Hey, everyone! I know 2020 was such a living nightmare for everyone for a number of reasons, so I'm praying that 2021 will be way better than these past twelve months. We all deserve to have something good happen to each of us this year.

I've been playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch recently, and the story itself lent itself to some amazing No.6 fic ideas that I really wanted to write. The concept of Nezumi being a prince and Shion being a soldier was a fun role reversal to write, especially since the idea of Shion just charging recklessly into danger while Nezumi watches with a mixture of frustration, annoyance, and adoration is too hilarious and amusing to pass up.

I did kick around the idea of having Shion be a prince and Nezumi being the chosen hero, mainly due to Shion's otherworldly appearance (with the silver hair and red eyes), but honestly? The thought of Shion just full-on running into danger, wildly swinging a massive sword while Nezumi watches on in exasperated horror because dammit, why can't this kid just not throw himself in danger was way too amazing of an opportunity to just not write. So, I hope you all find as much entertainment in it as I have!

I hope you're all having a wonderful start to 2021, and I hope you enjoy this fic!


The forest floor was covered in dead autumn leaves. Shion had been monitoring the parameters of the field for the better part of two hours. His vantage point from the crook of a high tree branch was the best place to hunker down and wait. The afternoon wind drifted through the thick evergreen leaves, kissing Shion's cheeks beneath the ventilation gaps in his iron helmet.

Hunting Stalkers was a deadly and dangerous business. Shion's experience striking down the ancient metal beasts made him better suited for the task than the other knights.

This particular Stalker had been steadily destroying the crops on the outskirts of West Block during its trip through the forests, and if Shion didn't take it down today, he wasn't certain they'd make it through the winter.

Hunger was a far more dangerous foe than any of the monsters thriving in the night. Hunger urged even the most loyal souls toward betrayal. Shion had his hands tied worrying about Stalkers and stray Bokoblins, or, on worse nights, a few dreaded Moblins. He couldn't afford to add human beings to the list.

Shion wiped his tense fingers over the hilt of his sword, mapping the grooves carved into the dragonbone hilt. It hung heavily from the shealth at his side, extending down the length of his right thigh and resting gently against the tree branch he'd climbed into a few hours prior. There were telltale signs of deer that'd crept through the forest floor, moving on due to the arrival of the ancient beast.

Shion's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the ground. The telltale holes, spaced six feet apart, marked the path the Stalker had traveled. Once Stalkers assigned themselves to an area, they tended to pace the same route until something drew them away.

For this particular Stalker, that something had been the crops outside West Block. Shion supposed he should have been grateful the Stalker hadn't wandered straight into West Block's town center, but it was only a matter of time before it decided to investigate the area and discovered their little base camp. He needed to cut it down before it grew bored with uprooting vegetables and sought out more lively targets.

Parents warned their children not to venture outside the protection of the base camp, but Shion had been a curious child once, too. All it would take was a single kid wandering just a bit too far outside the wall, catching the roaming eye of a Stalker that just so happened to be lurking nearby, and it would be all over.

A shudder went through Shion's spine as he listened to the metallic clanking. He could hear it in the distance, steadily growing closer. He couldn't help the relief that flooded through him. He'd picked the correct outpost to wait for the Stalker, and patience was key to taking them down.

Shion had risked much in coming this far into the forest, but downing the Stalker too close to West Block put countless lives in danger. Stalkers didn't go down quietly, and any noise was an attractant to monsters. He sighed through his nose at the thought, his training allowing him to release the frustrated puff of breath without sound.

Stalkers were dangerous opponents, but Shion hoped this one was less violent than the ones closer to the destroyed remnants of the Mao castle. Sometimes in the dead of night, standing at a high vantage point, hunters claimed they could see the scarlet glow of the beast that made its home in the bowels of the castle grounds, tossing its head about as it roared to its monstrous creations and urged them to raise hell across the realm.

The howling autumn wind softened into a gentle breeze, chilling Shion's bare fingers to the bone. The lethal beauty of the approaching winter made Shion anxious to return to West Block. The frozen, muddy roads winding through the makeshift village and the cramped heat of the makeshift tents he and his companions called home felt too far away from him as he peered out into the clearing, eyes narrowed and desperately searching for any changes in the environment.

The Stalker came then, thunking from behind the emerald trees like the gargantuan abomination it was. The sunlight glittered on its six silver legs, the orange hum of its corrupted core cracking through the plates in its metal body.

The Stalker hadn't spotted them. Its core would turn a vibrant purple-red if it sensed danger. Shion had taken down enough of these monsters to recognize its body language.

Shion's fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword. It felt like an extension of his own flesh. His archers took aim from their places in the trees, awaiting Shion's signal. Shion preferred a sword to a bow, but distance strikes were necessary if the Stalker spotted their party before Shion could get close enough to sever its legs.

An immobile Stalker was a doomed Stalker, but even the doomed ones had some fight in them. Just because it couldn't charge forward anymore didn't mean it couldn't aim a laser.

Shion listened to the clicks and whirs as the Stalker's iron feet plunged into the wet ground. The squelch of mud around its needle-like appendages pulled its towering girth along with ease. If it wasn't so dangerous, Shion might have found them oddly beautiful. Stalkers were the unholy offspring of magic and technology. The magic that wove through their iron and gemstone cores was ancient and strange, and even though they were now the enemy, Shion couldn't help but marvel at the unnatural phenomenon that brought them to life.

