The sharp tightness around Tobyn's ankle suddenly dissipated and he fell heavily onto the snow. Upon reflex, he sat up to see a familiar white tiger standing on top of the FOE who had snared him. The crab-like FOE was flailing about, snapping its pincers wildly.
Tobyn could barely believe it…Chi-hung?
Jumping from the crab, Chi-hung landed on the snow in front of Tobyn and roared loudly. So loud that the leaves in the trees trembled and fell around them. The two crab-like FOEs looked mildly intimidated by Chi-hung's roar, yet neither was ready to back down either.
Standing up tall, Chi-hung suddenly aimed another roar toward the sky, almost as if he was calling for someone or something. Before Tobyn could register what the white tiger was doing, he was suddenly scooped up out of the snow and carried off in a pair of strong arms...that were familiar.
"Are you hurt?"
Tobyn snapped his head up and found himself looking into a pair of blue eyes. "Jhon?" he whispered before abruptly sitting up straight in his arms and throwing his own arms around Jhon's neck, hugging him desperately.
He was alive. Oh, thank the heavens!
Tobyn pulled back after a moment and framed his face with his hands. He looked tired and a little pale, but his blue eyes were as bright as ever. "You're all right?"
"Heh, still a little woozy from the after effects of the poison," Jhon admitted with a tired grin. "But I am on the mend. Fortunately, Lynus was able to combine medicine and his own healing abilities to cure me. Even now, he's still healing me."
Tobyn's shoulders sagged with relief and he threw his arms around Jhon's neck again, hugging him. Jhon wasn't wearing his armour, dressed in thick clothing made for the third stratum. However, he could feel the thick bandages around his chest, mostly padded by his right side.
Tobyn pulled back again and placed his hands on Jhon's shoulders. "Put me down, you're still injured."
"So are you," Jhon quickly retorted.
"Hey, hurry up and get out of there!"
Quickly realising that they were still in great danger, Tobyn snapped his head up in time to see more familiar figures rush through the snow. Before he could blink, they had parted themselves into two groups, each facing against a FOE.
With both FOEs distracted, Jhon held Tobyn close as he ducked around and hastily put as much distance between them from danger as possible.
Next to a stone monument was Lynus, Hamza surprisingly with him. Lynus waved them over to a safe spot where there was a thick blanket on the snow, a place where Lynus would be able to take care of the injured in a more comfortable setting.
As soon as they were close enough, Lynus and Hamza helped Tobyn from Jhon's arms and lowered him onto the blanket, pushing Jhon down next to him. It was only when Lynus reached for his foot, hastily removing the laces and carelessly throwing his boot away that Tobyn realised that he was indeed injured. His ankle was bloodied and bruised from where the FOE had grabbed him.
In a matter of seconds, Lynus was cleaning the wounds and uttering healing spells.
"You two are to stay at the back with us," Hamza said as he placed a hand on Jhon's shoulder. "You're not participating in this battle. Chi-hung will be able to protect us from any wandering monster."
Jhon nodded his head in acceptance as he wrapped an arm around Tobyn's shoulders, pulling him to rest against his chest. "Right."
Tobyn nodded his head before turning his attention to their medic. He suddenly felt a lump of emotion lodge itself in his throat. "Lynus…"
"You have a fractured ankle," Lynus said as he carefully, but quickly wrapped a thick bandage around his ankle and foot. "You won't be walking on it for a while."
"Macerio, Rahas, take out its claws!"
From their position, they could still see the two crab-like FOEs. The others had somehow managed to manoeuvre themselves in such a way that they were no longer sandwiched between the two monsters. They had their backs to them, still engaging in battle. They weren't going all out against the FOEs as they weren't entirely sure what they were dealing with.
They were being cautious.
They were being smart.
"Tobyn, any suggestions?" Hamza asked.
Tobyn wasn't sure he could be of much help. He had never encountered these FOEs before. He didn't even know what to call them. For the sake of giving them a name, he was going to refer to them as killclaws. After what happened to Kaesha…
Shaking his head, he quickly focused on the task at hand. Since the FOE was buried under the snow, he could only assume that it was weak to elemental attacks.
"Try using electric attacks!"
"Right!" Axel called back as he tightened his grip on his weapon. "Magnus, Shen, Macerio, you heard him."
Macerio reached into a pocket of his coat and flipped out a couple of specialise bullets, inserting them into his gun with a flick of his wrist. "One thunder shot coming right up."
Magnus looked unsure as he hadn't used an electric spell before, yet his hands were clenched and determination. "I-I'll try."
Shen pulled himself into a specialised stance, his eyes narrow and fierce. "Ready for a follow up?" he questioned Axel.
Axel flicked his axe effortlessly with one hand. "With everyone working together I'll be able to strike it at least three times."
"Want me to sing Shock or Bravery?" Lirit asked from the back of the party.
"Let's go with Bravery."
"Right away," Lirit said with a grin before closing his eyes and singing softly, beautifully, delivering a pulsating beat that will increase the party's strength and power.
"They're crabs, so they can only move sideways," Tobyn offered.
