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Within a gentle, very gentle, hazy slumber, I gotta get going to work —such a thought crossed his mind.
He should’ve had an important briefing for a new project today. It’d be bad to stay asleep, but just a little longer wouldn’t hurt — he tried to turn over while thinking that.
But then, his eyes suddenly flew open.
Thinking back, he hadn’t heard his alarm. Rather, it was too bright. This could only mean—
“—Did I oversleep?!”
He reflexively jerked up — and became dumbfounded.
A transparent blue sky. Grasslands sprawling towards the end of the horizon.
He wasn’t in his usual room back home. He even wasn’t in a room to begin with. The strange back pain he felt came from sleeping on the hard ground of this grassland. As he stared in surprise, he heard a neighing from right beside him.
His eyes shot towards the source, only to see an ashen-haired horse looking at him while eating grass.
He reflexively bent and rolled back, just to immediately jump to his feet. Then the two stared at each other as they stood amidst the grasses, gently swaying thanks to a fresh breeze. The horse gazed at him languidly as if not understanding why he was acting so surprised, then neighed and went back to chewing grass.
Still in a daze, he suddenly remembered to take a look at his own body. A wooden staff lay at his feet. And he was clad in an ashen robe which flapped in the wind.
He touched his body all over to confirm things. The staff, the garments, and ashen horse. Frankly, he remembered them too well.
When he touched his chin, he couldn’t feel a beard.
“…What’s going on?” Standing still, the man — Kou muttered to himself. “…I can’t log out? More importantly, this…”
His senses were abnormally vivid. Moreover, he had been trying to operate the settings mentally, but he couldn’t get the menu screen to open up. Why didn’t he possess Kou‘s splendid beard, if he was inside the game?
A green hilly area in front. Rocky mountains and a dense forest in the back, with an endless mountain range beyond it.
Suddenly, he was startled by a voice that didn’t belong to himself.
His attention had been focused on the surrounding scenery and thus he failed to notice it before, but looking carefully, there were people laying on the ground behind him. Next to them a black and a mottled horse were grazing at leisure.
The one raising groans was a woman lying face-up. She had dark skin and black hair that fanned out widely. Her tall height and nice figure were apparent even as she lay on the ground.
In addition, she had another, particular trait. On top of her head, ears were perking out of her black hair.
Kou stared at them with a surprised expression, reflexively gulping down his saliva.
Those ears, currently drooping feebly, were animal organs that no human should have. The only way Kou was aware of when it came to describing them was the term he had just shouted out.
The sight of a busty young woman with cat ears was too much for Kou, a man of culture and highly familiar with Japan’s HENTAI scene.
The woman’s appearance itself was not helping the matter either. She only had some leather armor protecting her chest and neither region, leaving her almost naked. Moreover, her ample chest peeking out from underneath her armor was extremely seductive. Seeing how she was frowning and twitching her eyes from time to time, she was maybe about to wake up.
In addition, crushed under that woman like a flattened lizard was a creature who could only be described as a lizard man. His skin was covered with mottled scales and his fingertips possessed sharp nails. In addition to laying face down, his long golden hair was covering his face. He had a smaller build compared to the woman, but you could see muscles bulging on his body.
Like the woman, the lizard man was almost naked as well. He wore tattered leather armor and a sad excuse of a rag. A club was affixed to his belt and a rusted mace lay next to him.
“Ugh… I have a bad feeling about this. These two also look way too familiar…!”
Kou muttered as he slapped his forehead, seemingly at his wit’s end. Considering that he was dressed like his in-game character Kou, the black-haired woman and the lizard man under her were most likely Kou‘s acquaintances.
While Kou racked his brain, the catgirl opened her eyes a little.
While mumbling something, she raised her body halfway with sleepy eyes. At the same time, the ears on her head twitched. Now that she had sat up, it was pretty obvious that she had hair growing where a human’s ears were supposed to be.
Her half-open, deep emerald eyes locked on Kou.
For a while, the woman, now sitting cross-legged on the ground, and Kou, who was getting cold feet, stared at each other, but then her eyes flew wide open.
When the woman backed away, her private parts almost entered plain sight, causing Kou to reflexively apologize.