The soft ground squished beneath Shion's boots as he slowly slid out of his perch and landed on the ground with a muted thump. He clenched his teeth and froze. Unnecessary sounds could be deadly. His best chance against the Stalker was to get the drop on it, sneaking close and preventing it from spotting him before he was close enough to sever its legs.

Shion crept forward in a low crouch, fingers curled around the hilt of his drawn blade. He'd taken a big risk leaving his post and putting himself in a prime position to get caught, but he was running out of time.

The Stalker was enormous—taller than an average man, even downed—and suspended from the ground by six jointed, arachnid limbs. The heavy thunks of its pincers punching through the damp ground were enough to frighten off the small animals that called the area home. Shion imagined many of the deer and boars had taken up residence elsewhere once the Stalker came around.

Shion continued forward.

His left hand tightened on a large shield while his right hand nestled comfortably around the hilt of his blade. The damp grass squished beneath his heavy boots as the Stalker continued to stumble forward, its cylindrical head turning sideways to survey the land around it.

Gentle whirring sounds emanated from its core as Shion stealthily approached it from the line of trees. He hadn't been afraid of Stalkers since he was a child—before the Red Darkness filled them full of malice and forced them over to its side. Iron armor covered Shion from head to toe, with the exception of his hands, concealing his unnatural silver hair and vibrant scarlet marking from the Stalker's roaming blue eye. The tanned leather connecting the plates of iron buckled tight against Shion's body as he slid forward silently, years of training preventing him from loudly announcing his presence.

Whether something akin to paranoia had crept into the Stalker's single-focused mind or some other force had alerted it to his presence, Shion wasn't certain. All he knew was the moment he reached the southern-pointing leg, the Stalker's cylindrical body whirled around, its piercing blue eye locking on him.

Shion's reflexes instructed him to raise his shield at the precise moment the Stalker's body gave a fierce whine and the telltale purple-red laser erupted from the center of its core.

Shion kept his shield raised and held it steady, bracing himself in the wet mud as the laser struck it—and then, as he'd practiced hundreds of times with other soldiers and against different Stalkers he'd brought down, he forced his forearm forward and threw the laser's beam back into the Stalker's opened eye.

The Stalker staggered backward with the force of its own ricocheted blast. Shion shifted his smoking shield and raised his sword. He had exactly ten seconds before the Stalker reoriented itself and locked focus on him again. He needed to down it in that time so his archers could take out its laser and disable its core.

Shion raised his sword. Its dragonbone blade caught in the mid-afternoon sunlight. The hilt sank into the curve of his palm, crafted specifically for his grip by the Goddess's own hand.

Shion swung his sword forward and sliced through the Stalker's leg. The metal split like warm butter, exploding in a shower of red and blue sparks. The Stalker sank at the sudden loss of one of its primary limbs, dipping to the side before catching itself and scrambling to stand.

The click of its laser beginning to recalibrate made Shion's blood run cold. Take it down! He risked a glance over his shoulder at his archers, hidden by the stretch of evergreen trees. Take it down!

Movement from the trees broke his focus. Shion glanced in his periphery to see Yamase leaning out of the safety of the branches, his black-gloved hands skillfully drawing the string of his silver bow back. The ancient arrow, hastily pieced together by Safu's skilled fingers the night before, hummed as he swung it into the direction of the Stalker's recalibrating eye. From his spot in the tree branches, Yamase looked like some great black Keese, armed to the teeth with sharp arrows and hunting knives.

The Stalker's scrambling feet plunged into the mud, steadying itself with the aid of its other limbs. The sparking joints sat in a heap on the ground, a burning reminder of the Stalker's failure and impending demise. The clicking of its laser aiming down at Shion felt like a death knell.

Yamase's fingers released on the string of his bow at the same moment Shion raised his shield—just a breath too late. The Stalker, realizing its destruction loomed on the horizon, launched a single, desperate beam at Shion's hand. His shield flung upward to catch it, and as the ancient arrow buried itself deep into the gaping blue eye, the laser shocked through the air beside Shion, catching him on the arm.

Shion's ungloved left hand took the brunt of the Stalker's laser. The purple-blue burst engulfed his fingers and his palm, searing the skin. He bit down on a scream as pain lanced through him.

When the laser weakened and the Stalker collapsed to the ground, Shion huffed out a breath. The edges of his vision burned white and gold, stars peppered across his irises. He glanced around wildly, willing his vision to focus so he could predict where the laser would strike next—but the Stalker's body gave a loud whining sound before falling limp. Its ancient body burned bright red before dulling and going silent, the lights emanating from its cracked carcass fading away. As quickly as it had appeared, the Stalker was dead.

When Shion turned to regard his hunting party, he found Yamase's black helmet peering back at him. The reflective obsidian of his visor caught in the sunlight, angling down to where Shion's ungloved left hand lay limp at his side.

Shion glanced down at his fingers and moved them. The raw skin blistered, and pain lanced through each nerve ending. He blinked, feeling the echoing shock of the strike from the Stalker's laser radiate through his body. It had been years since he'd been hit by a Stalker. The last time, though, the laser hadn't struck bare skin. It'd hit Shion in the shoulder, grazing through his iron armor. He still had a jagged scar carved deep into the spot where his shoulder met his neck; the laser's heat had cauterized the injury as soon as it appeared, preventing the inevitable blood loss that such a hit would have otherwise caused. Removing the threat of blood loss hadn't minimized the pain, however.

