Chapter 1 – Story 22: Pledge

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“My beloved Souma. My dear child. How very cruel of you. To have killed this many, many people.”

Though she was saying something so terrible, the girl appeared to be very happy.

“Because, if I didn’t do so, Shyemul would have! Shyemul and the others would have!” (Souma)

“Is that true? Is that really true?”

Souma is at a loss of words due to the girl’s question.

“It’s because you won’t be able to survive in this world if she isn’t here, right? It’s because you can’t survive by yourself. Because you are scared. Isn’t that why you had escaped into the public stance of saving her?”

Although Souma had realized this unconsciously, he had never wanted to look at this part on his own accord. But the girl still dragged this out into broad daylight.

“I-I haven’t ran away!” (Souma)

“You have, my dear!”

She denied Souma’s pitiful opposition with a brief comment.

“Oh, clever and smart Souma. If it’s you, you knew that it would turn out like that, didn’t you? However, you decided to not think about it. That’s because you wouldn’t be able to run away from there if you thought it over.”

Spreading both her arms, the girl said as if singing while spinning around.

“However, a dead-end awaits ahead of where you ran away to. There’s no passage in front, to the left and to the right. To enter a dead end that you can’t escape from on your own, while intending to run away. Oh, very, very foolish Souma.”

“It’s different! It’s not like that!” (Souma)

“You can run away if it’s possible to do so, cowardly Souma.”

Those words were sweet and at the same time filled with poison.

“To render the deaths of these children futile. Ah, what pitiful children. Even though these children would have never died if you ran away from the very start. What lamentable children.”

Catching the girl’s voice, the apparitions raise blaming shouts all at once.

“Run away. Betray Shyemul who trusted you. Abandon Garam who harbours expectations towards you. Forsake all of them, everyone!”

The figures of zoans mingled in among the apparitions that swarmed the vicinity.
It’s not only zoans Souma doesn’t know either.
Garam, Gulkaka, Shahata and Shyemul have turned into apparitions and complain to Souma with regret and agony. They torture Souma severely by asking why he had abandoned them.

“No! I don’t want this anymore!” (Souma)

“Dear Souma, if they are forsaken by you, the zoans will end up getting annihilated by the humans. Having killed this many soldiers, the humans certainly won’t forgive the zoans. They will get massacred after experiencing a very, very horrible hell.”

She gently places her hands on both of his cheeks, left and right, and brings her face so close that it looks as if their lips are touching.

“There’s no way that you will be able to run away, oh gentle, gentle Souma.”

Despite it not being as if she’s using any strength, he can’t shake off her feminine hands at all.

“It’s already too late. Oh, miserable Souma. Your hands are bright red as they are dyed with blood. Where you passed, corpses had been piled up highly. All and everything is something decided by you. My dear, you aren’t able to go back anymore.”

The girl’s words are a curse afflicting Souma’s heart.

“Oh, Souma, Souma. My adorable Souma. Your kindness will kill a lot more people from now on. Your foolishness will destroy a lot more things. Ah, my dear child.”

Releasing Souma, she bends back her neck and raised a cackling laughter.
Souma felt it clearly.
The one in front him is not a girl by any means.
It’s something tremendously old.
It’s something preposterously dreadful.
Souma was far more terrified of that girl than the surrounding apparitions.

“No, I don’t want to, nooo!!” (Souma)

◆◇◆◇◆

Souma suddenly woke up due to his own screaming.
He surveyed his surroundings, and found himself in the usual, unchanged prayer area. His shoulders were heaving up and down as he breathed roughly.
The figures of the apparitions and the girl who were there until just now have vanished without a trace.

“… That just now, was a dream?” (Souma)

Tears streamed quickly down from his eyes.
And then he raises a dry laughter.

“For the sake of Shyemul? For the sake of the zoans? Isn’t that retarded? Haven’t I been just running away…?” (Souma)

He believed that it was just as the girl in his dream said.
Souma couldn’t do anything but laugh about his shameful and pathetic self.
There’s no way that I will be able to run away.
I can’t escape.
He had already crossed a line he shouldn’t have a long time ago.
He couldn’t help but laugh about his own ugliness after trying to avert his eyes from reality, despite all that happened.
Before realizing it, even his laughter withers away completely and he feebly hangs his head.
As if ridiculing him, the northern wind blew through with a high-pitched sound.
At that moment, the nearby thicket shook with a rustling sound.
Once Souma turned around as he felt a sense of deja vu, he saw the very young zoan older brother and younger sister, Geeta and Shyepoma, just like back then.
Because he ended up parting from the young older brother and younger sister with a bad aftertaste some time ago, Souma felt quite awkward, but both of them come running up to him with a pitter-patter without showing any signs of minding that.