Her ears perked up and while clearly wary, she tried to get up, just to finally notice the lizard man underneath her.
“Huh, what? …What the hell?! Huuh?!”
In a fit of confusion, she leaped back like a feline animal. In the process, one of her feet landed on the lizard man’s head, triggering the lizard man to groan.
“Huh, wait where is this? Where the hell am I?”
While the woman looked around in bewilderment, the lizard man scratched his back and groaned, still not showing any signs of awakening.
“Uh, can I have a moment?”
“Huuh?! What do you want!”
“…You’re Iris, right?”
At Kou’s question, the black-haired woman — Iris, fell silent.
“Your appearance… Kou, is that you?”
Iris observed Kou quizzically with narrowed eyes.
Ashen robe, a wooden staff at his feet. Those were the only parts that were identical to the Kou she knew from in-game. His stature was about the same, but his trademark beard was gone, revealing his Asian baby face. From Iris’s perspective, he seemed to be in his mid-twenties, but considering his Asian descent, he could’ve been in his thirties.
“…Are you really Kou?”
“Yeah. My beard’s gone so you may not recognize me.”
“I mean, not just the beard, your face looks different too. And your speech isn’t fragmented either…”
Having this pointed out, it was Kou’s turn to be surprised and touch his face.
“…My face changed? How do I look?”
“How, you ask… You have a baby face and droopy eyes kinda like a weary system engineer.”
“Oof, that’s some scary accuracy…”
Kou appeared to have taken mental damage from Iris’s remark. But he immediately realized something else and started to grope around at his waist, searching for something.
Then he pulled out his short sword.
“…What are you doing?”
“I’m gonna use it instead of a mirror.
He tried to reflect his face on the shiny blade. But it didn’t turn out to be as polished as he expected it to be, resulting in it not serving as much of a mirror, but he still managed to grasp how much his face had changed compared to the face he had in the game.
“Yeah, looks like it’s my real face.”
“Wait, that means mine’s like that too…?”
She started to touch her face, but then her gaze moved down and she froze.
“…Huh, w-what’s up with this getup…”
She seemed to have finally realized that she was practically half-naked, causing her cheeks to become bright red. She held her breastplate and loincloth, starting to fidget around, but it was a little too late. Looking closely, you could see a black tail wagging at her back.
Kou suffered another impact when he realized that she also had a tail, but he quickly averted his eyes, believing that it was improper to direct such a rude leering at a lady.
“Uhh, you can use this. It’s pretty tattered though.”
He took off his robe and held it out to her. He wore a shirt and pants underneath, so there was no problem with that.
“No problem. Still, this is weird… Why do we have our real faces…”
For the sake of alleviating this awkward atmosphere, Kou kept his voice level while gazing at the endless hills ahead.
Actually, a certain cliche setting from anime and manga came to his mind right away, but he hesitated to voice it out.
“Phew, that was shocking. My body’s somehow turned human…”
Putting the robe on, Iris regained her composure and started combing her hair up. But then her hand came into contact with the ears on top of her head, and she froze once more.
“Eh? What’s this? …Huh?”
She carefully inspected, rubbed and pulled them, then stuck a finger inside the hole, making her yelp, and so on.
After a while, she finally faced Kou, “Hey! Answer me honestly! What in the world is on my head?!”
“What? Well, they are ears.”
“S-So it’s really that?”
“Also, when I looked earlier, you seem to have a tail as well…”
In response to Kou’s comment, Iris touched her buttocks underneath the robe while bending over. Then she pulled on something, resulting in quite an unladylike shriek.
“I-I really got a tail!!”
“It looks exactly like the tail of a Panthenian.”
“Ugh… I was used to it inside the game, so I didn’t really mind it, but I had already wondered since it felt like something was off with my hearing…”
Kou nodded vaguely while Iris felt like dropping to her knees.
In that case, I guess they aren’t cat ears but panther ears…
His current thoughts somewhat had a touch of him trying to escape reality.
The lizard man, who had remained on the ground until now, jolted with a groan. Then he put his hands on the ground and slowly rose up.
The moment his face was exposed, both Kou and Iris gasped.
