―The moment she woke up, even now she dreamed of it every single day.
It was cold, she was imprisoned in something hard for a very long time, and she could not make the slightest movement.
But suddenly there was a cracking sound as it broke, and she fell out of it.
She coughed several times, trying to expel something revolting, and suffered as she was unable to do so. She was then tortured by a pain that made her whole body creak as well as the wails of her empty stomach.
Within this never-ending pain and suffering that would not diminish, her mind was filled with fear.
―She didn’t understand anything, not a single thing. She couldn’t remember. Her head was in complete disarray.
Was this because of the pain? She did not even understand the source of her suffering, she only feared that it would continue, completely helpless.
“Scary… I’m scared…”
She didn’t know what was happening, she sobbed as the unfamiliar pain and fear continued to make her cower.
She started to wonder if this unceasing fear would make her cry until she died, and the terror sent her into the depths of depression.
Suddenly, she realized that there was someone right beside her, and that something was touching her forehead.
She trembled and her body instinctively stiffened. But she immediately understood that that wasn’t necessary.
Right now, nothing could be worse than the agony she was experiencing.
Right now, nothing could be more frightening than the terror she was feeling.
And most importantly, right now, it didn’t feel like whoever or whatever was touching her had anything to do with the pain or the fear.
As she wept, a different voice mixed in with her own. It gradually became clearer, and she soon realized it was coming from whoever was touching her.
This person was crying too.
Are they in pain? Are they suffering? A vague unease rose within her.
But it was neither.
“――Sorry. I’m sorry.”
The voice kept apologizing.
Tormented by unbearable guilt and intolerable grief, the voice continued to apologize.
Because the voice sounded like it knew her pain, her suffering, and her fear,
Because it made her feel like she wasn’t alone,
“Why are you apologizing…?”
“Why are you crying…?”
Raising her head, she voiced her doubts. They seemed to fall silent. But she couldn’t give up on the answer. Because she had to know.
“―Because I left you alone.”
“You left me alone?”
“―Because I could never find you.”
“But you’re right here?”
She told them that they had no reason to feel guilty or regretful.
In exchange, she wanted them to tell her something.
“Your name is?”
“My name is…”
At this point, the world slowly started losing its form as a white light engulfed it―
―Without ever learning the answer, Emilia would wake from her dream.
“The same dream again…”
Sitting up in her bed, Emilia wiped off the tears running down her cheeks with the back of her hand.
Emilia knew she wasn’t very good at waking up, but it was especially hard when she had bad dreams. And for the most part, this was a very frequent occurrence.
Thus, waking up only ever got harder.
As she moaned in displeasure, her head drowsily swayed back and forth.
Despite her low blood pressure, Emilia wasn’t the sort to go back to sleep once she’d woken up. It just took her some time to build up her energy. Therefore, she was still able to sense the presence of lesser spirits even in her half awake state.
“There… Good morning, everyone.”
The mute spirits asserted their presence by perching in her silver hair or on her slender shoulders.
Fundamentally speaking, lesser spirits were unable to communicate with words. At best they could transmit and receive feelings via mana, but the lesser spirits were still very fond of this crude form of communication.
It was to the extent that as part of the contract they sealed, she was required to converse and connect with them twice a day in exchange for borrowing their power. But even if there weren’t such a condition, she still enjoyed interacting with them.
There was also another condition, Emilia had to distribute her mana to the forest’s lesser spirits. This meant that the lesser spirits would have joint ownership of their contractor’s mana, this was supposed to be something that deepened their connection, but she didn’t really get it.
Anyway, Emilia’s life had changed quite a bit thanks to her contract with the lesser spirits. It wasn’t merely that she now had more conversation partners (Although they couldn’t reply), they were also an indispensable addition to her daily life in the forest.
However, there were also certain parts of this very welcome change that she didn’t like.
The lesser spirits’ faint wavering glow disappeared from her sight, causing her to look around with her blurry vision. She found that the lesser spirits that had been dancing around the room had all hidden themselves.
Emilia could only think of reason for this.
“―Puck, are you there?”
“Ah, good morning, Emilia.”
The moment Emilia called out in an exasperated tone, a powerful accumulation of mana―Puck appeared within the room as if driving the lesser spirits away. The cat smiled at Emilia without a hint of malice on his face as she looked at him.
“Your eyes just wouldn’t open this morning either, huh. You’re like a kitten.”
