MUGI-CHAN: CHOOSER OF THE SLAIN

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

ECHOES IN THE FOREST

"She filled our pints with that devil's beverage
And served another round with an hideous grin
The world was spinning in a new light I saw everything
and everyone was singing this song

With nature, trolls and the spirits of the forest
We are one; let our singing rise up into the stars
The witch's magic drum was still beating hard
When a goblin brought me a new pint and together we roared!
"

-One More Magic Potion by Ensiferum

My mind was a haze; I was lying down on my side in a field of soft and long grass. This field was filled with red and white flowers that seemed vaguely familiar; it was a recurring landscape in my dreams, a place of happiness and comfort. The air was warm, and the sun was shining on my bare body. I couldn't remember the last time I felt the warmth of that sun. Beside me was Mio, as naked as I was with skin full of color and life. One of her arms was under me, and the other was over my chest. Her head rested in the cradle of my arm and shoulder. Our legs rested against one another's, and I felt myself enjoying every inch of skin of hers that I touched with mine.

I lowered my head and kissed her forehead. It felt real, but there was a dreamy quality to it. My right hand gently cupped the swell of her breast, like it was acting on her own. It was just as soft and firm as I had remembered it being. I gave it a light and careful squeeze, wanting to see her cheeks flush red and hear her give a cute little gasp like she always did when I touched her. Her face was instead pensive and neutral, almost like a doll's. I suddenly didn't feel like touching her like that anymore. My right hand moved to her side, and rested there.

My touch and caress of her body was to express my love physically. If she ignored that, didn't react, or didn't want that sort of affection, I stopped instantly. I always believed it was her shyness that made her reject my advances in the few instances where that had happened. Here, I wasn't sure what was wrong with her. She just didn't seem to care at all, which was out of character for her.

"Mio, I'm so glad you're here." I said, trying to provoke some sort of tender reaction out of her... I knew I was in a dream, or something similar. Despite this, I felt comfortable trying to deceive myself into thinking it was real.

"I am too, Mugi." She replied. Her voice had an edge of caring to it, but was still firm. It was the Mio I remembered. "Why were you so afraid though?"

"Afraid of what?" I asked. There were oh-so many things I was afraid of.

"Afraid of letting me go." Mio answered. "You're so young, and you're already closing up your heart to those who want to share theirs with yours. What if I don't ever come back? Would you really live your whole life alone clinging to fading memories? I don't want that, Mugi!"

"Mio…" I wasn't sure what to say. I saw tears in her eyes, and her words stung me. "I'm not going to let you go. I'm going to find a way to get you back."

"But what if that doesn't work? Why are you so afraid of her? She loves you so much and you're considering abandoning her!"

Now she was angry at me. We remained in the same position, both somehow frozen there, and I suddenly wished not to be there. This was not the Mio I wanted to see. Weakly, I replied, "W-What are you talking about? I love Mio, and I would never abandon a friend, you know that!"

"Liar." She retorted. "You're too busy wallowing in self-pity and swooning over the blood on your hands to realize what you're about to throw away."

"You mean…" It hit me. She was talking about Azusa. "Do you really think I'm letting go of her?"

"Wasn't the whole reason for you leaving to say goodbye to her?" Mio pointed out. "She doesn't have to be your lover and… my replacement… but I know you need her as much as she needs you. Neither of you can handle Midgard alone."

"Mio." I said her name and instantly sprang from the world of dreams back into the realm of the living. What had woken me up was the feeling of something large gently scratching against me. It was startled for a moment, but realized it was just Pedon waking me up with her paw. Varangian wolf paws were different than normal wolf paws. They were wider and broader, reminding me a bit of the paws of snow leopards back in my world.

"Oh, Pedon… you startled me." I exhaled, placing a hand over my rapidly beating heart. I tried to remember just where I was. I was warm, which was an anomaly since I had all but forgotten what warm was in Midgard. Below me was soft grass and moss, and I was naked, again. Two thoughts in my head were trying to battle for my attention. One was trying to remind of the dream I had just woken up out of. The dream where I was lying next to Mio, and she was confronting me about my inner fears and guilt. The other thought was about how I had nearly fallen asleep and never woken up because I hadn't been paying attention.

It was one of those mornings, it seemed.

My stomach grumbled loudly, and I then realized how hungry I was. It looked like the sun had just begun to rise above the clouds, which meant I had not eaten anything in… forty hours.

Well, it's no wonder I became so exhausted during that battle yesterday. I didn't eat breakfast or anything at all.

"What about you, Pedon?" I asked, blinking the rest of sleep from my weary eyes. "Are you hungry?"

The great gray wolf replied by whimpering and burying her nose under her paws. I was surprised how easily I was finding this monstrous animal adorable. I leaned forward and gently patted her head. "There, there, I'm sure you could find us something to eat here in this forest. I would help you, but I'm afraid I'm no good at hunting. Especially with a sword."

I wasn't even sure if I could build a fire on my own. If push came to shove I decided I could use my wand and make one great big fire to cook with. I was hungry enough to ignore the problems with that plan.

Pedon whined some more, and I couldn't help but wonder just how Varangian wolf tasted.

