The caravan had once again set off after a slight delay.
The cause, needless to say, was Pierre’s carriage. Once they asked the village’s blacksmith and had it repaired, it did get fixed to the point where it could move at normal speed, but at the cost of wasting quite a bit of time.
If something happens again, we’ll leave you behind.
The Chef of this caravan, Holland, gave him a warning.
The wheels rattled on.
Kei, straddling Sasuke, was currently riding along Pierre’s carriage by some quirk of fate.
“Ahh, it’s so reassuring to have you here, Kei.”
Pierre looked at him full of smiles while holding the reins. He was a thin man in his late twenties who had worked himself up all the way from being an apprentice at such a young age. That said, maybe because he had no money as he had just started the merchant business, or maybe because he looked much seedier compared to Holland and the rest, he just gave off a miserly impression.
“Please help me if something happens again. I’m putting my hopes on you, Kei!”
“…Good to hear.”
Kei sighed secretly as he gave a half-hearted reply.
In short, there was a reshuffling.
Yesterday, Pierre was apparently extremely impressed with Kei’s strength, and thus he asked Holland to have him by his side in the off-chance something were to happen again. Holland had no reason to refuse this plea, resulting in him readily agreeing.
Kei and Aileen were not essential personnel but extra combat power. They normally would have come along as ordinary travelers, but Cornwell company’s connections got them into the paid escort position.
In other words, it hardly mattered to Holland what Kei was doing. It would not matter whether he stayed in the center or in the rear.
…Well, that’s fine and all, but…
Kei’s expression turned into a frown as he gazed reproachfully at a place a few dozen meters ahead of him.
Towards Aileen who straddled Suzuka — and a blonde youth walking by her side.
…There was no reason for that guy to head over there!
Needless to say, it was Alexei.
He was accompanying them as a traveler, so while he was a warrior, he was not an escort. As such, he received no salary so he had no particular obligations. He was at most expected to help if the caravan was attacked, and other than that, he was left to his own devices as long as he did not cause any trouble.
And now, with his hands behind his head, he was enjoying a conversation with Aileen while walking with large strides.
“И так, ты знаете?”
“Когда он был маленьким …”
The wind carried their cheerful conversation over to Kei’s ears. He could not understand anything as it was in Russian, but they have been at it since today morning.
He felt strangely… restless. If you put it into words, it was simply “Aileen talking in Russian with someone,” however that simple bit was heavily weighing on his mind. Maybe because he did not understand what they were talking about, or maybe because Alexei was acting overly familiar…
“…Haah.” He let out a small sigh.
He could not figure out how to deal with these uncertain emotions surging out of the depths of his heart. He racked his brain as he rode his horse by himself.
Perhaps, had he observed their conversation better, he would have noticed one fact: Alexei was the one talking most of the time and Aileen was mostly nodding along and only asked a question or two every now and then.
“What’s the matter, Kei? You seem to be down.”
Amidst his absentmindedness, he heard a voice calling him from the side. It belonged to Pierre who was looking at him worriedly.
“…No.” For a moment, Kei felt tempted to yell at him that it was his fault, but he shook his head and waved it off. “You’re imagining it. My mood is as good as always.”
Then, Alexei’s words from the other day flashed in his mind.
Pierre is my personal acquaintance.
“…Hey, Pierre, mind if I ask you something?”
“Oh? What is it? As long as it’s something I can answer. Go right ahead.”
He’s not a bad guy, huh, Kei smiled wryly, seeing his friendly smile.
“Last night, Alexei mentioned that you two were acquaintances. What’s your relationship?”
“Ahh, Alexei? Well, he’s my lifesaver.”
Those were unexpected words. Unlike Kei whose eyes were filled with keen curiosity, Pierre stared into the distance, brushing his moderate handlebar mustache.
“It happened two years ago, when I was still an apprentice. I was riding my master’s carriage and peddling east of Morla river, but the carriage was suddenly attacked by thieves in a place slightly away from the highway.”
“If I’m not mistaken, the surprise attack came from behind with a bow. And due to poor luck, one of the two escorts we had with us died instantly, and the other one got injured. But well…us merchants can hold our own in a fight to an extent too.”
Pierre lifted a short bow that rested next to the coach and showed it to Kei.
“My master, the injured guard, and us apprentices… We were all prepared to fight, but the enemy’s numbers were superior. I think there were seven or eight, and all of them looked strong. We had all but prepared ourselves for the worst, but then it happened!”
