The tavern the man with the greatsword took Kiyashi and Mifu into was one that neither had been in. Over the door was a rickety wooden sign that had the words “The Eye,” hastily scrawled in cursive. The ends of the letters curled like the branches of a bramble bush.
Kiyashi was still shaken, her mind clouded. She could swear she could still hear the whisperings of the voices echoing, curling around her mind like a fog. The only clear thing she could feel was Mifu’s hands tightly grasping her arm, clinging but also reassuring.
The interior of the tavern called the Eye was unlike Yamato’s place, the Hand, with the orange light of the lanterns hovering over the groups of people huddled at tables dotted around, and a low but relatively loud buzz of conversation echoing around, accented by the sounds of plates and mugs clinking. The man pointed them into a booth that was separate from the main floor and allowed for some privacy. Then, he walked up to the counter and, with a series of short words and a familiar nod, ordered drinks for the three of them. The barkeep, a middle-aged man with a moustache and a wart on his nose, nodded.
“I apologize for the sudden invitation but I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. You know, they get loud there,” said the man, pointing to his temple. He had returned to the booth, setting two steaming mugs down, one in front of Mifu and one in front of Kiyashi. A familiar fragrance poked Kiyashi’s nose and she blinked, her clouded mind clearing as she focused her eyes on the contents of the mug.
It was a creamy light brown, and smelled sweet. A white cream seemed to swirl about, and the steam curled upwards from the surface, leaving small pockets of steam dancing on the surface of the drink as well.
“Is this… hot chocolate?”
Kiyashi asked, finding her voice for the first time in a while.
“Correct,” said the man, after he took a long drink from his mug. “A specialty of the barkeep of ‘The Eye.’”
Kiyashi turned to Mifu and watched as the young girl brought the mug to her lips and her eyes lit up. The raven, seated between Kiyashi and Mifu, cocked its head sideways, quizzical.
“It’s delicious,” said Mifu, softly.
Kiyashi followed suit and took a sip. The warmth filled her stomach and then radiated out, until her whole body felt warm. And comfortable, even safe.
Kiyashi’s voice sounded hollow, although she meant it all in sincerity.
The man nodded, then set his mug down.
“You are very welcome. And allow me to introduce myself. I am Shikai.”
“I am Kiyashi. And this is one of my companions.”
Mifu looked past the top of her mug. “My name is Mifu. Nice to meet you.”
“Kiyashi and Mifu.” The man named Shikai paused, his eyes locked on Mifu. Stormy grey met unwavering violet. “You’re… You’re not a Dark Angel, although you could have been one. Interesting.”
Kiyashi began to explain but Shikai held up his hand.
“I’ve seen others like her. All I can say is that she is lucky to have met you.”
Kiyashi nodded, although she felt a cold sensation race down her spine, threatening to chill the comforting warmth. She did not want to imagine what Mifu would have gone through, had they not saved her.
“So, the topic on hand,” said Shikai, downing his mug. “My apologies for butting into your task, but I had had enough watching people like you perishing before my eyes. People like you who hear them.”
“The voices… I can still faintly hear them, even now.”
Shikai sighed. “Like the saying goes, third time’s the charm, apparently. The third time you hear them, they don’t go away. They stay with you. And,” he paused and took a deep breath. “They are especially loud here, near the base of the Cliff. So, the timing of your third strike was an ill-fated one.”
“I’m sorry- the Cliff?” Kiyashi blinked, confused. “What is the Cliff? Or, I guess, where is it?”
There was a rustle as Shikai pulled out his map from his pocket. It looked very worn, the edges frayed and rounded. It even looked yellowed with age. With one gloved finger, Shikai pointed at the structure labelled “The Eye.”
“We are here, yes?”
“And the towering Cliff is right here.” The finger travelled a short distance across the paper and pointed at a space that looked like it stood on the boundary of the city, the limits of the map. There was a single ragged line that read “The Cliff.” The lines that formed it petered off into the blank, white border of the map.
“What, what’s there?”
Shikai’s grey eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. Kiyashi could hear the faint sound of teeth grinding.