"What's wrong? Do you miss Suden?" I asked tenderly.

She replied by turning so that her haunch was facing me. There were four arrows embedded into her hide. I sucked air through my teeth and realized that was what had been bothering her. Part of me felt guilty for not noticing this the day before. I hoped these arrows weren't like the ones made by Native America that just caused more damage when pulled out.

"Hold on, I'll get these out." I told the wolf, and raised my arm to grab at the shaft of the first one. Raising my arm was extremely difficult for some reason, like there was no energy in my body. That didn't seem right, because I was generally a pretty energetic morning person. I knew it was because I hadn't eaten anything in so long. The two of us needed to get out of those woods to find something to eat before I starved to death.

Shut up, me. There's plenty of water around here, so that means I could probably go about a week and a half without food. I don't think I'm going to be out in the wilderness that long. In fact, I'd be surprised if I were still out here by the end of the day. I'm trying really hard to be an optimist, but it gets really hard when you watched a dozen people die around you.

I took a deep breath and did my best to simply forget the day before. I had a strong force of will, and I knew I could eventually repress those memories given a bit of time. I couldn't even remember anything bad ever happening to me growing up for this very reason. This was different though, this wasn't like being yelled at or being punished by my father because I did something stupid or forgetful. I could forget things like that. But mages raining death with magic? The charnel hound? The demons and monsters I had seen? Warriors torn apart? The horrible fu-, very bad, spider… If drinking bleach would erase my memories of these things, I would have gladly done shots of it with orange juice.

I grabbed the first arrow and gave a slight tug at it to see how deep the arrow was stuck. Pedon whined, but it didn't seem to be that far in. Her hide was thick, and this wasn't quite like the arrows of an English longbow which could punch through steel armor. With a quick yank I pulled it, provoking a sharp yelp from the wolf. She shuddered noticeably, but didn't flinch away. I tossed the arrow aside and winced as fresh blood trickled down from the wound.

Wow, she's calmer than I was when mother had to pull a splinter out of my foot with tweezers. I wonder how many people in my world would kill to have a dog this smart. Pedon doesn't seem like the type to chew on my shoes, eat garbage, and then vomit the garbage all over my bed. There are not a lot of other canines you can say the same about.

I sighed as I pulled another arrow out, and then a third.

"Pathetic, naked girl pulling arrows out of a wolf." I said to myself, and looked up to the perpetually gray sky. It was the same color as Pedon's fur. "Where do I go now? Loki said Nifelheim, but what if Azusa-chan doesn't know how to get there? He also said him and I were alike, that we're both neutral powers. He's wrong though, I'm not a power at all; I'm just a wanderer. It was easier, Pedon, back when I didn't really have control of my destiny. People used to just shepherd me along to one unspeakable danger to the next, and I would return home to pretty women and tea. I guess I need to do a little growing up and take charge of my fate."

I sighed and pulled the last arrow out. It tossed it aside and laid down on my back. My mind returned to the things Mugitsu had said that night we last spoke.

"She said my fate isn't written or decided. So what does that mean, Pedon? Is it up to me to decide how my story goes? If that's the case…" A sudden and ridiculous thought entered my head just then. "…maybe since I have no written fate here, then my death hasn't been decided or something. That means I'm invincible. If that's true, it would explain how I keep miraculously avoiding certain death over and over again."

Pedon looked at me like I was crazy.

I exhaled through my nose and sat back up. "Yeah, you're right. That's a stupid idea." My eyes glared down at the wound on my side and I flinched at how mangled it looked. Even after bathing, there was still dried blood smeared around the area under my arm. The cut went from just before my shoulder blade to the edge of my left breast. It was hard to look at and I cringed at the thought of Mio or Azusa having to see this ugly scar on me.

Getting sick sitting around the tree that had tried to charm me into sleeping forever; I stood up and stretched the kinks out of joints. I felt a sense of satisfaction at my elbows and knees popping, and went to put my clothes on. My tights were torn to ribbons and weren't useful as anything other than a bandana. I resigned to my tunic and boots, and was glad that the hem of my shirt went midway down my thighs. I only looked fifty to sixty percent indecent this way instead of ninety to ninety-six percent.

Have a percentage based indecency scale was one of those things I used to cope with stress.

All dressed I went to pick up Talvimiekka so we could-

"Strange." I said to myself as I looked at the ground where I had left my sword. "I could have sworn I left her right here…"

It wasn't there. I looked around the ground around me, feeling panic begin to rise in my chest. I can-not-lose-this-sword. I tried to keep calm and scrambled around the area I had slept in to find it. Pedon eyed me curiously as I began to lose my patience more and more. I wasn't like the sword could have just walked away on its own. Maybe Sword-chan could have, but Talvimiekka was not a magic sentient sword. Or at least I didn't think she was.

I growled through my teeth and stomped my foot down on the ground as I shouted, "Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!"

I wanted to scream even more, but resigned to gritting my teeth and taking deep breaths. This was absolutely typical. I was ready to ride out of here, find Azusa again, and have a great big meal. Instead I had my sword stolen in my sleep. Not just that but my ring and wand too it seemed. So instead of a nice time with a cute girl and good food, I got to play around in the forest for however long trying to recover this priceless artifact I had nearly been defiled by a spider to get.

