The man lying on the sliding door was still young, and an immigrant. Apparently he had come across a pack of wolfish beasts while he was chasing after a wounded bear during his hunt of hibernating bears, and had been bitten.
“Until the day before yesterday, it wasn’t anythin’ serious. He was only complainin’ some about his throat hurtin’, but this mornin’ he suddenly collapsed…”
Several men who appeared to be his relatives spoke over each other as they tried to explain what happened, but Suor stopped them.
“Be quieeet!” Suor reigned them in with an abruptly strict expression, and told them to undress the man on the door.
The young man lay limply as they did so. He hadn’t lost consciousness, but he was terrified, his face ghastly pale. He groaned in pain as they took off his clothes, jostling the wounded arm in the process. As soon as they finished, a festering, dirty wound became visible.
When Suor looked up, Azenomi handed him a small knife, which she had heated above the fire with practiced movements, and had the young man bite down on a piece of cloth.
Suor called out to the other men, who were standing by helplessly, “Hey, come here and hold him down so that he won’t be able to move his arm!”
The men did as they were told. Suor turned the knife he had received from Azenomi upside-down, poured some liquid over the wound, and, after determining where he needed to cut, poised the knife over it.
“It’s goin’ to hurt. Grit yer teeth!”
As soon as he said the warning, he decisively cut into the wound.
The man threw his head back, groaning, but Suor carried on unfazed, pressing down on the wound, squeezing out the blood and pus. Continuing this for quite a while, Suor then applied one more liquid from another small bottle before tightly bandaging the bite wound with a bleached cloth Azenomi handed to him.
The young man spat out the cloth in his mouth while panting heavily, having lost all strength now that his body was relaxed.
“…I hope we were in time,” whispered Azenomi.
Suor groaned, “No clue, but…”
Before he could continue speaking, the man’s expression suddenly changed. He clenched his teeth, his body bending back, tense like a plank. His teeth were clenched with such force that his jaw muscles shook furiously, visibly bulging with the effort. The man quivered as his throat constricted.
“Shit, he’s not gettin’ any air!”
Suor swiftly grabbed the man’s chin, and tried to push it up, to open the airway, but with the youth clenching his teeth so strongly, Suor couldn’t force up the chin.
Suor looked up in surprise when Van addressed him. Before Suor could voice a response, Van squatted behind the man’s head, placed his right hand on his jaw and pushed down on the man’s forehead with his left, forcefully pulling the jaw towards himself. The jaw, which Suor hadn’t managed to move at all, immediately lifted, and as the convulsions slowly died down, the jaw also slackened, losing its tension.
Confirming that the man was breathing, Suor’s shoulders slumped in relief. Staring up to Van, he muttered, “Ye sure seem used to this.”
Van didn’t answer. During the long war, he had experienced such things countless times. Some friends he could save, others died in front of his eyes.
“The convulsions have lessened. What’s the next step?”
In response, Suor’s face became somber. Seeing that, Van guessed that there was nothing else Suor could do. Suor himself didn’t say anything, but his eyes spoke volumes.
──Suor has examined people bitten by those beasts before.
After staring at Van for a short while he shifted his gaze to the man’s relatives, who were standing around looking very uneasy.
“I squeezed out as much of the bad blood as I could, but looks like it was much too late. Things like this got to be done right after the bite, otherwise they’re meaningless. Poison’s already in his body. Now everythin’ depends on the endurance of this youngster. We can’t do anythin’ but watch.”
The men stared at their kin in silence, but eventually, an elderly man mumbled, “…Would ya chase his soul, if it were ta slip out?”
Suor sighed, “Yeah, of course, but look, there ain’t much of a point if the body can’t support the soul after we get it back.”
Van stared down at the youth.
At this point, only the body’s strength matters. Even if the man himself wishes to live on, or those around him desire for him to be kept alive, it will all come to nothing if the body can’t support life. It’s just as Suor has said.
People can’t look inside their own body. When one is healthy, it feels as though the mind moves the body, but once one falls ill, the body no longer follows what the mind commands. You’ll only notice that body and mind are two different beings after experiencing this.
At that moment, he felt like something had touched the back of his head. He felt that weird sensation in the back of his nose.
Van frowned. As the scents around him became vivid and raw, his eyesight also started to change. His hearing, and even the sensation he felt on his skin were all transformed.
And then those abnormally sharpened senses of his found something. Almost at the same time Van lifted his face, the raven, which had been perched on a ledge and had melded almost completely into the darkness, took flight.