"Want me to use Shackles?" Rahas questioned as he flexed his whip, ready for action.
Axel nodded his head as he focused his attention on the FOEs in front of them. "Go for it."
The air crackled with electric intensity. Gripping his axe in both hands, Axel's weapon hummed with elemental power. His back was hunched as he tensed his shoulders. Then, digging his heels into the snow, Axel sprinted forward. As Shen used Raizuki and Magnus used Volt against one killclaw, Axel followed them up with two powerful blows, one after the other. He spun on his heel to turn on the final killcrab, lifting his axe high. Macerio let loose one quick thunder shot, causing the FOE to flail from the piercing attack. With it distracted, Axel brought down his axe.
That did it.
With one almighty swing of his axe, Axel defeated the killclaw that had attacked Tobyn.
As the crab crumbled to the ground, alongside the other, everyone became still in anticipation. But it was dead. They both were.
It was safe now.
"Dammit," Axel suddenly cursed as he relaxed his posture and pulled back his weapon. As he did so, he hoisted it over his shoulder, revealing the blade splintered and shattered. "I broke another axe."
His comment, for some reason, caused the others of their guild to also relax.
"Hm," Hamza mused as he pushed himself to his feet. "That battle was over quickly."
"Knowledge is power, after all," Lynus replied with a great sense of relief in his voice. He then pushed himself to his feet as well, immediately grabbing his medical bag. "I'll be right back."
"Of course," Hamza said with a small smile. He watched as Lynus jogged through the snow and began his inspection of the others, searching for and healing any injuries they may have sustained in the battle between two FOEs.
Tobyn watched from a distance as those of his guild pull together to allow Lynus to check them over while they look over Axel's damaged weapon in awe. Tobyn had to admit to himself that he was also in awe of what happened. He had battled alongside every member of his guild, yet he had never been able to sit back and watch them all in action.
It was somewhat humbling.
"Looks like I'm going to have to get an even older axe to work with," Axel complained, mildly annoyed.
"Thompson should be finished with your new one by now, surely," Lynus tried to pacify.
"It seems like you're getting too strong for your old axes," Shen commented idly as he folded his arms over his chest.
Magnus fidgeted against the cold snow before timidly suggesting, "M-maybe we need to research for stronger axes?"
"Hey, you think Matron knows how to make crab soup?" Macerio suddenly asked as he glanced over to the fried and very much dead killclaws.
Lirit made a motion with his hand that he wasn't exactly interested to know. "I don't think I'll be having any of it."
Rahas snorted as idly wound up his whip. "Looks like they're already cooked."
Chi-hung simply flicked his tail with amusement.
…They were amazing.
"They're awe-inspiring, aren't they?" Hamza suddenly asked, pulling Tobyn from his observation.
Tobyn glanced up at Hamza to find the older war magus looking at him with an understanding look, his right arms still carried securely in a sling. However, Tobyn felt a flush of embarrassment and guilt appear on his features and he looked away, subconsciously moving closer to Jhon.
"Let's head home," Hamza abruptly stated. "It's as cold as ever in this stratum."
… … … … …
Not wanting to risk walking through the third stratum to the nearest geo pole with three impaired people, they had decided to split into groups and use several warp wires to spirit them out of the labyrinth. On the outskirts of town, Jhon had finally succumbed to his fatigue, so Shen and Magnus had to aid him as he walked.
Tobyn, on the other hand, wasn't allowed to put any pressure on his injured ankle, so Axel effortlessly carried him on his back. Tobyn was, of course, rather embarrassed by the whole thing. The last person who had carried him like that was Keshet, when he was a child…
It still hurt to think about…
As they were heading back to the inn, Macerio and Lirit tried to lug around Axel's axe to trade it in at the weapon shop, but it was heavy for the both of them. They looked embarrassed and surprised when Chi-hung suddenly grabbed the weapon's handle in his mouth and trotted off with it, leaving the two to scramble after him.
When they had reached the inn, it was getting quite late, so both Tobyn and Jhon were immediately escorted back to their room. After shepherding them inside, Axel, Shen and Magnus quickly vacated, promising to check up on them later while also knowing that they would want some time alone to catch their breaths.
They sat shoulder to shoulder on Tobyn's bed as Lynus continued to fuss over the two of them. He was asking health related questions, never prying too deep. In fact, no one demanded answers from him, which made him feel even worse. They had asked him what had happened and who was involved, and he had answered their questions, but they wouldn't pry any deeper than that. His past, they said, was his business and they were ready to listen whenever he was ready to talk.
They were all so understanding. Was it ok for a loner like him to be around such trusting and understanding people?
"We have asked the guards to retrieve Kaesha's body," Lynus explained as he re-checked the bandages that spanned around Tobyn's ankle.
"Ok," Tobyn simply replied.
After reassuring the bandages were taut and firm, but not overly restrictive, Lynus stood up and folded his arms over his torso, something, Tobyn had noticed, that he often did when he was falling into caretaker mode.
"How are you feeling now?" Lynus asked him with a gentle look. "Is your ankle bothering you?"
Tobyn shook his head, unable to meet his eyes. "It's fine."