This was just one of those days.

"Did you happen to see this thief?" I asked Pedon. I was obviously being rhetorical, since the dumb animal-

She barked happily and hopped once on her front paws. Her tail wagged frantically and she ran a circle before barking again, as if to tell me something.

"Wait… you don't mean…" I stared in disbelief.

Pedon barked once more.

"You saw who took my things? Why didn't you, well, eat them then?" I asked the obvious question.

The wolf rolled over on her back like she was playing dead. All I could do was give a helpless sigh. Pedon was reminding me more and more of Pickles the Cat, only with less murder and could be ridden. I smiled and went to rub her tummy.

I guess in the end I've always been more of a dog person. I'm starting to see how having my very own giant wolf could come in handy. Too bad I can't take her back home with me. Hmm, I wonder if it's wrong of me to claim this animal as my own so quickly after her master met an unpleasant end. Well, if Pedon doesn't mind, then I don't see the problem.

"Aww, we're going to get along just fine, aren't we?" I cooed towards my new wolf. She looked at me with strangely knowing eyes and rolled back onto her feet. I patted her head and scratched behind her ear. "I'm sorry about what happened to your old master. I promise to take quite good care of you though. But first, can you take me to where my things are?"

She lowered herself so I could hop atop her back. I grabbed handfuls of fur around her shoulder, and then realized that maybe the people or things who took my sword could have been dangerous.

If it is something dangerous, I'll just leave and go get my friends to help me. Ricchan's flaming arrows and Yui's grass-cutting sword can deal with any troublemakers. Also, I need Azusa-chan for… moral support, heheheheh…

The forest here was different than other places in Midgard. It was serene and seemingly alive. Most other places were ripe with decay and death, but warmth and life somehow thrived here. Was it some kind of holy magic? Or was this place somehow spared the horrors of this perpetual winter? Whatever the case, I happily rode to wherever Pedon was taking me. I marveled at all the colors: The greens of the moss and needles, the browns and oranges of the earth, the glowing yellow lights that hovered lazily above the ground and wandered to and fro. They were gorgeous, but I had no idea what they were. Part of me had to wonder what in that forest was deceiving and what was not. I had avoided that tree, but that didn't mean I was free from danger.

Pedon moved quickly, just like the day before. Now that I was away from that tree, and without my ring, I was suddenly aware of how awfully cold it was. Despite the greenery, this place had to be even colder than how I remembered Sakuragyfli. Without pants, it was like I was riding the through the ninth circle of Hell. I clung to the wolf for warmth, and shivered despite my best efforts not to. The sooner I found that ring again, the better.

Around me, the sounds of those musical sprites sent a chill down my spine. I felt their presence, and was given knowledge of the music just by acknowledging it. It was the first song in some time I had bothered to pay attention. The roaring sound of death metal in the heat of battle was mostly ignored by me. This time it was the song Matkan Lopussa by Moonsorrow. It was a slow and melancholic sounding piece - something that would fit the end of a journey or the like.

It may have been eerie, but I was thankful for the gift of music that wasn't metal for once. It helped keep my mind off the cold.

"Are you sure you know where we're going?" I asked the wolf as the forest around us became thicker and thicker. She didn't reply in any discernible way, and just kept riding. I was beginning to feel more and more naked without my sword. Back on the way here, I had hacked through zombie trolls with the greatest of ease, and there were also my multiple victories the day before. I was not the most proficient warrior to walk Midgard, but I could certainly defend myself.

The forest was becoming darker, with the light of sky being blocked out as trees grew closer together. I hoped more and more Pedon knew what she was doing. I doubted I could find my way back out of this place alone. Movement caught my eye and I saw shadowy figures dart behind trees. I flinched in surprise and suddenly wanted nothing more than to be back in Sakuragyfli with Azusa. I had only got a glimpse of those shadow creatures, but they had looked like miniature trolls. Goblins perhaps? I had no idea.

I saw more of them, this time in plain view. They were very much like trolls, but only half my height instead of nearly double. The little green creatures scrambled away from Pedon and me. They were dressed better than trolls, and weren't carrying weapons. Honestly, they looked a little friendly just shy.

What do they think when they see me? Am I frightening to them? Or is it just Pedon that makes them run away? What would I think if I saw a beautiful girl and wolf ride by?

Pedon took me to a forest clearing, in a field of grass that had been crudely cut. In the center of the field was a small log cabin, like a farmhouse. There was a cobblestone path leading from it to where we had just come from. It was strange; there was certainly no path in the forest. I wondered how anyone was expected to find their way here. The cobblestone was overgrown with sickly looking weeds; I doubted anyone even lived in this little home.

I slid off Pedon and flinched at the pain that flared in my left leg as I landed. I had almost forgotten that I had taken a good hit to the leg as well. I limped towards the house, putting weight on my good leg. I looked back to Pedon and whispered, "I'll go and ask for my things back. If they say no then you can, well, eat them I guess."