He lifted his head and looked around at the remainder of his hunting party. None of them were watching him. Several of them shuffled forward, shields raised, displaying the vine-shaped Mao crest, approaching the burnt-out Stalker in all its downed glory.

Shion exhaled in relief. The less people who saw that he'd been injured, the better. Shion tucked his wounded hand carefully into the folds of his cloak, then made a bee line for his pack, which he'd left up in the shelter of the low tree branches.

Yamase broke away from the hunting party and lowered his bow. He dusted off his beetle-black armor, the shells catching in the sunlight. Bladed Rhino beetles had powerful shells that, when smelted down and mixed with ironshroom stems, could be formed into strong, if not heavy, armor. Yamase had trained for years to be able to move as swiftly as he could with the armor on—which was to say, not very quickly.

"I thought Stalkers were bigger than this," he said aloud, regarding the Stalker's carapace with a sneer. Shion could hear it in his voice.

"Most are," Shion replied, reaching up for his pack with his uninjured arm. He caught the strap with his index and middle fingers and yanked the thing down. The Goddess must have taken pity on him, because the straps didn't get caught in the branches, and the whole thing landed on the ground with a wet thump. "Someone—or something—must have repaired this one." He furrowed his brow. There was an odd little man who ran a traveling monster shop and purchased monster parts from travelers in exchange for odd currency that only he accepted, but Shion didn't think the merchant was foolish or intelligent enough to put a Stalker back together.

"So it was a broken one before?"

Shion jerked his chin toward the Stalker's smashed legs. His sword had sliced through several of them, but the legs had already been weak and unsteady. "Did you see it limping? The legs were added as an afterthought. They don't belong to the original Stalker."

Yamase folded his arms and turned to watch the hunting party wrap ropes and chains around the Stalker's frozen legs and dull torso. The core inside had been shut down permanently, due in part to the arrow Yamase had launched into its eye. The pieces within sparked now and then, but not enough to catch a light and revive the Stalker's core. Unless the whole thing was dismantled and put back together with new parts, the Stalker would never walk again. It was little more than an ornate lawn decoration. Even the sinister magic of the Blood Moon couldn't revive such a thing.

One of the archers whistled, low, and another of her companions laughed. Yamase shook his head in their direction. "You should probably get that burn treated before we head back to West Block," he said, low enough that no one else would hear. "Nezumi's not gonna like that you got hurt."

Before Shion could say anything, Yamase slung his bow over his shoulder and marched over to inspect the Stalker's carcass. While the others busied themselves with binding the thing so it could be dragged back to West Block, Yamase scanned its shell and the few legs that remained. He measured the width with his hands, running his fingers over the grooves and dips in the shell where the core's corrupted energy could leak out. Even from a Stalker as small as this one, the core within could produce enough energy to power a small village for weeks—provided the corruption could be removed.

In Yamase's absence, Shion tried to flex his injured fingers. The sharp pain made his vision tunnel. He flinched and bit down on the scream that rose inside him. He supposed he should be lucky the Stalker's laser was as weak as it was. A stronger Stalker might have taken his whole hand off, bone and all, and then where would he be?

Through his blurred vision, Shion watched Yamase circle the Stalker two or three more times before declaring it thoroughly inspected. He said something to the archers, which prompted them to shout in agreement and begin preparations to begin dragging the Stalker the rest of the way back to West Block.

It would have been easier to dismantle the Stalker and harvest the pieces—screws and gears, core and fragments—and leave the hollow carcass behind. But Safu had loudly requested that the Stalkers be brought back in as intact a form as Shion and his hunting party could manage.

"Screws and bolts are one thing," she'd said, leaning against the wooden walls of her workshop, a strong blue flame crackling away in the furnace. "But the whole picture's where we'll finally figure out how to convert the energy."

Shion knew extraordinarily little about the mechanics of what made the Stalkers tick, but he trusted Safu's judgment. If she said she could figure out a way to undo the corruption embedded in the cores, then Shion believed she could manage it.

The searing pain in his blistered fingers made Shion dizzy. He fought to keep his thoughts clear. The Stalker's gleaming carcass caught the sunlight and cast rainbows against the tree trunks.

The last time Shion had fought a Stalker, it'd gone down much quicker than this one. The patchwork legs hadn't done much to make this Stalker a weaker opponent. Whoever or whatever had put this Stalker together had known a thing or two about how to properly combine the two bodies. Shion was grateful to have found this one and stopped it before it ventured too close to West Block. The Goddess only knew what sort of destruction it would reap on the unsuspecting and unprotected villagers, had it been given the opportunity.

Shion hoped this Stalker's carcass would help Safu uncover the best way to harness the power of their ancient cores. He didn't know if his hunting party would be strong enough to take down the next one they encountered—or if they would even encounter one. Stalkers traveled away from the ruined castle, sure, but mostly, they patrolled the broken stones and blood-stained courtyards several hundred miles to the east.

