Northeast in the Dragon Kingdom of Lugunica, the Elior Forest was known as “The Frozen Forest”. Within Lugunica, it was considered to be an extremely unusual environment. These peculiarities had been recorded for around a century. Lugunica was typically temperate, warm in the fire season and cold in the ice season, it was only in a certain area far north that one could see snowfall year round.
If one were to then compare Elior Forest to other areas, it would be clear that its weather patterns were completely abnormal. The source of this abnormality was commonly considered to be a spirit.
To give an example, take the Holy Kingdom of Gusteco, a land covered in permafrost, where spirits were seen on a regular basis. There even existed a nationwide religion worshipping spirits, the Holy Church of Gusteco. Extreme regions were considered to be trials put forth by spirits, and the majority of the population believed in these teachings.
Even beyond Gusteco’s scriptures, it was common knowledge that these spirits’ power had repercussions on the entire world. It was also very common to respect spirits, the only exception being the Vollachian empire.
But even so, it was a fact that spirits were beings of incredible power, and it was well known that to provoke one was to invite disaster.
—This has gotten a bit long, so let us conclude with this: The source of the extreme weather in Lugunica’s Elior Forest was a spirit who lived there, and angering such a powerful spirit would bring catastrophe.
That was Lugunican Kingdom’s viewpoint, due to which the forest continued to rest undisturbed to this day.
—Of course, the girl who lived there had no way of knowing this.
“—Puck, look! There’s so many of those shiny stones! We did it!” Emilia proclaimed joyously as she lay on the ground, waving to Puck.
Deep in the forest, there was a place she called the ‘Doddering Thicket’, a place that only had very old trees, all frozen. Their dense foliage blocked out the sun, leaving the area dark at all times.
It was so dark that even one’s footing was uncertain, and Emilia laid there with her eyes sparkling.
“That’s really great, but be sure not to take too many. They’ll lose value.”
Puck laid down next to her, waving his tail as he warned her. Her grand discovery was reflected in his eyes too. Before them were old roots protruding out of the ground, meandering and coiling around each other.
Within a gap in the roots was a well hidden opening in the ground. Even in the darkness, that frozen opening had a glow to it.
—It was vein of the shiny stones, as Emilia called them.
“What do you mean lose value? They’re all pretty, aren’t they?”
“It’d be great if everyone thought that way, but if there’s a lot of a certain item, people tend to think of it as less special.“
Emilia cocked her head in confusion as she crawled to the opening. She then used a knife to carefully cut the stones out of the ground.
“Aah, this feels reeeally good, like cleaning someone’s ears.”
“That sort of reaction to stones this pretty, I can’t say I dislike it.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“Of course, you’re quite good at expressing your joy. It’s splendid.”
Emilia continued to scrape the wall with her rusted and chipped knife as Puck silently applauded and encouraged her..
Honestly, it was distracting. Anyway, Puck’s advice was given in good faith. It was easy for her to lose herself as she did this, but it would be troublesome if she took too many.
Because this was the only source of income she had.
“Besides, they won’t form new ones if I take them all, right?”
“That’s right. They’re basically mana in crystalized form. If they accumulate particularly large amounts of mana they become magic stones, and other such stones start forming around them. This place is very conducive to their formation, so the trick is to leave a few behind.”
“Hmm, you really are smart.”
“You could even call me a mana expert. In fact, you could even call me an Emiila expert.”
Puck stroked his whiskers as he smiled at a wide-eyed Emilia.
“It’s true, you know. If you collect too many of these, you’ll want to keep them and then use them to decorate your room. Yes, I can see that future clearly.”
“You’re not seeing the future, that’s something I did a long time ago…”
“History is a circle, people repeat their mistakes… Ah, that was pretty deep, huh?”
If he was seeking agreement, he would find none from Emilia.
However, there was some truth to his words. She had once tried to hoard the stones in secret, not wanting to give them away.
“I’d gathered so many, but they suddenly lost their lustre and became ordinary rocks.”
“Because they’re piles of mana. If there were an even larger source of mana nearby, they would steadily be absorbed by it and become empty.”
“An even bigger source?”
“Ah, that’s me.”
Emilia was left dumbfounded by this nonchalant declaration. She remained silent as Puck nodded at her without a hint of guilt.
“Basically, as long as I’m with you, they’ll be no different from ordinary rocks. I guess you could say it’s a real waste*. Now, hurry up and trade them for dinner before you get attached.”
[T/N: This is a pun, the saying used for waste here is something like “decaying jewels” if interpreted literally]
“Understood, understood completely! Turning on me like that, you’re horrible…”
Emilia obeyed his instructions, clearly displeased. She put the stones in her pouch and confirmed their weight before leaving.
She tidied her snow-stained robe as she carved a sign into a nearby tree to mark the location, a portrait of Puck, quite a good one if she said so herself.
“A crushed witchbeast?”
Emilia ignored Puck’s teasing and returned to the ‘Garden’. She soon reached familiar territory and sighed in relief as the tension left her face.
“Looks like the forest still has a lot of places we don’t know about.”
“The forest reconnaissance team has a grand total of two members, after all. And I don’t really cooperate, so in truth you’re doing it alone. Even so, you’re steadily completing that rather avant-garde map.
“Avant-garde? You’re trying to trick me with tough words.”
“That wasn’t trickery, merely an honest impression.”
Contrary to his catlike appearance, it wasn’t uncommon for Puck to use words she didn’t understand.
This was usually when he wanted to hide his true feelings from her. It made her feel a little lonely, but she also thought herself selfish for feeling that way.
“It feels like you’re being all habuncho* again, though.”
[T/N: Regional slang for ostracizing someone]
“I don’t really understand what you’re saying either, I guess the feeling is mutual.”
Having heard her mutter, Puck shrugged his shoulders in a human-like manner. They arrived at her home as they continued their conversation.
They left the sled at the roots of the tree she’d remodeled into her home, she intended to sell its contents along with the stones she’d collected.
“By the way, it’s really convenient how this sled doesn’t melt away.”
“It’s because I made it, you know? Wanna ride down some slopes later?”
“That sounds reeeally fun, but I don’t have time for that. Maybe some other time.”
Having rejected his invitation, Emilia smiled bitterly as she pulled the sled. The boxes were quite heavy, but thanks to Puck’s sled she could move them fairly easily,
However, it was lacking in that it couldn’t cross uneven terrain. Though Emilia would normally bound through rough terrain, she currently had to use gentler paths.
“Looks like there’s more snow falling around these ‘Zig-zagging Woods’ than before, it’s getting harder to walk.”
“Straight to the point, huh. Zig-zagging, zig-zagging…
“No complaining. It’s my map, so I’ll name them as I place.”
Emilia pouted at Puck who was complaining from the sled, he had a habit of criticizing her naming scheme.
It was at the point where Emilia, being stubborn herself, would no longer even consider his suggestions. Easy to understand names that you wouldn’t forget, really good names she thought.
“Zig-zagging… Ah, we’re approaching the exit. It’s about time I left, you’d better put your hood on too, don’t forget.”
“Hmph, that’s hard to swallow… But fine, I get it.”
Emilia reluctantly nodded to Puck’s advice as he took his leave when they reached the end of the ‘Zig-zagging Woods’.
Donning her hood, she hid her silver hair. Puck seemed satisfied by this and smiled, he then started disappearing with no warning.
“… Suddenly disappearing like that is a real bad habit of his. It was quite the shock back then.”
She was used to the sight now, but it was terribly surprising when she first saw it. Spirits could freely control the formation and disintegration of their bodies from atmospheric mana.
Not knowing this, Emilia was driven to tears when Puck suddenly disappeared with no explanation. She still remembered how angry she was when Puck just showed up like nothing happened the very next day.
“Whoops, can’t get distracted now.”
Realizing she was getting caught up in her reminiscing, Emilia consciously put a stop to it and braced herself.
She had almost reached her destination, it wasn’t the time to fool around. The closer she got, the more her face stiffened. Even as her heart raced, she knew things were going quiet.
What awaited her demanded that sort of resolution.
She was now alone, having separated from Puck. Her surroundings steadily changed, the difference in atmosphere was strikingly clear. The drumming in her chest grew ever more violent.
The snow-covered landscape around her changed into brilliant greenery as she proceeded.
The deeper one went into Elior Forest, the more extreme the cold became.
However, the opposite was also true, the effect weakened as one left the forest, and the outskirts were no different from any ordinary forest. Of course that did not mean the cold disappeared entirely, but it was no longer lethal to humans.
At the chilly outskirts of the forest, there existed a human settlement.
Emilia stopped and narrowed her eyes at the scene before her. Through the gaps in the trees, she could make out some small houses
Houses made of brick, villagers wearing faded clothes. There were perhaps forty or fifty people here, and they weren’t particularly well off according to Puck. That was second hand information, but Emilia did know how lonely the place felt.
Even they wanted nothing to do with Emilia, who only had Puck and her sculptures for companions.
Discarding her hesitation, Emilia walked toward the village. Pulling her sled through a gap in the fence, she entered the place, feeling the ground through the soles of her shoes.
It was well past noon, approaching evening. It was a season with long days, the sun still shone brightly in the sky. There was still some time before sundown.
For that reason, there were still small children playing in a clearing in the middle of the village. Their joyous voices were somewhat comforting to Emilia.
It was a poor village with few inhabitants, but the childrens’ joy was priceless. She felt that the site of these happy children could make anyone smile.
At the very least, Emilia felt that way. However, she herself was the reason this couldn’t continue.
A feeble voice, from one of the children. A child had spotted her when he turned around, his smile immediately disappeared, tension evident on his face.
That striking response spread like a chain reaction. They looked at Emilia as they quietly whispered to each other and then left the area.
Their rapid evacuation didn’t even leave Emilia the chance to say anything. Emilia wanted to sigh, even though she knew all along she would be rejected completely, with no opportunity to explain herself.
“… I didn’t even do anything.”
Emilia grumbled as she felt an air of fear spread through the village.
Children to adults, adults to neighbors, news of the ‘Forest Person’’s arrival spread. The village was on high alert, and the so called ‘Forest Person’, Emilia, picked up her pace as she continued pulling her sled to her destination.
