The next day, the blue skies held not a single cloud. The snow covering the ground glittered, dazzling one’s eyes.
Dispirited, Ouma and the others were looking down at the sole remaining dog, a corpse marring the cool clear field of white snow. Its spine had probably snapped when it had been flung against the nearby stake by Van. It had already frozen solid, with its legs still sprawled on the snow. Probably because it was dead, Van couldn’t feel any of the unity he had felt the night before even as he looked down at its broken body.
Ouma stood a short distance away from Van. Yesterday’s events were probably still too fresh in his mind. His expression was stiff and he couldn’t look Van in the eyes, completely unlike how he had treated Van till now.
Van could fully understand Ouma’s feelings. Even he had trouble accepting that the him from last night as the same person he was now. To a bystander, his beastly visage as he fought against the mountain dogs must have looked very unnatural.
Besides, Ouma hadn’t fully recovered from his experience. Thanks to his thick sleeves, the beasts’ fangs hadn’t managed to penetrate skin, but still, the memory of succumbing to an attack was still vivid, striking fear into Ouma’s heart.
“…I’ll be damned. This ain’t no black brother if I ever saw one.” Toma’s uncle, Yoki, whispered as he looked down at the corpse and wrinkled up his nose.
Hearing that, Ouma, who hadn’t really looked at the corpse so far, finally directed his gaze to it. Frowning, he reluctantly stared for a bit before properly examining it. As he did, the stiffness slowly vanished from his face, replaced by bewilderment.
“Ya damn straight…ain’t no way this’a black brother,” Ouma muttered with his brows furrowed.
The body on the ground closely resembled a wolf. ──But, it wasn’t one. While its shape and size were wolf-like, its ears and jaw were different. The way its fur lay on its body was also different. There was also a single long streak of light golden fur that ran down its back.
This one has the blood of a mountain dog running through its veins.
Van thought. There were many mountain dogs in the mountains of his hometown. They were detested for that stripe of light golden fur and how the light of the netherworld dwelt in their eyes. Because of their strong fertility, their numbers exploded when the black wolf population was decimated. In winter, Van’s clan often hunted the dogs since they liked to attack puyka.
The beast lying in front of his eyes was bigger and had a darker hue than those mountain dogs, but its face bore a sinister resemblance to those mountain dogs. Van bent down, fixing his gaze on the soles of its paws.
…This is going to be really tough. The soles of its feet are almost identical to those of mountain dogs. The only difference is that the spread of its claws is slightly different. It’s something you’d only notice up close like this, you wouldn’t be able to tell from any footprints you came across in the mountains.
Suddenly he realized something, and a chill settled in his chest.
I thought that the young boars and deer disappeared from the forests because the number of mountain dogs has grown, but maybe that’s not the case. I guess the ones who grew in number were these guys, huh…?
Van heard Ouma’s voice from overhead, “Reckon this one’s a mongrel, doncha think?”
Since Ouma called it a mongrel, Van sensed that Ouma and his kin hated mountain dogs as intensely as his own folks back in the Toga Mountainous District. They called cross-breeds between wolves and mountain dogs mongrels as an insult. Akafans sometimes used them as hunting dogs, citing that they were clever, but Van’s people would never use any dog that had even a drop of mountain dogs’ blood in them.
Straightening up from his crouch, Ouma tilted his head to the side in confusion, “Might be an owner about if it I’m right ‘bout the mongrel blood. ‘Course, ‘could always be feral, ya never know.”
The instant Van heard those words, a single scene flashed through his mind. ──A figure standing at the forest’s edge, controlling the threads of light…
For some reason the last night was mostly a hazy memory, like a lingering nightmare, but there were moments that seemed to have been seared into his memory, like scenes briefly illuminated by lightning in a storm. The figure at the forest’s edge was one of those memories, but he couldn’t tell Ouma and the others anything about that.
Something was clear to Van now that he had seen the corpse under the light of the morning sun again. He hadn’t been sure of what he had seen since it had been late at night, but now he realised he wasn’t mistaken at all.
This is one of them, those ominous beasts that attacked the salt mine and slaughtered all those people. Those abnormally glowing eyes that seemed to be studying me. The fact that they bit everyone once, moving with clear intent. Back then I got the feeling that those beasts were like soldiers. ──That probably wasn’t wrong.
These aren’t wild beasts. It’s a pack doing the bidding of some mastermind.
Van clenched his gloved hands. The sensation that he could recall most vividly from the events of last night wasn’t fear or regret, but the gentle bonds that resembled nostalgia, which he had felt the instant his eyes met theirs in the dark of night.
Just what the hell was that about? They bit me. That dream I saw in the salt mine right after being bitten…my body started to change after that… And I wasn’t the only one who got bitten. …Yuna.
He remembered her small figure glowing faintly as she innocently ran after the dogs like a puppy.