Desperate to focus his thoughts on something other than the pain in his hand, Shion turned to look at the mountains in the distance. The Goddess Elyurias was rumored to have settled down in those same mountains centuries ago, her holy essence melding with the earth and the creatures within. Sometimes, late in the evening, a brilliant blue glow could be seen emanating from the highest point of the mountains. Hunters swore that there were creatures there who glowed, and—if a hunter's aim was accurate—untold riches could be gathered from these creatures.

Shion had never felt a need to venture into the mountains and check these rumors out for himself. As long as the glowing creatures within the mountain held no threat to West Block, Shion had no need to aim his sword at them.

"She'll be impressed with this one," Yamase called over his shoulder. Shion strained to focus on his form, which had begun to blur along with everything around him. Shion shook his head to clear the worst of the fog.

"All of its pieces are in decent shape," Yamase continued. His voice sounded thick and muffled, as if he'd been submerged deep underwater.

Shion willed the landscape to stop spinning. When it didn't, he plunged the tip of his sword into the wet soil and leaned against it to steady himself. He clutched the sword's handle, concentrating on the black glint of Yamase's scaled armor as he walked circles around the hunting party and instructed them on where to knot the ropes.

The ground dipped, and Shion felt himself tilt. He caught himself by sticking his foot out; his ankle swayed painfully to the left with his heavy leather boot, but Shion clenched his teeth and added that pain to the many prickles of discomfort flooding through his body. His fingers tightened around the molded hilt as he fought against the dizziness.

If he passed out here, the hunting party would never let him forget it. Shion was the chosen one—the warrior selected by the Goddess to guide their ruined kingdom back from the ashes—and the hunters talked. Shion knew this better than anyone. Gossip had turned many a villager into an enemy, and the last thing Shion needed was to walk around West Block and deal with people whispering about him behind their hands.

As the chosen one, Shion's actions reflected not only on himself but on Nezumi. Passing out now would raise questions about Shion's effectiveness as the chosen warrior, and Nezumi's destiny to bring the Mao kingdom back from the brink. Shion struggled to surface himself above the wave of darkness that crushed in around him.


All at once, the world settled back into place. Shion blinked. There was wet soil beneath his knees and the brilliant glow of the afternoon sunlight ducking steadily beneath the trees. A dead Stalker lay on the other side of the clearing, its broken legs gathered into a pile and ropes connected it to the hands of the strong men and women from West Block who'd volunteered to aid Shion in his hunt. Their eyes hadn't turned to regard Shion, too focused on their task, but Shion found Yamase crouching beside him, uncertain of when he'd approached.

"I'm fine," Shion said, far sharper than he meant to. "Don't tell Nezumi about this. Please."

Yamase's helmet flashed; Shion could tell without seeing that he was frowning beneath it.

Rising to his feet, Shion bit down on the scorching pain in the palm of his hand. The Stalker's laser had singed his hand and wounded him, but it wasn't venomous. Aloe and a strong healing tonic would have his hand back to normal in a matter of days. His throat ached for some cool water. He reached for the waterskin he kept stored safely in his pack. The tough bag, crafted of goat hide, sloshed as Shion withdrew it.

"I won't tell him," Yamase said slowly. "But he's going to notice when your hand's all bandaged up." He paused, then turned to regard the pathway Shion and the hunting party had come from hours ago. "Unless you plan to avoid him."

Shion, who'd been lifting his water skin to his lips, paused. Despite his scorching hand and the odd heat of the autumn afternoon, a chill bled through him.

Avoiding Nezumi was the last thing in the world Shion wanted. Nezumi was notoriously stubborn and quick to anger. If he suspected Shion was trying to avoid him, there was little Shion could do to properly evade him.

Silence fell over them, punctuated only by the sound of the hunting party preparing to haul the Stalker back toward West Block. The world around Shion spun, but he forced it away by sheer will alone. He took several deep, glorious gulps of the cool water in his water skin. Some magical force kept it cold, even after hours stored away in his pack. His parched throat was grateful for the ice-cold water as he swallowed it down, forgetting about the agony in his hand and the argument he was going to have to deal with as soon as Nezumi spotted it.

Shion let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. The trip back to West Block would be a difficult one. Though he was spared from having to drag the Stalker's heavy carcass through the woods, he would need to lead the procession and keep the stray Bokoblins and curious Chuchus that dwelled in the forest away from them. The thought of swinging his sword and trying to defend them all with his burnt hand made him sick to his stomach, but Shion forced the wave of nausea down.

Yamase clapped his hand and let out an equally unexcited breath. "Let's get this over with," he muttered, marching toward the hunting party. Shion gripped the hilt of his sword, pulled it free from the ground, and led the party back into the woods.

After every single hunt, Shion stopped by the lake to bathe. Tonight was no exception. Wincing as the leather of his hammered-thin tunic slid over his burnt, patchwork-bandaged hand, Shion stripped down and dove into the cool water of the small blue lake tucked behind West Block. The waterway connected to nothing, making it perfect for bathing. Shion didn't fear the blood and grime of the hunt contaminating their water supply, or making tasks difficult for the folks who used the lower portions of the rivers to wash laundry.

In the small lake, whose water always seemed clean no matter how much blood Shion poured into it, Shion scrubbed away the remnants of the day's kill and slipped the mantle of a soldier off his shoulders for a moment. Without an audience to pretend for, Shion could wince when his fingers shifted, could blink back miserable tears at the aches that prickled through his damaged muscles. The makeshift salve from the few healing plants they'd passed on the road that he'd rubbed onto his hand had quelled the worst of the burn, but it would take time before it healed enough to be anything other than bothersome. He closed his eyes and let the stress of the day ease out of him, his mind flitting back to the events of the day.

