The moments stretched into minutes as I waited for something to come. An angel perhaps to escort me to heaven, or a devil to tell me I was destined for hell, like what my aunt said happened to children who didn't listen to their mothers. All the while, I was nothing if not mildly curious. I waited to float away. Yet nothing changed. The rustling leaves were the same, the rushing river was the same, the sweat on my brow dripped down as it did before. All but a great thud.
I opened my eyes and saw the source of the blood.
The kidnapper stood, his smile now twisted with pain. Where his left arm should've been was a bloody stump spewing a copious amount of hot red fluid. The hand lay on the ground, holding on to the axe till the end.
I trembled. Relief washed over me, then horror, then finally the realisation of how close to death I was and how close the man was to it now. All these shook my body, and I couldn't do more than sit there and stare. Stare into those dimming eyes of the man who seemed so dangerous just a few seconds ago.
What happened next felt less real than a daydream. Like something someone else was watching. A man and a woman, whom I'd never seen in my life, pulled the kidnapper away and laid him down. They examined and cauterized the stump, singeing flesh leaving a cloying, sickening stench in the air. The bleeding ceased. Closer to me stood another woman, a blade in her hand, dripping red liquid onto the soil. On her back was a silver insignia of a sword notched on a bow. A Heikisato special squad member.
I stared at the badge, a red light blaring in my head. But I didn't know why. I don't know for how long I sat there, transfixed, too tired to think, too tired to feel, just an observer of a confusing world.
‘Tahro, are you OK?’ someone asked.
Remembering who I was again, I blinked and focused on Kaede's face. The sights and sounds around me came back with harsh clarity. We were rescued. A God-given deus ex machina.
My breath caught. Was this why Minister Banji assigned the quest to us? Were we really the quest to them? Were they assigned to protect us?
‘I…yes,' I told her. Several scratches ran along her face and arms. Her clothes were marred too, little rips here and there on her shirt and arm warmers. Yet her face, framed by tousled bangs, was the happiest I'd ever seen. ‘W-what about you?’
‘I'm good,' she grinned and grabbed my sword from my lap. I flinched at the movement, but staggered up, my legs like lead. Soon they started to prickle and regain feeling, and I scrambled out of the carriage. My back pulsed with pain. There was sure to be more than a few bruises.
‘Congratulations, Tahro, you've finished your first quest,' said Kaede. I glanced around. The special squad was leaving, kidnapper jostled away between them. Tsubasa, Daisuke and Ahio were still on the tree, all three with weary smiles. Even Ahio, whose arms were now bandaged and in splints.
She was right. Something blossomed in me, something gold which coloured the leaves a brilliant green and made the song of birds melodious and clear. A huge smile broke across my features. We did it. Ahio was safe. Kaede was safe. I was safe. It was all over, and the world couldn't have been brighter.
‘Congratulations to you too,' I beamed at her, then made to shake her hand and take back my sword. It was then that I realized that both my arms were occupied. They still held whatever had fallen on them before. The first, in my left hand, was the pouch, for all the good it did. And clutched in the other was a stone.
I turned it over my palm. It was no bigger than a bottle cork and cerulean, with white spirals swirling in it like a whirlpool. It emitted warmth, gentle and flowing like a brook on a sunny day. The surface glistened where the light hit. Maybe it was something priceless, something the man stole or just a keepsake from his past. But to me it was a perfect addition to my veritable collection of pebbles, feathers, magnets, odd corks and springs that might come into use some day, if only for bragging rights.
I shifted my attention to the pouch. The leather was maroon and tied up by a rubber band. Remembering not to breath in too deeply, I grasped the stone between my last three fingers and took off the band. Inside was the innocuous fine white powder that helped cause so much trouble.
Someone stomped behind me, and Kaede gasped.
I spun around. Kaede stood tense, her eyes wide and her hands retrieving her swords, mine left on the carriage floor beside me sometime when I hadn't been paying attention. A man dressed in navy blue, whose face was hidden under a deep orange scarf held a knife with butterfly patterns to her rapidly paling throat. He brought Kaede closer to his chest and grabbed something from his pocket.
Had you asked me a couple days later, I would've been mighty proud of what I was about to do. Make that a few months, and I would've cursed the heavens bestowed reflexes that made my actions possible. Yet in that moment, I saw nothing but the terror in beautiful bottle green eyes and a blade on her milk-white neck.
Before I knew it, there was powder in my hands. Just as the man made his clutch on Kaede tighter, I sprang on him, knocking her away. With a hand raised to throw the powder, I clawed off his scarf. A thin faced man with spiky hair stared at me. Then vanished.