He'd once promised himself never to return to this place: to the beginning of the end.
Who would have thought, that one day, he would be walking on that same path leading to the village again?
He unconsciously let out a heavy sigh. The smell of spring penetrated his lungs, bringing him back to one simple spring morning when he first walked on this very path, with two other companions…
"This district is beautiful, isn't it?" said Shen in barely contained excitement – there was once a time when he was that young and eager.
Master Kusho nodded in agreement. He was a middle-aged man then, and even in his disguise one could read the impressive stature of a warrior. His beard was still red then – the same hair color with Shen. That was the beginning to the end.
"Don't you think it is strange, father? I don't sense any demonic aura. If the case is as severe as we were led to believe…"
"Some demons are capable of disguising their trace," said Kusho "according to Zhyun's letter, this 'Golden Demon' has been elusive for years. You must not let down your guard, both of you."
"Of course," said Shen "what do you think, Zed?"
The young Zed snapped out of his trance of thought: he was busy admiring the beauty of the flora and fauna of the land. He turned to acknowledge his friend.
"You don't seem awfully interest," said Shen curiously "I thought you'd be more excited. We've finally got a chance to see what a real demon looks like!"
Zed mumbled an incoherent reply. It wasn't exactly his first time facing a demon, but they did not know that.
"Of course I am," he said, finally. It was his first time he'd got a chance to work directly in the field, to use his talents to actually help people. No matter how much he was told this was serious business, the eagerness of youth and the excitement of an adventure simply couldn't be hindered.
It was the first, and the last time.
"Now, boys," said Master Kusho in a cautionary tone "this mission is potentially perilous. People have died. The reports have not been reassuring. Don't get your hope up. This won't be an easy case."
The two boys smiled back at him.
"I know, father!"
"I know, master!"
They both said, at the same time. There was still a hint of innocence and lightheartedness in their eyes, something that would never come back, along with a lot of things, once they entered this village.
Master Kusho's expression softened a little, and he nodded.
A warm spring breeze blew by, carrying with it tiny sakura pellets. Zed watched the petals dancing in the blue sky with a smile. Spring had already come.
"Zed," Vladimir called, snapping Zed out of his flashback. Memories merged with the current scene. He looked up to find Zhyun's gate waiting.
His current companions were looking at him. They did not ask what he was thinking, probably because they both had an idea or two, the brilliant people they were.
Zed let out another sigh.
"Welcome to Zhyun," he said flatly "town of the blossoms."
"So aptly named," Vladimir agreed. Indeed, this town was one with nature. Flowers were the town's main merchandise, and could be seen everywhere: on the farmsteads, by the roads, or sold by vendors. Zhyun was a surprisingly busy town despite being a rural area. The village attracted visitors all over Ionia, mainly because of the diverse and beautiful woods encompassing it. Renowned artists were known to have come here for inspirations (how ironic).
The Master of Shadows consciously controlled his every step, glancing around to make sure, despite how unlikely such a situation could happen, that Khada Jhin was not part of the crowd. The four years undercover in this town left him memorizing its every street, every corner, and every house. And his innate physiology did not allow things to be forgotten, which was really inconvenient, although he reasoned that, even without his eidetic memory, forgetting about Zhyun was impossible.
"Are you alright?" asked Lulu kindly. Zed smiled to assure her.
"It's still under control, thank you."
After more than ten years, the town didn't differ much from what he remembered. The same small, elegant wooden houses lined up alongside the main road, with vendors selling different merchandise. Rice and various flowers were cultivated on the farms a mile off North. On the opposite direction was the center of the town, where the district's council used to stand.
Lulu and Vladimir were both inspecting everything in their own curious ways, apparently very interested in the culture and lifestyle of the Ionians (or, particularly, Zhyun's Ionians). As someone who used to marvel at new things, Zed could understand their sentiments. He'd once been there, too, trying to take in everything his eyes could see.
He doubted anyone would have remembered him. After all, it had been a long time. But who knew? Maybe a boy with golden eyes was bound to leave a longer-lasting impression…
"Now that we're here," said Vladimir, satisfied with his findings for the moment "what's your plan?"
"I was planning to come threaten the governor," said Zed frankly "and try to get what he knows about the people commanding Jhin, and his whereabouts."
"What an awfully straightforward fellow you are," said Vladimir with only the slightest bit of sarcasm. Zed had to admit, in retrospect, the mage was probably right.
"Well, what's your better idea?"
"You're the master mind, Zed. I'm only the guest."
"Anyway," said Zed brusquely "that plan isn't gonna be carried out. The governor has left town a day ago."
Vladimir raised an eyebrow.
"How did you know this?"
"My ninjas do monitor the political scheme, at least the more public part," said the ninja "and, I read the bulletin board at the gate."
"How observant," said the mage "so, why did you still come?"
"There's a chance Jhin might show up here," answered Zed, suddenly sober "or that he might expect me to show up here. Either way, this is our best lead."
The other two nodded. Lulu spoke up.
"For some reason people are more excited. They seem to be looking forward to something. What's the occasion?"