Letting go of the reins, Pierre looked grandiosely up to the sky.
“From the other side of the road, a young man came charging like an arrow, like a fierce beast dashing across the ground! …And that was him. Back then he was even shorter and looked childish, but he was really strong. He went Baam! Baam!… and took down five of them in an instant. The rest of them realized they stood no chance, turned tail and ran.”
“Oho, he is quite…good.”
Those words were definitely Kei’s real feelings. Alexei looked to be around 18 years old now. If that happened two years ago, he should have been 16 at the most, an age where one would still be considered a child. According to Pierre’s story, he got a drop on them, but it was still not easy to kill five adult men.
Can’t underestimate him — Kei’s eyes turned sharp.
“That scene burned itself into my memory. He was really strong… After that, my master held a party in a nearby village as thanks. I was a mere apprentice so I couldn’t do anything at that time, but I decided I would repay him the next time we met.”
And then, they had an unexpected reunion in Satyna just the other day.
“I see… Still, that’s quite a coincidence. To come across someone as strong as him when away from the highway and narrowly escape death…”
“Yeah, I can’t help but think so too.”
“Even so, isn’t he from the Snowland people? What is he doing all the way here in such a remote place, and alone at that?”
Pierre nodded to his question with a self-satisfied face and continued.
“As it turns out, he is on a warrior’s journey that also serves as a coming-of-age ceremony. According to him, he has a『Crest』that only the most elite warriors are allowed to bear engraved on him.”
Kei grew more and more serious as he replied.
At least in【DEMONDAL】game,『Crests』were secret arts devised by the Snowland people. It was a type of magic, and borrowed the power of the spirits, sealing a beast’s soul inside one’s body and thus enhancing it.
For players to acquire it, they first had to visit the snowlands, and overcome a difficult trial — though you could decrease the difficulty if you whaled for an item — that the elders assigned to you. Kei assumed that the technique form and the particulars of the trial were the same as in the game.
Though it wasn’t clear whether that was something which would be disclosed to outsiders.
At any rate, because of his playstyle that combined whaling and hardcore gaming, Kei currently had the Enhanced Vision, Enhanced Body, and Enhanced Muscles crests on him.
The presence or absence of a crest created a big difference in PvP battles. The reason why a kid like Alexei managed to fight against thieves was probably largely due to that. It was safe to assume that he had either Enhanced Muscles, Enhanced Body…a crest that raised his physical abilities engraved on his body.
“The crested Snowland warriors apparently have to wander for about two years and polish their prowess. After we parted two years ago, he apparently went to the Mining City Garon by himself, and then battled with monsters and wild tribes at the eastern border… Oh, and also…”
A grin appeared on his face as if he had remembered something.
“In Alexei’s case, he also seems to be looking for a wife to add new blood to the family.”
Kei’s interjection had become audibly frostier.
“Hehehehe… what’s wrong, Kei?”
Dagmar, who had also listened to the story while riding on the opposite side of Pierre’s carriage, laughed and looked at Kei.
“Are you so worried? About your wife, I mean.”
He cast a meaningful glance ahead of them, amusement coloring his expression.
Kei blinked for a few seconds, before realizing that your wife referred to Aileen.
“Wh-, it’s not like that!”
Kei quickly denied with a wave of his hand, but Dagmar’s smile only grew deeper, him obviously not convinced. That grin pissed Kei off — though he didn’t understand why — so he coughed loudly to calm himself.
“…She’s not my wife or lover. We aren’t in that kind of relationship in the first place.”
Kei’s reply made him respond in a listless voice.
“…You say that, but aren’t you two sleeping in the same tent?”
“Well, yeah, we do, but…”
Kei couldn’t help but frown at Dagmar’s perceptive rebuttal.
Later that night, Kei and Aileen slept in the same tent.
As he had his nightwatch shift, Kei went to sleep first, so it did not feel like they entered the tent together, but it was nonetheless a fact that they slept close enough to have it regarded as sleeping together.
Because it was safer for them to stay together, because Aileen only knew Kei, because they had too much luggage and only one tent… there were various reasons, but it was also a fact that neither of them considered sleeping separately to be necessary. They had been sharing rooms in the inn until now, so it was a little late to start being conscious about it now.
“We are sleeping together, but… we aren’t exactly, uh, touching each other.”