“The castle… of the mastermind of this damned world. The man that calls himself the Old Gentleman.”
His words were low, almost a whisper. But it was barbed and cold.
“Is that the same person as the hooded figure who spoke to us when we fell in?”
“You can say that. He is the gamemaster who has trapped us in this game of his.”
Shikai seemed to spit, malice no longer hidden. Kiyashi felt something rising inside of her, something that had been boiling for long and was finally reaching the surface. Perhaps it was hatred, or something close to it. She could feel her mouth go dry and her throat burn.
“Is there a way to defeat him?”
The question was a low murmur, but each word felt like a heavy stone. And Kiyashi looked directly into Shikai’s grey eyes. The man did not flinch as he met her gaze.
Instead of replying to her question, Shikai nodded slowly.
“I like your spunk, kid. You were the right choice. And I’m glad you survived.”
“Wh- what?” Confusion flooded from Kiyashi’s voice.
“This might sound like some crazy or cliche stuff, but the reason we hear the voices is because we have been chosen by the world. And the voices are the voices of the game, even the world itself, and they have been trying to tell us, give us hints of the world.”
“Kid, I’ve had a lot more time spent with these annoying voices and had more time to think about them,” Shikai chuckled, a dry sound. A tight smile flashed on his lips. “Do you remember what they said?”
Kiyashi hesitated but then tried to recall.
“‘Hunter, why do you hunt.’ And… And-” She shivered, as the words that tore through her mind came back to her, clear as day. “‘Hunted, why do you run.’”
“In this world,” began Shikai, his words softer. “We are both the Hunter and the Hunted. And the most fearsome Hunter of the Hunters is the Old Gentleman himself.”
“The Old Gentleman…?”
“The purpose of the Purge. The role of the Outlaws. The role of the Dark Angels. The purpose of the first list.” Shikai chuckled darkly, his eyes glinting with a strange light. “It’s all for death. Simply, death. I still have no idea what he’s planning but he has one ultimate goal in mind, I’m sure of it. And that is for us to all kill each other in a giant show of a world built around death. In this twisted hallowed Hollow.”
Shikai’s grey eyes flashed and found Kiyashi’s dark brown ones.
“Kid, as a fellow Hunter doomed with the voices, will you join me in bringing this damned world to an end?”
At Shikai’s words, Kiyashi’s mind cleared as though a wind had come through and blown all the clouds away.
Without hesitation, she gave her reply.
“Good,” Shikai nodded. “Now, there is someone I need you to meet. Not someone I particularly want to see again, but they may be our only way to the castle.”
- - -
“A way to escape this world?,” asked Sendo, his voice skeptical.
Kiyashi had brought Shikai to meet Sendo and Aruya, who had been waiting worriedly at the Hand. Aruya agreed right away but Sendo was hesitant.
Drawing Kiyashi aside, Sendo ran his hand through his hair, a heavy sigh preceding his words.
“Kiyashi, do- can we trust him?”
“Sendo, I- he knows how to get us out of here.”
There was a silent moment, even tense, as Sendo’s light brown and Kiyashi’s dark brown met. Kiyashi could see the depths of Sendo’s eyes swimming, wavering. She knew that Sendo wanted to leave, to get out of this hellhole. But, he was hesitant to trust.
“Sendo, let’s trust Shikai.”
“Is it- is it the voices?,” Sendo asked, quietly. Kiyashi blinked, surprised.
“He said he could hear the voices. And you mentioned, during the Purge, that, that you heard someone asking you a question.”
“Kiyashi, can you hear them too?” Sendo’s expression was pained.
Kiyashi nodded, and glanced over at the others. Mifu was petting her raven and Aruya was watching them with a soft colour in her eyes. Shikai was making small talk with Yamato, both men speaking in low voices.
“I-,” Sendo began, then threw his glaze to the floor. “I want to leave this place too, before it- it breaks us any further.”
Sendo looked back up and held out his hand. “Let’s leave this godforsaken place.”
“Let’s,” returned Kiyashi, gripping Sendo’s hand back.