"It's the festival to celebrate spring," Zed replied "the Blossom Festival, it's called. The main venue is down at Jyom Pass," he pointed to the east - indeed, people seemed to be gathering there "it's a tradition of Zhyun. People would gather together to watch the blossoms under the sakura trees. There are other events held as well."
"It sounds fun! Can we go?" asked the yordle.
"If you want to. I will not be accompanying you, however."
"Khada Jhin used to be a theatrical stagehand. The Festival about ten years ago was when he was captured."
The three stopped at a crossroad. Zed grimaced. A trip down memory lane, indeed this was.
On their right was a series of abandoned houses.
"These houses used to be resided; before the 'Golden Demon' decided to pay a visit," five months, each month a family was killed "no one dared to occupy these anymore, even after the truth about the Demon was revealed."
He stopped in front of the first house in line.
Nothing could have been as appalling as the scene unveiling before his eyes then. It was the first time he'd seen such meticulous cruelty put together.
It was the first time he saw someone murdered by Khada Jhin.
He knew he'd been shaking unconsciously. Shen was also the same. Master Kusho, the experienced warrior he was, was the only one staying calm, yet undoubtedly the Eye of Twilight was disturbed as well.
"Who could have…?" he mumbled.
The inside of the cottage was painted with blood, its intoxicating smell almost tipping Zed over. The body was mutilated beyond recognition, displayed so intentional and delicate that one might appreciate, that is, if one spoke the language. Zed never found any of his works beautiful, but a sense of wrongness always accompanied them. He only felt disgusted… horrified… sick. All appropriate responses, really.
Shen was the first to break the silence.
"There's no trace of a demon."
Master Kusho nodded. Zed grimaced. Such violence, intentional killing, and the demon left no aura behind?
"We will take a further look at the premise. Zed, can you?"
The young ninja nodded numbly. He forced down his irrational shaking and took out his sketchbook. No demon would be this meticulous. No demon would be this intentional.
His pencil hovered above the sketchpad, shaking. He swore inwardly. The murder scene had already found its way into his mind, and there it would stay forever, haunting him both in dreams and awake.
A reassuring hand grabbed his shaking one and held it gently. He had to admire Shen. Even in the most discouraging situation, Shen'd always been able to act strong.
Shen's blue eyes looked into his golden ones. He was disturbed, no doubt; the fear still visible in his eyes, but he didn't look away. They stared at each other for a few seconds before Zed finally nodded, and Shen let his hand go.
His hand was not shaking anymore.
"We'll get him," said Shen determinedly.
Zed nodded again. His pencil began to run across the paper, taking down one of the Virtuoso's canvases without him looking up a second time.
Subconsciously, his feet were taking him down the street, across every vacant house. With each house he passed, unrequited, yet inevitable memories resurfaced. He remembered each and every murder associated with each house. Reality and reminiscence seemed to be merging before his eyes.
"I hope these houses are public property," Vladimir said nonchalantly, snapping Zed out of his thoughts.
"Why do you ask?"
The mage simply pointed towards the Fae Sorceress, who was unlocking the door to one of the houses.
Zed's jaw dropped.
"Lulu, what are you doing?"
Lulu looked back.
"I'm investigating," she said, innocently "these houses are abandoned, right?"
"They are," practically, they were public property "there aren't any rotting corpses inside, if you're asking."
"That isn't necessary," said Lulu, finally casting the door open. Dust and mold filled the air "you don't have to come with me."
"I'll look after her," said Vladimir, walking pass him to enter the house "take your time."
Zed only nodded. He watched the duo entering the houses, memories once again parallel with reality.
How many houses had they entered, how many fields of death had they witnessed, until the Virtuoso had been stopped?
(He could name a number, obviously, if he allowed himself to entertain the thought.)
And now, such monstrosity of a man was out there, once more. He'd killed again. And he wouldn't stop. All because of his failure…
Zed shook his head. He'd not allow Jhin to haunt him in his waking hours.
"That'd be the end of it," said Vladimir after the two had already taken a detour around the designated house "would you like to take a look at another?"
"It's not necessary. One prototype is enough."
Lulu had been scrutinizing every bit of detail, things he could and could not see, of the former crime scene of the Virtuoso. She conversed with Pix frequently, in a tongue he did not understand. The Fae seemed a little restless.
The young sorceress closed her eyes and sat down in the middle of the doorway.
"I enter the house. It seems to me a blank canvas – pure, yet plain, as if beckoning me to elevate it, unveiling all the textures and colors of death. It is performance time. My heart won't be contained; I won't contain it. I must be perfection."
She opened her eyes.
"It is in his design. He fully intends it, despite knowing what it is. He is happy doing it."
Vladimir didn't find it necessary to fill in his thoughts. The yordle stood up "thank you for coming with me."
The mage nodded. He hesitated before asking.
"Is he human?"
The statement was left hanging in the air.
Humans could be terrifying. They'd all learned.
"He knows that this is terrible," Lulu contained "but it is his happiness…"
Vladimir raised an eyebrow.
"You're not defending him, aren't you?"