“Older bro, are you crying? Where are you hurt?” (Shyepoma)

Shyepoma, who just about matched Souma’s eye line while he was sitting, peers into Souma’s face with a curious look.
Souma somehow transformed his stiff mouth into a smile.

“It’s nothing. Rather than that, what happened, you two?” (Souma)

He loathed himself for causing even such small children to worry about him.
Hence, he unintentionally perceived the young children as a nuisance and used a rougher tone.
However, not noticing that, the two children started to speak while looking happy.

“We were told by dad; it’s thanks to older bro that we survived.”

“Yea, we were told that it’s fine if we eat plenty of dumplings.”

“It was great that we could eat them until our tummies were full, since there were very few dumplings recently.”

“Yea. The meat was so tasty too!”

The zoans, who had lost their food for surviving the winter, had managed until now by rationing their food.
However, given that they were able to procure the provisions brought in by the humans due to the victory caused by Souma, the zoan’s food shortage was resolved.
Thanks to that, the very young siblings looked tremendously happy that they were able to eat until their stomachs were full for the first time in a while.

“Also, also, dad and mum stopped fighting, right?”

“Yea, it was sad because everyone had mean faces earlier.”

Children are much more sensitive than adults think. No matter how much they hide it in front of the children, the grim air that was found between the adults damaged the hearts of the children just by existing.

“That’s why I wanna give this to older bro.”

What Shyepoma took out after saying this was a necklace created by passing a string through multicoloured animal teeth, gems and nuts.
It seems that the two young siblings made it together. It’s an item you couldn’t call nice by any standards, with its irregular gems and nuts used as decorations.
But, Souma thinks of the figures of the young children diligently making the unfamiliar handiwork to express their gratitude to him.

“”Older bro, thank you.””

The older brother and younger sister, who hung the necklace around the neck of Souma who had stiffened in surprise, matched their voices and said this.
At that moment tears overflowed from Souma’s both eyes.
He had a feeling of being saved due to the existence of people that thanked him, who had cruelly killed so many people with his complacent thinking.
If it was Garam and Shyemul thanking him with this, Souma, who hated himself, probably wouldn’t have been able to accept it upfront.
That doesn’t mean that he believes that they wouldn’t have thanked him from the bottom of their hearts.
However, both of them have positions that possess responsibility within the clan. Since they have to worry over the fate of the clan, they wouldn’t be able to completely avoid having the selfish interest of wanting Souma to save the clan.
However, these siblings don’t hide any selfishness and strategy within their words, due to them being children. That’s why this strongly resounded within Souma’s heart.
The older brother and younger sister were surprised due to the suddenly bawling Souma.

“What’s wrong, older bro? Do you hurt somewhere after all?”

“Are you alright? Wanna talk to the Elder and get some medicine?”

While listening to the worried remarks of the two, Souma was reminded of his grandfather.
It was the day when Souma learned of Japan’s previous war during class at school. The very young Souma asked his grandfather whether he went to war and killed people.
Recalling it now, he regrets having asked his grandfather something painful, no matter how young he might have been at that time.
His grandfather, who has always smiled gently at Souma, only at that time showed a smile that seemed sad as if he was about to cry and said the following:

『Souma, grandpa only didn’t want to behave shamefully. Please believe that much.』 (T/N: He uses Honshu/Shikoku dialect fyi)

He didn’t clearly state it, but most likely my grandfather killed people at the front, Souma judges.
He doesn’t know what his grandfather thought at that time.
Perhaps he might have suffered and worried more than Souma.

『You must not behave shamefully, Souma.』

Once again his grandfather’s favourite phrase reverberated in his ears.
That’s right. Didn’t I resolve myself?
Whatever motive I had, I decided to help Shyemul and the others myself, and acted with respect to that.
This late in the game I can’t act as if that didn’t happen.
Souma roughly wipes away his tears with his arms.
‘Even if I pity myself as I sob in such place, it’s nothing but shameful.
‘Besides, if I regret the things I did, it will torment those who were saved by my actions, and only insult those who died because of it.

“… Thank you.” (Souma)

Words of gratitude towards the siblings naturally flowed out of Souma’s mouth.

“Really, thank you. I’m very happy. Thank you.” (Souma)

Those words weren’t only about him being given a necklace but also included his gratitude towards them saving his heart, but the young siblings, who don’t comprehend that, looked at each other’s face as if something was odd.

“You’re weird. Even though we’re thanking you, big bro is also saying 『Thank you』.”

“Yea, that’s strange, no?”