“…Are you serious?”
As Kei nodded heavily, Dagmar and Pierre looked at each other with bewildered expressions. Before long, Dagmar looked like he realized something and spoke up.
“I see… So you were into guys, huh? I guess I’ll call you Gay instead of Kei from now on.”
“No! You have it all wrong!”
Kei yelled while almost falling down from Sasuke.
“I mean… well, you know?”
Pierre looked at him and nodded as if agreeing to Dagmar.
“Sleeping together with such a beauty and doing nothing with her? That’s damn weird. I was certain that you were in love with each other.”
“…We are close friends, but we aren’t lovers.”
“You say that, but Kei, don’t you feel anything when sleeping with a girl like that?”
Dagmar leaned over with an expression of disbelief on his face.
“Normally, when a beauty of such a caliber acts so defenselessly, a man would just plunge right in, right?”
He made a circle with his left hand and stuck the index finger of his right hand in.
Seeing his slightly flushed expression, Dagmar’s remark had apparently hit the nail on the head.
In all truth, Kei was a man too.
It was impossible for him to be completely oblivious with a beauty like Aileen in front of his eyes.
In fact, this was currently the biggest problem Kei was facing.
Seeing Aileen and Alexei talk caused a murky feeling to well up in his chest.
Feelings of alienation, impending danger, and anxiety.
Several words expressing all these emotions crossed his mind. But Kei wondered, wasn’t there one word among all of them that was much simpler yet far stronger? Yes — Jealousy.
In that case, why was he so jealous now?
He had a sense of rivalry towards Alexei. And it was simple to put a hand on his chest and ask himself whether this was love. However, did this attachment of sorts, which he felt towards Aileen, really stem from genuine feelings of love?
He did not know. Rather, you could say he was doubting it.
Or perhaps he was simply trying to justify the desire he felt towards Aileen by sublimating it as love.
He could not help but think so. Maybe it was simply his sexual desire that dictated his behavior. Maybe he was trying to convince himself that he loved her in search of an outlet for his lust.
If that was true, it would be rude towards her, Kei believed.
By nature, Kei’s sexual drive had not been that high before they came here.
It peaked during his teens and became average afterwards, just like with other people, but as the terminal symptoms progressed, they started to affect his sexual organs too, and once he passed the age of twenty his sexual drive suddenly died down.
Before they got transferred here, he had an interest in such things but did not get aroused. You could even say he was in a constant post-nut clarity.
But now, it was already over ten days since he had obtained a new body.
He even felt like this healthy body’s desire grew stronger with each day. When they were in Satyna, he managed to deal with it in secret, but this caravan offered no such privacy. Thus, it was extremely tough on him right now.
Even so, his reason, which head had managed to somehow hold onto, was about to break down with Alexei’s entry. He wanted to get between them. He wanted her to only look at him. He wanted to spend more time talking with her. He was tempted to entrust himself to those impulsive desires. But at the end of it all, another thought would come to his mind.
Do I really “love” Aileen?
He had known Aileen, formerly Andrei, for two years. Both of them were addicted gamers and, even if only in virtual space, they both enjoyed many, many, happy hours together.
Having said that, all of this was limited to being friends. They were intimate, but that was as far as it went, for better or worse. Kei believed Andrei to be a man, after all.
And after coming “here”, he found out about Andrei being a girl…
But even so, he regarded it as questionable for this to be enough reason for him to suddenly “fall in love” with her in less than ten days.
…Am I, ultimately, just interested in her body…?
As he delved deeper, he couldn’t help but arrive at that conclusion.
“Hmm…” Kei frowned and started pondering with a difficult face.
Dagmar and Pierre exchanged glances once again and shrugged.
The sun had completely set.
As the caravan had failed to reach the next village by evening, they stopped the carriages at the shoulder of the highway and prepared for camping.
“The trees are not too dense and the animals around here aren’t that dangerous either. But, we can’t say the same about humans…”
“Let’s do our best with the nightwatch. I’m thinking of dividing everyone into three groups and rotating them, one person per location.”
The important people like Holland and Dagmar gathered and discussed how to handle the night shifts. While looking at them with a sidelong glance, Kei was silently setting up the tent with a hammer in hand.
“Now then, I guess I will do my shift today, huh?”
While Kei was tying the rope, Aileen who supported the tent from the other side said, looking somehow excited.