It was clear from his body, but even his face was eerie enough to warrant him being called lizard man.
His face was covered in scales like his body, his teeth looked serrated and sharp, and his long, snake-like tongue was flickering out of his mouth, licking the narrow lips. His facial bones also deviated from those of a human, giving him a pointy nose with tiny nostrils.
His golden eyes with their slit pupils focused on the two.
But that only lasted for a moment.
The lizard man immediately shifted from sitting cross-legged on the ground to leaping backwards. When he landed on all fours, he had instantly opened up a distance of more than five meters between himself and the other two.
“…Who the hell are ye guys!?”
He asked in a peculiar husky voice. He eyed the two vigilantly as he crouched, reaching out for the club hanging on his belt. He then realized that he had left his mace behind and clicked his tongue.
“…Good grief. I can’t believe you’re ready to get violent right after waking up.”
Kou looked exasperated as he slapped his forehead. Iris on the other hand seemed to have been scared by that extreme bloodlust and backed away with her ears pointing downwards.
“…Huh? Who the fuck??”
“You yourself must be Barnard, I assume? Rather, I really hope you are. I know it sounds unbelievable, but I’m Kou. And that’s Iris.”
“Kou..? Where’s yer beard? Also, the robe that woman’s wearing looks like Kou’s… Actually, that’s Iris? She’s supposed ta be a Panthenian.”
“We’re also confused here. We don’t know where we are, and even our appearances seem to be closer to our real bodies.”
Despite still looking suspicious, Barnard lowered his wariness and surveyed his surroundings.
“…Tsk, don’t remember this terrain. Also, ye said yer appearances turned close ta real life, but why am I still a Dragonia?
He looked down at his body, closing and opening his hand, and then glared at Kou with dangerous eyes. Kou shrugged as if he didn’t know how to respond.
“I don’t know. Actually, you really are Barnard, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. Got a problem?”
“You don’t look like your game avatar either. Your face is, uh… more human-like, and your hair has grown out.”
Barnard blinked in surprise as he touched his ruffled blond hair.
“…Yer right. Shit, da heck is goin’ on? I can’t even open the menu screen, and god knows where the hell we are. Is this place still inside the game?”
“We were just about to start thinking about that.”
“Huh? Right, if yer Kou, what about yer magic?”
“…Oh, that never hit me.”
He snapped his fingers and put his hand into the pouch at his waist where he kept his salt.
He scattered a handful of salt.
And the effect that followed was dramatic, to say the least.
Along with a dry crack, the grassy soil at his feet started to freeze in a radial shape. A cold wave followed a moment later, and a freezing wind brushed past his cheeks.
He felt the bizarre sensation of something important having been stolen from the core of his body. As he fell to his knees, Iris called out in a worry, “Hey, is everything alright…?” and was about to rush over, but stopped in place. It was because she saw an unidentified, semi-transparent being behind Kou.
It was a lean figure of a maiden clad in a long robe. She had long, wavy hair with a transparent blue color. She snuggled up to Kou from behind and embraced him as he was trembling with cold sweat gushing out. Then she brought her lips closer to his neck.
It was a whispery, yet clearly audible voice. He felt like her cold hands were brushing down his back.
With a faint smile, the maiden lovingly tickled Kou’s nape before fading into the space behind him.
“…O-Okay. I see now.”
Kou’s lips rose into a smile, not even bothering to wipe away the sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“So that earlier was the sensation of your magic power being sucked out…”
“…Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll survive. Still, this is serious… This wouldn’t have happened in the game…”
The rest of his words turned into a whisper.
Kou shook his head and was about to get up, but suddenly a patch of frozen grass at his feet drew his attention and he casually pulled it out.
“…Haha, ye two, come ‘n take a look.”
He showed the weed to the two with a strained smile.
“I coulda pull it out. It even has bits of earth stuck ta it.”
Barnard was the first to understand the meaning behind those words, quickly bent down, and started to pull out the grass at random. The wind carried the characteristic grassy smell across the grasslands. Just pulling out grass that he could reach didn’t satisfy him, so he picked up his mace and started to dig up the ground too.
Before long, he stood up and muttered with an absentminded expression, his nails smeared in grass juices and his mace all dirty.