Dragging the Stalker's corpse back to West Block had taken several long, frustrating hours which, thankfully, hadn't brought any stray Bokoblins or a secondary Stalker their way. Shion was grateful for the leafy reprieve from the worst of the sun, his body aching beneath the weight of his iron armor and the persistent burning in his left hand.

The trees in this particular part of the forest hinted at the thought of something dangerous. There was little road between them, save for the scrapes in the dirt the Stalker's dragged body made, and the thin branches overhead laced together to form a canopy. Shion understood that if a traveler risked these false roads in the darkness without a torch to guide them, the forest would rush in around them and smother their light.

Hiding his burnt hand from the other archers in his hunting party proved to be an easier task than Shion had expected—an aspect he was suddenly grateful for. The archers focused themselves on the grueling task of hauling the Stalker forward, understanding that Shion would keep them safe without needing to keep tabs on him. Shion tucked his hand into the folds of his cloak, searching the edges of the dirt for the telltale signs of mushrooms he could use to quickly erase the worst of the burn.

As the sun sank below the horizon and the patchwork tents and wooden huts piecing together the town came into view, Yamase had wrenched the helmet off and exhaled. His forehead glimmered with sweat, and a smudge of dirt scraped across his cheek. "Thank the Goddess," he muttered, dragging his fingers through his damp hair.

Safu was overjoyed to see the Stalker's mostly intact body. Shion didn't stay to help the archers assist in pulling the Stalker to the workshop where Safu would diligently pull its pieces apart and pile them on her workbenches for later. Shion made a mental note to come back and check up on Safu's progress once the pains radiating through his left hand stopped sending waves of nausea through him.

With Yamase building a cover story that excused his strange absence, Shion trudged through the secret alleys winding through the West Block tents and made a beeline for the lakefront. His trip through West Block led him in a winding circle around the town, the large fields full of corn and potatoes resting off to his right side.

The fields themselves were surrounded by crooked fences and more than a handful of knights in their shining iron armor. Pitchforks aimed at the sky, warning off the stray Keeses and fluttering creatures that flew from the trees and made dives for the crops. Shion hadn't been designated to field watch, but he understood the frustration determined Keeses could cause. His heat went out to the warriors, the fingers on his uninjured right hand twitching involuntarily toward the hilt of his sword.

Among the handful of men and women standing in the fields, gathering the last of the day's harvest before the sun vanished completed, Shion spotted a single figure spaced a bit away from the rest. He slowed down, his breath rustling through his ribs, and Shion couldn't help but pause for a few moments and gaze out at the boy in the fields, focused so deeply in his work that he was completely oblivious to Shion's arrival.

Nezumi's hair had been long, spilling down his back like a dark waterfall and stopping at his knees when he was a child. After the Red Darkness overtook the castle, forcing him to flee along with the few remaining survivors, Nezumi had cropped his hair out of necessity, Maintaining long hair was a hassle Nezumi could no longer afford, and in a battle, it would be a hindrance. It had grown back a bit during their years in exile, long enough now for Nezumi to pull into a ratty ponytail at the back of his skull.

Survival had made Nezumi trade away his expensive silks for tough leather, but Nezumi had never once complained of his misfortune. He adapted to his surroundings quickly, learning how to cook for himself, clean and bandage wounds, and identify blights on crops. Submerged in the water, Shion's heart swelled at the mere thought of the silver-eyed boy currently lingering in the fields with the rest of the villagers, working hard to pull in the harvest before the cold snap of winter came rushing in.

Avoiding Nezumi wasn't his intention. But allowing him to know about the injury was something Shion couldn't allow to happen.

After his bath, Shion slipped into a pair of loose black trousers and a blue tunic. He dragged his armor to the infirmary, the small white hut tucked in the far back of West Block. The infirmary itself was crafted of white leather, smelling eternally of lime and flowers. Moonlight spilled through the flap in the tent as Shion ducked inside.

The Elder called the infirmary home, but thankfully, he didn't appear to be inside this evening. If Shion had to guess, he supposed he would find the Elder down in the middle of the makeshift village. His damaged legs were incapable of carrying his body down, but one of the stronger men would have carried him out to take advantage of the nice weather.

Shion scrubbed his uninjured hand through his damp silver hair. The cold droplets splattered on his parted lips like the shards of a broken diamond. The bandages on his hand and the weakened salve he'd weaseled away from Safu did little to soothe the burn, and Shion knew immediately that he would need to craft a secondary salve to draw the potential infection out.

Shion had made this particular salve once in his life, but he remembered the recipe well enough due to its odd recipe. A handful of dust from crushed Bokoblin fangs, Chuchu jelly mixed with a pinch of fire dust, and the leaves of a hearty radish. All items the Elder kept in abundance in the many wooden cabinets stored within the infirmary tent.

If the Goddess favored him, Shion would craft the salve, rebandage his hand, and cover it with a pair of gloves long before Nezumi crossed his path. Ordinarily, Nezumi didn't bother him when he took his after-hunt baths. Something about seeing Shion covered in blood and guts never sat well with him, and Shion did his best to ensure that he was clean and blood-free before seeking Nezumi out once the hunt had passed.