They had spent the last night inside the village, so it was relatively safe, thus their night shifts only needed a few people. Kei ended up being one of those unlucky few, but Aileen was able to sleep soundly until morning. But it appeared that the person herself was not happy about it. With her innocent look full of hope that she might be called upon for the nightwatch, she looked just like a child who had come on a camping trip.
She’s the same as ever, thought Kei nodded with a gentle smile after mellowing down a bit.
“According to their conversation, they will be increasing the number of people for tonight. Well, considering how soundly you slept yesterday, they’ll probably push some hard work on you, don’t you think?”
“Gehh. Save me from that!”
Brightly laughing, Kei finished setting up the tent, and patted the hem of his cloak to get rid of the dirt after standing up.
“Now then… I guess it’s time to eat. Where’s Granny Marie—”
A high-spirited call overwrote Kei’s words.
So he came after all…, Kei turned around looking fed up. Next to him, Aileen looked up to the sky for an instant, muttering, “Oi yoi yoi…”
“то ты будешь делать сегодня вечером?”
As expected, it was Alexei smiling while looking all excited.
“Ничего делать …”
“Серьезно? В противном случае, в первую очередь мы будем есть вместе――”
Aileen matched her smile to meet Alexei’s cheerfulness. Meanwhile, Kei felt disheartened being confronted with that scene in front of his eyes while the rest of the caravan watched the three from the surroundings.
“…Well then, I guess this’ll do for rotations.”
“Right. Thieves are scary so it’s better to be safe than sorry…”
The group around Holland still talked about the night shifts. Kei paid no attention to their conversation and silently gazed at the bonfire, but seeing the flickering shadows, a sudden idea flashed through his mind along with the desire to cause mischief.
With a mean-looking smile, he turned around towards Aileen.
“Hey, Aileen. Sorry for butting in on your conversation, but do you have a moment?”
Ignoring Alexei, he forcefully intruded on their convo, making Aileen blink in shock.
“Well, of course, but…” She paused, a bewildered expression on her face, “…But why in Esperanto?”
She tilted her head in wonder, while also replying back in Esperanto. We had a similar conversation before too, huh, smiled Kei and folded his arms.
“Yeah, well, this concerns magic, so I don’t want others to hear it.”
“Ah, so that’s what it is. Ahh, that just reminded me, I promised Edda to show magic…”
She slapped her forehead, seeming to have completely forgotten about it. In the corner of Kei’s vision, Alexei stood bewildered due to the sudden foreign language conversation, but he felt pleased about the fact.
“Well, I’ll do it later. So, what is it?”
“Right, it concerns Edda too, but it’s about your magic.”
He broached the subject, his expression turning serious. While it was a sudden idea, he did not do this just to get back at Alexei.
“Hey, Aileen. Can your Kerstin act as a substitute for the night watch, or rather, use a spell similar to a danger sensor?”
Aileen put a finger on her lips and pondered on his question.
“If this was still a game, that would be a no… But as for now, I wouldn’t know. I think she might be able to.”
“Hmm, so it’s like that, after all. I share your opinion.”
“It feels like the spirits have become smarter ever since we came here. Kerstin’s thinking has become more flexible as well, I think.”
“Right. Likewise, my Siv seems to have become somehow perceptive.”
The two nodded at each other as they exchanged ideas.
Magic in【Demondal】was a little different when compared to other games. From a Japanese person’s perspective, calling it something like summoning was probably closer to it than magic. The game used the characteristic feature of having the contracted spirits cast the spells, and not the players.
Inside the game existed NPCs that could summon Spirits, and players had to clear certain conditions to form contracts with those spirits. By offering magic power and catalysts, they would then “borrow” the spirits’ powers.
This relationship was often likened to that of a『Craftsman』and their『Customer』, during the game period. The『Craftsmen』were the Spirits, and『Customers』were the players, who paid magic power as『Compensation』.
For example, let us assume there was a confectioner. Then the customer made an order, “I want this, this and this,” and paid the price. If they gave too much money, the confectioner would return the change, along with the sweets they ordered — and that described the whole process, from input to output, how it went with spells in【Demondal】.
Also, just like how the 『Customer』 would negotiate by giving things such as wheat flour and butter instead of just money, saying, “I’ll give you these, so lower the price”, the magicians did the same by using catalysts. If the confectioner wanted it, they would accept and give the discount, but if they didn’t, they would relentlessly demand the full price in cash. If you went into the red with your finances due to the payment, your organs would be sold and you would die as a result, but with magic power depletion, this would be withering instead.