“This would be impossible in the game. It just can’t be.”
“So this is not a game? Then what in the world is it?” Standing still while shuddering, Iris asked in response to Kou’s words.
“Haah?! ain’t it obvious! It’s reality!!”
Barnard was the one to answer with a delighted yell. His shoulders began to tremble while he was giggling at first, but his laughter gradually became louder, and eventually started to guffaw while holding his belly.
“Hihihi! Finally, I did it! Kufufufu-hahahahaha-wahahahaha!!”
His shrill and somewhat crazy laughter kept echoing across the plains. Tears even began to well up in his eyes. Even Kou, who was planning to speak up to Barnard, stopped in his tracks, baffled by Barnard’s bizarre state. Iris also seemed bewildered, thinking she had seen something she wasn’t supposed to see.
Ignoring the two, Barnard stuffed the grass he had plucked out earlier into his mouth, chewed, and yelled out in jow.
“Wahahaha, amazing, fucking amazing! The grass actually tastes like one! So fucking bitter! So fucking disgusting! Fuhahahahaha-hihihihihihi!”
Then he abruptly stood up and whistled with his fingers. At that, the mottled horse — Barnard’s mount — which had been grazing at a place a bit further away, happily galloped to its master.
“Ohh, yer alive too, huh! Aw yeah! Ye even have a furry smell, Wahahaha! Horses stink a lot worse than I thought!”
He roughly brushed the mane of his mount that was licking his face and…
Drove the mace in his right hand into the horse’s face.
Along with a blunt thud, the horse’s face exploded in a crimson shower. Its skull got crushed and the pink brain scattered all over, and from its mouth, a splash of blood rushed out, clearly not being a visual effect.
“Hahahaha, this is crazy! It’s real!!”
Barnard stood in front of the lifeless body of the horse after it had powerlessly toppled over, rejoicing as blood dripped down all over his body.
The other two were taken aback by his action.
Then, one of the horse’s eyeball rolled up to Iris’s feet.
“N…NOOOOOOOOOO!”, screamed Iris.
“What the fuck are you doing!!!”, shouted Kou, condemning Barnard’s incomprehensible behavior.
But, without paying them any attention, Barnard continued to laugh madly.
“Huuh?! Can’t ya tell by lookin’! Imma eat it!!”
“Kou, didn’t ya have a knife on ya? Lend it ta me for a bit, I’mma butcher it.”
“Kou? Come on, hurry up.”
“…Yeah, okay. I mean, sure.”
Kou shook his head and pulled out his short sword from the belt and tossed it to Barnard.
“Sure, you’re welcome…” Kou vaguely responded, casting a glance at Iris, while Barnard started to cheerfully butcher the corpse.
She seemed utterly disgusted. But, Kou was pretty much the same in this regard.
He couldn’t help but to sigh wearily.
After the sun had completely vanished beyond the horizon, the light of a single bonfire flickered inside a stone ruin hidden among trees.
It belonged to Kou’s group.
Since then, they had judged that an open grassland wasn’t suitable for camping, so they searched the vicinity of the rocky mountains and stumbled upon this place.
“Haha, we were so lucky that ya had salt on ya, Kou! Thanks, man!”
Sitting on a flat stone, Barnard cheered as he dug his sharp teeth into a bony piece of meat dripping with juices. Next to him lay the half-butchered horse, casually left to rot on the ground. He had easily carried the hundreds of kilograms worth of meat all the way here by himself. The superhuman strength, which was one of the Dragonia‘s characteristics, appeared to be usable on this side as well.
Incidentally, he had actually used his Breath to ignite this bonfire, too.
“Well, even fresh ingredients woulda taste bland with no seasoning whatsoever.”
Sitting opposite of Barnard, Kou also bit into a piece of mean while smiling languidly. He only had a thin shirt and simple pants on him, so he felt somewhat cold because of the chilly night air. As such he used the bonfire to warm himself, just like Barnard, who sat almost inside the fire, probably because of his racial traits, a weakness towards coldness, or maybe simply because he wanted to eat meat.