Pedon yipped happily and ran around in place for a moment. I smiled at her enthusiasm and nodded. "Okay, glad you've got my back here. Cover me, alright?"

I was too exhausted, aching, and hungry to think of a better plan. If this was something Pedon couldn't just scare into submission or rip apart if need be, I would just have to hop on Pedon and run on out of there. This wolf was becoming more and more handy. I hoped that when this was over, I would have some time to properly bond with this creature.

As I walked down the path, I felt as if all the eyes in the forest were on me. It felt too alive somehow, like even the trees were whispering about me. I made it to the front door of the lone home and knocked as loud as I could. I was beyond nervous, but tried my best to put on a brave visage. Inside I heard the sounds of faint laughter and music, like there was some sort of party going on. It was proper music with woodwind instruments and the like, instead of the blaring sounds of distorted guitar and blazing fast drums.

The door opened slightly, and there I saw the frail form of an old woman. Her matted and tangled hair was very dark but graying from age. I placed her somewhere in her fifties with her wrinkled face and frankly hideous visage covered with warts. She was dressed in a filthy looking robe that smelled faintly of unclean cats and maybe even their litter.

"Good afternoon dearie…" She cooed towards me. I was holding my breath without even realizing it. I quickly looked behind me and saw Pedon was gone for some reason. The woman's voice was like rusty nails, and when she spoke I could smell her rancid breath and see her yellow and rotting teeth.

Ohh no… this looks bad.

"What's the matter?" She smiled warmly at me, almost making me wonder if she was just a nice little old lady living out in the forest. Even if that were true, every fiber of my being was screaming at me that this was wrong. "Wolf got your tongue?"

I exhaled nervously and forced what was probably the most sheepish smile I had ever given in my life. "I…uh, was w-wondering if y-you had seen a m-magical sword? I sort of, uh… lost it."

"A magical sword? Well, dearie, you should be more careful with your things." She smiled, still keeping the door half closed.

"W-Well, if you haven't seen it, I better get going." I lifted my foot to turn around and leave as fast as I could while making it look like I wasn't leaving as fast as I could.

"Dearie, you're bleeding!" The old woman exclaimed, pointing a withered finger with a long yellow nail at me.

"I'm not-" I looked down and saw a flower of blood soaking my tunic red around my body wound; it began throbbing with pain. My leg flared up with sharp pain as well, and I felt that wound bleeding too. I began to panic, wondering just what was happening. Was it that woman's fault? Or had both my wounds decided to open up again simultaneously? Had they been bleeding this whole time without me noticing? I didn't even know.

"Oh come on in, dearie. I have a special draught that can soothe your bleeding wounds." She smiled and made a 'come hither' motion with her finger. The door seemingly opened on its own. From within, the smell of fresh baked bread, mead, and slow-cooked meats pleasantly greeted my nose. My mouth watered and I felt very reluctant to turn down her offer. The inside of her home was much larger than it was on the outside. There was a great table, surrounded by wooden chairs. In the center of it, a feast had been prepared. Roast pig, the bread I had smelled, a variety of fruits and vegetables I hadn't tasted since my time in Japan - it all looked delicious.

A part of me was screaming to just turn and run, "M-Maybe I could stay awhile..." but I was too hungry to pass this up. I stepped forward, clutching my bleeding wound. "Please excuse my intrusion… ah-"

"Louhi. My name is Louhi, Mugi." Louhi stepped aside for me to step inside.

Did I tell her my name?

Inside, I was able to fully take in everything the main room had to offer. It was a very Nordic looking building, like the ones I had seen in Varyag as opposed to Sakuragyfli. Past the table on the far side of the room was a great fire pit with a stuck pig being slow-roasted. Near it was a black iron cauldron, bubbling over with some strange and noxious concoction. Through all the wonderful smells I could smell whatever she was brewing. It was a weird scent, neither pleasant not rancid.

"You are my guest, so you may sit at the head of the table. Don't worry about bleeding on the furniture, for my servants shall take care to clean any mess you make. Sit tight and I'll have something for those injuries and just a moment."

She told me all of this and I slowly stepped across the room to the great throne-line chair at the head of the table. It was heavenly warm inside as well; I was enjoying it very much compared to being out in the cold. As I sat down, and winced at the pain I was feeling, Louhi added, "And of course… feel free to feast on whatever you fancy."

"Thank you very much!" I told her, and eyed all the food before me. I had no idea what to try first. Without really even thinking, I simply went for whatever was closest. Warm bread that cut easily with a knife, I helped myself to a large piece and soaked slathered in with butter mixed with cinnamon. When I took the first bite, I nearly cried from happiness from how good it tasted. It was delicious, maybe the best thing I had ever eaten. That or my state of hunger was making it that way. Whatever it was, I practically inhaled the bread and butter before starting a succulent looking peach.

Louhi set a wooden pint of that the stuff from the cauldron down before me. It bubbled and still had that weird smell to it. To me, it almost looked like boiling pea soup. She smiled and told me, "It's a little bitter, but it will melt your pain away and heal your ailments."