Within clearing lay the village’s only marketplace – one in name only – It was essentially a place to exchange goods. The villagers could bring their plant or animal products and quickly trade them.
However its meager lineup was more than enough for Emilia. Leaving her sled at the entrance, Emilia took a deep breath and entered.
A ‘room’ that only had a roof, with an aging man sitting before some goods lined up on a long table. The man wore a headband, and had his forehead was deeply wrinkled. He scowled at Emilia as he spoke to her in a low voice.
His tone and eyes made it clear he wasn’t welcoming her. However, he wasn’t ignoring or distancing her, which was a relief.
“The usual, please.”
They exchanged few words, the man then stood up in response to her laconic request. He picked up a nearby box and haphazardly tossed some crops and spices in.
Meanwhile, Emilia took her pouch out as she prepared to pay with the stones she’d collected.
“… Your shoes. How about them?”
Emilia was momentarily dumbfounded by his hoarse whisper. But she immediately looked down and noticed the condition of her shoes, so ragged she was practically barefoot.
“Ah! Please do. As you can see, they’ve gotten all holey as of late…”
Giving no response, the man slinked into the back of the building. Emilia simply smiled bitterly at her situation.
However, she was really happy he noticed her shoes before she said anything.
“Thank you so much. Hm, they fit just right.”
He held out some crude shoes, cobbled together from cloth and hide. Emilia would normally very quickly ruin her shoes running around in the forest so she figured she was better off barefoot, but that wouldn’t do in front of others.
This was also something she’d learned from experience. Having confirmed the shoes’ size and feel, she paid him with her stones, he then passed her the box he’d filled.
Having obtained these, her shopping trip was complete.
Perhaps she could segue into small talk if they were closer, but unfortunately his gaze didn’t allow it. As usual, she’d have to leave things at that and head back to the ‘Garden’.
However, her chores that day didn’t end at shopping.
“Um, actually, I brought some stuff that was left behind in the forest.”
Her proposal caused the man, who thought they were done, to raise his brow. Emilia went outside and pointed to the sled and boxes she’d left there.
This was how she intended to dispose of the intruders’ cargo. This was what she always did, taking the items left behind to the village.
Since she couldn’t return them to the original owners, she at least wanted someone to make use of them.
“… Understood, I’ll take them.”
The man examined the contents of the boxes, drawing in his chin as he looked at the bottled substance. Leaving their handling to the village, Emilia bowed and left for real this time. She didn’t pass a single villager on her way back.
She wondered if there was a rule dictating no one go outside until she left. If they were openly rejecting her to this extent, the shopkeeper’s blunt attitude was wonderful by comparison.
She had once gone to the shop while a woman was watching over it, sending her into a convulsing fit. Shopping aside, Emilia couldn’t even explain herself before she left.
It seemed they had a man in charge ever since, which she felt apologetic for.
“Am I really so scary, I wonder…”
Emilia touched her face all over, confirming what it felt like. However, she couldn’t really grasp what she looked like from feel alone.
—Emilia was deathly afraid to know exactly what she looked like.
Once she was done, she suppressed a sigh as she returned to the path into the forest. As she was about to enter, she suddenly turned around.
—She felt a presence watching her.
“… How strange.”
It was different from the gazes of the villagers. They tried to avoid her as much as possible, and that included even looking at her.
As long as she wasn’t there, she basically didn’t exist as far as they were concerned. That was precisely why the presence staring at her made her so uncomfortable.
Even so, she didn’t wish to confirm who exactly it was.
Staying in the village much longer would be unpleasant, both for her and for the villagers. If it was something she could endure herself, she’d do it to keep the peace.
“Time to go.”
She said to herself as she ignored the persistent gaze. Emilia dashed into the green forest, her new shoes impacting the soft ground.
As she ran, her breaths gradually turned white, and color left her surroundings, giving way to a snowscape. Finally, the sensation under her shoes changed to the familiar feeling of cracking ice.
“—Oh, you’re back. Welcome home.”
Emilia came to a sudden stop when she heard those words, her shoes scraping the ground. Catching her breath, she looked up to find Puck who narrowed his eyes at her condition.
“Seems you’ve had another unpleasant experience?”
“… No way! That’s not the case. I got to talk a lot more than usual today.”
“Yeah? Then hiding your face like that is a bit rude, isn’t it?”
Puck chuckled as he pointed this out, causing Emilia to realize she still had her hood on. She hastily took it off, her cheeks a bit red.
“How cute, like an apple.”
“… You’re so nasty, Puck.”
“I just called you cute, though. Anyway, setting aside your shopping, how about those boxes?’
Dissatisfied at this change in topic, Emilia shook her head.
“Mm, I don’t know. I couldn’t read the shopkeeper’s expression. And later, in the village…”
“In the village?”
The conversation naturally led to the gaze following her, but Emilia seemed hesitant to talk about it.
The reasons being rebelliousness, and that she didn’t want Puck to worry. Rebelliousness as in she didn’t want to tell Puck and then get treated like a kid like usual.
These factors sealed her lips.
“Uh, you see, the shoes. The truth is, he pointed them out before I even said anything. You know how the old ones were all holey?”
“That’s because you always wear them down right away, isn’t it? I think he was definitely shocked.”
“Even if that were the reason, it’s a really big deal for him to remember a detail like that. At this rate, we might even be able to talk about the weather…”
The fact that he looked at her with such pity even though she tried so hard to avoid that really annoyed her.
To Emilia, being able to talk about the weather would be a sign of greatly improved relations. The weather was a great topic, since it was always changing. She was having a hard time thinking of any other topics, though.
“To begin with, what weather are you planning to talk about? It’s always cloudy or snowy around here.”
“That’s fine! What’s important is being able to do it.”
“Why would I lie about something like this? Really, really, it’s the truth!”
Emilia didn’t feel particularly bad as she responded to Puck’s doubting gaze. At the very least, she had someone actually talking to her.
—It was quite the luxury to her, since she’d normally talk to those mute sculptures.
The room was dim and gloomy. The windows and curtains were shut, blocking out any light from entering. A sinister atmosphere permeated the dark and still room.
The room was not silent. There was a very slight sound, which continued incessantly.
—Hoarse breaths, and the distorted sound of nails scratching at something wet.
The room had a wooden floor, a simple bed, and a crystal light that had gone out. Sitting on the bed was a silent man, picking at the bandaged wound on his face.
The wound covered most of the right side of his face, even his ear which was now gone. It was painful just to look at, but the man’s expression wasn’t one of pain, his bloodshot eyes were filled with hatred.
The reason was a small gap in the curtains through which he could see the outside world. —Several hours ago, he’d seen a girl in a white robe through that gap. Not only had she ruined their transaction, she even insulted their way of life.
Furthermore, considering her words and her movement in the village—
“Excuse me, boss. Uh…”
A young man with a deep voice knocked on the door, and then entered without waiting for a response. The darkness caused him to flinch, but he fixed his posture when he spotted the man on the bed.
The man wordlessly urged his visitor to speak. Having deduced that from his silence, the young man started speaking to the bandaged man — their bearded leader.
“Looks like you guessed right, boss.”
“… You’re sure?”
“They didn’t want to talk, but we squeezed it out of them. What now?”
Having received this report, the bearded man stopped his scratching. He sniffed his finger which was covered in blood and pus, the foul smell warping his face into an evil smile.
“—Bring me the cage.”
“The cage, sir?”
“They’ll know what you’re talking about. And then the troops, we’ll set out when they’re assembled, get them ready.”
The subordinate nodded as he gulped at the insane look in the bearded man’s eyes. Having made sure of that, the bearded man started staring at a wall, picturing the forest beyond it.
“Alright, let’s get you in that cage. You’ll be our plaything till you die, girl.”
—It had been several days since her trip to the village, and even more since her battle. As far as Emilia was concerned, nothing had changed in that time.
She would look after the sculptures in the morning, Puck would start his meddling midway, and once she was done she would have her breakfast, after which she would start working on her map.
In the evening, Puck would show up again and hang out for a bit, accompanying her on her way home since she would stop her mapmaking before sundown. She would then have her dinner and take a bath, after which she’d go to sleep and end her day. These peaceful days continued without incident.
That was probably why Emilia ended up forgetting about the strange gaze she’d felt in the village. Since she didn’t think it was a threat, it steadily left her thoughts, and today was no different.
“You might get a little lonely, but I’ll have to step out for a bit today.”
That was the first thing Puck said to Emilia, who had just barely woken up and was washing her face in the stream.
“Yeah, that’s right, a little outing. Don’t cry because I’m not around, okay?”
“I won’t cry or anything…”
Puck acted rather self-important as he passed a towel to Emilia, who was the furthest thing from a morning person. Emilia finally realized what they were talking about as she sluggishly dried her face.
“You’re free to do whatever you want wherever you want, though… Guess there’s days like this now and then, huh.”
“I think just telling you in advance like this is already quite good for a vagabond.”
“That’s… Yeah, that’s right.”
Nodding at his assertion, Emilia cast her eyes downward, still holding her towel to her face. She blinked several times before she looked up at Puck.
“Then, can I ask you where you’re going?”
“It’s a secret. But it isn’t anything dangerous, suspicious or wrong.”
“That sounds real dodgy…”
“If I say I won’t do something, I won’t do it. That’s why I never help with your mapmaking, you know?”
“That’s not something to be proud of…”
No matter what she said, Puck could always talk his way out of it.
“You really can’t say?”
“Yeah, sorry. But look, secrets just make a girl more desirable.”
“Eh? You’re a girl?”
“Nah, just wanted to try saying it, I really am a guy. Furthermore, it’d be real bad if I were a girl, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill a really important promise, you see.”
Puck placed his hands on his back and puffed his chest out, causing Emilia to sigh and nod. It didn’t seem like he intended to respond sincerely, and she didn’t really have the right to ask for more details. He didn’t have to tell her any more than he had, their relationship didn’t warrant it.
“Can I ask about your plans for today?”
“You already know, the same as usual.”
“I see… Sorry for asking.”
“You’re such a bully! Just forget it!”
Puck laughed cheerfully as Emilia pouted at his teasing. Emilia then turned her back on him, intending to go clean the sculptures. However, at that moment—
“—Emilia. I won’t be with you, so don’t do anything dangerous.”
