The beasts didn’t pounce on him. They slowly crept closer, as if they were carefully judging the distance. One beast, then another. They lined up in front of Van, each lowering their heads with a jerk, and stopped, growling and baring their fangs.
They snarled, but didn’t move.
Letting go of some of his tension but keeping his stance low, Van waited.
The beasts didn’t move. Noticing one circling around the rest of the pack, Van stabbed forward, thrusting both swords towards the wolf’s snout. All the beasts immediately leapt backwards, their growls rising shrilly.
Whenever he took a step forward, the beasts took one backward. Having grasped the range of Van’s swords, they tried to keep a safe distance. However, when Van tried to take a step back, they immediately and nimbly jumped at him.
The instant he saw their movements, something flashed in his mind.
Those are the movements of hunting dogs. They’re keeping their prey in place until the hunter arrives… Are these guys detaining me?
Van’s forehead felt cold and numb. He glanced backwards while keeping the beasts in his line of sight…suddenly he heard the sound of a bowstring within the darkness, and then an arrow cutting through the air.
He twisted his body upon hearing it, but a hot pain ran through his left shoulder anyway. The arrow had grazed him. Thanks to his thick clothes, the wound wasn’t deep, but his body faltered, staggering.
The beasts didn’t miss the opportunity. They all leaped at him at once. His nose was assaulted with their body odor and the rotten stench of their muzzles. The second he smelled it, something in his mind dissipated.
All his inhibitions vanished, and the scene around him as well as his senses completely changed. His body moved. ──His mind had gone and his body was in full control.
Striking the snout of the leading beast with his sword, he rolled forward with the force of his swing, squashed one beast between himself and the rock wall, and kicked another one flying.
Then he heard the sound of a flute. The beasts reacted immediately, freezing in place. As they retreated from Van, as if being pulled by a string again, he caught himself before he succumbed to the overwhelming urge to chase after the beasts that melted back into the darkness.
As the beasts got further away, Van’s original self gradually took back control. Panting heavily, Van looked down at the beast laying on the bedrock, and his own blood-drenched body, before shaking his head once.
…What’s…this? Just what happened here? If they had wanted to attack the people in here, it’d have been better for them to enter through the wide opening on the opposite side. If they had wanted to kill me, then they should have shot at me two or three more times. Maybe it’s because I engaged the beasts? Still, if their owner can control the beasts so perfectly, it would have been simple to command the beasts to fall back momentarily to create chances to shoot at me.
Somehow Van had a bad feeling about all this. He felt like the beasts had completely different motives, ones he couldn’t grasp.
Anyway, I ought to return to the inner cave. The presences of the beasts and the enemy have already disappeared, but I can’t let my guard down.
Van couldn’t calm down before confirming the safety of Yuna and the others with his own eyes.
Many people had gathered in the inner cave. They were huddled in the rock cavity that Van had pointed out, anxiously whispering amongst each other.
As soon as Van entered the cave, Suor noticed him and rushed over, but skidded to a stop when he got close, his mouth hanging open.
Van shook his head, “It’s the blood of the beasts. I’ve only earned myself some scratches. ──Everyone is over here, huh?”
Suor’s face became gloomy, “No, most of ’em are here, but since several of ’em are still missin’, Azenomi and the men just left to take ‘nother look…”
Van whirled around, running off before he had finished. Yuna wasn’t here. She was part of the few missing people Suor had mentioned.
As he left the inner cave, he spotted a scattered group of people running this way. Azenomi was in the lead.
When he called out to her, she approached him with obvious relief.
“Mr. Van, I’m glad to see that you survived.”
Scanning the crowd following Azenomi, Van knitted his eyebrows, “What about Yuna?”
“She’s fine. Naka is carrying her a bit further back.”
But, Naka couldn’t be found anywhere amongst the people behind her. Looking back and realizing that they weren’t there, Azenomi blinked in surprise.
“Oh? They were with us just moments ago…”
Van slipped past her, rushing into the cave.
His voice echoed in the big cave several times, fading away hollowly. But, there was no answer.
Van kept calling as he ran, hoping that he’d hear a shrill “Pa!”, but her precious voice never answered. Before he knew it, he had run the length of the dark empty cave and emerged outside, a freezing blast of snow hitting him in the face. The snow danced within the jet-black darkness.
