The <Tree Spirit Lord> was only able to meet Van in the evening of the next day. He was told that the <Tree Spirit Lord> had finally awoken in the afternoon after pursuing the soul of a child until dawn or something like that.
Azenomi apologized profusely for the wait, but Van was rather glad that he had had a full day to rest up. Probably because it was hidden deep in the mountain, he had slept well in this grotto, and even though the food was simple, it was delicious and had a nostalgic taste. It had allowed him to completely recover from the exhaustion of the journey.
Out of habit, whenever he was in a new place he liked to take note of all the possible escape routes, should the worst come to worst, and he managed to memorize the general layout during his walks while Yuna was sleeping.
He had chatted with the people he came across as he explored the grotto, mainly learning about their various afflictions. Van had gladly shown his interest in this topic, as it had allowed him to understand what kind of being the <Tree Spirit Lord> was for the clans in the area. Some said that they had a feeling he was a kind person while others honestly didn’t know how to face him, but everyone agreed that he was hard to grasp, and even more difficult to describe.
Still, not once did Van hear anyone doubting the powers of the <Tree Spirit Lord>.
There were many shady spiritualists these days, who spread rumors of their powers to deceive people, but the <Tree Spirit Lord> did not seem to fall into this category. Rather, even when the people spoke about the strange things he did, it was with a sort of fearful reverence.
What surprised Van was the fact that there were several Ziolian immigrants staying in the grotto, too. Inquiring with Azenomi, he heard that many had come here to rely on the <Tree Spirit Lord> after hearing about his reputation, despite having their own healing practitioners.
After their encounter in the bath, Van had wondered whether he would be able to see Sae again, but he never ran into her.
Azenomi guided Van into the cavern said to house the <Tree Spirit Lord> just as the afternoon began to fade into dusk. When he tried to take Yuna along, she grumbled, probably sleepy after eating an early dinner.
Just as Van was wondering what to do with her, Naka, who had come to clear away the plates, told him, “Let her sleep. I shall watch over her.”
Van was quite apologetic since he suspected that Naka had his own work to do, but Azenomi agreed with the suggestion so Van could only thank the elderly man and rock Yuna to sleep before following Azenomi deeper into the cave.
The lantern hanging from her hands swung rhythmically as Azenomi led them down the twists and turns of the cave system. Then, at long last, Azenomi came to a halt in front of a huge entrance covered by an unbleached cloth.
“This is as far as I will go. Please proceed on your own from here on out.”
Van nodded, and thanked Azenomi for guiding him. Azenomi smiled and waved off his thanks, then left.
Now then, I guess it’s finally time.
Calling a greeting from outside, Van lifted the flap with his right hand, and passed through the entrance. The instant he lifted his head, Van reflexively sucked in a breath, rooted to the spot at the sight before him.
The cave was absurdly large. However, it wasn’t just big, but also had a bizarre shape. First off, there was that gaping wide opening of an entrance. Then, there were the many, many huge, cylindrical holes drilled diagonally upwards into the rock face opposite of the entrance. Van couldn’t tell just how far up the shafts went, but from the rays of the evening light that shone down into the cave, they likely reached all the way to the surface. The shafts of light shone down from a dizzying height, looking like a huge, golden waterfall.
“…It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Van heard a cheerful voice.
“What you’re witnessing right now is the waterfall of twilight. It can only be experienced at this time, in this season, in the heart of the forest.”
Startled, Van turned to the source of the voice, spotting an elderly man with a round body sitting cross-legged in the shade of the rock face. Rather than sitting on the floor, the old man used a flat, raised rock as a seat, the light of a nearby fire distinguishing his figure from the surrounding rock.
“…The heart of the forest, you say?”
The elderly man laughed happily at Van’s reflexive question. He had an open, unguarded smile that somewhat reminded Van of a child.
The elderly man suddenly spread his arms, “Take a clooose look, and try to picture it. A massive fiery mudslide descends on a slope covered in huge trees, swallowing it near instantly. Loud cracks sound as the mud gushes around the trees, uprooting them entirely and causing them to fall one after the other in towering blazes. The hard bedrock of the slope stops them in their fall and the deluge of mud continues, petrifying them in this diagonal position. The trees continue burning within the mud, and eventually the mud cools down and hardens…”
The old man pointed at the big diagonal openings above.
“These wide openings are the remnants of those massive trees.”
When Van followed the old man’s finger with his gaze, he could see how the edges of the holes were shaped like rooted stumps of trees fallen in a landslide. As he beheld each of the openings, he felt like the grand spectacle that had taken place in days long past was happening right before his eyes, like an illusion, causing Van to be covered in goosebumps.
Certainly, a forest was once here. A great forest was swallowed entirely by blazing mud, the burning blood of the earth that seeped out of the fire mountain. The trees burned down completely within the mud, leaving only these cavities behind as proof of their existence.