“I should be saying that to you. Don’t run off with some stranger or…”
Emilia turned around as she replied, but her sentence stopped midway. Puck’s gaze was warm and gentle. Those round, black eyes seemed to contain some strong emotion.
“If something were to happen, your first priority should be to run away. And if it seems dangerous, run away immediately. Understood?”
“Don’t let the ‘Ice Flowers’ bloom, even by mistake.”
Emilia looked away as she nodded. Her attitude wasn’t quite one of assent, but Puck seemed satisfied and started to fade away. As she watched his physical form disappear, Emilia started to pout.
“He really is unfair.”
He was always playing dumb, but he’d occasionally get so serious all of a sudden. When he spoke to her that way, she couldn’t possibly brush it off.
Even if she didn’t like it, she had to stay aware of that which lay inside her, it wouldn’t do to disobey Puck’s instructions. Both Emilia and Puck knew this. Perhaps Puck even moreso than her.
He wouldn’t speak of it in detail, perhaps that too was part of the secret he’d mentioned.
“—I’d better get moving.”
If she got wrapped up in her thoughts there wouldn’t be an end to it. Disregarding the labyrinth that was her thoughts, she got back to her work.
By keeping her daily routine this way, she was also protecting her heart. Subconsciously aware of this, Emilia ran toward the ‘Garden’ with a towel in hand.
Mapping the whole of Elior Forest was something Emilia had decided to do on her own. Investigation and creation, all of it was done by Emilia alone. Puck wasn’t particularly cooperative in this endeavor, though he would often meddle.
Even so, they shared the information on the map and she was grateful that he used it.
She’d started working on the map about half a year prior, but progress was slow-going, and she had a long way to go to complete the entire forest.
Especially as of late, the northern areas she was presently investigating proved to be quite treacherous due to the rough terrain and deep snowfall.
She marked an X on her map as she sighed at the scene before her. It was a densely wooded region, with thick trees that were completely frozen.
It was certainly a pain to have her path blocked by these dense woods, but she sighed for a different reason— The fact that a tree had been brought down by force, and the traces of something crossing over it. There were even signs of tracks in the area which caused Emilia to knit her brows.
“That’s not supposed to be around here… And it’s recent.”
Snow started accumulating in the grooves. Seeing this, Emilia conjectured that this ‘Clattering Grove’ had just recently ended up in this state.
Spreading out her map, she examined its contents and her memory. She then took off, donning her hood as she slipped through the cramped grove.
Not to hide her identity, but to keep her hair from getting caught in the foliage. She often thought her long hair was troublesome in such situations, or when she was bathing.
She thought she’d be free of many of her troubles if she just cut it short, the reason she didn’t do so was because Puck asked her to keep it long since he preferred it that way.
—She also felt that someone had once complimented her long hair, though she didn’t remember it.
Having left the woods while in thought, Emilia looked down at the ground in front of her. It was a sight she’d seen several days prior, disconcerting as usual.
Just like before, the ‘Sloppy Snow Path’ had tracks going up the hill. What was different from before was the absence of the lawless intruders and the cart that they’d left behind.
She descended the path and examined the deeply engraved tracks. There was even more snow falling here than in the grove she’d just left, but none had accumulated on the tracks.
There were no footprints around the tracks, as though the scars from the other day’s battle had been covered up completely. It was only natural that this would happen. It was natural, but it was a bit overdone—
“—You’re here, aren’t you? How about you show yourselves?”
As she stood over the tracks, Emilia raised her voice. For a moment there was no reply, the path was silent. However, that silence was soon broken.
The forest’s silence was replaced by the sound of many footsteps, and the noise of a carriage being pulled. A group wearing thick clothing appeared before her with a familiar face leading them. Well, not that familiar, it had changed quite a bit since she last saw it.
“Yo, it’s been a week, huh. Nice to meet you, girl.”
“… I can’t say the feeling’s mutual.”
They lined up down the slope, the leader who spoke to her being the large, bandaged man. His voice, gaze and wound made it clear to Emilia exactly who he was.
But the insanity in his eyes sent a chill up her spine. Emilia knew her judgement wasn’t very good, but it was obvious to her what they were aiming to do.
She realized for the first time that she could be unhappy about someone wanting to meet her.
“Even so, how did you know we were here? We were careful not to leave any footprints.”
“It’s not like I came thinking you were here. I just noticed the tracks while I was doing something else. There was no snow on them because you used them to hide your footprints, right?”
“Tch, good eye. An expert on forests, are you.”
Hearing her response, he clicked his tongue and started scratching at his wound. Emilia grimaced as blood seeped through the bandage.
“Can I ask you something?”
“That wound, it’ll leave a bad scar if you don’t treat it properly. Do you have any medicine for it?”
“—! Oi, oioioi, this little… Medicine? Medicine, you say?!”
Her question seemed to touch a nerve, causing him to fly into a rage. His expression and shouts surprised Emilia, leaving her bewildered, this reaction only further enraged him.
“You trying to make a fool of me? Or are you really that much of an airhead? Either way, you’re even more of a fool than I thought, ‘Forest Person’!”
“… That name…”
“I don’t think I need to tell you where I heard it, girl.”
The bearded man smiled vulgarly as Emilia’s expression changed. He moved his hand in a grandiose fashion, and in that direction – east of the forest – was the village.
“Damn you, you robbed us and sold the goods to that tiny village. We asked around and it turns you do this quite frequently, a serial offender, huh?”
“… What are you talking about? I never….”
“You can do whatever you want and their guilty conscience keeps them from complaining, you’re quite a nasty woman, you know?”
“Don’t make stuff up, I never once intended to do anything of the sort!”
“Quit playing dumb! Those village bastards spilled the beans, we know all about your little deal! Giving them a cut to keep their mouths shut, they’re practically accomplices!”
His malice overwhelmed any response she might have had to his false accusation. He interpreted her silence as an admission he was right.
However, the truth was much more cruel. Emilia was completely shocked by his words, their contents far beyond her expectations. To think that those villagers told them such things about her.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree if you bear a grudge against them for this. Aiding a demihuman in a country like Lugunica is a task far too serious for those poor bastards, it was only natural they’d fail.”
“Aiding a demihuman…?”
“Think you can get away by feigning ignorance? How about you drop the act and get on with it, ‘Forest Person’—No, elf girl.”
Following his string of false accusations, he dropped one final bomb. Emilia had no immediate response to his assertion that she was an elf.
His eyes sparkled with the satisfaction of being right as he stared at Emilia’s frozen figure.
“They cooperated with a demihuman… Moreover an elf bandit. Those village guys are unbelievable, that’s a serious crime in Lugunica.”
“I-I’m not a bandit… Even so! Why even the villagers?!”
“You really are behind the times, huh? You don’t even know about the Demihuman War? You bastards lost the civil war, you have no rights. Merely breathing near your human masters is a crime. Furthermore, even among demihumans, elves are considered particularly bad. It’s obvious isn’t it?”
“Do I look like your dad? I’m not going to sit here and teach you.”
He laughed at her shaky voice, and his twenty or so men started laughing with him. Surrounded by their malice, Emilia clenched her fists tightly.
Thrusting her nails into her palms, she suppressed her quickening pulse and breath as she glared at the man.
“What is it you want to do?”
“… Straight to the point, I like it. It’s simple.”
He stopped laughing and jerked his chin. Once he did this, they pushed their cart behind him. In the cart was a large rectangular structure made of metal. He was showing off an iron cage.
“You robbed us of our goods and ruined our business. The villagers are guilty too, but we’re nice guys, we’ll give you a chance to atone.”
“Atonement or whatever…Does that have something to do with that cage over there?”
“You really are dull! Or can you not see reality? You! Will enter! This cage! We have to recover our loss, that much is obvious. We’ll have the villagers compensate us, that’s obvious too. And you, the mastermind, will pay with your body inside this cage!”
He screamed vulgarly as he smacked the iron bars, leaving her confused. She didn’t get what he was talking about and thus couldn’t consider it. To begin with, this negotiation itself was completely unexpected.
“I get that there’s been a misunderstanding, but I have no reason to do as you say. It’s true that I took your cargo to the village. As for what the villagers said about me… It’s a bit sad, but let’s set that aside for now. But to begin with, you were the ones who started it with your crime, weren’t you?”
“Crime, crime, huh? But what about the villagers’ crime of aiding a demihuman?”
“That’s completely nonsensical! Besides, that’s between me and them! You guys have nothing to do with it!”
“However, we’re the ones who have the right to speak. In this country, your actions are unforgivable.”
Emilia had no response to his extreme arguments. She didn’t know whether or not he was lying, but he was clearly being completely unreasonable. However, if what he said was true, if the villagers would be blamed too—
“Then make a choice.
“It’s simple. If you don’t want to do it, you’d better forget about the villagers. If you don’t want anything to happen to them, get in.”
“They sold you out, so I don’t think you have any obligation to them, though.”
The man offered Emilia a terribly cruel choice, and his wide grin suggested that he was quite pleased by her hesitation. She had to choose between herself and the villagers—
“… What will you do with me once I’m in there?”
“This world is filled with people who have certain preferences, perverts who’d love to violate a beautiful caged elf. I certainly understand the feeling.”
“I don’t mind either choice. Even if you don’t, we have other candidates too.’
“In the village, and of course the forest. They’re here, aren’t they? Longears besides you.”
The vulgar man directed his gaze toward the ‘Garden’, causing Emilia’s eyes to widen. That was malice directed at her frozen companions, she understood what she had to do.
Emilia shut her eyes as she announced this to him. It wasn’t that she couldn’t decide. She was merely confused and that manifested as hesitation. She knew from the very start what she was going to do, though she may have been mistaken.
However, the same went for them. She understood their desire to retaliate against her, but she wouldn’t forgive an attack on the villagers or the sculptures.
—She wouldn’t allow it. If someone had to be punished, it had to be her alone.
“You want me in that cage?”
“… Yes, that’s right. Well, that depends on how much people want you. What’s most important is your looks.”
“I see. — If that’s the case, I don’t think I’ll meet your expectations.”
Emilia responded sarcastically as she grabbed her hood. It was unusual for her to feel this way while facing other people. — No, this was the first time. The first time she wanted to see their reactions.
Her silver hair flowed down her back when she took her hood off. She raised her face, staring directly at them with her amethyst eyes, causing them to gasp.
