, gauntlet gripping his oar, expecting to see movement or eyes peering at them or-
He freezes. Something catches his eye behind the overturned table. It’s not moving, so he approaches it, slowly, oar at the ready. Dawn, sensing his tension, falls behind, cautious.
One kick is enough to push the table aside and reveal three faces staring at him from within a painting. The knight kneels down to look at it, Violet Alert illuminating the image. It’s a tattered family portrait depicting an important-looking man in a long waistcoat, a beautiful woman standing beside him, dressed in a lacy, white gown, and an infant smiling in her arms. Its once elegant, gold gilded frame has come apart at one corner, the filigree chipped and peeling. The name tag, however, is still legible.
“Sir Turcifa with Lady Mafra and Miss Areia,” he reads.
“Oh, that’s tragic,” Dawn whispers over his shoulder. “Compie mentioned Turcifa had a family. Both his wife and child are dead now, aren’t they? Oh, she and the little girl were so pretty too.” Dawn looks admiringly at the short, silky curls that cluster around the woman’s head and the yellow ribbons sewn onto the baby’s dress. “I always wished I could wear clothes like those instead of this dull uniform,” she sighs. “But Cato always said a sentinel needs no frills.”
Ren gets up. He isn’t interested in Turcifa’s family. The only thing he wants is to fulfill his promise to the mushrooms and get Dawn out of here. He finds nothing but dusty old books and potions in the first room, so he examines the source of the green light next.
“Keep close, Dawn.”
They step into a narrow, long hallway brimming with stems and roots that hug the old brick walls. Instinctively, Dawn claps her bandaged hands to her face. A row of large glass spheres stands to either side of the hallway, each rests nestled in an alcove, filled with glowing liquid, and inside each is a Noxis specimen. Whether the Noxis are suspended, sleeping or dead, he can’t tell. There are animals: rats, birds, cats, dogs, all motionless, all sprouting leaves and vines and branches from their bodies. The mushroom warriors inside Ren’s armor quiver with fear, their little spears poking through the armhole, ready to fight their cursed nemesis. The further they walk, the further the Noxis inside the spheres are developed into their ultimate monstrous shapes.
An uneasy feeling of foreboding comes over Ren. Was experimenting on living creatures part of Turcifa’s search for the cure?
The creatures inside the vats get larger until he sees a human, curled in a fetal position, blades of grass covering his body like fur, then another with hard, bark-like skin, and another — each transformed, mutated, some barely recognizable as people.
One vat catches Dawn’s attention, and she pauses in front of it, tugging at the knight’s skirt. Inside it floats a woman, her body covered in leaves and blooming flowers and instead of a number her vat is tagged with a name: ‘Lady Mafra’. Next to her is another container — this one broken. Its liquid, long since dried up, stains the floor and the glass is cracked like an eggshell. ‘Miss Areia’, the tag says.
Dawn trembles. “The… The monster we fought is Turcifa’s daughter, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Did Turcifa sacrifice his family for his research? Or keep them frozen in time after being exposed to the Noxis? The Knight did not know — but he had seen the hate in the monster when it attacked Turcifa. Disheartened, he considered the paths before him.
I feel like this is a momentous enough moment to warrant another intervention. You, my dear Fates, have a simple choice between two options.
Option 1: The knight honors his promise to the mushrooms and goes on to kill the monster for them. It’s time to end its suffering and end the curse that plagues Ferax, one dead monster at a time.
Option 2: The knight decides to walk away. This monster doesn’t deserve more suffering. Not at his hands. He can’t prevent the mushroom warriors from fighting, but he will refuse to cause more pain to it himself.
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