Iris sat a little away from the two, nibbling on a little chunk of meat she was pinching between two fingers. Her body was still wrapped up in the robe she had borrowed from Kou. She was acting pretty restless. The same could be said about the pair of ashen and black horses behind her. Ever since they had witnessed Barnard smiting his mount to death, the horses had become completely frightened, staying away from him as far as possible.
The sound of two men chewing meat was the only sound audible in the vicinity.
“…So, what are we going to do?”
Barnard blinked in confusion at Kou’s sudden question.
“…Oh, ya mean from now on?”
“Lessee. It’s gotten pretty late and cold, so less just eat n’ camp out for today. Rest can wait for tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I got that part. But I’m asking what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
“This is probably the world of【DEMONDAL】. No idea why it’s turned into reality, though. Either way, there should be a village or two ’round.”
He spat out a piece of bone, and grinned while holding the meat in his hand.
“Less just attack one.”
“…So it’s come to that, after all. You’re the same as ever.”
Kou slapped his forehead with a bitter smile. Behind him, Iris became ever more frightened.
“Well, anyway, it’s good that we can rest for today… I’m too tired to think about what to do from now on.”
“Yeah, I wanna keep eating meat for now!”
“Just eat as much as you want. We have a ton of meat here, and it was your horse, to begin with.”
Kou responded with an sarcastic, yet amiable smile, as if to say, I don’t know what to do with this guy. Barnard slapped his knee and laughed in a good mood, then continued.
“Still, I could’ve never guessed ya were Asian.”
“My parents are Japanese. My passport is British, however.”
“Hah, I see, no wonder ya had dat weird accent.”
“What about you? Are you American?”
Barnard answered while stuffing his cheeks with more meat, his hands glistening thanks to all the oil.
Just like his appearance suggested, his appetite seemed monstrously bottomless, but in the end, eating an entire horse overnight proved to be too much even for him.
“Oof… Can’t eat any more.”
He threw away the bone in his hand, after leaving only cartilage and tendons on it, and flopped down on the ground just like that..
“You really ate your fill there…”
“Hehehe, ’twas fresh meat so I got a lil’ worked up…”
A sense of satisfaction filled his body, making him all relaxed. His expression turned unexpectedly peaceful, considering his lizardly face, as he stifled a yawn.
“…Damn, I’m feeling super sleepy after eating all dat…”
“We’re staying here tonight, so just go ahead and sleep. Let’s keep watch in turns.”
Kou told him kindly while rummaging for something in his pouch.
“Mhm… Gotcha… Just wake me up when it’s…ti…”
His words faded away towards the end, and he immediately fell asleep. Kou, on the other hand, silently stood up and took out some kind of suspicious powder from his pouch while looking down at Barnard without any expression.
【Darlan. Arto, Kon-sui】
As he chanted the Script, he sprinkled the powder over him. The shining golden particles got absorbed into Barnard’s body.
Iris, who had been observing them from the background, saw a small robed person within the darkness beyond.
“…Okay, now we can finally calm down and talk.”
Kou turned his back on the bonfire, looking at Iris.
“…Did you put him to sleep?”
“I used five-times worth of catalysts all at once. Even Barnard shouldn’t wake up for some time.”
He sat down on the fallen tree he had been using as a chair, and sighed, seemingly exhausted.
“… Let’s redo the introductions. I’m Koutarou Yonegawa. I mentioned earlier, but I’m a British guy with Japanese parents. Let’s get along.”
“I’m… Iris De La Fuente. I’m Spanish.”
“Oh? So you went with your real name, huh, interesting.”
“I mean, none of my acquaintances plays【DEMONDAL】anyway…”
“Still, your English is pretty good. Thought you were from the same place as me.”
“I went to an international school, that’s why…”
“Ahh, makes sense.”
Kou nodded with a self-satisfied look.
So she’s a rich young lady, huh? He thought but didn’t voice it out.
“…So, about after this. What do we do about him?”
Kou pointed at the lizard man with his chin, causing Iris to return a disheartened expression. Her ears reacted to her emotions and drooped down.
“I knew he was one heck of a sicko ever since we started playing together… but seriously, I didn’t think he was so messed up.”
“I’m with you on that. I just laughed it off in the game since there was no real danger.”