Emilia’s expression was resolute in the face of their shocked gazes. Their faces could only be described as ones of stupefaction and astonishment.
That was just what she’d hoped for, but it still made her heart ache.
“Do you still want me in that cage?”
Her question made them all flinch in fear. Emilia As Emilia looked at their tension-filled faces one by one, someone muttered the following,
“Silver hair, amethyst eyes… Silver elf…!”
They were all features that comprised the being known as Emilia. They were also the traits of the world’s most detested entity. The primal fear they induced could crush hearts and paralyze people with terror.
A village girl shrieked and fainted when she first saw Emilia, she learned what these features meant from that fearful scream. That is—
“—Witch. The same as the Witch of Envy.”
It was one of the men who mouthed those words. The world’s most feared, most hated, most terrible existence, a ‘Witch’.
‘Witch of Envy’— Throughout the whole world, even now that name was synonymous with fear. It was said that this calamitous being was a woman with silver hair and amethyst eyes.
Emilia matched these conditions perfectly, which was why she was shunned by all. The villagers were no exception.
However, that was merely a small portion of her sin.
Having laid eyes on her, the men started panicking. The shocked men were terrified to even meet her gaze.
However, there was one whose reaction was clearly different. The bearded man scratched his wound as he laughed loudly. A laugh filled with joy and insanity.
“Ha, haha, hahahaha! Oioioi, are you serious? Unbelievable! Who could have possibly predicted this?! Ah, you’re more than I could have imagined!”
“… What’s so funny?”
“You! You, obviously! I don’t wanna hand you over to anyone else. Ah, I’d use you in that cage my whole life if I could.”
He was practically licking her all over with his slimy gaze, a reaction that surprised her. She remembered that she’d felt this before, the unpleasant feeling at the village.
Several days ago, there was a gaze that stuck to her when she went to the village. — She now realized just what it was. She also realized that he had no intention of retreating even having seen her true face, and that further conversation was useless.
“Understood. I get it now. — Talking to you is pointless.”
“We just can’t get through to each other like this. It’s a shame we couldn’t come to an agreement.”
“Yeah. I agree.”
They mutually decided that their negotiations, which could hardly be called negotiations, had broken down.
Emilia spread her arms, at the same time the men behind the bearded man started to scatter. They were all equipped with crossbows, both their numbers and weaponry made this encounter far more dangerous than the previous one.
Even so, she had to defeat them. She would bring all twenty of them down and make them swear not to harm the forest or the village. If she couldn’t do that, the forest she’d tried so hard to protect would be violated.
There was no cue to start the battle. Emilia charged without warning, keeping low as she did so. The sounds of firing crossbows overlapped as a rain of arrows tore through the air.
However, Emilia avoided them with a mere twist of her body. The arrows were too fast to track by eye, so she would dodge by reading the shooters’ intent. It was that simple, but there was the question of how many people could do such a ‘simple’ thing.
Surrounded by the sound of arrows piercing the snow, Emilia slammed her palm into a man’s torso. The hardness she felt beneath his fur clothes was not that of trained muscle. He had something like a steel plate stuffed under his clothes which absorbed the impact of her blow.
“I reflected on our previous encounter, just like you said. I knew you’d fight barehanded, so isn’t obvious we’d be prepared?”
She grit her teeth at his boasting as she drove the back of her fist into a man’s jaw after which she knocked him down with a sweeping kick. She’d shifted into a more direct fighting style aiming to knock them out quickly.
“This damned girl!”
Shortly after, the men she approached tried to keep her at bay with knives, but she weaved through the silver flashes and performed a split kick mid-air, blowing two men away with hard kicks to the face.
She then turned mid-air, with not a moment to rest as she continued to dodge arrows. She immediately rushed into some other men, striking them with tremendous force. They were sent tumbling over the snow.
“Oohh, not bad. I knew you were strong, but even this many armed men aren’t enough? I could cry.”
The bearded man seemed calm even as he watched his comrades get beaten down. He whistled at Emilia when doubt began to show on her face.
“Ah, how delightful. — It seems unease and doubt are toying with your heart quite nicely.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Is that right? Do you know why I’m so calm, then?”
Emilia tilted her head and as if to show off to her, the bearded man struck the cage. He then moved his hand to his mouth—
“—Don’t you think this cage is a bit big for you?”
Before she could grasp the meaning of his words, he started to whistle through his fingers. The high pitched sound reverberated through the forest and summoned a massive beast laying near the path— One which had been kept in the cage.
“It can’t be…”
Sensing a ferocious presence nearby, Emilia looked toward the sky. Above her was a colossal shadow leaping overhead, making no attempt to hide itself.
The giant beast’s huge jump caused an explosion of snow. Lowering its head, the jet black beast bared its fangs and glared at Emilia as it roared.
Sending drool flying, and equipped with slimy teeth the size of human heads, were two heads. The beast —— No, not a beast. Its doglike heads both had broken horns on their foreheads.
“Here’s your answer. — The witchbeast Orthrus, what do you think?”
Emilia trembled as the bearded man, accompanied by the witchbeast, announced this full of excitement.
The source of his confidence, the massive monster bearing two heads, Orthrus. Covered in jet black fur, its colossal body measured over four meters in size and its eyes were devoid of sanity as it glared at Emilia.
Its colossal maws could swallow her slender body in one gulp and rip her to shreds, and its claw-like paws could tear humans apart with the slightest touch. These traits, specialized for murder, showed that Orthrus was a true witchbeast.
“A witchbeast… Why would you do something so reckless!”
“I suppose your charm plunges men into madness. It really is sinful.”
The bearded man, confident he would win, ridiculed Emilia as her expression tensed up. The nonsense he spoke was very reminiscent of Puck’s teasing, but the emotion it instilled was entirely different.
Emilia’s breath halted for a moment when she remembered the absent cat.
“—Emilia. I won’t be with you, so don’t do anything dangerous.”
That was what he’d told her when they parted that morning, the normally jovial spirit had gotten so serious. And perhaps this situation counted as the danger he’d warned about. If something happens, run away, he said. He was right, she understood that.
“But if I run… “
However, her legs didn’t move. Not because she didn’t want to run, she just couldn’t back down with the village and the ‘Garden’ at stake.
“Hey now, what happened to all that vigor from before?
He clapped at Emilia, who’d stopped in her tracks and gone silent. She looked up in response, and the bearded men pointed to Orthrus who was snarling ferociously.
“If you’ve lost your nerve, I wouldn’t mind having him withdraw.”
“Is this the time to stare blankly? Ah, it’s true. It’d be best if our product was unharmed. A limbless elf’s value would be…”
“Then put him back in the cage and leave this place. Don’t harm the village or the villagers either. If you do this, we can reconcile our differences.”
Taking advantage of his offer, she offered an amicable resolution, a genuine solution with no ulterior motive.
However, the bearded man was dumbfounded by this and flew into a rage.
“Can you not comprehend your situation?! Why the hell should we listen to you?! Don’t get it wrong, we’ll give the orders, and you’ll obey!
“Do it, Orhtrus!”
Her explanation was immediately cut short by his rage and Orthrus’ roar. Roaring with anticipation, Orthrus leaped at Emilia and swiped at her.
Its enormous blow carved up the snowy ground, sending hardened snow and soil flying. An attack of this magnitude would easily rip a human to bits if it landed.
With her hair fluttering, Emilia narrowly cartwheeled out of the blow’s path.
But the beast’s assault didn’t stop there, its colossal jaws continually snapped at her. Emilia desperately escaped as she was followed by the sound of its jaws, its foul smell, and its flying drool.
“This isn’t the time to be doing this!”
She continually dodged the two heads’ endless attacks by a hair. The way it chained attacks, and the interval between them, was radically different from any man or witchbeast she’d faced before. She couldn’t even attempt a counterattack since its thick fur and hide would simply absorb her blows. Furthermore, it wasn’t only the beast she had to be wary of—
“Don’t kill her! And avoid the face, she’ll lose value!”
The bearded man yelled to his subordinates, who had their crossbows trained on Emilia. Obeying this order, they fired at her legs in an attempt to kill her mobility.
Emilia had no room for error between the simultaneous threats of fangs and arrows. She could rely on her taijutsu for now, but she would eventually reach her limit. If one attack grazed her, another would land directly, and the third would be certain death. Before that could happen—
She slipped through the rain of arrows by force, assailing two men who had just fired and were reloading. She immediately followed it up by kneeing another man’s torso, having forgotten about their steel plates.
No matter what she did, she couldn’t fully avoid Orthrus’ teeth. She managed to avoid a direct hit, but her robe got snagged, causing her to lose her footing. She was immediately assailed by arrowfire. ‘This is bad’, she thought, but a shadow suddenly covered her.
The next instant there was a howl of pain, but it wasn’t from Emilia. The two headed beast had several arrows lodged in its back.
The arrows intended for Emilia ended up hitting the witchbeast as it continued to pursue her. The witchbeast turned around in a rage, and swiped at the men who shot it.
The ferocious blow split the ground open, creating an explosion of blood and snow. Fortunately for the men, their thick armor prevented their deaths.
However, their injuries were too grave for them to continue fighting. Witnessing this friendly fire caused the bearded man to explode in anger.
“Don’t screw around, you moron! Do you not remember who broke your horn and became your master?!”
Showed in abuse, Orthrus roared rebelliously. However, the bearded man’s command overpowered the beast’s instincts. The reason was the witchbeast’s horn.
Witchbeasts were originally considered to be completely impossible to tame, however there did exist one method to control them. That is to say, to break the horn that all witchbeasts are born with.
In this scenario, the witchbeast would be forced to obey the commands of the one who broke its horn. There existed no other method to tame them.
However, this only applied to the one who broke the horn. That was why Orthrus turned its fangs on the other men, there were essentially prey.
“That’s quite a rowdy look you’ve got there! Hurry up and do what you’re supposed to! Crush her legs and bring her to me!”
Furthermore, even breaking a witchbeast’s horn would not create an amicable relationship. It only granted the right to give orders by force. Consequently, Orthrus’ hatred was directed at both Emilia and the bearded man in equal measure.
Despite this, Orthrus obeyed him and turned to Emilia. It wanted to destroy everything, but it directed all that bloodlust at Emilia. However—
“Hey, let’s stop this!”