Incidentally, you could also take some wood with you to the confectioner and negotiate, “I’ll pay the price, so make me a house with this.” Whether they would accept it or not would be up to them, and even if they accepted it, they could overcharge you, and may not even finish it. And granted they actually completed it, there was no guarantee for the quality since it was outside their field of expertise.
However, if you went to a craftsman working in a similar field — for example, to a western confectioner to order Japanese confectionery — they might do a surprisingly good job.
The difficult part of magic in【Demondal】was that you had to do all of that in Esperanto (Spirit language). Basically Spirits only understood Esperanto, and with there being no other means to give them orders, the players’ vocabulary and grammar directly affected the complexity and flexibility of their spells.
On top of that, the Spirits’ AI was intentionally set to act like dumb brats, making it necessary to keep the orders short and easy to understand. This proved to be quite tough, and in many cases, one was required to be experienced in tricks such as being able to get a good translation out of poorly-made translation software.
“But yes, now it’s not like that anymore. Hmm, how to put it…? Ah yeah, it feels like we can understand each other well, as if Kerstin’s understanding improved.”
Kei nodded seriously at Aileen’s words.
“Right. So I was wondering if we could achieve something similar to a danger alarm through abstract instructions…”
Assuming they wanted to construct a similar technique inside the game, they would need a chant as advanced as a programming language, yet delicate at the same time. Various parameters had to be set such as how to tell friends from foes, the exact range, duration, and so on.
However, if instead of being idiot AIs, the Spirits were now able to think flexibly…
“I see… Fortunately, I’m swimming in catalysts. There’s worth in testing that theory.”
With a big grin, Aileen pulled a drawstring pouch filled with crystal fragments out of her chest.
“Okay then, I’ll give it a go!”
“Sure. But before that, we should probably consult Holland first…”
The two of them headed to Holland in high spirits.
The only one remaining on the scene was Alexei, a bewildered expression on his face.
Concerning the result.
Holland had given his consent to use the spell, and Aileen managed to construct it by paying just a single share of 【Manifestation】.
Concretely, if any monster or an outsider entered a radius of fifty meters around the caravan, Kerstin would inform them through shadow writing. It apparently only lasted until sunrise, but considering how drastically it lowered the chance of surprise attacks, it was fairly cost-effective.
Watching the crystal swallowed by the shadows, and Kerstin performing a dance similar to a shadow picture, Edda bounced up and down in huge delight. Probably his daughter’s raptured expression played a part in this too, but Holland decided to pay for the catalyst that they expended for this spell. They had a lot of crystals, but they still welcomed it with open arms.
In addition, since the spell had greatly cut down on the nightwatch labor, Aileen got exempted from it due to her contribution, and so was Kei, as he had a shift last night.
Since Alexei excitedly rushed over to them after dinner, calling out to Aileen, Kei became quite gloomy, but he was not that pissed,
In the end, Kei fell asleep in a relatively relaxed mood.
The twigs in the bonfire popped, crackling.
Sitting on a toppled log, a blonde youth sat and hummed in a relaxed manner.
As he snapped the twigs in his hand, the melody he was humming sounded quite melancholic and sorrowful in contrast to his cheerful demeanor.
Eventually he ran out of twigs to snap. Left with nothing to do, he confirmed what remained of the hourglass at his side and lifted his gaze.
On the opposite side of the bonfire he saw an old woman and a dark brown-skinned girl.
“…Hey, young lady,” the youth — Alexei, called out to her with a ferocious smile on his face, “isn’t it time for you to go to sleep?”
“…I’m not sleepy yet.”
The brown-skinned girl — Edda, frankly replied while gripping Heidemarie’s hand who was hugging her from behind.
She did not seem to be putting up a tough front. Her eyes were fixed on a shadow that was projected on the canopy of a carriage. A dancing humanoid shadow in a dress that moved like a shadow picture.
“This looks amazing. Ideal for killing some time.”
Alexei nodded as the corners of his mouth rose into a pure, childish smile. Then he glanced towards a certain tent. One that was deadly silent as its owners had fallen asleep.
“Still, I never expected for him to be a magician too…”
Alexei’s mutter received no answer.