“This is <Yomida’s Forest>.” The old man’s voice echoed hollowly in the huge cave. “It must be cold over there. Come here.”
Talking to Van as if they were old friends, the old man beckoned him over. Van nodded, and slowly went closer him.
As he approached the fire, the old man slightly extended a hand, and said, “Welcome to my humble abode.”
Van bowed, before lifting his head and asking, “…Please tell me why you invited me here.”
A grin flashed across the old man’s face.
“I see that chit-chat is not one of your strong points. Well, whatever, we might as well get to the main topic right away.” The old man looked up towards the cave’s upper parts. “Hey, Old Lady, get down here!”
The flapping of wings could be heard from above. A raven gently fluttered down, gliding to finally land gently on the old man’s shoulder. Even after folding its wings, the bird was still bigger than the man’s head. The man bent his arm, allowing the bird to perch on shoulder and arm.
“Agh, it hurts, I told ye to not extend yer claws, didn’t I?”
The old man grimaced as the raven used its large beak to toy with his ear, biting it playfully. The man shrugged his shoulders, as if he were being tickled, then looked back at Van while smiling wryly.
“This fellow is the raven my wife adored. She gnaws on my ear just like an old hag.” The old man grinned self-consciously. “I’m bein’ revered as <Tree Spirit Lord> or whatever, but in reality I’m just an old geezer that knows a bit ’bout illnesses.”
The old man cupped the raven’s back with a hand, gently stroking it.
“However, I can hear this fellow’s voice. She’s been able to see souls long before me. I just repeat what she says, so that everyone can hear.” The instant he finished his remark, the man’s eyes became empty.
The old man’s expression suddenly changed. ──For a moment, it looked like the raven’s face appeared from within the man’s face but quickly disappeared. Feeling like a bucket of freezing water had been poured over his head, Van reflexively stepped back.
After staring at Van with the eyes of the raven for a while, the old man’s head abruptly slumped forward. The old man’s knees buckled, stumbling powerlessly.
Van panicked and ran up to him, propping up his body before it fell onto the hard ground. The old man’s body was surprisingly cold, and drenched in sweat.
The man laid next to the fire for a long time. He had remained limp, showing no signs of rising from where Van had placed him down. The raven hopped around the man worriedly. It repeatedly jumped around his head, and crowed a few times, but the old man only waved a hand as if to shoo her away.
“…S’okay. Don’t worry. I’ll be put to rights if I keep doin’ this for a bit,” he mumbled weakly.
“Would you like some tea?” Van asked after spotting a teacup next to the fire, but the old man just waved him off as well.
Figuring that it would probably be better for him to not do anything uncalled for, Van sat down by the fire, crossing his legs and staring at the old man panting with his eyes shut.
Eventually the man opened his eyes, audibly gulping before muttering, “Ah, I’m pooped.” Then he glared at the raven, barking at it, “Damn you, don’t enter me all of a sudden, ye shitty bird. Ye coulda killed me with that stunt!”
The raven crowed mockingly in response. When the old man tried to hit its head, the raven nimbly evaded his hand. The old man slowly sat up and crossed his legs with a snort.
“Are you alright?”
The man nodded at Van’s question, and then wiped his face with a sigh.
“Sorry for showin’ ye somethin’ weird. This one usually never enters me in front of others. Looks like she wanted to see ye with human eyes.” The man glanced bitterly at the raven. “He’s definitely the type of guy ye like, yer really incorrigible, jeez.”
In response the raven lifted her beak, bobbing its head like it was laughing at the man.
“Stop makin’ fun of me. I mean, even I, if I just were just a bit younger…” The man broke off at that point, looked at Van in embarrassment, and put on a strained smile. “No, pardon me.”
After clearing his throat, the man fixed his expression, and started anew, “Now then, greeting’s first, I think. I still haven’t told ye my name, have I? I’m Suor.”
Van calmly responded, “I’m called Van.”
“I see. Then, Mr. Van, I had ye come all the way here because I saw yer figure the other night when I rode Old Lady.”
Van furrowed his eyebrows, “You rode the raven?”
“Yeah, Old Lady can ride me, but I can do the same with her, too. It ain’t like I’m ridin’ on her back. I get to ride on her after becomin’ a soul.” Suor grinned. “Ye might have noticed it yerself, but ye became a splendid <Reversal> back then.”
“…<Reversal>?” Van instinctively asked after being confronted with a term he had never heard before.
“Aye.” The old man coughed once, and continued, “The other night ye ran with the half-breeds of black wolves and mountain dogs, didn’t ye?”
Van narrowed his eyes. “So those mountain dogs were related to black wolves?”
