The forest of Lotisea Province was nothing more than a sea of trees so vast and so deep, it is said that one would have to spend over a thousand lifetimes trying to find one specific tree within the entire forest…which, of course, was the only thing Lotisea consisted of. Just a forest. No cities, no roads, nothing. It is because of this that few Humans have set foot in Lotisea, or even considered doing so. Add to that the unbearable humidity and a certain rumor that claimed that, should anyone, good, evil, or indifferent, enter the wrong part of the forest, they would be doomed to wander the forest forever until death’s sweet embrace relieves them of their weariness. This was, however, only what the average citizen was aware of. At the farthest corner of the forest was an old city, one that Statuedramon and I visited nearly two years ago, with a temple that worshiped an ancient Digimon known as Deckerdramon.
“It’s getting dark,” I said. “If we don’t hurry, it’ll be difficult for us to find our way back to the fort.”
“We’ve been walking the same direction; we haven’t turned or anything,” Zelda said. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to find the fort; the only thing we’ll have to watch out for is the roots of these trees.”
“Do either of you think the rumor about this place is true?” Statuedramon asked. “You know…the one about how if we get lost, we’ll be here forever? And how the trees move around to make it impossible to escape this place?”
“Statch, we’ve been to this forest dozens of times, and nothing has happened to us. So, nothing will happen to us,” I replied.
“Yeah, but we’ve never been here at night,” Statuedramon said. “What if all those things happen at night?”
“You have never been here at night because every time we’ve been here, you’ve fallen asleep before sundown, forcing me to carry you to wherever it is we’re going.”
“But…couldn’t we have done this tomorrow?” Statuedramon griped. “It’s getting cold, I’m getting hungry again, and I can barely see my hand in front of my face!”
“Well, Statuedramon, maybe you should try raising your arm so that your hand actually is in front of your face before you say that,” I suggested.
“…Oh, that’s better.”
“And there isn’t any way we could’ve waited until tomorrow to find him,” I added. “This man’s life is potentially in danger, and it’s our job to ensure he stays alive.”
“Well, yeah, but…he’s a knight!”
“Not anymore; he left them, remember? And that’s why they all want him dead,” I said. “Well, everyone except for Saias and Lector.”
“Well, even if he isn’t one anymore, he still used to be one, so I don’t think he deserves our protection!” Statch insisted. “He deserves to have his life at risk!”
“It doesn’t matter if he deserves our protection or not; it is our job to do so,” I said. “Such is the life of a mercenary.”
“Um…Thomas? Could you tell me why our guild doesn’t like knights?” Zelda asked.
“…Yeah. I guess you deserve to know, since you’re new,” I replied. “It isn’t just knights hailing from Valencia. Our grudge extends to knights from all five of Celosia’s territories; Valencia, Shendu, Elphierr, Valneva, and Cherifia. Surely, Zelda, you are at least aware of the pompous, lazy, and arrogant behavior of knights from these territories.”
“I am. It is common knowledge, even in the desert,” Zelda said sadly. “I experienced it first-hand during my travels, long before I met the two of you.”
“Because they’re so lazy, it makes it easier for the bandits to run amok in poor, unsuspecting villages,” Statuedramon said. “Because the people have no way of defending themselves, they send in help or job requests for the knights to do. But, of course, they only take the high-paying ones, and when they actually go and do their damn job like they’re supposed to, they make an even bigger mess of things, killing even more people than the bandits have!”
“And…that’s why they hate your group?” Zelda asked. “I don’t understand…”
“We steal the jobs of the knights from the Valencian capital city of Yew. That’s why Statch and I were hesitant about going through that city on our way back from Linnea,” I replied. “We take their jobs…their source of income. And then, we do a good job of fixing things, leaving the citizens we protect feeling indebted to us. Not only does this take away the knights’ money, but it also takes away their reputation as being the only source of protection these people have.”
“…I have never heard such a well-justified reason for stealing in my entire life,” Zelda giggled.
“Yeah, our group’s awesome like that,” Statch agreed.
“We are all constantly aware that they could retaliate at any moment, and with their larger numbers, they could easily defeat us. If that were to ever happen…I have no doubts about…about some of the things they would do to Irene, Luna, and Chrysania…or you.” I found that the last two words were choked out with some slight difficulty. I wasn’t quite sure why, though.
“…Don’t worry, buddy. There’s no way we’d lose with Apollomon and Dianamon on our side,” Statuedramon said quietly. “And also, the two of us! And Pheragas could just tear a tree out of the ground and kill, like, thirty of them at a time!”
“The only reason we have yet to directly confront the knights…well, I suppose there are several reasons…They have us outnumbered quite severely,” I said. “But the main reason…the knights are working directly for the royalty of each of the five territories; the king of Cherifia, the empresses of Shendu and Elphierr, the queen of Valencia, and the Tsar of Valneva, all of whom seem to be unaware of the incompetency of their knights. If we were to make any of them truly angry…it could very well be the end. Not just for our guild, but…”
“…For the rest of Arcadia,” Zelda finished, speaking quietly.