Before Orthrus could attack, Emilia once again appealed to the bearded man. It was her last chance, she couldn’t fail here. She spoke desperately.
“Half your men are down, they need treatment! I understand how you feel, so let’s stop here, continuing would cause irreparable damage!”
“Don’t make me repeat myself! You’ve already done irreparable damage! Capturing you would finally make up for it, that’s why I’m here!”
“Isn’t your life worth anything?! You have to get out of here right now!”
They screamed at each other, but her desperate pleas eventually gave him pause. The emotion behind her appeal wasn’t quite fear, there was something different. Sensing that she’d gotten through to him, Emilia continued.
“I told you before, right? This forest is really dangerous! Especially for you, since you’ve spilled a lot of blood here, they’ll definitely remember the scent. And you even brought a witchbeast… What do you think they’ll do when they see their territory in this state?!”
“Territory? Whose territory? What the hell are you talking about!”
Perhaps realizing he shouldn’t ignore her words, he raised his voice. Emilia opened her mouth to answer, but it was already too late. Before she could respond, the answer appeared before them.
A dumbfounded voice leaked out, causing Emilia to turn and look up. A colossal snowball filled the sky, thrown at them from atop the hill.
Emilia immediately leapt to the side as she shouted, barely escaping its blast radius. A colossal impact shook the ground, followed by many dying wails.
To call it a snowball was putting it lightly, considering the scale of the destruction it caused. The gigantic mass of snow rolled down the hill, adding to its size as it became a force of absolute destruction and crushed those who were late to flee the base of the hill.
Emilia had managed to escape the point of impact and Orthrus had dodged instinctively, but they were the only ones who managed to evade it., the survival of the rest was left to fate. You were lucky if it didn’t roll into you, and unlucky if it did. It was that simple.
Shards of ice, beautiful though they may be, were little more than murder weapons once they were absorbed into the mass of snow. The men who were left behind dyed the snow red as they were swallowed up.
Screams of agony overlapped as they had their entire bodies crushed, their internal organs being forced out. In an instant, the snow path had turned into the scene of a disaster, a snowscape of death. The snowball which had swallowed so many men finally crashed into their cart, the magnificent impact destroyed the cage as the snowball fell apart.
Mixed in the scattered snow were human remains and the cart’s wreckage. The tool they’d left behind had just been used to kill them.
—That was surely the embodiment of the rage of the lord of this territory, the white silhouette that stood atop the hill.
Emilia looked away from the tragedy, up at the being at the top of the hill as she mouthed its name. It wasn’t as if it heard her, but the white figure turned to the sky and roared as if in response.
The horn on its forehead pierced the heavens as it beat its bulky chest, ostentatiously emphasizing its presence. It was definitely the Snow Blight — The ‘Lord’ of the forest’s northern area, a terrible and cunning witchbeast.
It had the form of an ape, with short, frizzled white fur like snow, a red face intoxicated by bloodlust rather than alcohol, and erratic yellow eyes that glimmered with killing intent.
Its short legs were strong enough to split the ground and its tree-like arms were more than strong enough to toss a snowball weighing several hundreds of kilograms. It was certainly smaller than Orthrus, but it was just as menacing. It was this Snow Blight’s arrival that Emilia warned of, the worst possible situation.
However, she wasn’t the only who was upset at the boisterous intruder.
Orthrus’ fur stood on end as it howled with determination in the face of the Snow Blight’s intimidation. The two witchbeasts had simultaneously deemed each other enemies, and they’d also deemed the each other the greatest threats.
Consequently, what followed was inevitable, unstoppable.
Their bloodlust collided, covering the several dozens of meters between them in an instant. Orthrus dashed up the hill, intending to massacre the Snow Blight with its sharp teeth and powerful jaws.
Facing the demonic dog’s charge, the Snow Blight also prepared to fight in close quarters.
However, the Snow Blight’s offense and defense were of an entirely different level.
Dashing forward, the Snow Blight stabbed its hands into the ground and started gathering snow in its massive palms.
—Before long, the gathered snow took on a spherical form and became a colossal snowball as it started rolling down the hill. This was surely the source of the Snow Blight’s name, the way it rampaged through the snow.
The speed and force with which the snowball took shape and grew was extraordinary. With the white murder weapon bearing down on it, Orthrus hastened its charge even further. Its two heads opened their jaws as wide as they could so as to tear into the snowball, and then into the Snow Blight’s throat.
The distance between the two steadily shrunk until it disappeared entirely Orthrus’ fangs pierced the snowball, its jaws clamped down, the force—
The lord of the forest forcibly held the snowball together with its gigantic arms, causing Orthrus’ teeth to shatter at the roots and its heads to snap to the side with their necks broken. This was without a doubt an instant kill — Orthrus’ giant body was crushed by the snowball, its two heads spilling blood and brains.
The demonic dog’s body was swallowed up completely, rolling with the snowball as its bones were crushed to bits, ultimately ending up as a pile of flesh.
Like this, the snowball left the path and rolled into the forest, mowing trees down until it disappeared into the distance. Having witnessed this overwhelming power, those besides the witchbeast had varying reactions.
Emilia put her guard up, the bearded man sat down in despair and his subordinates were too shocked to move. Only Emilia still had the will to fight. The others had their spirits broken by Orthrus’ horrific murder at the lord of the forest’s hands.
“I warned you so many times, and yet…!”
Emilia grumbled in frustration, but never in human history had idle complaints solved a crisis. Having crushed the demonic dog, the Snow Blight started scanning for its next victim. The lord of the forest preferred those with fighting spirit — In other words, just Emilia.
The Snow Blight glared down at Emilia. There were track-like marks near its feet. The witchbeast would move as if sliding, with its feet hardly leaving the ground, leaving these tracks in its territory.
The X’s she’d marked on her map were all the Snow Blight’s hunting grounds. This was no exception. The Snow Blight set its sights on Emilia and started howling.
Leaping over the path, it swung its massive arms at her.
Its hands were too large even for its gigantic body and were strong enough to flatten Emilia.
Left, right, backward, regardless of where she went she could not escape its range.
Then the only answer left was forwards, the bold choice to advance and dive under its legs.
At the moment of impact, the explosion-like winds behind her were strong enough to push her forward.
Creating a cloud of snow where it landed, the Snow Blight casually launched another attack at Emilia who had managed to get behind it. Slipping past and stepping closer, Emilia slammed both her arms into its chest.
She’d put everything she had into that blow.
She even twisted her arms at the moment of impact to add penetrating force. The impact sent the snow around her flying and sound it created was such that any human would surely have their organs destroyed.
—However, her opponent was no human, it was a witchbeast. And even among witchbeasts it stood at the top.
Having been blocked by its armor-like muscle, Emilia retracted her fists in pain. Most of the power had been stopped, with Emilia suffering the recoil damage. And most importantly, Emilia had stopped moving in order to land that attack.
Unconcerned about the impact on its chest, the Snow Blight’s face showed no signs of pain as it swung at her.
Even twisting her body as fast as possible, her suboptimal position made it impossible to dodge. The powerful blow landed, blowing her away.
Emilia couldn’t put up any sort of defense against the organ churning force and was slammed into a mountain. She had been embedded in the snow up to her knees as she coughed up blood.
Having rendered her unable to move, the Snow Blight’s next move was exceedingly rational.
Leaving the powerless for later, it chose to prioritize the greatest threat.
The Snow Blight’s line of sight landed on the bearded man, who had fallen to his knees. Having lost himself after witnessing Orthrus’ death, he had wasted the time Emilia desperately bought them. As a result, since he still had his crossbow in hand, he was chosen as its next target.
His throat trembled as he attempted to loosen his stiff fingers and drop the crossbow. He intended to show he was no threat by doing this, but it was too late.
His dumbfounded reaction seemed far too subdued considering the tragedy that had befallen his hands.
The demonic ape’s palms crushed both his arms along with his weapons. The man forgot to even scream as he stared at his arm getting crushed with the crossbow.
The beast roared as it raised its arms. If it were to bring them down, the bearded man would die like splattered fruit. Neither he nor his comrades could stop this.
So it was someone else who stopped it.
The sound of an arrow being fired, and the sensation of a small impact in its back caused the Snow Blight to turn around. Its gaze landed on Emilia, who was on one knee as she held a fallen man’s crossbow.
Wiping the blood from her mouth, Emilia discarded the crossbow. With an arrow in its back, the Snow Blight turned to face the interloper head on.
Being attacked by prey on the verge of death seemed to wound its pride.
Postponing the bearded man’s execution, the Snow Blight chose to attack Emilia instead. Emilia knew this would be the consequence of interrupting.
If she didn’t, he would die. She couldn’t let that happen.
She didn’t like him in the slightest, and he was the source of several unpleasant memories. But even so, she couldn’t let him die.
“Don’t do such terrible things in this forest…”
She whispered. She wasn’t looking at the approaching Snow Blight, her gaze was aimed at the blood and corpses littering the path.
“Don’t stain this forest with blood.”
So many people had died already, if this continued the count would only grow. She couldn’t let that happen. If even more people died here—
“Nobody needs to suffer here—”
Her vision blurred as tears filled her eyes. She had stopped speaking midway, because her words unintentionally touched the door of some memory.
Those words unconsciously led to the gate to memories that had long been sealed away.
However, they weren’t enough to bring forth those memories. And she didn’t really have time to seek them out either.
The witchbeast did not possess the reason, intellect or mercy to hear her plea.
So all she could do now was make a choice.
“Don’t let the ‘Ice Flowers’ bloom, even by mistake.”
Puck’s parting words repeated in the back of her mind. She saw his face when she closed her eyes in guilt. And then, she spoke.
Words of apology, not directed at the beast before her, nor the bearded man and his men, and certainly not at herself.
It was an apology to Puck and to her companions in the forest who had been frozen.
Guilt and an unbearable power swelled up in her heart. The power desired a target, and she would release it to the outside world. —— She was repeating her sin.
Hazy memories and vivid guilt, the sins of the past, the forest freezing over—
A glow surrounded her as colossal magical power started surging forth. Probably the same glow as back then.
The Snow Blight stopped and frowned at the eye-burning light. However, it looked around and realized it was a false alarm, and then continued — Not.
