Why do people insist on lighting fires, when spending the night in the wilderness?
Isn’t that dangerous? Wouldn’t it reveal one’s position to whatever threats might be out there? Wouldn’t it be much better to dig a hole between the roots of a tree and hide there silently, stealthily, until the sun comes up?
Also, it’s fire.
Which is hot. And thus, bad.
The two elves are huddling in front of the flames.
As for me, I sit a bit further away from the warmth and light.
The only sounds are that of the night, along with the crackle of the firewood. I don’t have much to say. Neither does the little elf – she hasn’t even said an actual word ever since I’ve met her; maybe she’s mute or something – and now, she’s even sleeping. As for the mother elf, after she sang a few songs to calm her daughter and lull her to sleep, she also closed her eyes and kept her silence. I’d almost think she’s sleeping as well, but the rhythm of her breathing and the rate of her heartbeat tell me she’s not.
I don’t intend to break the silence, however. There are things to talk about, certainly, but I still haven’t cleared up what exactly I should do, now.
After I killed all our potential pursuers and we escaped from Kohln, these two followed me, right up until now. After a while, once night started falling, the elf woman asked me if we could stop for a rest, since she was worried about her daughter’s condition. The two of them also seemed too tired to continue – the little girl had to walk on her own after a while, when her mother no longer had the strength to carry her. I was a bit reluctant, at first, since there is little point in me stopping. It’s not like I get tired, and I have no need to eat or sleep. There is basically no reason for me to waste around 8 hours waiting for the two of them to replenish their energy reserves. But in the end, I did stop and decided to wait for them.
Well, I’m not exactly sure why…
It’s just, these two might get eaten by wild animals, or they might meet a demon on the road to wherever they’re going, and die.
I wouldn’t really care, but once again, they’re elves.
Maybe Nerys would want me to help them at least a little?
I read it in a book, that to some extent, most people feel subconscious concern for the survival of other individuals from the same species as them. Some kind of animalistic instinct to preserve and perpetuate the species. I’m not sure if that’s true – I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a thing myself, but that may simply be because demons and apostles don’t count as the same species as me – but I know that elves are already pretty rare. If Nerys cares about the survival of her species, she might not approve of me leaving these two to their deaths like this.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I intend to go waste my time looking for random elves so that I can offer my help in resolving all their troubles. I’ve got more important things to do. From my perspective, even if all the elves in the world had to die so that I could find Nerys safely, I wouldn’t hesitate for even an instant.
But I suppose that I did help the two of them already, when I got them out of the magic formations that restrained them, then when I protected them as we escaped the city, so I might as well see it through to the end. And anyway, it’s not exactly a strain on my own objectives to accompany the mother and daughter elves for a while.
Although that depends on where they’re going.
Right, that should be the first thing to confirm.
[…Where do you intend to go?]
Since the little girl is sleeping, I transmit my words only to the adult elf herself. Apparently, she really wasn’t sleeping, because her eyes open immediately, and I can’t find any signs of blurriness inside them. They’re alert and bright.
“I don’t know,” she says. She glances down at the sleeping form of her daughter in her arms. “We have nowhere to go.”
[…Then why are you following me?]
That’s a bit contradictory, isn’t it?
If they’re following after me like this, they obviously have somewhere to go. Namely, the same place I’m going.
A bitter smile appears on the woman’s lips. “We are following you because… I don’t know what else we should do. D–Does our company displease you? Please, we just… I… I just need…”
The woman’s voice slowly trails off, as if even she has no idea what she wants to say to me. Considering how indecisive she is, it’s probably true that she just doesn’t know what to do.
But still, that shouldn’t happen. Just off the top of my head, I could imagine several objectives that she should aim for. Like, find a good place for her and her daughter to live. Kill the people who hurt them.
Well, that’s already pretty good. That should be enough to give them direction and purpose.
But when I suggest those goals to the elf woman as alternatives to just following blindly after me, she doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic. Her smile only grows more bitter. “I know that, but how exactly are we supposed to accomplish these? If I had the ability to hunt down the mercenaries who destroyed our lives, they wouldn’t have been able to hurt us in the first place. And as for finding a place to live, hahaha, well, I expect that’ll prove difficult.”
The elf looks at me strangely. “Because I have absolutely no doubt that quite a lot of people witnessed our escape from Kohln, and our… your… slaughter of the city’s troops and the city lord. After causing such a scene, bounties will be put on our heads throughout the human kingdoms. At least the two of us, maybe even Silica, if anyone noticed her in my arms. Elves aren’t common anywhere in the world, let alone in human territories. It won’t be difficult for anyone to recognize us, no matter where we go.” Tears start to leak out of the her eyes as she continues speaking. “We did manage to escape from slavery, and for that I can only offer you my deepest gratitude, but in the end, the only thing that awaits us is to be hunted, captured, and executed.” Her shoulders shake as she tries to restrain her sobs so that she won’t wake her daughter. She shakes her head. “I don’t know where I can find such a place. A place where we can live.”