As he gazed at the dancing shadow in boredom, he once again started to hum.
“Alexei. Can I ask you one thing?”
Once Alexei was done with one cycle of the humming, Heidemarie suddenly opened her mouth.
“Hmm, what is it, Granny?”
“That is a nice melody… What is it called?”
“Oh, this? It’s a song called 『GreenSleeves』.”
“…Oh? A song not in the Snowland language?”
“That’s right. It’s written in the Grassland language.”
With a faint smile, Alexei straightened himself and lightly inhaled some fresh air.
‘”Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you for so long,
Delighting in your company.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady Greensleeves…”‘
Sorrowful, passionate, and faintly bitter.
His deep tenor reverberated, gently and peacefully so as to not wake those who slumbered in the dusk.
Edda clapped quietly. Heidemarie also nodded over and over.
“It is certainly a wonderful song… However, I have never heard of it before. Is it not a song of the Grassland people?”
“Umm, it’s sung in the Grassland language, but it’s a song passed down among the Snowland people… I heard that an Étranger, who had appeared from beyond the fog, taught this song to our clan in the distant past.”
“…Beyond the fog?”
“Yeah. Calling it Northern Lands really doesn’t do it justice.”
Seemingly pleased by their interest, Alexei took an ember twig from the bonfire and started drawing a map with a proud face.
“The Northern Lands — even if we call them like that, are simply north relative to this duchy. Those Northern Lands are also divided into four parts. In the north, there are white plains, endlessly continuing carpets of snow. There the snow doesn’t even melt in summer, and they say no one has ever reached the end of those lands. In the south, or rather, the center, various clans have gathered. It has cold winters, but overall, it’s not a bad land. The west is close to the sea, making it a comfortable place for living. They have salt, can catch fish, and even trade. It’s such a good land that the Snowland people actually fight over it. And then, there is the east…”
He encircled the western side of the simple map. And then lowered his voice and continued.
“This place is called the Haunted Forest… It is covered by fog all year around. A very ominous forest…”
Hearing his previously cheerful voice turn completely eerie, Edda swallowed her breath.
“The Wiseman’s Hideout… The Forest of Demons… They refer to it in many ways. There is only one thing that’s certain: it’s a dangerous place…”
“Dangerous as in how…?”
As Edda asked fearfully, Alexei held off his breath with a complex expression for a moment and then continued, “…I have only heard this from my grandpa.”
He rubbed his arms as if feeling cold.
“When he was young… Well, a man is a man, right? So he apparently decided to prove his bravery. He seems to have challenged himself in how far he could advance inside that fog that was said to drive you insane after ten steps.
But grandpa had heard various scary rumors about the Haunted Forest. Something about fireballs that deprived one of their sense of orientation…about monsters that pretended to be human to lead people astray…and thus, in an attempt to guard against these things, he decided to at least bring a rope with him.”
Alexei made a gesture of tying a rope around his waist.
“He tied it around him like this. And he tied the other end tightly to a tree at the forest’s edge. He intended to go as far as the rope would allow him to and then turn back. Being extremely careful, he repeatedly coiled the rope around the trunk, and once his preparations were all perfect, he stepped inside the fog…”
He made a praying gesture and went silent.
“However…just as he did, it happened.”
‘Gulp’, Edda swallowed her saliva.
“As it turned out, my grandpa…despite having only just entered it… got the sudden urge to pee.”
“Pee, you know, pee. Not enough to piss himself, but enough to bother him, or something like that. That said, my grandpa wasn’t so stupid to take a piss in a haunted forest so intimidating that it’d make a child stop crying. So, since he had only just entered, he decided to follow his rope back and return to the forest’s edge. And once he got there without a hitch, about to relieve himself…he suddenly realized something…”
Suddenly, he directed his blue eyes at Edda.
“The rope…which he had tied to the tree so tightly and carefully, using several knots on top of that…had been untied. It looked like some magic trick…”
“Grandpa was alone of course… He just took ten steps into the fog, and quickly returned, you know? There was not a single soul around him… Just this was almost enough to make him wet himself, but he noticed something far stranger…”
“For some reason…the brand-new rope he had just tied was stained black. And once he picked it up to take a closer look…”
Alexei opened a three-centimeter gap between his fingers.