"Oh thank you, thank you!" I practically cheered and rose the pint up to inspect it more closely. That paranoid part of me was screaming that drinking this was perhaps the worst possible thing I could do in this situation, but it felt like my inhibitions were melting away. It was like the warmth and food around me were intoxicating. Holding my breath and trying to ignore the smell, I went to take a swig.

She was right, it was very bitter. It had a very earthy taste to it, like I was drinking ale made from the very essence of the forest around me. Despite the way it tasted, it went down surprisingly smooth. I had drunk the entire pint without even realizing I had done so. Louhi stepped away and I suddenly began to feel very strange. My wounds mended themselves in the blink of an eye, and I felt loads better. She had been true to her word; this beverage had done exactly what she said it would.

I blinked in surprise as I saw one of those green creatures I thought to be goblins take my pint away and bring it over to Louhi by the cauldron. I had no idea where the little creature had even come from. I blinked again, and there were more of them sitting further down the table helping themselves to the feast. The inside of her home felt like it was getting bigger, like the walls were expanding to give more floor space.

Even more of the creatures appeared, and a few of what looked to be full blown trolls. I sat there in amazement, but did not feel fear for some reason. In the newly given floor space, the trolls and goblins danced with one another. There was music too, those woodwind instruments supported by lovely sounding string instruments like harps and violas. I looked around to see a group of beautiful musicians in the corner of the room behind me. They looked like Valkyries, and were dressed little more than bits of silk tied around their waists. Beautiful women that had seemingly appeared from nowhere playing hauntingly beautiful music.

What's even going on now? Am I dreaming?

A dream was exactly what this felt like. I blinked rapidly and tried to see if I could wake up. No good, this was still reality. My heart rate accelerated and I could feel pounding in my chest like thunder booming in rapid succession. It was ringing in my ears like a drum, frightening me slightly. Looking around was difficult, like my head was moving much faster than my eyes were. The edges of my vision were blurry, and nothing would stay still. The walls, the floor, the table, all of these creatures. They were all swaying.

One of the goblins brought me another pint of that green stuff. It laughed and cheered, and I felt myself laughing along. I had no idea why I was laughing, and after a few seconds of laughing, I forgot that I had even been laughing and stopped and wondered what I was doing. I saw the green beverage there, and I forgotten where it had even come from. Without thinking, I took a swig and drank all of it.

My head was getting fuzzier and fuzzier now; I wanted everything to just stop moving and swaying so much. It felt like I and the rest of the world were spinning in place, and I was not comfortable with it. I clung to the edge of the table and wanting nothing more for this horrible disorientation to pass.

Oh god, where am I? I don't even remember. What are all these things around me? How did I even get here? Why do I feel so bad? Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop…

I repeated that mantra in my head over and over, and felt my hand shaking, and my breathing become more and more frantic. I was trying to patiently wait for this wave of personal hell to retract and leave me, but it was hard when every last thing felt wrong. Even the very makeup of my body felt wrong, like my hands were incorrectly connected to my arms. I stared down at my palms and felt sick as the edges of my skin seemed to sway before my eyes.

"Drink this, you'll feel better." I heard someone tell me. It was not the haggard and rusty voice of the witchlike woman whose home I struggled to remember I was in. Instead it was a calm and soothing voice, one so familiar yet hauntingly distant in my memories. I looked up and beside me was my raven-haired angel smiling and offering me a glass bottle of something. It was not that devil's drink that had changed the world around me. Mio motioned to sit with me, and I scooted aside to make room on my seat. It felt bigger somehow, and there was suddenly enough room for both of us there.

"Mio-chan…" I voiced her name in my daze and took the cold bottle from her hands. My mind and my body felt like two completely separate entities working on their own accord. I couldn't seem to direct my actions with thoughts, and was forced to watch myself act without thinking. I drank from that bottle, and was pleasantly surprised to find that this was cold cider and not more strange green bubbling stuff. It was sweet with a tang of spice, and absolutely refreshing. I set it down on the table before me and then focused my attention to the lovely lady at my side.

"Am… I dreaming again?" I asked her. After taking that drink, the world was beginning to slow down from its spinning, and the lines were staying still finally. I took another sip just to help speed the process of restoration along.

"Does it matter?" She cooed and nuzzled against me.

Uh, actually, it kind of does matter, I thought, but put my arm around her. She felt more real here than she had in my dream earlier that day. I knew wasn't real though, and she was a product of some magic going on around me.

And so what if she is? Why can't I just enjoy something for once without anything going wrong?

The music around us was enchanting. It was both upbeat and beautiful in melody. The musicianship was incredible as well. My trained ear was impressed by the harmonies and the constantly changing time signatures. Whoever wrote this piece knew a thing or two about song writing. It was inspiring, making me wish I had a set of ivory and ebony keys beneath my fingertips. Most of all, the music made me want to dance. I still felt a little disoriented, but whatever inhibitions I had about embarrassing myself had vanished with the cider.

I stood up and took Mio's hand and smiled to her. It was my best attempt at a seductive smile. "My dear, may I have this dance?"