“As if it was that cute…”
“It doesn’t seem like you believe me, but I really do think you’re cute.”
Puck made a sulky face, but Emilia shook her head at his concern. Words like cute or beautiful did not fit her. So she immediately changed the topic of conversation.
“And Puck, stop teasing them every morning. Isn’t it cruel?”
“It’s not teasing or anything. I’m just giving those homewreckers what they deserve.”
[T/N: Homewrecker = Thieving Cat in Japanese]
“You’re the cat here, and you were the one who told me to form a contract with them.”
“That’s the dilemma. How pitiful it is that they end up incurring in my wrath whenever they try to show off their relationship with you.”
Good grief, Puck spoke as if it was someone else’s problem. Sighing at him, Emilia extended her legs off the bed and unsteadily prepared to get up.
“The fact that you’re so sleepy means you must have had a bad dream, right? What kind of dream was it?”
“… A dream of when I woke up?”
“Well, it’s not like I can answer that for you. At any rate, that’s a strange way to refer to it. It’s the dream you often see, right?”
“Yeah, that one… Even though I don’t remember anything from before then.”
The memory of the dream caused her to grimace as she took her sleepwear off, baring her body. Even though Puck was right next to her, she never once paid him any mind as she changed, nor would she.
To begin with, it was doubtful whether or not she would care even if it was someone other than Puck.
“Emilia. I keep telling you this, but don’t change in front of other people.”
“But you’re not a person, Puck…”
“Not even in front of a cute cat. Starting from these little everyday things, all of a woman’s faults end up getting exposed. I’d like you to behave as if you were always being watched.”
As Puck lectured her yet again while flying around above her head, she pushed him aside with her hand. She didn’t really get what he was talking about, but it was definitely something troublesome. She put her head through the clothes that were drying in her room, and once she got her hair out her change of clothes was complete.
Puck would scold her telling her that combing her hair with her fingers would ruin it, but this too was wisdom that allowed her to finish things quickly.
“You’re a good girl at heart, but you really let yourself go when it comes to this sort of thing, huh. Makes me worry that you might eventually neglect to take care of yourself at all and start getting fat.”
Crossing his short arms, Puck objected to Emilia’s carelessness. Emilia ignored him and stretched her whole body. After this she would wash her face in the stream, and then start her usual routine.
“My forest investigation has gotten a whole lot easier thanks to the lesser spirits.”
”Don’t make weird noises. It’s the truth, so pouting won’t change anything.”
Emilia stopped his jeering with a poke to his snout.
Thanks to her contract with the lesser spirits, her ability to explore had increased dramatically. To cut a long story short, it was because she was now able to rely on the spirit arts whereas she only had her own physical strength before.
Depending on how she did things, she could now easily approach difficult areas that were inaccessible before.
“The Snow Blight is gone too, so it seems I’ll even be able to advance north in my investigation.”
“Hmm. But I get the feeling your taste in music won’t align with the witchbeasts over there. You won’t stop?”
“Sorry, I have no clue what you’re talking about. Furthermore, I wouldn’t even be able to live in this forest if I were always worried about witchbeasts… If you’re that concerned, why don’t you come with me today?”
Puck was never very positive about her investigation, but he had become even more resistant as of late. Therefore, she tried to invite him along instead. However, Puck meowed ‘Nyannyan’ in response,
“Sorry, but I can’t do that today. It’s one of those days on which I secretly go off somewhere. It’s a secret.”
“You’re talking about this secret reeeally openly….”
“It’s manly, is it not?”
“Is it really? Is this what it means to be manly? Then I suppose it is manly…”
Puck beamed happily at her half-convinced praise, but Emilia felt uneasy. Puck had already set out on some business he kept secret from her many times now.
But this past month, the frequency of his outings had clearly increased. Although he still made sure to inform her every time he was leaving, and always came back.
However, the increased frequency of his trips and the fact that he asked her to form a contract with lesser spirits were a thorn in her side.
―It was like he was slowly preparing to leave Emiila’s side.
“You won’t tell me where you’re going even if I ask, huh?”
“It’s confidential. I do want to tell you, but… Sorry, that was a lie just now. I’m not telling you because I don’t want to. But what I’m doing isn’t anything wrong nor is it anything indecent.”
He had clearly declared that he had no intention of revealing his secret, all she could do was nod in response.