"Now, no walking on it for the next few days," Lynus instructed as he motioned over to the pair of crutches that were resting against the wall next to his bed. They were actually the crutches Jhon had used when he partially dislocated his knee all that time ago. "Use them if needed."
"I'll make sure," Jhon had dutifully responded, nodding his head with a smile.
"That's good," Lynus smiled before dropping his hands to his sides and making the motion to leave the room. "Well, then, I'll leave the two of you alone to recover."
Tobyn suddenly reached out to grab at his wrist, pulling him to a stop. "Wait," he said. He wanted, needed, to explain something to him. He felt as though he owed it to him.
A look of surprise appeared on Lynus' face as he turned to regard him. "What's wrong?" he immediately asked.
"I knew you could do it," Tobyn found himself blurting out. "If there was a cure, you would find it."
"I see," Lynus said as he smiled warmly, his violet eyes shimmering happiness. He then reached around to place his hand on top of Tobyn's that was still holding onto his wrist. "So that was the reason you went into the labyrinth alone. We had thought as much."
Tobyn loosened his grip in shock, but didn't pull his hand away. He couldn't. Not with Lynus still holding on. "What?"
"Oh, don't look surprised," Lynus chided lightly, his warm smile never faltering. "We trust you, too, you know."
"E-even so," Tobyn stuttered as he pulled away his hand and looked off to the side. "Another person died because of me."
"That's not true," Jhon immediately insisted.
"Keshet was in the labyrinth because of me," Tobyn said in a firm manner as he turned to face the other blond. "If I hadn't gotten sick, he'd-"
Tobyn was stunned into silence when Lynus suddenly placed his hands on his cheeks, turned him toward him and tiled his head back so that he was looking up at him, straight into his eyes. "H-huh?"
"It's true," Lynus said, an expression of sincerity and motherly warmth on his face. "Keshet did enter the labyrinth searching for healing herbs for you. His death, however, wasn't your fault. You didn't make him go. You didn't force him to. He did it on his own. He went because he wanted to help you. Not matter the dangers; he went because he cared for you very much. Just like you did today. You care so much for Jhon that you risked your life for him. You're not a loner, Tobyn."
H-he…he wasn't? B-but survivalists were supposed to be…
Lynus tilted his head to the side slightly and smiled kindly in understanding. "You might see yourself as detached, but detachment doesn't mean responding to a person or situation in a cold, sterile way. It just means you're not under the illusion that you can control everything. You're a critical member of this guild. And a beloved member of this family."
"Mr Grigory told me this," Lynus explained. "He raised you. He knows you better than you think. He also cares for you. And he's not the only one. Please, see that for yourself."
Lynus gently removed his hands from his cheeks and took a step back, his arms once against folding over his torso.
With unblinking eyes, Tobyn lowered his head to look down at the floor. Suddenly, a sob lodged itself in his throat. He tried to smother it with his hand, to push it away. But when Jhon wrapped a warm arm around his shoulders, pulling him against him, Tobyn found himself bursting into tears.
"Jhon…" he whimpered as he curled closer to him.
"Shh, it's all right," Jhon soothed as he pulled Tobyn onto his lap, entangling his fingers into his long hair to press his face against his left shoulder. He rested his chin on top of his head as he gently whispered words of reassurance to him.
He couldn't stop crying. He…couldn't remember the last time he cried.
"You're ok," Jhon whispered to him as he continued to hold him. "Let it all out."
"I-I'm sorry…" Tobyn sobbed in reply.
"There isn't any more I can do here," Lynus said softly, his kindness and warmth never faltering for a moment. "It's all up to you, Jhon."
"Lynus," Jhon said as he turned his head toward Lynus, resting his cheek on top of Tobyn's head. "Thank you once again."
"No. It's what I'm here for," Lynus said in return. "So long as I am here, no one will be lost. I promise."
Tobyn pulled his face away from Jhon's shoulder to look over at Lynus. He wanted to say something to him, but couldn't find the words. But the look Lynus gave him, a slight tilt of his head and that ever warm smile of his, told him that he didn't need to say anything.
Quietly, Lynus turned on his heel and made his way out of the room. He opened the door enough for him to slip out before shutting it softly behind him.
Hastily wiping his tears from his eyes, Tobyn remained situated on Jhon's lap, though he did pull away slightly so that he could look upon his face. "Jhon?"
Wordlessly, Jhon unexpectedly lifted his hand to gently cradle the side Tobyn's face. Tobyn felt his eyes grow heavy as he held a breath. There was that tenderness in Jhon's he still wasn't used to seeing. With his hold still gently upon him, Jhon suddenly pulled Tobyn toward him, bringing his face toward his. In that instant, their lips met.
Tobyn closed his eyes as he leaned into the kissed, his hand snaking up to rest against Jhon's chest, over the thick padding that was healing his near fatal injury. He felt tears threaten to fall once again as he tightened his hand, grabbing a handful of Jhon's shirt. Jhon lowered his hand from his face to wrap his arm tightly around him, holding him close and tightly.
He could have lost this…
But he didn't.
And he wasn't going to any time soon.
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