That girl also got bitten. ──Maybe something is growing in her too? I wonder what’s going to happen to us from now on?
As soon as the thought took him, he felt an incomparable cold in the pit of his stomach that rippled through him, expanding to cover his whole chest before spreading upwards. From the back of his neck to his forehead, an immobilizing numbness took over everything. Van took a deep breath.
──If I get scared, I won’t be able to reason anymore. Myself aside, Yuna still has her whole life ahead of her. I don’t have the time to be paralyzed with fear.
Van shut his eyes.
What I have right now are fragments. These fragments are part of something much, much bigger. Something that’s going to happen very soon. ──Maybe what happened in the mine was the beginning of whatever is coming?
Van opened his eyes, and looked at the forest that expanded like a deep black wall beyond the dazzling snow field.
The one in there saw us, didn’t he? He should have felt how those beasts, Yuna, and I were connected through the threads of light. He shouldn’t know that someone survived in the mines, though…
Even as he analyzed the situation, an indescribable dread continued to lurk. Whenever Van had felt this way back when he was leading <Lone Horn>, there was always an ambush waiting for them. His intuition was well honed. He often noticed things intuitively long before he was intellectually aware of them. Although he didn’t fully understand his instincts, they had never been wrong before and thus he couldn’t afford to ignore them.
Van felt as that oddly familiar sensation in the pit of his stomach slowly crept upward. He felt strangely alert, yet bold, like he had when he resolved himself to face the enemy that would soon attack.
He started slowly making his way towards the forest. If someone had been there, some traces should remain.
“…Hey, somethin’ wrong?” Ouma called out to him.
Van turned around, answering, “I’m going to follow the footprints and see if I can find out which direction these beasts came from.”
Not understanding why that would be necessary, Ouma furrowed his eyebrows, but he didn’t say anything else, just looking on with a puzzled look.
Van resumed walking towards the forest. The snow field was still scarred with the remnants of the night before. Van’s trained eyes easily picked out where the snow had been kicked up, following their tracks. The person controlling the light threads had stood beneath that tree ── the large tree that was quite a bit taller than all the other trees. The beasts’ footsteps also led to that tree.
There’s no doubt. There was someone underneath that tree who called the pack back.
The high treetop swayed lazily in the wind as the morning sun shone down on it. Van carefully approached the tree. Once he crossed the border between the snow field and the forest’s edge, the snow became shallower. Even so, the beasts’ footsteps remained clearly visible. There were also some points where the footprints were messier, or on top of other footprints, showing where several beasts had slowed down or gathered before running deeper into the forest.
But, there were no human footprints.
Van squinted, focusing on the place where the figure had been. After backing away a bit to check he was in the right place and looking over the scene as a whole, he approached and examined the surface of the snow once more. But he still couldn’t find any traces of a human anywhere.
Instead, he found a strange pattern in the tracks of the black beasts. No matter which beast he tracked, all of them had been standing with their claws pointing towards the roots of the large tree at some point in time.
A single scene popped into his mind, like a vision: The black beasts in a circle with their heads turned toward the tree’s roots like hounds waiting for the orders of their hunter.
However, the center of their circle was empty. ──Not even bird tracks, only a smooth, even blanket of snow that shone faintly in the morning light.
…Why? Did I dream them up? ──Was that shining figure not reality…? No, I’m certain. Something was here. Otherwise those beasts would have never formed a circle like that.
Suddenly, there was noise over his head. The sound of wings flapping as they soared through the sky. Van knew that it was a raven before he even saw it. ──A common raven. Slipping through the drooping branches, the big raven gently spread its wings, quietly alighting on a branch of the large tree.
After folding its wings, it looked down at Van.
Van pursed his lips, and met the raven’s eyes directly. There was no hostility in its gaze. It simply stared at him, like it was assessing him.
However, something bizarre happened as they stared at each other. ──Van became unable to look directly at the bird. Its jet-black wings were abnormally dazzling. Its jet-black body steadily grew, and eventually started to give off a blinding, solemn brilliance.
A freezing sensation spread from Van’s forehead to the crown of his head.
──I’m seeing something not of this world. Something bad will happen if I continue like this.
Van forced his eyes away from the raven, turned on his heels, and left the forest.
Yuna’s voice reached Van. The instant he heard her bright voice, it felt as if a thin layer of ice that had covered his body melted, allowing warmth to return to his skin.
Holding onto Kiya’s hand and completely wrapped up in furs, Yuna had just been led out of the tent. As Kiya shaded her eyes from the dazzling sun, Yuna waved her free hand.
“Ah! Pa, zere, look! A granny!” With that, Yuna pointed at the branches of the large tree where the raven was perching. “A twinkle, twinkle, shiny, shiny granny!”
Van stared at the girl, speechless. Then he sensed how the raven lightly rose into the sky behind him. Van reflexively turned around, and squinted as he followed its figure with his eyes as it melted into the dazzlingly, bright blue sky.