With a piercing caw in Suor’s direction, the raven glided through the air, diving into one of the cavities said to have formed by one of the huge ancient trees, and disappeared.
“…What was that?” Suor stood, his face pale. “The mongrels have entered the cavern…?”
Before he even heard Suor’s words, Van had already grasped his hatchet with his right hand.
Hearing her name, Azenomi stiffly looked his way.
“I’ll hold back the beasts. Use that time to gather all the people in the rest of the cave here.”
Van was worried about Yuna, but the presence of the beasts were in the opposite direction of where Yuna was. If he could use some narrow tunnel to stall them, he should be able to buy enough time for Yuna to be moved here.
“Please take care of Yuna…,” Van attempted to say to the pale Azenomi, then grimaced. He was having trouble forming words again.
Van clenched his teeth.
So this is what <Reversal> means, huh? Once I turn inside out, my language capabilities disappear. My human thinking also disappears. But, I can’t give in to those urges under these circumstances.
“P-Please, lead-d Yu-Yuna her-here.” Van said, holding onto the last of his consciousness with great effort.
Then he breathed in deeply, shook his head, and turned to the men who had carried in the youth.
Pointing to the cave’s southern corner, he ground out, “Build…barricade…over there. ──If …beasts…in, cut…with swords or…hatchets. No… arrows. Too… agile. You miss…they…close…attack you.”
The men looked at each other, bewildered, probably not understanding what was going on. However, just the old man who had talked to Suor earlier looked in the direction Van was pointing in. Once he realised that it was a big depression surrounded by rock on three sides with a low ceiling, his expression cleared with understanding.
After seeing the man nod, Van started to run. His head was throbbing. The colors around him kept changing.
Not yet…it’s still too early…
Desperately holding onto his consciousness even as the reversal continued, Van dashed through the dark cave. The beasts were getting closer.
He could hear Azenomi’s voice. She kept shouting something. Listening to her footsteps as she ran towards the caves where the residents were staying, Van continued running in the opposite direction.
The caves on his way hadn’t been modified by humans. It was probably because it’d be difficult to live in a place with so much moisture. Water trickled down incessantly, dripping rhythmically from the rock walls. The slimy bedrock also made it hard to run across it.
For a while now, something had been prickling him in the back of his head. However, it had become difficult for Van to think straight, and he hadn’t been able to understand what was bothering him.
As he pursued the thought in his mind many times over, as if trying to grab a slippery fish with his bare hands, the reason for that uncomfortable feeling became clear.
…Why have they entered from over here? If they’re trying to attack the people living here, it would have been faster to enter from the other side, instead of here. Is this just a diversion, is there another group trying to come in from the other side?
However, he could sense the presences of the beasts with his whole body and they were only ahead of him. Once Van realized that, he stopped thinking any further. If they weren’t approaching from the other side, he ought to first focus on defeating the beasts in front of him rather than thinking about their tactics.
The tunnels connecting the places where people lived had been illuminated by torches and candles, but none of those could be found here, the whole area submerged in almost absolute darkness. And yet Van could clearly see the rock walls and his surroundings. However, he was certain that the same applied to the beasts as well.
By now he could clearly hear their footsteps. Claws scratching and sliding across stone.
Van stopped, looking around him. He was in a narrow tunnel, but there were quite a few openings above and next to him. It looked like he might not be able to hold them back by himself. However, it wasn’t as though he could ask other people to assist him.
──Those beast’s fangs are poisoned. Even the slightest graze will cause people to wander between life and death, just like that youth.
Van quickly lowered his waist, and got into a fighting stance, with the hatchet in his right hand, and his hunting knife in the left. From somewhere deep inside him, he heard the singing.
──My spears are shining antlers…
He was hearing the voices of his comrades of the <Lone Horn> who had long left this world.
──On my back, my child. Lower these horns, I shall, to shield its frail life…
It was a song sung by men who had no children, no parents, and who had lost everything, and yet continued to think of those they shielded.
Suddenly, the glossy cheek of Yuna, as she slept with her thumb in her mouth, appeared in Van’s mind.
…Behind, my child… Even if she’s not of my blood, that girl is still my child. My dear child, precious above all else.
As he adjusted his hold on the hatchet as it became drenched in his sweat, Van saw the gleaming eyes of a beast in the darkness ahead of him, its golden tail flying behind it. Countless squirming shadows followed.
T/N: Next chapter will be released on September the 9th.