|3 Heroes||ATK +120
|3 Elite+ Heroes||HP +1000|
|3 Legendary+ Heroes||HP +2000|
By the time Jarle groggily came to, the looting was over.
The moonlight was dim against the thickly clouded night sky, the forest was blanketed in milky mist. The sight before him was chaos, the contents of the caravan were scattered all over the ground, everything of value stolen and there was no sign of the horses.
He surveyed the surrounding mess but found no body.
No body! That means his son, Reginald, may still be alive. “He should’ve got away safely”. Jarle comforts himself.
Jarle is a traveling merchant. This is the first time he’d ever taken his young son on business with him. As his wife died in childbirth, his son was all the family he had.
When Reginald was still an infant, Jarle was away on business often with no way to take care of Reginald himself, having to instead leave him the care of neighbors, Several times a year, he would visit them, leaving a sum of care money for living expenses.
As soon as Reginald was old enough, Jarle took him from their hometown and kept his son firmly by his side, bidding farewell to their lifestyle of long separation.
As they journey together, the father and son duo get along well. Jarle comes to realize that Reginald is an exceptionally gifted talker, silver-tongued and shrewd in his dealings, meticulous and cautious in his calculations. Seeing his son show such wonderful business-sense brought a great deal of joy to Jarle.
However, today they were beset upon by bandits. He’s not sure why, his Jarle’s memory of events is hazy. All he remembers is that he was setting up camp for the night when a group of bandits suddenly burst into the camp. He shouted at Reginald to flee as he tried to fend the bandits off, but everything that happened after that is just a fog.
Over the years, Jarle has travelled to and from often, knowing well the dangers and the risk of banditry. He originally planned to hire a pair of mercenaries to escort them safely through the area, but he’d spent so much on his stock that he lacked the funds. His feelings over his son, buying him many things on their journey, leaving him nothing to spare.
Jarle needed to find his son, but had no idea where he could be. Desperately, Jarle does his best to recall the direction in which Reginald fled, aiming to pursue that path.
For several hours he trudged the forest paths, wondering if he was imaging things. Everything felt so familiar, as if he’d seen it all many times before, yet he was unable to recall how or when he’d been there.
The surrounding fog is suddenly too thick to see through and anxiety seeps into Jarle’s heart. He begins to think that maybe this persistent mist is sentient, deliberately chasing him.
Not only that, but the feeling he was being watched sent a bitter chill down his spine. The nagging feeling of seeing figures appear and disappear in the fog clung to him like the mist, one of the figures even resembling his deceased wife. As soon as he approached, they were gone. Specters evaporating into fog.
Determined not to let fear impede on finding his son, Jarle pressed on. Before long, the sound of a child’s nearby voice ominously rang out through the trees. It was impossible for Jarle to see through the thick mist. Steeling his never, he bravely walked towards the voice. Huddled down beside a dead tree, was a young boy. He couldn’t have been more that eight or nine years old. Dressed strikingly in white, he sat with his head bowed, whispering something.
Unable to comprehend why a child would be alone in such a desolate forest, Jarle asked, “Hello young man. I’m looking for my son, have you seen him at all? He’s called Reginald, he’s 15 years old, not too tall, wearing a grey coat.” The boy raised his head. His face was deathly pale. He shook his head. “Haven’t seen him.” Immediately looking back to the floor, he asks, “Did you see him, Stitchy?”
Jarle followed the boy’s gaze, arriving at that which he questioned: a small puppet laying on the ground. Looking up, the boy said, “Stitchy says he hasn’t seen him.”
“Stitchy?” Jarle asks, uncertainty in his voice.
“He’s called Stitchy, he’s my best friend.” The boy stood up and earnestly held his puppet up to Jarle’s face. “Say hi to him! Stitchy loves it when other people greet him!”
The puppet looked quite worn, fixed up with numerous patches, the stitching around its mouth all stretched out. Jarle had the unwelcome feeling the puppet was alive and laughing at him. Something about it was unspeakably horrid. He averted his eyes, unable to look directly at it.
Seeing Jarle's reaction, the boy spoke with disappointment in his voice, "Don't you like Stitchy?"
Reluctantly, Jarle glanced at the puppet and said, "Hello Stitchy" before hurriedly looking away again.
"Well then, young man, I'm going to find my son now. You shouldn't stay here, it's not safe. Go home, okay?"
"Can you take me to see your mom and dad?"
"Sure!" the boy agreed eagerly.