“We are always especially careful not to provoke any of them too much,” I said. “That means no murdering, Statch.”
“What’re you lookin’ at me for?!”
“That’s what you’re thinking about right now, isn’t it?”
“Then tell me what you are thinking about!”
“You had your chance.”
“Thomas! C’mon! Just let me kill them a little bit! They’ll be fine in the morning!”
“Thomas, I think I see something,” Zelda said, pointing off into the distance. It was difficult to see, but I could barely make out the form of what seemed to be a small cottage built in between two large and sturdy trees.
“Well, this had better be his house!” Statuedramon said, walking up to the house and slamming his fist on the door angrily. To his surprise, the door opened as soon as he touched it.
“Please, come in…” A voice from behind the door said.
I walked into the house first, my hand wrapped tightly around the hilt of my blade. The inside of the house was almost completely dark, and what little of the house’s floor I could see was covered with papers and books that appeared to have been unceremoniously tossed there.
“Tell me…who are you?” the voice asked.
“If you don’t know, why’d you tell us to come in?!” Statuedramon asked.
“Are you Ienzo?” I asked.
“If you’re here to take me with you, then you should just turn back now, because I will not go back there…”
“We aren’t with the military, Ienzo, but we were sent by two knights named Saias and Lector.” For a few moments, there was no sound except for the breathing of the man I spoke to.
“So…Saias wants to find me, huh?”
“He wants to place you in protective custody; Lector and Saias both want to protect you from the other knights,” I said. Instantly, the lights in the house came on, revealing that we stood in what seemed to be the only room in the house. All over the rest of the floor were papers, books, and clothes, many of which were covered in a fine layer of dust. The only furniture in sight was a bed with even more clothes on it and wooden table with a single chair in front of it. On the other side of the room was the man I spoke to.
“Sorry about the mess; I’ve been here ‘bout four years, haven’t cleaned up once…” he said, walking over to us.
“Are you Ienzo?” Statuedramon asked.
“I should hope that would be obvious by now, Statuedramon,” I said, though I doubt he heard me.
“Yes, I—oh, my god!” Ienzo gasped and stared intently at Zelda. “My god, you…you’re so…so beautiful! Oh, it’s been far too long since I’ve seen such exquisite beauty! Please, my angel; tell me your name!”
“I—my name is Zelda,” she said quietly. Blushing furiously, she lowered her head to the ground. “Really…I’m not that—”
“Zelda…ah, yes, a beautiful name perfectly befitting the beauty of its owner! Yes, it is truly—”
“Damn it, are you Ienzo or not?!” Statuedramon shouted.
“Wha–? Oh, yes, pardon me; I am Ienzo,” Ienzo said.
“I see you’re exactly as Saias described you,” I said.
“Oh, really? What did they say? Surely, I must be more ruggedly handsome—”
“No, not that,” I interrupted. “They told us you degenerate into a blathering idiot whenever you’re around beautiful women.”
“They hit the nail on the head with that description,” Statch added. “Actually, that’s the only description of you they gave us, other than what you look like.”
“…Alas…my one true weakness has been uncovered,” Ienzo sighed. “Oh, but how could I resist that long golden hair? Or those eyes; those deep oceans of sapphire…Mmm…” Zelda took a step back so that she was hiding behind me. As Ienzo continued rambling, I felt an unfamiliar rage well up inside me.
“Hey, is it true you stopped being a knight because there weren’t any beautiful women around?” Statch asked, interrupting Ienzo.
“What?! Who the hell said that?!” Ienzo asked.
“Nobody really said it; it was just a rumor,” I said.
“Well, I’ll have you know that is not the case! The reason I left is a lot more complex than that!”
“Well…I am unfamiliar with the behavior of knights towards their own, though I doubt they would treat you, a deserter, with kindness, considering what they do to our group merely out of envy and greed,” I said. “However, Saias and Lector wish to protect you; now, if you’ll please, come with us so we—”
“No, thank you.” Ienzo yawned as he walked over to his table. “You’re right; if any other knight found me, it would take a miracle for me to stay alive. However...let’s just say that isn’t a miracle I’m exactly searching for…”
“What do you mean?” Statuedramon asked.
“If you’re here for me, then you must know what it was I did when I used to be a knight,” Ienzo sat down backward in the lone chair in the room, facing us.
“We weren’t told,” I said. “Saias and Lector don’t know, either.”
“When I used to work for the knights, I was a scientist,” Ienzo said. “To be a researcher like me among a group of battle-ready knights is quite unusual, rare even—among the lower ranking knights who didn’t know who I was, I was often demeaned, told I didn’t belong with them, but those of higher ranks, like Saias and Lector, they valued my skills, saying that combat strength wasn’t everything. That was probably the only thing we can both agree on, me and the higher-ups. Because they valued me so much, I did what they told me, no question. It made me feel as though I had a purpose in life, and because of that, I researched everything they told me to. What I researched claimed the lives of many innocents. Its name…quintessence.”