"I would be honored." The illusionary Mio before me took my hand as I pulled before the beautiful women and their instruments. The forest folk stepped away to give us room but some still danced their enthusiastic and happy dances. There was an aura of peace and friendship around all of them, even the mighty trolls whose waists I only came up to. They were not like the vicious beasts of the mountains I had encountered before. These were closer to the spirits I remembered from fairy tales when I was a little girl.

With my fancier-than-average upbringing, I did know how to dance like a proper lady. It was a little difficult to pull off with my dizziness from everything I had drunk though. I placed one arm around her back, and held her hand with the other, lacing our fingers. It was not a fancy display, but instead the two of holding each other close and swaying back and forth.

"I'm not real..." She said to me. Our eyes met, and I saw tears in hers.

I know that, I thought to myself. I know that, and I know what I'm doing right now is really unhealthy. I don't care though, I nearly died yesterday more than once and watched dozens and dozens of people get killed. For all I know this is going to mess me up for life. Let me enjoy the little things, even if they're just in my head, or from magic.

"I know you're not." I said to her, feeling my heart weigh heavy at the sight of her tears. "It's like you just said though… does it matter? Can I just enjoy this moment and sort out whether it was a bad idea later?"

"I won't take that from you." This Mio said in a quieter voice and rested her head on my shoulder. "I just want to make sure you know that I'm not your Mio. I'm nothing. You are dancing with no one right now. Everyone and everything here sees things differently. To the spirits around us, you may as well not even exist."

"I think I like it that way." I mused. "I wish you were real though. There are so many things that were never said or done. I'm not sure I really understand though, are you just a hallucination? You seem so real."

"I'm an echo." She told me. "An echo of the girl you loved and how you saw her. Nothing in Midgard can ever truly die. Some trace of it always remains. You should know - echoes tend to follow you."

"They do?"

"They do. The music from ages and worlds forgotten by nearly all is drawn to you more than others. There's the echo of a Norn that rings and resonates in your soul constantly. The louder something echoes, the more real it becomes. Me, I'm barely a whisper of the girl you loved. I wish I could be her for you, but I can't. No matter how much you dream and wish for me to be real, I'm still nothing. I guess you're right, I really am just a hallucination."

"I see…" I sighed, taking in her words and trying to understand them as best I could. What I held in my arms was the manifestation of a memory. I supposed that was better than nothing, but in a way it was disheartening. I tried not to think about it and continued slowly dancing with her. The moment wasn't entirely lost. The way I saw it, this was just a lucid dream.

As we danced I noticed one of the women in the room was not playing an instrument. She wore a blue silk kimono a lot like the one Mio had given me before I went to Lutvjarg. Besides the out-of-place dress style, what had caught my attention with her was how astonishingly she looked like my mother. I quickly shook my head and ignored her, continuing to dance. The music and the illusion in my arms couldn't get this strange woman out of my mind though. I kept seeing her blue eyes on me, and it was beginning to worry me. She was eying me watchfully.

Wait…

I hadn't even realized what was in her hands the whole time. It was something that looked so natural I hadn't even noticed it. It was my sword, Talvimiekka.

"Ah, excuse me." I let go of the false simulacrum I was dancing with and strutted over to the woman with my sword. The music and festivities continued like nothing was happening; those playing their instruments regarded me in no way.

This woman was nearly my height, only a little taller. My breath was taken away by how similar she looked to my mother, but this woman's eyebrows were too thick to be her, and she was also much more muscular and fit while my mother was much curvier. I tried to say something to her, anything, but my words were caught in my throat. She kept staring at me, looking almost disappointed with something about me.

"Who… are you?" I managed to say.

"An echo." Her voice was tired and distant, like she was replying to someone else entirely. She held out Talvimiekka so that the pommel was facing me. I stood there stupidly for a moment before realizing she was offering the sword for me to take. I reached for it and staggered momentarily under its weight as it pulled my arm down. The woman's expression was much easier to understand now - it was disgusted.

I looked over my shadow and saw the illusion of Mio was gone. The room seemed darker somehow, and the music was becoming quieter and more distant by the second. It was like everything around us was disappearing, leaving me and the other girl alone. I wasn't comfortable with it at all.

"Her magic potion is something incredible, letting you see beyond what lies in front of mortal eyes. What once existed only in your mind and soul stands before you." She spoke without moving her lips, and it felt like she was talking inside my head. Her voice reminded me strongly of Mugitsu's.

"You're like the Mio I was just with then?" I deducted, trying hard to sound brave and not intimidated.

"I don't know. I don't question my existence or what I am. Why do you have that sword? You don't deserve it."

I bit my lower lip and averted my eyes from her. I was silent but I mentally challenged her words. She was wrong; I had fought for this sword and earned it.

"Without that wolf, you would have never found it and it would have been lost for another eternity. It doesn't matter though. You are like a clumsy elk being hunted by cunning and capable wolves. They're coming for you right now. The bruise you left on their ego was more painful than the bruise you left on their numbers. Do you think you can survive a second round? You've had food and rest, and your wounds are healed. Show me how much you really deserve to wield that weapon. You made her shed blood for the first time in decades, so maybe you aren't completely hopeless."