“Is it that weird?” (Souma)

Though it’s clumsy, Souma shows a smile.
It was a smile that Souma showed from the bottom of his heart after a long time.

“Yea, it’s strange~.”

“Strange, isn’t it?”

Being lured by the older brother and younger sister who started laughing after saying that, Souma laughed once more as well.
Shyemul watched from the beginning to the end in the shade of a tree slightly apart from those three.
She wiped away the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes and returned to her own tent before she could be noticed by Souma and the children.

◆◇◆◇◆

Having parted from the young siblings, Souma first planned to apologize to Shyemul.
I made her worry quite a bit these past few days. Since I came to this world, I have always caused nothing but worry and trouble for her, he mused, feeling embarrassed.
It’s not an expression I can show to Shyemul, but I have to tell her that I’ll be fine even if she doesn’t worry about me anymore, Souma thought.

“Shyemul, are you there?” (Souma)

Just as he was taught he first clears his throat at the tent’s entrance and then calls out to her. Once he did so, a reply immediately came from within.

“Yes, I’m here. Please enter, Soma.” (Shyemul)

Raising the cover and passing through the entrance, Souma was startled.
Is it my imagination? He felt as if Shyemuls ambience was different from usual. Due to Souma standing still and being perplexed the moment he entered, Shyemul called out to him as she sat cross-legged.

“Soma, can you please stand in front of me?” (Shyemul)

When Souma stood in front of Shyemul as he was told, she took several deep breaths while looking quite nervous.
And then she placed her machete at her side on top of a sheet next to her and suddenly took off the breast armour that was knit with ivies and the undergarment below that.
The flustered Souma turns his face away due to her abundant breasts that were suppressed by the clothes, swaying and about to spill out.

“Wh-! What’s the matter all of a sudden, Shyemul!?” (Souma)

“Though I will be ashamed if you turn your face away that bluntly…” (Shyemul)

Even if he’s told that, Souma is troubled as he can’t face her normally.

“Anyway! Can’t you look my way!?” (Shyemul)

With her strongly insisting on it, he nervously looks into Shyemul’s direction.
When he does so, it’s definitely her chest that’s on his mind.
Souma is a boy of appropriate age, too. It’s only natural for him to being curious about that, but it’s no more than that. It’s also because he was worried about Shyemul’s seal that he heard of from the Elder.

“Although it’s fine to look this way, don’t stare, umm, too much! Even with this, I’m still a maiden after all.” (Shyemul)

Souma focuses his consciousness towards Shyemul’s face as much as possible and restrains his urge to lower his sight by mistake.
Shyemul, who had pulled herself together due to Souma’s behaviour, pressed both fists against each other after breathing in slightly, bowed her head lightly towards Souma and said with a dignified voice,

“I, one of the Fang Clan belonging to the 12 zoan clans, daughter of Garguss, Shyemul, pledge by my pride and the name of my father.” (Shyemul)

Saying so, she suddenly tore her chest with her own claw. Blood is running from the scratch and her chest fur is dyed red. Shyemul’s mouth warped a bit due to the pain.
Shyemul focuses her stare on the eyes of Souma, who is surprised due to her sudden behaviour, and continues speaking,

“I will become your eyes, watching everything.
I will become your ears, hearing everything.
I will become your nose, smelling everything.
I will become your whiskers, sensing everything.
I will become your fangs, tearing apart your enemies.
I will become your claws, cutting your enemies apart.
I will become your horn, piercing your enemies.
I will become your hooves, running ahead.
I will become your mane, representing your majesty.
I will become your tail, accompanying you.
I will become your fur, protecting you.
I will become your bones, supporting you.” (Shyemul)

She picked up the machete she had put down before, and cut off a single bundle of her long hair around her nape with it. She smears her hands with the blood streaming from her chest, rubbed them together and dyes the hair red with them.

“The me in this place, offers all of this one’s soul, heart and flesh to you, Kisaki Soma, as my『Navel Master』.” (Shyemul)

Shyemul held out the bundle of hair drenched in her blood to Souma.

“Please accept this, Soma.” (Shyemul)

Souma took the hair as he was told and asked with a dumbfounded expression,

“Navel master?” (Souma)

“That’s right. — Us zoans believe that the soul resides there.” (Shyemul)

Saying that, Shyemul placed a hand around the area slightly below her navel.

“At the time when one meets a person they believe worthy of entrusting this place housing the soul, a zoan calls that person their『Navel Master』 and makes a pledge to offer everything to that person.” (Shyemul)

“Offering everything!?” (Souma)

“Correct, Soma. If you order me to fight, I will fight anyone that might become your enemy. If you desire this body, I will accept it, no matter how you tamper with it. And, if you tell me that you want my life, I will give it to you by cutting off my head on the spot.” (Shyemul)

Due to the far too heavy contents, Souma tries to return the hair he received to Shyemul.