It fell over, as though a massive weight had forced it off its feet.
Unable to bear it, the witchbeast howled in pain and confusion. It desperately tried to turn and look at its back, but that was impossible. The ape’s large neck was encased in thick ice, and more than half its upper body had been frozen.
The weight it felt on its back, was something that grew from the wound there.
—Blooming on its back was a crimson flower of ice which grew by draining the beast’s blood.
The ice flower absorbed blood from the small wound as it grew. Its mass was soon greater than that of the witchbeast that had become a flower bed as. The witchbeast had been robbed of its life force.
Warping the atmosphere, the beautiful and deadly ice flowers spread their petals and bloomed.
The witchbeast’s body gradually withered away, its fur starting falling out as it lost moisture. Its shrunken limbs were like dead branches. There were no longer any traces of its former strength as the light left its eyes.
A hoarse breath signified the end of the ruler of this territory.
The witchbeast died a cruel death, its vitality consumed by flowers, understanding nothing as the snow buried it.
The bearded man panicked as he saw this. The death of the beast, and the crimson flowers of ice that bloomed from its body. However, even he understood the source of this phenomenon.
“U, Ku… Ah…”
Cowering in the snow, Emilia groaned in pain. She had been the one who did this.
Furthermore, her strained gasps and red face showed that his suffering wasn’t over just yet.
Beads of sweat formed on her forehead as tears trickled down her cheeks. They weren’t tears mourning the witchbeast’s death, she didn’t have the leeway to even care about that right now, so great was her suffering.
She desperately tried to suppress her surging power —— But she couldn’t.
The bearded man screamed as he stared at his crushed arms in shock. His wounds filled with crossbow shards had started to change, and the blood flowing out of them froze as a tiny flower bud manifested.
——The same ice flower that had killed the witchbeast. The sight of their growth overwhelmed him.
Still on the ground, he shook his head in rejection. However, his condition steadily worsened as he lost blood and vitality, and his consciousness was slowly fading.
At this rate he would end up sharing the witchbeast’s fate, losing his life to the ice flowers.
“W-Wait, please wait…! I’ll apologize! I beg you…!”
Driving his face into the snow, he begged as snot dripped down his face. However, Emilia couldn’t stop this.
A flower had even started budding in the wound on his face.
It turned out that the ice flowers were manifesting in any and all wounds in the area.
Budding in wounds, they would glitter a brilliant crimson, taking life and providing a beautiful death.
“No… Please, stop, understand…”
The men’s shrieks filled the path as they sensed their slowly approaching deaths. This snow path would turn all living things into flower beds, and become a field of crimson flowers.
Imagining this, Emilia desperately tried to keep it from happening. However, her power was beyond her control. Realizing that everyone would die, Emilia broke into tears
“—That you didn’t call my name immediately is one of your bad points.”
An aloof voice responded to her tearful plea for help.
The voice was far too familiar, causing Emilia to momentarily forget her suffering.
“Good grief, I step out for a bit and this happens. Those obstinate fools are bothersome too, but I’ll have to lecture you properly later.”
Saying this, the owner of the voice floated down to Emilia’s side with a smile. There was no mistaking it.
Covered in fur, a cute face, an indifferent voice and a casual attitude, it had to be him.
“Yep, it’s me. Your wonderful, cute, fluffy cat.”
He winked at her as she suffered, and then moved to face her directly and joined his hands, as if praying, as he gently spoke to her.
“Emilia, take a deep breath. For now, you don’t need to think of anything besides me.”
Right now, she had absolutely no reason to doubt or refuse his instructions.
She closed her eyes and started breathing deeply, just as he’d instructed. Even now the surging power within her showed no signs of stopping as it begged to be released.
Her consciousness slowly faded as Puck whispered to her, and her pain and suffering steadily diminished as well.
The tension gradually left her face, and her breathing calmed.
Finally, the surging magical power had dispersed, leaving a sleeping Emilia. Her expression was rather peaceful. Puck nodded with satisfaction as he affectionately gazed at her, and then turned around—
“Now then, how should I deal with you?”
Puck spoke as he clapped, destroying the blooming flowers in their wounds.
They were dumbfounded at the flowers’ disappearance, having been mere moments from death.
An unavoidable death, and a miraculous savior —These consecutive shocks were too much for them.
But whether they lived or died still depended on how the spirit before them was feeling.
“Well then, I only saved you because this girl had tried so desperately to prevent your deaths. I merely respected her wishes, that’s all.”
“If it weren’t for her, you would be dead. If she weren’t so kind, I’d massacre you. If she weren’t sleeping peacefully, I’d throw myself away.”
His words, calm and gentle though they were, were very clearly threatening.
Puck circled above the men with a smile as they were frozen by his words. They had made Emilia suffer while he was away, as if to show his anger at this—
“If you’ve learned anything from this, never even think of harming this girl or this forest. It’d be wise to never approach this forest again. Emilia’s very kind so she’s even soft on you guys, she might even forgive you. But I don’t intend to be nearly as nice as I look. —Got it?”
His final words were accompanied by freezing winds. The ice-like wind surrounding them was but a small fraction of his power —The men trembled, unable to even speak when they realized this.
“Well, hurry home then. —Because I’ll never forgive you.”
Puck seemed content as he said that to the cowering men.
This cold declaration had them running out of the forest with no hesitation this time. After he watched them scrambled away, Puck looked around and tilted his head.
“Now, to make sure she doesn’t catch a cold.”
His voice was full of love, the polar opposite of the threatening tone he was just using. He gently lifted the sleeping girl with magic and slowly took her home.
Gently, so that she could at least sleep peacefully for now.
When she woke up, the first thing she felt was despondency, a sense of guilt she couldn’t put into words.
She muttered, still in bed, with no real meaning to it.
She had slept so deeply she didn’t even dream, and yet she woke up with much greater ease than she usually did. That was most likely because what her body sought was not rest, but escape.
—To escape from the sin she’d committed. Once she was suitably distant, she woke up.
—That was probably all it was.
“Puck, are you there…?
She sat up in her bed and called to him. However, she received no reply, he was nowhere to be seen. Shaking her slightly hurting head, she turned to the window.
Judging by the color and angle of the light pouring in, it was probably before noon. She believed she’d fallen asleep in the evening, so she’d definitely slept for almost a whole day. Perhaps even several days—
“How did things turn out in the end…?”
Stepping down from her bed, Emilia reexamined her memories.
The men who planned to ambush her at the ‘Sloppy Snow Path’, Orthrus and the Snow Blight, and finally her disobedience when she unleashed her uncontrollable power and nearly lost herself—
“—Puck had to stop it again.”
Having disobeyed him, she couldn’t even count how many debts she owed him by now.
Without the opportunity to repay even a single one, she continued accumulating debts, that was the extent of their relationship.
This time, if Puck didn’t stop it the whole forest—
“That’s right, the village! I have to find out what happened.”
Puck had stopped her overflowing magic, so the bearded man and his men were probably safe. However, it wasn’t only Emilia they were targeting, the fate of the village was unclear.
Running out of patience, she rushed out of the house, grabbing her hood and donning it along the way.
Hiding her face, she ran toward the village.
Along the way, several unpleasant thoughts crossed the back of her mind. The possibility that the bearded man attacked the village, and the worry that he’d used a witchbeast. If Orthrus ran wild, a small village like that would be torn apart.
If something like that had occurred, it would be an unforgivable mistake on her part.
Emilia exited the white forest and arrived at the village as she prayed for their safety
From a distance it didn’t look like any of the buildings were destroyed. Even after she leaped over the fence, she could find no traces of an attack in the village.
This relieved her, but she immediately realized—
“… There’s no one here?”
It was midday, the villagers were usually out and about around this time.
But right now she couldn’t find a single person, she found the stillness rather disconcerting.
The village wasn’t damaged. But she didn’t know about the villagers. Perhaps the bearded man caged them like he tried to do to her and—
The moment she thought that, she sensed someone and turned toward them. Her reaction was fast, and she caught sight of a figure. A familiar man was peeking out from the village’s meeting place— The man she traded with whenever she visited the village.
Having been found, his aged face wrinkled even further. Emilia was happy that he was safe, but this reaction puzzled her.
The headband-wearing man was the only one in the village who didn’t fear or reject her. But right now, it was though he wanted to avoid her at all costs.
That guess wasn’t wrong.
“—W-We had no choice! Forgive us, please forgive us!”
She drew closer to ask about the situation, but the man suddenly fell to his knees and lowered his head as he apologized in a shaky voice.
She was taken aback by this. She never imagined this sort of thing coming from the normall calm man.
“If we didn’t say that, the village would have… Things were going well, but please let this be the end! Don’t involve us in your business anymore!”
“We won’t tell anyone about you! I swear it! But I won’t accept anymore goods, nor will I trade with you! Please leave us alone!”
The sudden fear and rejection left her lost for words.
It’s not like she didn’t expect this to happen eventually.
But even so, she had hope. That maybe they could get closer, that kind of hope. That was why the shock was greater than she’d ever anticipated, but she also understood.
There was nothing more to say. — There was no longer any connection between them.
She’d heard what they said about her. It seemed what the bearded man said was true, that they’d sold her out.
And thus they feared that she would come to exact her revenge. Even if she declared she would do nothing of the sort, the fear carved into them would not fade.
And so, this would be the end.
“Just one more thing.”
“Those people didn’t do anything? Nobody got hurt?”
She looked down at him, wanting to be sure of that at least. If she could just confirm that much, she could end this.
“Y-yes… Nothing happened, nobody was hurt. They won’t come here again.”
“… I see, that’s good then.”
She was relieved from the bottom of her heart.
Nobody was hurt. That incident hadn’t harmed anyone else.
That was probably the only part of this ordeal she could consider fortunate.
Having confirmed this, she could accept their decision and sever their ties.
“—Raise your head.”
“Ah, aah, we’re so sorry… ah”
He obeyed her and raised his head, his voice frozen. His wrinkled face turned pale, gripped by extreme terror.
Reflected in his green eyes, was the dreadful image of a witch, bearing silver hair and amethyst eyes.
—She would accept their decision. However, she would also have them accept hers.
Taking off her hood, she revealed her face, her eyes narrowed at the gasping man.