Dread and anxiety washed through me as the realization of what she was talking about surfaced. Those mercenaries from the day before were out for my blood. I took a deep breath and gave her a quick nod to show that I understood.

"Before you leave, I have one question for you. What drives your sword? Is it compassion and the desire to protect those you love and yourself if the need arises?"

"Of course!" I answered immediately. "I wouldn't ever fight if I didn't have to. I hate it more than anything."

"Then wield your sword with that hate. I let my love for someone very close to me drive my soul, and because of it I am no more than an echo, a ghost, a shadow of someone long past."

A sharp gasp escaped my lips and I felt myself reeling with realization. Around me, the world was rapidly changing to normal again. Gone were the music, the musicians, and the spirits and trolls. I nearly fell over from how sudden it was. I was now in the empty common room of an old woman's house once again.

Was this truly reality once more? The table that had once held food and drink was barren now, and all the wonderful smells were replaced by that noxious green drink and the smell of musty wood. I held up my sword to better look at, like I was trying to convince myself it was real. I turned and saw Louhi standing in the shadows of the room in the corner. I shot a smile towards her. Despite the panic I had felt from her potion, I felt like all and all this had been a pleasant experience. I had food, my wounds were healed, I had a moment with a girl from my memories and…

That woman… that was Mugitsu's sister. I don't know exactly what she was, or why I was able to see and talk to her, but I understand at least who she was. I don't care what she says though, I'll never let hate drive my weapon.

"Where did you find this?" I asked Louhi, and held up Talvimiekka horizontally.

She smiled her hideous grin and replied in that same grating, yet warm tone, "I found your wolfish friend sniffing around my home and I talked to her. She told me of your injuries, so she and I devised a plan to bring you here so that your wounds may be tended to with my magic concoction."

"You… talked to Pedon? " I asked, completely bewildered.

"Of course. I find wolves to be the most talkative out of the forest folk. Her heart was set on bringing you here with a plan. She's a clever girl, and I would be very thankful to count her among your friends were I you. Poor thing came all the way here with arrows in her side. I offered to get rid of those pesky things for her, but she felt more comfortable if you were the one to do it."

"She wanted me to do it instead of you? I suppose the bond between her may be stronger than I thought, even if we've only been together for a short time. Already, I cherish her dearly." I assured the witch. "Also, thank you very much for all of this. It may have been a pinch unorthodox, but I certainly appreciate it. That drink of yours… it's…"

"Really something." She finished for me. "I have talked to people who drank it who claim it let them speak with spirits of the dead even. It's different for everyone, but the effect is always the same: you're no longer bleeding."

"Which is all that matters." I nodded. The mention of me bleeding made me think back to when I first knocked on the door and my side had begun bleeding for seemingly no reason. I wondered what had caused that. My guess was that it was a worse injury than I thought, or me moving around caused the coagulated blood and scabbing to break, restarting the bleeding.

We stood there in silence for a moment before I glanced towards the door. "I suppose I should be leaving. Once again, thanks for all your help."

"It was no problem at all." She assured me with her gross, but kind smile. "If you're ever in need of help again, and happen to be in this neck of the woods, you are welcome here, and… Oh!"

She suddenly looked surprised.

"Hmm, what's wrong?" I asked.

"Someone's looking for you." Louhi answered. "I hear the trees speaking. A woman, tall, but not tall like a Varangian. There's a dark aura around her… I don't sense good things."

"Probably a mercenary." I gritted my teeth, unable to think of any exceptionally tall women I knew. "I'm sorry Louhi, but I'm afraid I must take my leave. Please, take care."

"I could say the same to you."

I chuckled, "I do my best."

I extended by goodbye with a wave and exited through the door. I was jogging without even realizing it, desperate to quickly get out of these woods. Outside, it had snowed, and the freezing winds blew hard against my bare legs.

Oh no, I don't have my ring. No time to waste though, I'll get another one assuming Ricchan wasn't just messing with me when she said there were plenty of these things.

The snow was only to my ankle, and kept politely out of my boots. I rant some ten meters down the barely visible cobblestone path from Louhi's home before I stopped. Feeling a rush from adrenaline I took a deep breath and realized I had no idea where Pedon was.

An idea popped into my mind, a silly and rather childish one. I thought, How do wolves talk to one another? By howling of course! I laughed to myself, and couldn't believe I was actually considering howling like a wolf at the sky to get the attention of Pedon, wherever she was. It was foolish because for all I knew, she was well out of earshot of me, and all I would be doing is attracting things that I probably didn't want near me. As silly as it was, howling at the sky sounded like a much more practical idea than just screaming, "Pedon! Pedon! Pedon!" over and over again.

I ran a bit further away from the house, putting myself between it and the forest around me. It was some twenty meters to either. I stopped and took another deep breath before howling out my best impression of a wolf calling out sorrowfully to the moon. My throat burned in protest at the volume of my wolfish cry, but I fought past it. My cry only lasted a few seconds and when I was finished, I whispered a snatch of song, "…Werewolves of London…"

In the distance, in a direction I could not place, I heard the sound of wolf howling. Before I could revel in my success, I heard another how… then several more together in a different direction.