“Don’t make a woman lose her face, Soma.” (Shyemul)

However, he was pushed back by Shyemul’s tender smile.

“B-But, something like that, to me…” (Souma)

“That’s wrong. I want to offer it to you because of the person you are.” (Shyemul)

“But, I’m weak…!” (Souma)

“I know. But, even while weak, you saved us. Even though it’s painful, you are still trying to help us. Because you are like that, I’d like you to become my 『Navel Master』.” (Shyemul)

If Souma had only been a strong human, she would have likely respected him.
If Souma had been a human who merely repelled the enemy, she would have likely thanked him for that.
However, he could never hope for her wanting him to become her 『Core Master』.
The Souma Shyemul knows is a human who’s too weak and kind to survive in this world.
A person like him desperately drove away the humans for the sake of the zoans with whom he has no relation whatsoever.
But, notwithstanding that, Souma furthermore is trying to recover for the sake of helping the zoans.
It’s not because he fights.
It’s not because of being saved.
He is trying to fight even though he’s gentle. He’s trying to not lose even though he’s weak. He’s trying to recover even though he got injured.
Because he’s like that, Shyemul wishes him to become her 『Navel Master』.

“But, you will become the 『Navel Master』 of this 《Noble Fang》. You have to be resolved to that extent.” (Shyemul)

“Somehow it looks like I’m being threatened.” (Souma)

Souma laughed slightly at Shyemul’s way of speaking.

“Got it. I also swear to become a 『Navel Master』 who doesn’t embarrass you, Shyemul.” (Souma)

“Indeed, my 『Navel Master』 Kisaki Soma. We will head towards distant heights together.” (Shyemul)

“Yeah, together…” (Souma)

After that Souma went to the encampment that he avoided to visit together with Shyemul.
Because many of the human corpses had been already cleared away, Souma went to the place, where the corpses were buried, after being informed by a nearby zoan, and gently and quietly pressed his hands together in front of the soil that was dug up.
It will be a lie if he says that he doesn’t regret it.
Even so, Souma thought that he has to advance forward.
Even though he had believed to have resolved himself, he was nearly staggering due to how shaken he was by this, and was silently supported by Shyemul.
He was deeply mindful of that while feeling the warmth transmitted from her supporting arm.

◆◇◆◇◆

In the hilly area of a certain place far away from the refuge of Shyemul’s and the other’s Fang Clan.
A village of zoans who had to flee from the humans could be found here as well. However, this place is vastly different from the village of the Fang Clan. A protective wall surrounds the village, and had been built using cut logs. Guards stood in the constructed watchtowers. The village had similarities to a mountain stronghold built by the humans.
A single zoan raised their loud voice in front of a large tent that was conspicuous even within that village.

“Clan chief! Is the clan chief in!?”

Due to that voice, a red-furred hill that was piled up in the deepest inner part of the dim tent stirred with a rustle.
No, once one looks properly, it’s a red-haired zoan who slept in the shape of a 大 character.
That zoan stretches a log-like arm and grabs a leather bag that was nearby. And then, once he turns the leather bag upside down with its opening being opened widely, the liquid inside poured into his mouth in one go.
With the zoan releasing a single, big burp, the reeking of liquor inside the tent increased instantly.
The red-haired zoan, who rose his own body up, scratched his head, made a big yawn and said while looking listless,

“What’s wrong? Did something happen?”

“The soldier that went as an observer for the Fang Clan has returned.”

“Ohh… It seems something went down.”

Wiping away the listless atmosphere that prevailed until now, he clads himself in an air that makes others believe that he’s a ferocious beast.
The red-haired zoan stood up slowly.
Once he did, his large build becomes quite obvious. The reason for not making others feel that he’s long and skinny while having a height that exceeds Garam is owed to his thoroughly tempered muscles. The muscles, which swell up just like rocks, give him the impression of wearing a thick armour.

“That damn Garam. He hasn’t said anything after that. Did he kick the bucket…?”

The red-haired zoan places his hand on his left eye, which had become useless due to an ugly scar.
After that, he laughed, causing his mouth to lift upwards and shouted towards the outside,

“Wake up the elders. I will prepare at once as well!”

Among the five zoan clans that had formerly set up bases in the Solbiant Plains, they boasted the largest influence at the present. The Claw Clan’s chief Kraga Bigana Zurgu raised his heavy hips.

 


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