His head throbbed furiously. He felt sick, his throat felt like it was on fire, and the landscape swayed before his eyes.
──Something must have been applied to that arrow.
Van clenched his teeth, and stared at the snowy ground leading from the cave’s entrance to the forest. There were several tracks in the snow, quickly being buried under a new layer of snow.
They were probably left by the men who brought that youth over. All of them are heading from the forest to the cave. There’s only one set heading away from the cave.
Van scrutinized those footsteps even as he gasped roughly for air. They were still fresh. Their contours were far more distinctive than those of the other footprints. And, they were deep. Van chewed on his lip as Naka’s figure came to his mind.
──That man is carrying Yuna.
He began to run after the footsteps, but as soon as he stepped into the forest, the darkness deepened, making it impossible to follow the footsteps. Probably because he was injured, he could only perceive sounds and scents faintly.
…I guess I have to go back to fetch some light. As long as there’s some little bit of light, I can follow the footsteps. Naka might get further away while I waste time going back to the cave for a light, but any pursuit would be hopeless without a light
Desperately trying to push down his panic at the thought of them getting further away, Van left the forest…at that moment, he heard the twang of a bowstring from somewhere up high, and a fireball flew high above his head. Drawing a whistling arc in the sky, the fireball cut through the night sky and vanished into the forest in front of Van.
A little moment later, the vicinity suddenly got bright.
A tree was on fire. The fire arrow had set the branches alight, accompanied by a distinctive popping sound. Hearing that characteristic sound, Van’s eyes widened.
A hokso tree? It’s wood that burns easily as it contains a lot of oil. I’ve used it on many occasions when I set up traps.
Thanks to the burning tree, the footsteps in the snow became clearly visible.
Van looked back up in the direction of the sound of the bow and saw a figure halfway up the cliff, far above the cave’s entrance. Another fire arrow in their hands illuminated their figure.
Van doubted his own eyes because the figure over there looked like a woman.
Probably having noticed Van staring up at her, she shook her bow as if telling him to not bother about her, and instead to continue his pursuit. Van bowed to the figure, turned around, and returned to tracking the footsteps.
Naka’s footsteps were headed southwest. The howling wind brushed past his face and through the trees. The snowfall had started to intensify.
…Before the footsteps fade away…
With only that thought in his mind, Van kept walking, dragging his heavy body onwards even as Naka’s footsteps slowly disappeared as the snowflakes whirled. With each flicker of the burning tree, the shadows of countless other trees performed a complicated dance. The thin shadows, which squirmed and writhed on top of the white snow, obscured the trail further as the contours of the footsteps melded with the shadows.
At some point ─ Van had no way of knowing how much time had passed ─ Van heard the crunch of someone approaching him from behind. The footsteps of a person. As he stopped, readjusted his hold on his sword, and turned around, a figure with a bow draped over its shoulder slipped out from within the darkness.
The figure came to a halt, and said, “…Mr. Van.”
When he saw the figure, his suspicions were confirmed, it was the woman he had met in the bath.
A faint trace of burned resin lingered abouther. The instant he smelled it, Sae’s figure as she stood in front of him overlapped with the figure he saw back within the darkness.
“You were the one who shot the fire arrow?” Van muttered.
Sae nodded in response, “Let’s leave the details for later. For now we’ve got to chase after Yuna.”
Van stared at Sae as she answered him with a calm voice. He felt a shock run through his head and body, as if he had been hit with a hammer. His mind, even clouded by pain, replayed the weird movements of those beasts over and over again.
If their aim had been to stall me…Yuna being carried away at that moment cannot be mere coincidence. …I must go…I must move my feet.
Even though he was determined, his legs wouldn’t move. For an instant everything became black. When he recovered his sight, his cheeks were in the freezing snow.
“Mr. Van, are you alright?”
He heard a worried voice, and felt a slender hand slide under his hood, feeling for his pulse.
“I’m okay. Don’t mind me. Please chase after Yuna…” was what he had intended to say, but he didn’t know whether he managed to voice it.
He could hear the uneasy cawing of a raven somewhere. With that last thought, his consciousness faded into darkness.
T/N: The movie was moved back for an indefinite amount of time due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in Japan. Next chapter will be released on September the 23th.