“Yeah. There’s somethin’ important I gotta tell ye about those guys, but let’s leave that for later, and talk about <Reversals> first, okay? I saw the whole thing. How ye and yer daughter magnificently reversed on that night, running with the half-breeds.”
Frowning, Van asked, “I don’t quite get it, what exactly is it that’s reversing…?”
Suor suddenly turned his mitten inside-out. “It’s ’bout yer <Soul-Self> and yer <Body-Self> switching places like this. Azenomi mentioned how ye and yer daughter have both seen Old Lady’s feathers in colors other than black, so it ain’t a mistake. Even on normal days, there’ll be a little bit of a switch. Those with reversin’ bodies got slightly different smellin’ and seein’ than other people.”
Suor smiled wryly, “Well, it’s probably a difficult thing to understand, I s’pose. ──Look, it’s like this…living beings are mysterious. They don’t know what’s happenin’ inside their own bodies. Like, if ye hungry n’ ye see a hunk of grilled meat, ye gonna salivate, yeah? Though it ain’t like ye tellin’ the spit to well up, it happens anyway. That right?”
“In other words, usually we think that the <us>, which gets angry, thinks, and talks, is our true selves, but in fact it’s our bodies which are movin’ while we’re alive. Eatin’ food and sleepin’ with a woman is all done by our bodies, not our soul. Well, we can sense that the food is delicious or that sex with women is enjoyable, though.” Suor rattled on quite nonchalantly, waggling his eyebrows at the implication, and then grew serious again, “Didn’t ye ever wonder what happens to yer body when yer sick? You must have asked yerself what’s happening in yer body right now at least once. We ain’t capable of seein’ or hearin’ what’s goin’ on inside our bodies. Even though it’s our own bodies, we know less about them than those of others, right?”
Grasping what Suor was trying to say little by little, Van nodded.
“I’ve been examining sick people for many years, and over that time I’ve come to the conclusion that people’s bodies are kinda like forests.”
Just as he thought he had understood, Suor completely lost him again, causing Van to lift an eyebrow. Seeing that, Suor grinned.
“Ye don’t get it, do ye? Well, that makes sense. But, try to remember. When ye went through a <Reversal> ─ back when ye ran with the mongrels…didn’t ye see light? Countless lights, in fact?”
Suddenly the events of that night flashed through Van’s mind. The countless streams of light, that stretched and tangled together or merely pulsed on their own, like the stars of the northern skies, and the many lights that had squirmed in the beasts, and also Yuna’s small body.
Van spoke up, “You’re right, I saw them. ──What are those lights?”
“No clue.” Suor shook his head. “I have no idea, but I also see ’em when ridin’ Old Lady. I suspect they might be the lights emitted by each and every life.”
Van squinted, “Every single one of those lights?”
Suor nodded, “We keep countless lives in our bodies. ──No, keepin’ might be a bad way to describe it. Those countless small lives gatherin’ and livin’ together might be what forms us humans. That’s what I mean when I called the body a forest. Inside a forest ye find animals, and also bugs. Grasses grow’ in ’em, and so does moss. There’s also birds. The countless lives in a forest will also experience bad times. Trees wither away after bein’ eaten by bugs. However, there’s birds in a forest eatin’ those bugs, and their poop will improve the soil…” Suor explained while restlessly waving his hands around. “Countless lives live in a forest jus’ like that, and because they exist, the <Forest> is alive, correct?”
Feeling like he had heard something extraordinary, Van exhaled.
Suor fixed his gaze on Van, saying, “A human body is pretty similar. Usually we can’t see ’em, but countless small lives live in our bodies. Well, even I’ve got no clue whether those guys’ve been with us from our first cry in this world or somethin’ else. But, there’s always new ones enterin’ us, and I’ve been wonderin’ if people get sick because those new arrivals do bad stuff inside our bodies, just like the bugs that eat trees.” Suor raised one finger, “What do ye do when yer finger gets pricked by a mud-covered thorn? Ye’ll pull out the thorn and suck the blood out, right? If ye cut yer finger with somethin’ dirty, ye let first some blood drip to wash out the bad stuff, don’t ye? Well?”
Van nodded. He felt his expression stiffen even as he touched the scar of the bite.
“… So, just like letting the saliva of a sick dog into you gives you rabies, something bad entered my body when I got bitten by a mongrel…”
Hearing Van mutter, Suor suddenly narrowed his eyes, “As I had thought, ye’ve been bit by ‘em, haven’t ye? …So that’s why.”
At that moment, Van started hearing urgent voices from a distance, and before long, the sound of footsteps hurrying over from the direction of the entrance reached his ears. Soon after, the entrance flap was lifted, and several men led by Azenomi came in carrying someone on a sliding door.
Azenomi looked up to Van and Suor, and screamed shrilly, “<Tree Lord Spirit>, this person was bitten by a mongrel!”
T/N: Next chapter will be released on August the 26th.