The cold, heartless, unfeeling expression of a witch—
“Never forget this face and what you’re feeling in this moment.”
“Never again mention to anyone that I was here.”
Her warning was calm and absolute.
So they would never forget, so they would never think of incurring this fear again.
—So they would never again have anything to do with her.
The terrified man simply stared at her wide-eyed, unable to even answer. But the lack of a response wasn’t a problem. That reaction in itself was the answer.
—Not just his, but that of the entire village.
“—Never again set foot inthe frozen forest. That place is my forest, my garden.”
Raising her voice, she warned the whole village.
She and the man were the only two people there. However, she sensed innumerable gazes on them from the moment he started apologizing, originating from the houses around them.
Therefore her words would reach them all. This fear would envelop all of them..
No would dare approach her, nor speak of her ever again.
She turned around, intending to leave without saying anything. But in the end, she mouthed just one word.
She herself did not understand why.
Nevertheless, she did not look back at his face, she thought that was the right thing to do.
She slowly walked out of the village, her silver hair flowing in the wind.
Out of the clearing, past the fence, until the village was no longer visible, she continued walking resolutely as they all watched her, playing the role of the silver witch to the very end.
As proof, the man behind her murmured this:
“Witch of the White Forest. —The Witch of Frost”
That name would follow her for a long, long time.
—The kingdom’s largest mining town, Ganacus, was to the northeast of Elior Forest.
Situated at the base of the Gina mountain range which was said to have once been a dragon’s dwelling, it was one of Lugunica’s six great cities and was known for its booming magic ore industry.
Though it boasted unrivaled magic stone production, it was also home to other industries—Such as its famous pleasure district.
Be it the miners working in the mountains, or the mercenaries dealing with illegal miners, the pleasure district was an oasis to all sorts of people, a grand success in the mostly dull area.
At night, Ganacus’ main street would be lit by gorgeous crystal lights, and brawny men would come to be soothed by scantily dressed women—
However, right beside those showy streets was an entirely different world.
A gloomy world that the virtuous ignored, beyond the reach of those beautiful lights. An aura of blood and violence enveloped it, a place for those who made such things their business.
And then an old building by the main street— Even it was no exception.
It would be difficult to ascertain at a glance just what occurred in there, there wasn’t even a sign of any sort. However, those more attuned to such matters would immediately sense the evil atmosphere surrounding it.
A den where the sanctity of life was sullied, where all problems were dealt with through violence.
“It’s true! It’s just like I’ve been telling you!”
In a room deep in the second floor of the somewhat filthy wooden building, a man shouted in a hoarse voice.
Contrary to the building’s outer facade, the room was immaculate. And in the middle was an exquisite ebony table upon which the hoarse man, bandaged all over, placed his arms.
His right ear was missing, and both his arms were pitifully wrapped in bandages.
He was the bearded man who had just barely escaped Elior Forest with his life.
His eyes were bloodshot as he pled as though he’d completely forgotten about the pain.
“There’s elves in that forest! I saw it myself! That elf girl was completely genuine, we need to capture her right away!”
“Just how many men will you send to their deaths before you’re satisfied?”
The voice that responded to his barbaric proposal was cool and callous as it shot him down.
Sat in the chair facing him was a man in the prime of his life. A well dressed man with a clean shaven mustache, quite unlike the filthy man across him, the difference in their status was obvious at a glance.
“Fifteen men just died under your leadership. They don’t come free, you know.”
“They might as well! You could find any number of replacements roaming the back alleys!”
“Perhaps men are cheap, but that’s not the case for witchbeasts. Merely keeping and feeding Orthrus was quite the expense in itself. I gave it to you as a favor, but…”
“T-The elf can make up for that too! If we catch her, we can make half-elves! I’m sure the rich would swarm in to torture a half-devil!”
The bearded man continued to persist, his words causing the other man to lower his eyes in thought.
“… Certainly, half-elves aren’t a common sight on the slave market.”
Deeming his superior’s reaction favorable, the bearded man chuckled thinking it was now possible to make a comeback. In his mind, methods to exact revenge on that elf — that silver-haired girl — had already started churning.
Even man and witchbeast combined proved insufficient. She even had that damned spirit with her. Even so, he had to do it. To recover his trust and honor, he had no choice—
“Definitely, I’ll definitely make up for this. I’ll teach that elf girl…”
“Make up, is it? —There’s other ways to do that.”
His excitement was suddenly interrupted by his superior. The bearded man waited for him to continue, but it the reply came from somewhere else entirely.
“—Not reversing a failure, but compensating for it.”
In that moment, a wholly different voice filled the room. They’d already made sure to clear the room, and the building itself was owned by their organization, they even had guards blocking the room. It’d be impossible to slip by and enter the room.
Therefore the intruder hadn’t entered by door or window, but rather manifested by traversing space itself.
Particles of light manifested near the ceiling, wavering as they gathered into a single entity. The bearded man was speechless as the light took the form of a kitten before his very eyes.
“It’s kind of embarrassing to be stared at like this, you know?”
“Well now, that’s a reaction beyond my expectations. I quite like it.”
Floating before the bearded man, the cat nodded in satisfaction at his lack of comprehension. —The kitten, so small as to fit in one’s palm, was speaking human language as though it were a matter of course.
This reality, this existence, were both familiar to the bearded man. Staring in shock, he shouted.
“You’re… That damned elf’s spirit!”
“Hm, it’s only been two days. But that form of address isn’t quite fitting, she’s not a ‘damned elf’, and I’m quite different from the spirits you lot are familiar with.”
“After all, I’m far fluffier and cuter than any other spirit.”
The cat smiled and winked, very clearly mocking the bearded man. Understanding this, the bearded man was about to scream in rage, but then he realized.
“Wait a minute. Why weren’t you surprised, boss?”
Despite his shock, his superior sat before him as cool as ever. He showed no reaction whatsoever to the spirit’s sudden entrance, remaining in his chair unperturbed.
Almost as if he had no reason to surprised—
“—Don’t tell me, you sold me out?!”
“Don’t speak such slander. As for the means of compensation, the great spirit simply put in a word before you. Along with a gift, you see.”
As he spoke, the boss pushed the wooden boxes under his desk out with his foot. The merchandise the bearded man and his men had lost, stolen by the elf girl and villagers some ten odd days ago.
The spirit had returned them and influenced his boss, a fact that enraged him.
“You believe this damned cat over your subordinate?!”
“A spirit more than capable of freezing us along with the entire building, something your endless blunders and dimwitted yelling could lead to.”
The bearded man raised his voice, but his superior bluntly shut him down, and then started twirling his mustache.
“Moreover, I hail from Gusteco. I follow the holy teachings. To cross a spirit is absurd.”
In accordance with the holy doctrine, he turned his hands to Puck, signaling that he could do as he pleased.
That gesture and attitude showed the bearded man all he needed to know. His boss and the spirit had already settled things, and he was deemed useless to the organization, something to discard.
“Unlike the beardy over there, this one is quite wise. I’m thankful.”
As the bearded man was struck with the reality that he was being thrown away, the spirit wrapped his long tail around himself and said,
“Well then, it’d be great if that facial hair made you wiser too. Though I’d be satisfied if you just understood how hard that girl tried to settle things peacefully.”
His tone was casual, as though he was merely making small talk, his sleepy-sounding voice completely lacked in vigor. His words were soft like those of an adult scolding a child — But even so, his words held tremendous power.
The bearded man’s instincts screamed to nod, apologize and beg for forgiveness. But—
“—Don’t get carried away, you damned cat.”
Even if the spirit forgave him, it was still over. The organization definitely wouldn’t just let him off. Moreover, there was the fact that his boss betrayed him. He was doomed, so he might as well show some stubbornness.
“As if some talking cat has the right to nag its human masters! Listen up, in this country demi-humans, especially elves, have absolutely no right to disobey! They’re our livestock! No different from the rocks being mined and sold around here!”
His face red with rage and agitation, he glared at the cat as he bared his bloody teeth.
“I ought to be the one warning you and that girl. —No matter how far you go, no matter how much you hide, people won’t leave you alone! That threat will follow you no matter where you run, never forget that!”
Unsightly and warped, his words momentarily left the spirit speechless. The cat soon let his ears droop and took a deep breath.
“If you’re going to go that far, there’s no helping it. —It’s about time I punished you.”
“Gonna kill me? Must feel nice to let off some steam, huh!”
“No, I’m not that short tempered. Rather, I’m going to have you help us out.”
The bearded man raised his eyebrow at the spirit’s statement, and in an instant he felt something slip into his chest. Cold, as though ice itself were being pressed into him, the sensation caused him to groan and grab his chest. However, there was nothing there, his chest seemed no different from usual.
“What the hell did you just do? You damned… Gah?!”
His rebuke was cut short by the severe pain exploding within him. He fell to his knees on the spot, the pain almost causing his eyes to pop out. It was unbearable, like a blade tearing him up from the inside.
“You saw the ice flowers in the forest, right? I just planted one inside you.”
“Your anger and hatred toward that girl and myself will cause it to grow. Even merely thinking or wishing evil upon us will feed it. —— And in the end, it might even pierce right through you.”
The cat groomed his face as he cruelly looked down on the bearded man with his round, black eyes.
“How fitting for you to be punished by your own heart. If you ever leave all of this behind, the flower shall wither away. But if you never let go…”
The bearded man’s insults were cut short by his scream of pain, he then went limp and collapsed to the ground with a thud.
As he lost consciousness, he heard the spirit speak.
“—My name is Puck. Remember that name in the afterlife.”
His anger at this introduction caused another jolt of pain, knocking him out completely.
The spirit—Puck watched the bearded man faint and then turned to his boss, who was silent. The man’s eyebrows furrowed as he watched his former subordinate, but he looked up at Puck without any change in countenance.
“What will you do now? Will I be punished too, for my negligence as Chap’s superior?”
“Ah, his name was Chap. Doesn’t really fit him, honestly.”
“Well, there’s no need to worry. As someone from the Holy Kingdom you should be familiar with a spirit’s disposition, yes? My dispute was with him. — If you deal with him as promised, everything will be just fine.”
Puck replied to his question and then started ascending before the continued, “But even so,”
“If you lot break your promise and attack the forest yet again, you’ll all be turned to ice just as you expect.”