Shion opened the cupboards stacked on the tables lining the walls of the tent and pulled down pots full of dried barks and roots, looking for the few jars of crushed Bokoblin fangs the Elder kept. In his haste to gather the ingredients and take care of his wound before Nezumi spotted it, he reached for one of the jars with his burned hand.

The moment his fingers closed around the jar, pain seared through him. "Ow!" Shion wrenched his hand back, and the jar came with it. The jar shattered across the stones in a burst of glass shards and white powder.

"Oh, gods dammit," Shion muttered to himself. He didn't usually swear if he could help it, but now felt like a suitable exception. He crouched to pick up the mess one-handed, tucking his bandaged palm against his stomach. His mind blurred with the pain and frustration of the day, so much so that he didn't even notice when the infirmary tent flaps were yanked aside behind him.

"Making more work for the Elder, are you?"

Shion flinched at the rich voice that drifted around him. He glanced up to see a shock of black slide in beside him, followed quickly by a glint of bemused silver.

Shion's mouth went dry as Nezumi bent down to sweep up the mess into his own hands—gloved, Shion noticed. His long fingers made quick work of the glass shards, pulling them all from their dangerous place on the ground and depositing them onto the nearby workbench for proper disposal.

He tensed, looking down at the powder that mixed into the dirt, too embarrassed to lift his head. With the cool winter months approaching, he knew Nezumi would busy himself with the harvest. The black gloves he wore protected his hands from the thorns and splinters of the corn plants, and from the little bugs and critters that nipped and bit at unsuspecting fingers.

Nezumi's hands suddenly went still. Shion flinched, but realized it wouldn't do him any good to deny the inevitable. He exhaled and lifted his head, only to find Nezumi frowning down at the bandages wrapped around his fingers.

"What happened?"

Shion's index finger twitched involuntarily; he bit back the sharp groan that came with it. Nezumi didn't like that Shion dedicated himself to hunting down monsters in the surrounding areas, sometimes without the assistance of a hunting party. Shion had returned with more than his fair share of injuries. Each time he did, Nezumi snapped at him for being reckless, perching by his bedside and tending dutifully to his injuries while calling him a fool until his throat was hoarse.

Before leaving for the hunt this morning, Shion had promised Nezumi that he wouldn't do anything dangerous. At Nezumi's raised eyebrow, Shion had lifted his hand and vowed it, naming the ten patron gods that watched over the Mao kingdom and the Goddess that oversaw them—even though all that remained of the kingdom's former glory were scraps and debris.

Nezumi's lips flattened into a hard line, and his silver eyes glinted in the darkness. In them, Shion could see whirls of pale blue and white, an elegant looping of storm clouds that he'd never seen in anyone else's irises.

"I'm sorry," Shion said, averting his gaze and staring at the sword and armor he'd left piled in the corner of the infirmary tent. The blade glinted like moonstone, its ethereal light trembling forth and promising destruction to those who would align themselves with darkness. Sometimes Shion thought it seemed to absorb the darkness itself and turn it into light. That didn't seem entirely out of the ordinary. It was a magical blade, after all.

"That doesn't answer my question," Nezumi muttered. He finished sweeping the broken bits of the glass jar into his palms and put them on the workbench. "Is it a burn or a cut?"

"A burn," Shion sighed. There was no point in lying about it; it would just make Nezumi even more aggravated. He'd see it soon enough, anyway.

Nezumi's eyes flashed in the darkness. Unlike Shion—unlike the rest of them, in fact—Nezumi could see in the dark. He navigated through the shadows with ease, never bumping into loose boards or discarded items that would have tripped others. In their youth, Shion was envious of that gift, so much so that he worked to train himself to see in the dark, too. He'd never perfected it, but he could maneuver his way around it well enough, a skill that suited him as a monster hunter and soldier. Nezumi had laughed the first time he heard Shion was attempting to learn a skill he'd had since birth, but even so, he gave Shion innumerable tips on how to sense things in the shadows and avoid crashing into them.

"I forgot my gloves," Shion explained, staring hard down at the ground between them. "We were too far out for me to turn back and get them by the time I noticed. We had already found the Stalker's trail and I... didn't want to lose it."

That was more of the truth than Shion could have shared, but he had never liked lying to Nezumi. Years ago, he'd even gone so far as to make a vow that he wouldn't lie to Nezumi anymore. Under the light of the violent red moon that brought monsters back to life with its wicked magic, Shion had held Nezumi against his chest while he sobbed like the child he was and promised him that he wouldn't ever lie to him.

Nezumi's eyes slid down to the bandages on his fingers. Shion's wrist had begun to shake from the phantom stabs of pain in his palm. "I'll finish with this," Nezumi said, turning back to the shards on the floor. "You get the stuff to treat that burn."

Shion stood and went to the next cabinet while Nezumi swept the shards into his hand. In truth, the shaking worried him more than Nezumi finding out he'd been injured—again—did. He filtered slowly through the cabinet until he found another jar of crushed Bokoblin fang.

Under ordinary circumstances, Bokoblin bone served only as a sealant for crafting potions for speed, stamina, and defense. Something about the monster's solid fangs helped hold the potion's unstable ingredients together and transform it into something useful.