Jarle followed the boy into the depths of the forest. Suddenly, he realized the boy wasn't dressed in white, but rather was wrapped in bandages. Fear suddenly struck Jarle, but his resolve to find his son Reginald drove him onward. He had to ask the boy's parents if they knew Reginald's whereabouts.
After walking a short while, a dim flame appeared just ahead of them. As Jarle followed the boy, they came upon a smoldering bonfire, seated beside which was a man and a woman. The man looked emaciated, his face blue and gaunt, his body lifeless. The woman seemed to have lost her eyesight, a blindfold covering her eyes, her face deathly pale.
"Mum! Dad!" the boy ran over to them. The woman patted his head and whispered something to him. Obediently, the boy nodded and hurried off into the mists of the forest to play by himself.
"Lost wanderer, come, rest a while." The blind woman called to him, turning to face Jarle as if seeing right through the blindfold.
This family seemed beyond strange, making Jarle hesitant to walk over, his feet stuck in place. Clenching his fist, he finally managed to stand three paces away from the bonfire, ensuring a certain amount of space between himself and this unsettling couple.
He wanted to find his son as quickly as possible and get as far away from here as he could. "I'm looking for..."
"I know who you're looking for, Jarle." the man cut him off.
"How... How did you know my name?" Jarle was suddenly on edge. Without thinking, he took a few steps back.
The man's expression was thoughtful as he beckoned Jarle over to sit with him. "I know where Reginald is."
Jarle's guard immediately dropped upon hearing his son's name. He tried to contain his excitement, sitting down as asked. "Where is he?"
No answering, the man asked his own question, "First, tell me something. Where are we?"
"The Forest of the Crows, about forty miles from Millerton."
The man shook his head. "Wrong. This is Realm of Denial."
Jarle doesn't believe a word of it, but keen to find his son, he plays along with the man's words and asks him, "Realm of Denial? Don't think I've ever heard of it."
"The Realm of Denial is a place that lost souls wander." The man continued. "The desire to live is a pervasive disease of the mortal, craving life so much that they selectively forget their deaths, how they died, the circumstances around their end... merely a blur. These lost souls become trapped, bound to this realm by their obsessively pursuing that which they pursued in life before death. This realm created by the projections of lost souls, outside the restrictions of time and space, is the Realm of the Denial. While the dead and living are ordinarily isolated, there are occasions in which they may encounter one another."
Taking a stick, the man prodded at the weakly smoldering bonfire. The dim glow against his face made him look even more unwell. He continued, "Since Annih, the God of Death, abandoned his duties, the laws that bind death have broken down into chaos. That chaos has created this place, The Realm of Denial. Without order, those lost souls will continue to relive their experience, dying again and again, each time with no recollection of the moment they perished. Stuck in this endless cycle, they roam eternally as if lost in a haze, never able to escape."
"Why... Why are you telling me this?" Jarle was suddenly on edge again, looking around at the fog, feeling uneasy.
The man did not answer, instead looking meaningfully at Jarle.
"You mean I... No, impossible!" Jarle suddenly realized his predicament, but he refused to accept it.
"Nothing is impossible. The man spoke flatly. "You didn't think it strange? That the paths felt so familiar, like you've been there before? Or the remnants of other souls wandering around, you must've seen some? That happens occasionally, when projections overlap."
Jarle was dumbfounded. It was just as the man said. The strange sights and dissolving ghosts, the glimpses of other souls as he wandered.
Jarle's mind went blank. After a while passed, he struggled with the words, "If I really am already dead, how did I die?"
"You were killed by bandits." The blind woman sighed. "However, your obsession with caring for your child makes your soul unwilling to accept death."
"But, what of Reginald? What about my son? He survived, didn't he? At this moment, Jarle's parental instincts kicked in and overwhelmed him. Nothing mattered as much as the safety of his child, not even his own death.
The blind woman answered, "He fled, as you told him to. He survived."
Jarle let out a deep sigh of relief. After a period of silence, he carefully spoke, "You said that lost souls reincarnate over and over... how many times have I reincarnated?"
"This is the 34th time." The man replied. "Tonight is your Resurrection Night. It is this night that falls just once a year in which the Realm of Denial will manifest, and the cycle of your reincarnation begins again. On this night 33 years ago, you were killed by a bandit, and so every year on this night you begin the cycle anew. Up to this moment, you have relived this experience 34 times."
"33 years?" Pained, Jarle clutched at his head and sobbed uncontrollably. He'd already missed his son's childhood, and now he knew he'd lost another 33 years of his son's life. He had no clue how Reginald had lived so long alone without him.
"Then... What happened to Reginald after that?" Jarle asked with the greatest of caution.