“A spirit making an example of someone, how very human. Perhaps the times have changed.”
“The concept is a little different. This is—”
Tilting his head at the man’s sarcasm, Puck thought for moment.
“— A demonstration, shall we call it?”
Puck’s words made the man fall silent and sigh deeply. He then shook his head in response.
“… I’m not joking around. We’ll stay away from the forest and the elves. I have no desire to repeat this.”
“I see. Then we no longer have anything to do with each other, and I’m not so cruel a spirit as to harm a human I have no business with.”
Puck grinned as though he were telling a joke, but the man didn’t smile back. Thinking this reaction unfortunate, Puck bid him adieu.
“Release ol’ Chap and let him live a long life. Don’t have the organization finish him off no matter what, that’s what he’s hoping for.”
“I understand… But can I ask one final question?”
His restrained voice caused Puck to turn back to him. He then spoke in a subdued tone.
“Shall we think of that forest as your… “The Beast of the End”’s territory?”
Puck initially showed no reaction to this question. It was a question he didn’t expect, and also a question that showed how keen the man’s judgement was.
The lack of response caused tension and unease to float across the man’s gaze. Puck did nothing to ease his nervousness, nor did he choose particularly gentle words as he cocked his head.
“What exactly are you planning to do with the answer?”
“… Nothing, really. As I said, I follow the teachings of Gusteco. I simply asked out of personal interest, considering you’re a spirit on par with the four greats.”
“I see. Idle curiosity, is it? There’s no helping it then.”
Puck nodded as though he’d accepted that answer, and straightened his tilted head. And then—
“Never again speak of that name or what happened here, how about ‘yes’?”
“… Supposing I were to tell someone?”
“You’d best leave it at that. Chap isn’t the only one with an ice flower inside him.”
Puck winked at the astonished man, his tone not suggesting a joke in the slightest. With that, Puck vanished from the room. Similar to when he appeared, mana scattered through the atmosphere as his form dispersed, leaving neither sound nor presence behind.
Having seen his visitor off, he leaned into his chair and took a deep breath—He was covered in sweat.
The cold sweat running down his forehead and back once again reminded him of the reality that he’d just confronted a supreme being.
“—What a terrible day.”
He whispered as he ordered Chap’s removal, his former subordinate still lying on the ground. It had already been an hour since the ordeal.
He felt a twinge of pity as he watched his subordinates toss the bearded man out.
“—Well, he’s just reaping what he sowed.”
However even that was little more than a momentary sentiment.
Emilia dashed out of the village and into the forest, but her pace soon slowed.
She slowly trudged her way through the familiar path. The greenery around her steadily lost color and she could feel ice being crushed under the soles of her shoes.
She’d walked this path countless times. It wasn’t something she looked forwarded to by any standard, but it wasn’t wholly terrible either. She had some happy memories here, however few they might be.
She’d probably never take his path again.
“I’ll have to mark it off on the map…”
She murmured feebly, deeming the area forbidden territory in her mind. But in exchange, the Snow Blight’s territory was now free. She would be able to increase the scope of her investigation.
She could finally investigate the area she’d been postponing, wary of witchbeasts. If she thought about it that way, it wasn’t all bad. It was a wave of change, both good and bad.
“—You look like you’re trying hard to convince yourself of something.”
As she walked with her eyes cast downward, the sudden appearance of the voice above her stopped her. Descending upside down before her was Puck, who’d been absent the whole day.
Puck righted himself once he’d reached eye level and looked at her with a sorrowful face.
“I get the gist of what’s happened. As far as I know, your power even extended as far as the village. There were probably even children shocked to find ice flowers growing out of their scraped knees.”
“… I see. I guess their fear was inevitable, then.”
She’d only learned this after the fact, but their reaction was completely understandable. Much like those scoundrels, the villagers too had tasted the fear of the ice flowers, and they knew Emilia was the cause.
It was probably impossible for things to go back to normal after that.
“Do you think they’re being selfish?”
“… Not at all. It was my fault, after all.”
“Your fault? How?”
“Regardless of the reason, I put them through something dreadful. If you didn’t handle the situation, things would have gotten even worse and the village would have…”
She couldn’t continue, it was terrifying to even mouth the words.
If she said, she’d see it clearly. The horrifying scene she herself was going to create.
—She couldn’t forget the alienation and dismay she felt at the village.
It certainly couldn’t be said that they were close, they kept her at a distance, and she knew she wasn’t welcome. Even so, they were able to compromise over time.
At the very least, Emilia had such hopes for the clumsy interactions they’d had for almost a year now.
A faint, selfish, thoughtless hope she’d never even realized.
“—Hey, Emilia. It’s a good opportunity, so why don’t we try leaving the forest?”
“Now that you can no longer do business with them, it’ll be hard to secure food. Furthermore, there were even those people who came here aiming for you. The time is right, isn’t it?”
Puck’s words caused her to lower her eyes slightly, deep in thought. His view was correct. Having cut things off with the villagers, the problem of food was a major one.
Like the bearded man, there were surely more people who would come after Emilia — and the elves.
The things she’d done to protect the forest, they might have all been self-satisfaction on her part, this was something she was certainly worried about.
But even so—
“I can’t just leave everyone behind and run off somewhere.”
Even if it was only self-satisfaction, she wasn’t going to stop.
In addition, she was once again forced to face her uncontrollable power and she started to realize.
—Who exactly turned the forest white and froze her companions.
The reason for her guilt was surely within that unopenable door into her memories, and only her sleeping brethren held the key.
“You really are so stubborn, Emilia.”
“I’m sorry Puck. I really do understand how much you worry about me.”
“That you understand and still reply like that anyway is just the cherry on top. It really makes me pout, nya~n.”
Curling up mid-air, Puck meowed as if to tease Emilia. Despite her despondence, her cheeks relaxed a bit and the tension left her shoulders.
—This wasn’t the first time Puck had suggested leaving the forest.
He was never very cooperative when it came to her usual activities such as maintaining the sculptures or investigating the forest, but that was ultimately because he did not want her to stay in this forest.
And as for the reason he felt this way, he’d never once told her.
“Why do you want to take me out of the forest so badly?”
“I can’t stand to watch you punish yourself like this. To a free-spirited guy like me, it’s absurd to stay in a place that only makes you feel bad.”
“It’s not all bad… And even if it makes me feel bad, there’s a lot here that’s important to me.”
Her objection made Puck scrunch his face up. He looked as though he’d just tasted something sour, causing Emilia to burst into laughter. And then—
“… Thank you, Puck.”
“I don’t recall doing anything worth your thanks, but it certainly feels good to be thanked.”
Puck stroked his whiskers as he reclined, puffing his chest out at Emilia’s words. Watching this, Emilia put on a brave face and thrust her fist forward.
“Alright, I can’t just mope around forever. As you said, I’ll have to find a source of food while I’ve still got some in reserve. Also, I’ve got to go take care of everyone as well.”
“It’s already been two days, might as well leave them be.”
“Why are you always so mean?”
“Tough love, you could say I’m giving you advice on what exactly you should be prioritizing.”
Emilia pouted at his bragging, but she nodded. It was certainly important to ascertain her priorities. In that case, her answer was obvious.
“Once I finish cleaning them up, I’ll go explore the Snow Blight’s territory.”
“… Haah. The northern areas are completely unfamiliar, so it could be dangerous.”
“Even if something were to happen, you’ll save me, right?”
“Saying that sort of thing only when it’s convenient, what a naughty girl.”
Emilia herself thought her words were rather selfish, and Puck puffed his cheeks in response. But he didn’t deny it, which made Emilia smile.
As Puck watched her smile, he seemed to have come to a decision.
“Hey, how about this… I could teach you how to contract with lesser spirits.”
“As we just saw, I can’t always be there when you’re in a tough spot. This should keep you safe and lighten the burden a bit… How about it?”
“Is it alright?”
Emilia asked, her eyes wide at his proposal, and Puck seemed displeased as he responded.
“Well, I can’t say I like it. But it is a fact that your trauma could have been avoided, these lesser spirits will be able to help you next time.”
Lesser spirits were beings who hadn’t yet become spirits, essentially balls of mana.
Their power certainly couldn’t compare to that of a great spirit like Puck, but they’d be a great help if she contracted with them since she couldn’t use magic on her own.
“But if I do that, you…”
Blinking in surprise, Puck stared at Emilia who had stopped midway.
His suggestion made her rather uneasy when she thought about it. For him to suggest that she should contract with lesser spirits, it was almost as if—
“—No, it’s nothing. Then, can I take you up on that when I have time?’
“Just leave it to me, I’ll pick nice ones with brilliant futures ahead of them.”
Puck struck his chest and declared this full of confidence, causing Emilia to smile bitterly. Hiding her unease behind that smile, Emilia turned toward her destination.
If by forming a contract with some lesser spirits, she could live independently…
‘—Puck won’t go away, right?’
Keeping away and drawing closer, not wanting to be alone, not wanting to be hurt. Considering their relationship, those words seemed terribly selfish to her.
“—Alright then, let’s do our best today as well, Puck.”
With those words, she ran off, leaving footprints in the snow.
As if she expected to find something at the end of her path, and would run any distance to reach it.
“Oh dear, that’s some speed. I guess she’s at that age, huh.”
Puck swam through the air, smiling wryly as he watched Emilia take off like the wind.
But he soon stopped moving and turned to the grove to his right, sighing as he did so.
—Through the gaps in the trees, he could see a wavering red ball of light.
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that. I’ll keep my promise. You keep yours too”
The ball of light showed no reaction to his words.
Upon seeing that its color was deepening as its heat slowly rose, Puck pointed the tip of his tail at it and blasted it.
Being on the receiving end of this large burst of magic, the red light soundlessly disappeared.
Confirming its disappearance, Puck slowly lowered his tail,
“Nobody has the right to hurt her.”
He said in a tone that was unlike him, and then shook his head several times. Then, once his eyes and expression had returned to normal, he turned to the direction Emilia ran off in.
Her slender, white back was already far off in the distance—
“Heey, wait up, Emilia. You’ll fall and get hurt if you’re not careful.”
His tone was tranquil as he said this, he then swam through the air as he pursued her.
—Two days later, she found another village to the west of the forest.