"No, I'm trying to explain him."
"Don't push yourself too hard."
The duo left the house to find the Master of Shadows waiting.
"How did it go?" he asked.
Lulu nodded. "I see now."
'Good," said Zed dispassionately "don't tell me. I don't need to know."
He removed himself from the tree he was leaning on and approached them, trying his best to sound a little more upbeat.
"It seems all of the houses have been undisturbed," he announced "come. I will lead you to Jyom Pass."
"You wanted to come to the festival, didn't you? It is quite a spectacle to behold, honestly. Jyom Pass is where the most beautiful sakura blooms."
Indeed, from afar, the pass seemed to glow warmly in a soft pink hue. The scene always seemed magical to his eyes. He'd been captivated by the flowers the first time he laid eyes on the Pass, and even now the beautiful scenery still softened him a little.
His feet had begun to walk again, almost out of its own accord, passing every house in the alley one more time. He could feel his two companions behind him, wanting to ask something but in the end deciding against it. And he was grateful they did.
They stopped in front of a flight of stairs, littered with sakura petals carried from the pass by the wind.
"Taking this stair will lead you directly down the Pass," he informed "have fun."
Lulu happily skipped down the stairs, followed by the Hemomancer. The latter turned around to address him.
"Is it alright?"
Zed nodded curtly.
He turned away from the stairs to Jyom Pass, and, unwillingly, found himself following an once familiar route, to a small cottage. Ten years ago, this was a shop selling various merchandise, run by a middle aged man with two boys…
Master Kusho had decided to hire the cottage next to Jyom Pass as their dwelling. From this small house, one could take in the whole Pass below, seeing the whole valley lit up in pink flames every time spring came. Both of his children were happy with this decision, especially Zed. whenever not working on discussing or dissecting the crime scenes, Zed would sit by the windows, glancing at the valley below, admiring whether the gentle pink hue of sakura, the lush green of the summer woods, the orange color of leaves when autumn arrived, or even the winter where everything was covered in snow. Whatever it was that greeted him when he glanced outside the window, it had always somehow brought him a sense of peace.
Yet this time, peace never came. He could not find solace in the azure blue sky, or the ever expanding valley of lush greenery beneath, or the various lives it encased.
It had been nearly four years, had it not? Four years without catching this monster. Four years of failing to save innocent people.
For the first time in his life, he wished he could forget.
For everything he saw seemed to be blended with the color of blood, of flesh, of horrifying, brutal deaths that somehow looked beautiful…
He did not find in that any beauty. Perhaps he had always been bad at art.
But undoubtedly, such horrifying beauty had driven many insane.
He knew, that his Master and his friend had been affected as well. The stress had turned Kusho's hair white long before his age. Shen from the guy who would talk with him days on end about anything, became quiet and awkward. He could see the fatigue and desperation in everyone's face, everytime they discovered a new case, or followed a dead track.
Something in them had changed.
As for Zed, he'd lost something he could never get back.
The boy sighed, burying his face into his hand.
He wanted to go home.
He could vaguely feel Shen's presence outside his door.
"Come in, Shen. You were never the best at being quiet."
The door slid open almost noiselessly. Shen stepped in, but did not go further.
"Zed," he said difficultly "fa...master wants to see us. Are you alright?"
Zed turned to look at him.
He turned his eyes over the valley again.
Any consolation or assurance that everything would be alright again was meaningless. They both knew better. Everything would not be the same.
Shen had approached and sat down opposite him. He looked up to face his friend, expecting what he had to say.
The former didn't close the distance between them, but he said, earnestly
"Whatever happens, I will always be here."
Somehow, those simple words had warmed his distraught heart – the promise that they'd be on the same path, no matter what.
He was half-tempted to enter the house, but held his steps in front of the door.
He'd grudged Jhin… he'd hated the killer more than anyone in his life, how a single person could break him so thoroughly.
He turned away from the house, intending to go hiking in the woods when his feet accidently stepped on something…
A golden dagger.
His eyes widened with the slightest sense of dread.
He looked around and found, to his left, foot prints. They led up to a hill. He carefully traced his steps as he followed the prints, all his sense on high alert. After a few minutes, he reached an abandoned building. Zed blinked in surprise – he'd never heard of such a place there before.
It appeared to be a dojo, and must have been beautiful in its prime. Then, moss and flora grew all over its walls. Nevertheless, when he looked up, he could still make out the Ionian words on the sign.
His heart must have dropped a little.
Against all odds, he stepped inside.
It was once quite a large, prosperous establishment, its size capable of holding hundreds of disciples. He could see weapons and practice dummies scattered about as he investigated the area.
How had he never known about this place?
Zed walked past the training area to approach the living quarters. He entered a garden, supposedly once lovely, well-taken-care-of, and was greeted by the first and the last thing he'd expect.
A single skull laid on the stone tea-table, its forehead removed.
He took half a step back, reaching for his weapon. The air suddenly went cold.
"Welcome, Zed," said the signature soft tone of the Virtuoso "to Khada, where art flowers."
Lulu has basically become Will Graham. Sorry not sorry.