"He became a merchant, like you. He's the richest man in the empire." The blind woman answered.
"I knew it." His eyes filled with tears of pride, "I knew he would surpass me."
Perhaps hearing this news brought Jarle some peace, as he calmed a little and slowly ventured to ask, "I want to know... Why are you telling me all this?"
"We came to help you." The blind woman said.
"To help you break free." The man added.
Jarle looked at the man, seeing a mix of emotions set in his eyes. Sorrow, pity.
Reluctantly, Jarle asked, "How... How can you help me?"
"I'll help you find him." Rising to his feet, a huge scythe appeared in the man's hand. He lifted it and swung it at the thick mist. As the scythe's blade glinted in the fog, it was though space itself had been sliced open, a tear appearing in the murky mist.
Through the tear, Jarle saw another middle-aged man lost in the fog. He was dressed in finery, carried himself with poise and wore a deeply anxious expression. He looked around flustered, as if seeking something.
The tear widened as the space between the two planes seemed to draw closer and mingle together. Catching sight of Jarle, the middle-aged man asked him quizzically, "I beg your pardon, you haven't per chance seen my two children? Angelo and Rowan. They've run away from home, but I really must get them back. I have something terribly important to entrust to them."
"Re...Reginald?" He could barely believe his eyes, but Jarle knew immediately, it was Reginald! The years had worn away at his features and much had changed with age, but a hint of youthfulness remained about him.
"To whom do I speak, my Lord?" Reginald politely enquired.
"Reginald, my child, it's me, I'm..." Jarle's voice failed as he choked back tears.
Reginald stares at Jarle for a short time, suddenly blurting out, "Father?"
"Yes, it's me, my dear child." Jarle spoke, his voice quivering.
"Why... why are you here? You're... this is impossible! Reginald was too shocked to speak, uttering incoherent nonsense.
A realization dawned upon Jarle as he looked at his son standing before him.
Overcome by a sense of despair, he turned to the couple and pleaded with them, "I'm begging you! He's barely middle-aged! His life shouldn't have ended yet, please, forget my liberation and just let him live! I beg of you!"
"His life has already reached its conclusion." The blind woman let out a heavy sigh. "Although his death was not destined to be of old age, his end is set in stone. It cannot be changed."
"What on earth is going on? Where am I? Who are you people?" Reginald was baffled by the bizarre scene before his eyes.
"Reginald..." Jarle began, but faltered. He couldn't bring himself to tell his son the truth.
The man stepped in to answer, "You're dead, Reginald. You passed away two months ago. This place is The Realm of Denial, it is where your soul wanders."
"What are you saying? That's impossible!" Reginald reacted furiously, "Just last night I was drinking tea with the King's finance minister, how on earth could I have died two months ago?"
The man was expressionless, he seemed to have grown used to such reactions a long time ago. Calmly, he explained to Reginald all that he had just explained to Jarle.
Reginald collapsed into tears, his voice hoarse, "There's still so much to do with my business... and Rowan, he's still young, still out there by himself, he's not ready yet! And Angelo, even though he's following a different path, I haven't told him how proud I am of him yet... I have to find them! I must entrust everything to them, I can't die like this!"
Jarle found himself recalling what the man had not long ago told him, that the dead that cling to life will find themselves trapped in this never-ending cycle. He didn't want Reginald to become dragged into the same miserable quagmire.
"Reginald, listen to me." Jarle placed his hands on Reginald's shoulders, "My son, you have to accept it. Your children will live their lives, you have to understand and let go, I don't want you to end up like me... You don't need to worry, I... Dad will be by your side for this last leg of the journey."
Reginald looked deep into Jarle's eyes and for the longest time, cried tears of bitter regret.
"Father, I'm so sorry. I should never have run away, I should've stayed and fought bravely like you did..." Reginald cried out all the sorrow and regret that had been buried deep within his heart, torturing him all these years.
"I don't blame you. Your surviving was the best thing that happened." Jarle comforted him, "Well, let's take this last walk together, shall we?"
Reginald was hesitant, seeming to struggle with leaving his life behind. At long last, he nodded. The middle-aged father and son put a supportive arm around one another as they turned to the fog and gradually faded away.
"Did the nice man get reunited with his son?" The little boy poked his head out from behind a dead tree.
"Yes Daimon, they were reunited." The man said calmly.
"That's great! Stitchy, they were reunited! Just like me and dad!" The boy gleefully threw the puppet up into the air and caught it, "Mum, dad, let's go home!"
The boy skipped away as the couple put out the dying bonfire. Following the boy, they turned and disappeared into the mist.