“There were handprints…around this big, all over it…as if a child with dirty hands had played around with it…”
“Moreover, those handprints…didn’t end at the knotted area…but on a closer look, they traced it…and traced it… reaching all the way to his waist, densely packed… Then, fearing for the worst, grandpa quickly removed the rope from his waist. And…”
“As expected… the handprints had reached all the way to his waist… Becoming frightened, he desperately flung off his leather armor…and when he did…”
Alexei’s eyes turned into those of a dead person.
“The back of his armor was covered with handprints. All over, they were all over it…”
“Grandpa told me. Had he not returned to relieve himself…and granted his entire body would have been plastered with those handprints, just what kind of fate would have awaited him…”
Snap! a twig cracked inside the bonfire.
“…Is that true…?”
Edda asked, her voice almost vanishing. Alexei responded with a “Yeah.”
“This was certainly no idle gossip or anything. At the very least, those handprints were real. If you ask me how I can be so sure, it’s because I have seen them myself. My grandpa bravely brought rope and armor back home.”
“They were creepy so he considered tossing them away several times, but since they were his only proof, he mustered his courage and carried them all the way home. Although, something scary happened on the way too… But well, I’ll leave that story for another time.”
“I-It’s enough! Enough!”
Edda shook her head while on the verge of tears.
“Anyway…the haunted forest is really dangerous. Half of those who have stepped in have not returned. And those who did, mostly went insane. Apparently swarms of apparitions and things that should not belong to this world exist within that fog…”
Alexei shuddered as he spoke.
“As such, even I’m staying away from it. I mean, how do you expect me to fight against beings that are not of this world… Just thinking about it is scary… So, there you have it. Actually, why did we even start on this topic anyway?”
“Was it not the story about the Étranger from the fog?”
“Ah, right, right!”
As Heidemarie pointed it out, Alexei slapped his knee, exclaiming in a cheerful voice to get rid of the heavy atmosphere.
“Right, about the Haunted Forest. The only redeeming feature it has going for itself is the fact that the monsters within can’t come outside. Putting it another way, whatever leaves that place isn’t a monster, probably. According to the legends, there existed outlanders who came out despite never having entered it. Apparently, they were folks hailing from distant places who had gotten lost in the fog…”
“And one of them left this song behind?”
“Yeah. Well, it’s something from very long ago, so I can’t vouch for the story’s credibility…” And then he added with a shrug, “I’m the type of guy who only believes what he’s seen with his own eyes. …Either way, isn’t it about time for you to go to sleep, little lady?”
He asked Edda, who had turned all docile, with a wry smile.
She looked up at Heidemarie with a forlorn expression. She pulled on her hem, as if asking for something.
“Right, right. Let us sleep together.”
“Hahaha, good children need to sleep. Well, the fog monsters can’t leave from there, so no harm should befall you. Be at ease.”
“Okay… Good night, mister…”
Clinging to Heidemarie with a dejected expression, Edda headed towards the bed set up inside the cart.
“…Welp, back to having nothing to do.”
The hourglass still had the sand trickling down. Now that he was all alone again, Alexei decided to go back to looking at the canopy to kill some time.
“Huh, what? It’s gone.”
However, the shadow lady that used to dance there was nowhere to be found.
“Well then, Edda, good night.”
“Good night, grandma…”
Inside the carriage, Edda put the blanket over her head as she snuggled up to Heidemarie.
Heidemarie’s warmth felt very reassuring. However, the earlier conversation still proved to be too intense for young Edda.
What would she do if those handprints appeared outside of her blanket…
Such baseless fears were urging her to keep her head covered.
However, it was early summer now, and it was a fairly warm night to boot. If she stayed holed up under the blanket, she would naturally feel too hot.
…It should be okay. That mister said the monsters don’t leave the forest…
Unable to endure the heat, she encouraged herself, then mustered her courage and peeked her head out while her eyes remained shut.
The pleasant night air brushed against her cheeks. She took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air that was no longer sultry.
Then gradually, she was assailed by sleepiness. She realized that she had stayed up slightly late tonight because of the magic. With those thoughts, she started to nod off…
But then, she felt a presence.
She opened her eyes in a half-awake state.
What entered her sight was — blackness.
Small, black handprints covered the entire canopy to the brim…
Her face stiffened, and just like that, her eyes turned inside out and fainted.
“…Ngh… Edda, did you say anything?”
Remaining there was the Shadow Spirit, dancing merrily after having succeeded in her prank.