“Quintessence?!” I stared at Ienzo; the look on his face told me he expected exactly this kind of surprised reaction.
“That’s the stuff Devimon was looking for!” Statch said.
“Sir…is it alright if we ask you what quintessence is?” Zelda peeked at the man around my shoulder.
“Quintessence…is said to be the element that dwells inside every person, as his or her own life force. The more powerful the Human or Digimon, the more quintessence they have.” Ienzo looked me straight in the eyes. “The only way to harness quintessence, the life force of another living being…is through their death.”
“Death…You mean you—”
“When living things die, their quintessence is released and the power can be harnessed. When I was a knight…I did unfathomable experiments on living beings…Digimon, men, women, even children if they were strong enough. I did all of those cruel experiments without a second thought. It took the words of a brave friend of mine — dead now; he was killed trying to help me — to realize what I was doing.” Ienzo looked down at the cluttered floor. “I don’t know who or what wanted all that quintessence, though…you can be sure that, knowing all that I do about quintessence, whoever ordered me to be found wouldn’t want someone like me to leave — it could turn out pretty bad for them if that secret got out, you know?”
“That’s why you need to come with us,” I said. “Saias and Lector want to protect you, and I’m sure they’d be able to!”
“I know they could, and I have no doubts of the sincerity of those two,” Ienzo said. “But…to be honest, I’d rather not…the corrupt knights want me dead as much as I do.” All three of us stared at him. “Don’t look so surprised—you heard what I did, right? I’m a murderer; I unhesitatingly killed countless men, women, and children, and even Digimon. I could never ask for forgiveness, and a painful death would be a small gesture at best…I’ve tried many times, but I was too much of a coward to actually do it. I can’t sleep anymore, remembering their screams; I just want it all to end!”
“…Very well.” I turned away, opening the door to Ienzo’s house to leave.
“Thomas…we’re not going to leave him behind, are we?” Zelda asked.
“After all the time we spent looking for him, we’re just going to leave him here?” Statch moaned. “You’re mean!”
“We don’t have any choice; it’s obvious he doesn’t want the protection he’s been offered,” I said, and then turned back to face Ienzo. “We will be back, Ienzo, if our clients desire it, but for now, we shall leave you be.”
“…I understand,” Ienzo said, giving a sad smile as the three of us left.
It was completely pitch-black outside by the time we made it back to the fortress. As we walked into the fort, we found that most of the guild members had already left the fort. Apollomon, Saias, and Lector were sitting in the same spots they were in when we left. Saias stood up as we entered the lounge, looking at us expectantly.
“We weren’t able to get him to come with us,” I said. “We could have easily forced him to come, though, given that you wished to protect him, I had doubts about hurting him to bring him back with us.”
“I see,” Saias said. “That is quite unfortunate, though I am glad he is still alive. Thank you for going.”
“I’m impressed you were actually able to find him in that short amount of time,” Lector said.
“There is…something else I need to tell you,” I said. “It has to do with what Ienzo was doing. I think it would be best if you knew.”
“You know, we were never actually told about what he was researching,” Lector said.
“This is true,” Saias murmured. “Very well; tell us what it is he did.” Saias sat back down, and Zelda and I sat next to Apollomon, while Statuedramon went to the kitchen as Zelda and I proceeded to tell them what we were told about quintessence.
“…and that’s all Ienzo told us about what he had been doing,” I said. Saias and Lector, even Apollomon, were blankly staring at the two of us.
“I can’t believe…Ienzo would do something like that,” Lector said after a long silence.
“You mean to tell me that something like this has been going on for years by the Valencian military, and not one person has noticed?!” Saias asked. I nodded.
“I feel kind of stupid now…” Lector said.
“How could…how could something like that be allowed to go on for as long as it has? How could something like that be done by us knights, who are sworn to protect the citizens of Arcadia?!” Saias shouted.
“You two…really didn’t know anything about this?” Apollomon asked.
“If we did, you can bet that it wouldn’t be going on anymore!” Lector said.
“Hmm…I have a feeling that may have been why we were never informed…” Saias said. “We only wanted to find Ienzo because we knew he left with some sort of important information…We knew that, knowing a secret like that, if he didn’t choose to go back, he would most certainly be killed. But we never imagined that the secret would be something so…terrible…”
“What are you two going to do now?” Apollomon asked.
“You have been most generous, and we have taken up enough of your time, Sir Apollomon,” Saias said. The two knights stood up and walked toward the exit. “We’ll be heading back to Yew.”
“If you two ever need to speak with us again, please know that you are always welcome here,” Apollomon said, walking over to the two knights. “Don’t ever hesitate to contact us if you feel the need.”
“…Thank you, Apollomon.” Saias shook Apollomon’s hand, and after smiling at Apollomon, he and Lector both left the fortress, the echoing sounds of their footsteps gradually decreasing in volume as they both vanished from sight.