The two looked at each other and sighed deeply.
“Returning to the topic of our future course of action. My opinion is that I don’t want to stay together with him.”
“I think the same. God knows what he’ll do.”
“I mean, when I asked what we’re going to do, he simply replied with, let’s attack a village…”
Kou slapped his forehead with a bitter smile.
“For the time being, I’m glad that you’re at least a sane person, Iris. I don’t know what I’d do if you turned out to be another Barnard.”
“That’s my line. I started worrying that you might be like him after watching you two earlier… Thank god it was an act.”
Iris covered her face with both hands, spitting out another heavy sigh.
“…Hey, Kou, is this truly reality? Maybe it’s all just a nightmare?” She asked with a shaking voice.
“I don’t know. I also hope that it’s just a dream.”
Kou answered while looking in the distance.
“But, have you ever seen any dreams as realistic as this one…?”
Beyond the domain illuminated by the fire with its crackling and popping twigs sprawled a silent, dark forest.
—Still, we can’t stay here forever like this.
“Okay. Iris, I have a suggestion.”
Kou said after clapping his hands to get the conversation going again, but the sound made Iris flinch. Even the hair on her ears stood on ends.
“Ah, my bad. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, i-it’s fine. So?”
“Right. About our guidelines from now on. I’m going to talk under the assumption that this place is a world in another dimension that’s identical to【DEMONDAL】. So, I would like to set returning to the real world as my goal. What about you?”
“I wanna return too. Who’d wanna stay here anyway?”
“Figured as much.”
He thought back on the wrongdoings they did during the game. No one would want to stay in a world where such outlaws were commonplace, unless they had a very good reason to.
“Then, let’s continue our talks with that goal in mind… As I was talking with Barnard earlier, there should be people in “this” world too, I think. Rather, I hope there are. We should first look for human habitations and secure a minimum of things we need…”
“We can’t exactly keep camping out as we are now, yep.”
“I pray that we aren’t in a “Dragonia” or “Panthenia” area…”
“What do we do about him?”
“We leave him behind, of course.” Kou replied instantly. “…We should leave him here and go ahead by ourselves.”
The two nodded with their expressions showing their complex feelings.
They didn’t know whether leaving Barnard here was really a good idea.
Assuming people lived in this world as they did in the game — it was plain as day that Barnard would embroil them in some kind of disaster.
Yet — they didn’t have the will to consider the option of killing him with their own hands. The two shared the same feelings on the matter, and were well aware of that fact, but neither of them brought it up.
“…Frankly, this guy is just trouble afoot, both in personality…and appearance.”
At his words, Iris reflexively reached out towards the top of her head.
“We don’t know how the people of this world are going to react to those. For the time being, you should keep the hood on, Iris.”
“Okay, then let’s make finding people our first goal… Let’s go.”
He picked up his staff from the ground at his feet and stood up.
“Let’s get away from here… from Barnard, as much as we possibly can. I don’t know what made him do it, but it’s a good thing that he killed his horse.”
“…Why did he kill it, I wonder?”
“Who knows. I can’t fathom the thinking of a madman.”
Did he really want meat that badly? Kou mumbled under his breath.
He then straddled the ashen horse, which was neighing as it attempted to get away from this place as quickly as possible.
“Iris, can I leave the watch to you?”
“Yeah. It seems that my night vision works even on this side.”
Sitting gallantly on her black horse, Iris’s eyes seemed to gleam under the moonlight.
“—In exchange, support me with magic if anything happens, okay?”
“Setting Ice aside, I have enough magic power and catalysts for the Fairy, so leave it to me.”
Kou answered with a smile while tapping on his waist pouch.
Before long, two riders silently galloped across the moonlit land.
Kou’s expression was overcast by gloom as he looked straight ahead while straddling the jolting horse.
Frankly speaking — saying that he felt not a shred of guilt over abandoning Barnard… would be, as might be expected, a lie.
Thus, Kou looked backwards, in the direction where his temporary friend was sleeping.
Those words were perhaps a kind of tribute—
The two melted into the darkness of the night.
Leaving behind a nonhuman man all by himself.
Sleeping next to a campfire without knowing anything.
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