And now I'm going to be eaten by wolves if Pedon doesn't show up. Fantastic. I could have thought this over a bit better. Now what to do? If I want Pedon to find me, I should stay put, but at the same time, that seems really unsafe. Stupid wolf, why can't you just stay put without wandering off?

I sighed and spun Talvimiekka in my hands several times. It looked cool, but nobody was around to see it. I waited a few minutes, nervously scanning the edges of the forest all around me for something to appear. I didn't have to wait long for something to exit the cover of the trees and step into the snow. It was not quite who I had expected.

It was a tall woman, like Louhi had predicted. She wore a worn and tattered looking leather duster. Her hair was short, in a style close to Yui's, but her hair was thinner. Beyond that, it was a mint green color. In her hand was a sheathed katana with the strap to wear the sheath dangling loosely below it, just touching the snow. She was moving quickly towards me, her face seemingly expressionless.

"Iwasaki-san!" I called out, and ran towards her. This was a welcome sight. Minami Iwasaki, the woman I had faced the Charnel Hound with Sanya month ago. She was not someone had expected to see, but we had parted on good terms. I didn't think it was foolish to consider her a friend.

She looked surprised to see me. We stopped before each other and she eyed me curiously before speaking in that same monotone voice I remembered. "You're… the one that band of mercenaries are hunting for?"

I nodded a bit nervously and replied, "Yes, believe or not. I helped defend Tartungar's Grave and barely made it out alive. I… may have done a rather good job helping the militia, which is why they're mad at me."

"Hmm. I see." Her blue eyes focused on my sword. "They're offering your sword as a reward to whoever finds you and brings you back. Dead or alive."

"They'll have a hard time doing that." I said, boldly. "At any minute my wolf is going to come and take me somewhere safe. Do you need a ride anywhere?"

I was wondering why she was even here in the first place.

"No." Minami replied coldly, and rested her hand on the hilt of her blade. "I need that sword though. Who knows how much it would sell for? What I do know is that someone very close to me is ill, and I need that money to help her."

"You're… you're…" I took a step back and raised my sword in a defensive stance. "You're not having this sword, Iwasaki-san. I went through too much to get this thing."

She drew a few inches of her sword and stared me down. "Killing you would be doing you a favor with what these mercenaries have planned. Give the sword and run, I'll tell them I never saw you."

"So you're working with them?" I growled through my teeth.

It would be really great if you could show up right about now Pedon…

"I need that sword, Tsumugi. It's an alliance of convenience." Minami drew a few more inches of her katana, causing me to back up a step. "I don't want to kill you. Just give me the sword."

"No." I stated boldly. "No and I'm not fighting you either. Go away, Iwasaki-san…d-don't… don't make me hurt you!"

"I don't think that's something I need to worry about." She replied rather coldly and drew the rest of her sword with her left hand. "It's a shame this has to happen, Tsumugi. You seemed like a good girl, just woefully naïve and oblivious to the reality of Midgard. Well, here it is, prepare yourself."

"Don't do this, Iwasaki-san."

"The mercenaries are already on their way. I'd give them several minutes to arrive, but don't worry, that's all I need."

"You're making a big mistake." I felt like my threat was only half hollow. It didn't matter, she wasn't listening. Greed had polluted her and now were we both paying the price. I wasn't sure whether or not to fight or flight. She looked like she could run faster than me. I also had no idea how skilled she was compared to me.

I didn't have time to think about it as she threw herself at me, sword thirsting for my blood.

TO BE CONTINUED

Author's notes/shit people just skim over: So why did it take me a month to write this chapter? Mostly due to real life blocking me from writing. I mean shit, I'm writing this in the parking lot of a fucking McDonalds. I have had been in better situations in my life. Another issue was how many revisions my ideas for this chapter went through. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had to base it around that Ensiferum song I quoted, just fucking had to.

First, I wanted Mugi to have a companion with her, or several others. I had originally had a tsundere Sentinel that would be this young and flustered samurai girl. I scrapped that because I didn't like adding more OCs. Then I wanted to use Yui and Ritsu, but adding them felt way too contrived. I had some ideas inspired by Brutal Legend for companions, but I won't even mention that. In the end, I went with establishing an initial bond with Pedon and Mugi.

Next I had a hard time deciding whether or not Louhi should have been evil in this. I know in Kalevala she was a villain figure after the Sampo, but I felt like this was a reference and not a crossover here. I decided to go with her being helpful since it was so hard to write a believable escape for Mugi from her clutches. It would have involved her fighting her way out with Minami, but that led to even more issues.

It involved Minami busting Mugi out from being held captive, but with them escaping, there were too many plot holes that arose. I kept running into situations where I wondered, "Well doesn't Louhi just do this, or why doesn't Mugi do this?" and that would require more rewriting… In the end, I went with making Minami the villain here.

I don't know if the behind-the-scenes interests anyone, but I just felt like sharing. As always, I hope people liked this. I really am trying to break monotony with my chapters by making each one very different. This story arc with Mugi being off alone is taking longer than I thought, but following the advice of my editor, ProfessorRude, chapter 26 may be considerably shorter.