Part of Shion felt disgusted knowing that he was ingesting a part of a monster's body, but he supposed all food had come from somewhere unthinkable. The meat he devoured had once belonged to one of the strong deer that sprinted through the nearby woods, and the plants had been uprooted from the ground where animals defecated and died.

Without the dedication of the royal court to occupy his time, Nezumi had learned how to properly bandage wounds and apply different salves to combat ailments. He knew how to properly mix Stamella mushroom stalks and Moblin horns to combat extreme fatigue, and he knew how to layer bandages with Chuchu jelly to effectively repair burns. As Shion gathered the Bokoblin fang, Nezumi gathered strips of fresh linen for bandaging.

The trembling in Shion's left hand worried him, but the look that crossed Nezumi's face as he stripped the old bandage off his skin worried him more. The raw, reddish look of his knuckles made his stomach twist.

Nezumi took the jar from his hand, painfully calm. "Sit," he said, motioning with his chin to one of the empty beds.

Shion didn't like the cold tone of his voice, but he didn't argue as he settled himself down on the edge of the bed. The feathers stuffed beneath the tight fabric felt soft and inviting; it was all Shion had not to sink onto his side and fall into a deep sleep. He watched as Nezumi scooped a spoonful of whitish paste and spread the grainy paste across the bandages.

The bandages themselves would be better suited to absorb the brunt of the Bokoblin fang than Shion's skin. Despite the horrible stench, Shion could already tell that the results would be well worth the momentary discomfort that would come when the salve touched his wound.

Nezumi picked up the linen and let it hang between his fingers like a canopy. Shion could see the salve sinking into the fabric, discoloring the fabric.

"Hand out," Nezumi instructed, and Shion stuck his arm out and unclenched his fingers.

Nezumi pressed the bandages against the back of his hand. Shion hissed through his teeth as the cold sensation of the Bokoblin bone touched his flesh; more than once, Nezumi stopped, clearly concerned by the sounds he made, but Shion nodded for him to go on. The cool sensation sunk into his wound, chasing away the burning pain of the Stalker's dying laser.

Shion watched mutely as Nezumi slowly and carefully wrapped his hand, his long, elegant fingers avoiding contact with the pink, raw skin. When they were children, the Temple of the Goddess had given strict rules that no one outside of the royal family and their inner circle was permitted to touch the Mao prince under any circumstances. An accidental touch from a commoner, a maid, or a knight would be seen as a slight against the Goddess herself and decidedly punished by a lashing.

When the Red Darkness overtook the kingdom and destroyed the ground the Temple stood on, Nezumi had declared the tradition "stupid". There were plenty of others in the makeshift town of West Block who still believed in the tradition, if only out of some superstitious fear that the Goddess would enact revenge on them. Shion, who had never feared the Goddess's wrath, didn't flinch as Nezumi's fingers brushed against his knuckles.

While Nezumi busied himself with bandaging Shion's hand, Shion looked up through his eyelashes into Nezumi's long, angular face. He knelt close, so much so that Shion could feel the heat radiating from him. He could smell the salt of his skin and the permanent smell of jasmine petals that clung to his hair. The silver and gray flecks in his eyes danced as Nezumi's gaze fluttered over Shion's hand, diligently covering his fingers with the damp bandages.

If Nezumi sensed him staring, he didn't acknowledge it. A comfortable silence filled the space between them as he reached for a new bandage and wrapped it around and around his salved hand. Shion studied Nezumi's gloved fingers as he worked. Beneath them, he knew Nezumi's fingers were long and pale, his nails blunt and pearl-colored. There were calluses on his fingertips from years of hard work in the fields, but he managed to keep them from becoming too rough.

"So, what happened?" Nezumi asked as he worked, not looking up. "A Guardian, obviously—but you're usually careful about reflecting their lasers. Did your shield break?"

Shion could feel Nezumi's silver eyes flickering to his face, and then slide away before Shion could meet his eye. It didn't feel forced or anxious, but simply calculating. Nezumi reached for the next strip of fabric—a smaller one—and started wrapping them gently and diligently around Shion's fingers.

Shion wondered what would have happened if he'd been able to reflect the Guardian's laser a second time. With stronger Stalkers, three ricocheted lasers could take them down without the use of ancient arrows. The power stored within the ancient arrow heads, crafted from the corrupted parts of downed Stalkers, was enough to fry whatever magic kept Guardian Stalkers mobile. However, these arrows were difficult to craft and hard to replace. Reflecting lasers into the Stalkers roaming blue eyes was a sure-fire way to get them on the ground, as long as the shields being used to send them back held up to the abuse.

Reflecting the lasers back without practicing against them was difficult, but Shion had managed to find a way to perfect the technique. Or so he'd assumed. A few inches to the right and he'd taken the brunt of the laser right in the hand. He winced as the bandages tightened around his fingers, pressing the salve deep into his raw skin. The warmth from the burns was chased away by the cooling sensation of the Bokoblin salve, and Shion sighed in relief.

"Its laser was weak," Shion assured, though the fact that his fingers were still intact relayed that information well enough. "My shield didn't break, but it..." He exhaled through his nose, frustrated at the memory of his slight miscalculation and the devastating results of said action. "I misjudged how far I'd thrown my arm forward and my hand got in the way."

Nezumi hummed under his breath. He tucked in the ends of Shion's bandage, listening patiently. To get a better grip, his fingers slid carefully around Shion's wrist. At his touch, Shion flinched. Nezumi seemed to take his motion as a reflex of the stinging pain in his hand, but Shion saw a silver flash of his gaze flickering upward.