Well, that all sounds very complicated.
First, what’s a ‘bounty’?
No, wait. I remember hearing the word when I applied to get my identification card in Aldenfell. Jasper listed it among the ways for mercenaries to make money.
Yes, I think I can guess what it means.
And such a thing will be issued against me?
That’s quite bothersome.
I thought the only pursuers I had to worry about were those inside the city, but if I understand this ‘bounty’ thing correctly, it means that even completely unrelated people might come after me. What if some super powerful god decides to hunt me down? That could really be trouble. Maybe I should have tried to restrain myself a little bit. Or maybe I should have tried to kill absolutely everyone, so that no one could say I was in Kohln in the first place.
…Should I hurry back and exterminate the entire city?
No, it’s probably too late already.
Couldn’t I use this to my advantage?
This ‘bounty’ might bring trouble to me, certainly, but if word of it spreads far enough, Nerys might also hear of my existence. I once considered the notion of causing trouble somewhere visible to attract the attention of the apostles’ armies, in case I was ever hungry and unable to choose a more reasonable alternative. I should have realized then that I can also attract Nerys the same way!
I just need to create so much chaos and destruction that everyone in the world knows about me.
Then Nerys will come to me.
However, there are also some serious drawbacks to this plan.
If I really cause some world-scale catastrophe, the kind of reprisal I’d have to suffer likely wouldn’t be weak. I’m pretty strong, but fighting the combined forces of an entire plane by myself might be a bit too difficult, even for me.
Even worse, it might put Nerys in danger, once she actually finds me.
Damn it. I think I got excited a bit too fast. The more I think about it, the more this plan seems impractical. It has a high possibility of helping me find Nerys, but what would come afterward would be dangerous for the both of us.
In the end, Nerys staying alive is more important than my finding her.
At least, if I do decide to ever go through with this plan, I need to be ready for the worst case – that is to say, slaughtering everyone on Caldera to ensure Nerys’s safety.
Right. Better be prepared, just in case.
[…Try to come up with a plan to kill everyone on Caldera.]
[…You think the gods there would come here and try to stop me?]
<Not try. Kill you. Easily.>
[…What about you?]
I see. Still, if they only kill me, as long as Nerys herself is safe, it might still be worth it. I’ll need to think about it more deeply. Well, it’s unlikely things will end up bad enough that I need to commit any form of genocide, anyway.
The elf woman – what’s her name, actually? – calls me and brings me out of my musings. When I raise my head, I see that she’s dried her tears and seems to have composed herself.
[…What’s your name?]
“Huh? Oh, my name is Mira. My daughter is Silica.”
Hmm. Right. I allowed my thoughts to drift off a little, but let’s try and get back to the subject at hand. We were talking about finding these two elves a place to live.
A disembodied sigh flows through my mind before Sanae’s response comes.
Could the two elves live in the Springfields’ house? It’s true that Lilly would probably welcome them, since they have pointy ears she might want to toy with, but would the rest of them accept the two majin so easily? I noticed there were only humans in their house, when I visited.
[…What about the bounty? Won’t it be a problem?]
[…Why are you so sure?]
[…I don’t understand.]
Solaire is a duke. This, I know. But what does that have to do with the bounty? Can a duke ignore the bounty? I don’t really know what a duke actually is, in concrete terms, so I can’t really tell, but that might be possible.
In that case, maybe the two of them really could live there.
Now, how should I explain that to Mira in as few words as possible?
It takes nearly 20 days for our little group to approach the city where the Springfields live. I didn’t intend to come back here so quickly – or ever, in point of fact – but it’s not particularly far, so a small detour like this won’t cause any harm.
Mira seems a bit nervous at the idea of meeting a duke, for some reason, so she hasn’t talked much, these past few days.
As for Silica, well, she still hasn’t said a single word ever since we escaped Kohln. Mira is worried about that, too, I think. She told me it might be due to some sort of psychological trauma Silica suffered after what happened to their family. And from the events in Kohln.
I’m not sure what the humans did to her, but it must have been pretty bad, if it went so far as taking her voice away.
I sympathize a little bit, since I also lost mine a long time ago – although a mantis’s scythe to the throat is a bit more straightforward than something nebulous like ‘trauma’ – so I hope she gets better soon.
<Not humans. You.>
[…I didn’t do anything to her.]
Images appear in my mind of what happened at that time. I see myself killing human soldiers in a variety of ways, jets of blood spurting here and there. With this outside point of view, I can notice a few things I could have done better, instances where my performance was a tad lacking compared to what it should have been.