Nezumi smoothed the bandages, careful of the pain in Shion's palm. He said, very softly, "How does that feel?"

Shion looked down at his burned fingers. The bandages made him feel warm and secure. Comfortable warmth surged through him as Shion lifted his eyes and met Nezumi's.

His eyes pierced through Shion's heart, the sharpened edge of the dragonbone sword gifted to Shion and crafted by the Goddess's own hand. Nezumi's eyes slid from Shion's eyes—cut red rubies that caught in the sunlight and burned like flames—to the raised pink scar wrapping around his throat and winding its way beneath his clothes. Shion was accustomed to the looks his strange appearance commanded. Born with hair as white as freshly fallen snow and eyes that shimmered like the Blood Moon itself, Shion had been viewed as a monster by all except his mother until the Temple of the Goddess declared that the Goddess Elyurias had announced Shion's destiny as a hero.

As soon as Shion's destiny was announced and he and his mother were brought to the Mao kingdom, people forgot about their initial fears surrounding Shion's odd appearance. The Goddess's words were law. Some children still pointed and stared as soon as they spotted Shion's oddities, but overall, people viewed him as if he were their savior. During one of his trips around the town, an old woman had hobbled her way up to Shion and given him a loaf of freshly-baked bread. She informed him that she'd baked it for the "hero and his prince", and Shion immediately understood that he was meant to share the loaf with Nezumi. His heart sang at the thought of what Nezumi would say when Shion presented him with the old woman's offering. He'd scoff and point out how pointless it was to keep offering gifts, but Shion knew he'd find Nezumi at the old woman's house the following morning, sharing a cup of tea with her and inquiring about if she needed anything repaired in her tent.

Shion felt the corners of his lips tugging upward. He knew what the strange marking around his body looked like, so much so that he could map its exact location even with his eyes closed. It began just beneath his left eye, raised and pinkish red and cool to the touch. It trailed around his body like a red serpent, smooth and different enough from the rest of his skin that though it had earned him many strange looks through his youth, Shion couldn't help but love it for what it was.

Nezumi shifted, and Shion's head snapped up at the movement. Nezumi was folding the extra bandages and was now putting the few jars of Bokoblin parts and the remaining salve into a new jar to be used later. It would survive on the shelf for another few weeks, though, if they were lucky, Shion wouldn't need to add anymore salve to his body. The sound of the spoon scraping against the bottom of the little jar sent shivers rushing down Shion's spine.

"I told you to be careful," Nezumi said, not looking over his shoulder. "That includes not getting up close and personal with Guardian Stalkers. That's what the archers are for, after all."

"Yamase's an excellent shot," Shion agreed. "But removing the legs from Stalkers is a more effective method. Especially since ancient arrows can sometimes break the Stalkers down to the point where they're useless. We got lucky this time, though."

Nezumi raised an eyebrow. "Ancient arrows don't need to be used. We have access to regular arrows. And those work just as well."

"If you have many of them, sure." Shion looked down at the bandages wrapped around his fingers. It felt intimate in a way Shion hadn't expected it to. He flexed his fingers and found, much to his delight, that the pain had severely minimized.

Nezumi looked over at him. "Why do you always have to argue? You know I'm right."

"Of course," Shion replied. He supposed he could have argued, but he didn't have the energy for it. A comfortable warmth had settled around him like a cloak as he looked over at Nezumi carefully. The Mao prince had turned back to the cabinets full of monster parts and plants. Shion's heart hammered behind his chest as he watched each of Nezumi's delicate movements.

With the approach of winter, Shion knew that eventually he and Nezumi would be spending a large amount of time together. His body buzzed at the thought, followed immediately by the wave of guilt that accompanied these hidden feelings.

Nezumi was the Mao prince.

The kingdom might have been overrun with monsters, but that didn't erase Nezumi's status. He was destined to rise above the monsters and take back his kingdom alongside Shion and his magic sword… but that didn't mean that it was appropriate for Shion to see Nezumi as anything other than his friend.

Forming such intense feelings for the Mao prince hadn't been Shion's intention. Upon his arrival at the Mao castle more than a decade ago, Shion had anticipated his new friendship with the rumored prince, knowing that the gap in their social status would make socializing between them difficult. Shion put his time and effort into learning the ways of the sword, practicing his strikes and knocking his teachers back with a strength he hadn't known he possessed. His interactions with Nezumi were meant to be limited, only a few moments and awkward waves allotted.

And yet, over the years, Shion found himself growing attached to the silver-eyed boy standing before him. Much of his thoughts were occupied by memories of Nezumi's laugh, his sarcastic tone, and the rare smile that stretched across his face when he thought no one was looking his way. A friendship had bloomed between them—but the strong feelings that surged through Shion's core had been tucked down deep, spreading through him like the thorned stem of a rose.

"What's the matter?" Nezumi asked, raising a delicate eyebrow. He'd crouched down on the floor by the lower wooden cabinets, swiftly organizing their contents before the Elder was brought back to the infirmary.

"Nothing," Shion replied, much too quickly. His heart pounded in his chest, a familiar pain that spread through him as he shoved down his feelings and set his carefully-bandaged hand down on the bed. "Nothing at all."

The End