Is that meant to make me reflect on my mistakes?
I don’t think my skill in combat is so poor that it’d traumatize a child, though. It isn’t perfect, but it’s still much better than anyone else I’ve seen so far.
The moment my thoughts reach this point, the images stop, and a heavy silence falls in my mind. Soon, a gush of frustration wells up from the link to Sanae’s mind.
<Brain-damaged. Retarded. Moron.>
[…You exaggerate. The damage to my brain is very minor.]
It shouldn’t have any great effect on my mental faculties. At least, I haven’t noticed any.
Well, no matter.
If Silica’s current state is indeed my fault, somehow, then she should get better once I separate from them. And if it doesn’t get better, well, there’s nothing I can do about it, is there? It’s not like I possess any sort of healing magic, after all.
When we’re still an hour away from the city, a particular smell, carried to me by the wind, tickles my nose.
Along with burnt flesh.
Coming from the right direction, too.
Did something happen?
Mira and Silica, walking hand in hand behind me, don’t seem to have noticed anything. When I turn back toward them, Silica flinches and quickly lowers her gaze to avoid making eye contact with me – maybe Sanae’s right about the effect I have on her, after all.
I point toward a distant grove, a bit off the road. The trees there are thick and close enough together to hide whoever would take refuge inside.
[…Hide over there.]
Silica twitches again when I transmit my words to her mind, but her mother reacts more stoically. “Miss Akasha? What’s going on? Did something happen?”
[…I don’t know. I’ll go check first. Wait for me in here.]
“Understood. Please, be careful.”
The two elves go their own way, while I head toward the city on my own. Without having to restrain my speed, I quickly reach it.
Plumes of black smoke rise toward the sky, although the fires that caused them have already been put out. A part of the city wall has been forcefully breached. Trails of destruction can also be seen here and there in the city, along with enormous trees and vines – results of Finram’s magic, most likely – growing from the ground between the stone buildings. Most of those plants look burned and corroded, their bark peppered with small black holes. In the center of the city, the Springfields’ house has half-collapsed. A whole part of the mansion has turned to rubble, and even the rest is scarred. It seems like whoever attacked the city concentrated their assault there.
…I wonder if I should consider myself lucky to have avoided the attack.
Although it makes me doubt my plan – no, Sanae’s plan; if the plan fails, it’s definitely Sanae’s fault – to bring the two elves here. They were looking for a place to live in peace, but the Springfields’ house apparently isn’t quite as peaceful as it had first appeared.
Since I’ve learned about this ‘bounty’ system, I decide to be smart about this and opt for stealth. There are more guards patrolling the streets than I remember, and they all sport grim faces, but this doesn’t present any challenge to me.
I soon reach my goal.
I vault over the high fence surrounding the Springfields’ house, then openly walk toward its front door, crossing the vast gardens, circling around the uprooted trees and burned craters that dot the ground. There are bloodstains, too, here and there, but no bodies over them. The corpses have already been cleaned up.
My presence seems to have been noticed, as when I approach the front doors, which stand cracked and crooked on their hinges, Finram bursts through them and rushes in my direction, glaring at me, gritting his teeth in obvious anger. There are bloodied bandages wrapped around various parts of his body. His qi roils chaotically within him, as if he’s about to lose control of it.
When I see him like this, my own body tenses, and the blood-qi in my dantian seethes, ready to be unleashed. I settle my weight on the earth beneath my feet and center my balance. I’m not sure what happened here, but I already spared this guy’s life once. That’s already one time too many. Now, I will kill him without fail at the first sign of actual aggression.
Sanae’s excitement and bloodthirst streams through the soul link at the prospect of combat. She won’t get a turn, though. Finram at his best was already weaker than Jodene. Injured and flustered and enraged and sloppy as he is now, he won’t stand a chance against me. I’ll end him in one strike.
A shout rings out from behind him, and two swords of brilliant light stab into the ground right in front of him, cutting off his advance toward me. On the house’s doorstep stand Rieshia and Ophelia, who respectively called for Finram and cast magic to stop him. They too are injured to varying degrees.
“Akasha doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with this!” Rieshia continues. “Don’t do anything impulsive!”
What’s this, now?
Does Finram suspect me of being involved in whatever happened here?
If it had been me, no one here would be alive.
“Impulsive?!” Finram roars, spittle flying toward me – which I draw on my 300 years of life-and-death combat experience to dodge. “They came here looking for her! They fucking said so! And you still tell me she’s got nothing to do with it?!”
Huh? Looking for me?
“Devils! An army of fucking devils came knocking, asking for your ‘return’!” Finram shouts, gesticulating and stomping on the ground to vent his anger. “And when they realized you weren’t there, they took Lilly instead!”