Having ended their exchange that didn’t ease her anxiety in the slightest, they each set out on their respective tasks. Outside the giant tree trunk that had been remodeled into her home, the forest air was as cold as ever. Emilia took a deep breath.
Filling her lungs with the freezing air, she started her day.
“I’ll try heading to the northwest today. You be careful too, Puck.”
“Yeah, you too. If push comes to shove, use the lesser spirits as a shield.”
Joking around as usual, Puck’s form dissolved into the wind like always. Once she watched him fade into the atmosphere, Emilia shook her head and started walking.
“I’ll wash my face, take care of everyone… And then.”
And then start working on her map against Puck’s wishes―
“Could that be the reason…”
She did not know why it felt like Puck was distancing himself from her. But supposing that was the reason, would she prioritize Puck or her goal? And Puck, between his secret and Emilia, which would he―
She just couldn’t find the answer, and went about her daily routine unable to concentrate.
The area surrounding her home, known as the ‘Garden’, had forty nine ice sculptures scattered across it, there were all elves who had been frozen, and to Emilia they were all irreplaceable companions― No, that was what she believed.
Her whispered words stopped midway. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to continue. It was that she couldn’t.
When she went about her daily routine, when she faced these ice sculptures, her heart always filled with an unshakeable sense of guilt toward her expressionless companions cruelly sealed away in ice.
Emilia was aware she had committed some irredeemable sin against them. However, Emilia herself did not know what exactly it was. It wasn’t in her memories. It was a sin she could not recall.
All she knew that before she woke up, she was in the same position as the rest of them. She had slumbered for a long time as an ice sculpture.
And then Emilia alone had melted the ice that would not melt, and she alone had awakened from the slumber they could not wake from.
This fact and her everlasting guilt, in addition to the extreme magical power within her that spiraled out of control if she wasn’t careful― Even Emilia who had lost her memories could come up with an answer that fit these conditions.
“The snow in this forest and the fact that everyone was frozen, I definitely…”
She did not know what she thought, felt, and brought about before she went to sleep within the ice
But even though her memories had faded, her awareness of her sin had not. That was why she remained in the forest.
Waiting for the day her frozen companions would awaken, and give her an answer to her guilt―
“Huff, here goes.”
The day they woke up, would be the day she would receive judgement for her sin.
Waiting for that day, Emilia continued to polish their sculptures. For she who had nothing, that was all the meaning her life had, the reason she could live without running from her guilt.
―A mighty red mass of pure power manifested within the forest.
The appearance of this ‘Power’ brought about terribly obvious consequences on Elior Forest.
The white forest covered in eternal frost produced the sound of cracking glass it rapidly crumbled away. The frozen trees, the frozen ground, and the frozen animals were all destroyed by the overwhelming heat.
This phenomenon was caused by the light at the core of the destruction.
The red death was round, and would occasionally waver violently. It was the most primal force of destruction in this world, and consequently the most powerful―Fire, that was the name of this phenomenon.
The ball of fire about the size of a human head floated through the air as it dominated its surroundings. It dominated its surroundings. Of course, the flame had neither eyes nor a nose. However, that was domination, an act of a sentient being.
[T/N: The characters used for dominate mean to glare]
Searching for something, the flame grew into a roaring blaze. Its will was such that it seemed that if it was for the sake of its goal, it would even be willing to burn away the entire forest.
Practically speaking, that was the quickest method for it to accomplish its goal.
If it reduced every last thing hiding in this forest to ash, if it turned the entire landscape into scorched earth, it would complete its objective.
―Of course, he wouldn’t just overlook such a violent act.
“―Not just eyes, you’re even sending parts of yourself now, huh.”
As the flame expanded its range, a sudden voice halted its movement.
The floating flame was assailed by wind, and at the source of that wind there was light gathering together. Immediately after, the light formed a small silhouette in the air, and the power took on a physical form in this world― The spirit keeping the flame’s heat waves in check with wind, Puck had appeared.
Having appeared, Puck took a look around, and narrowed his eyes at the sight of the mercilessly burned forest.
“That’s quite the greeting, wouldn’t you say? I made sure to mark this area as my own, so what exactly are you doing in my territory?”
“Ah, I don’t mean I went around peeing on stuff when I say marking. Despite my looks, it’s not as if I’m a cat to the core. I’ve got intellect and grace, you know?”
“I haven’t been trained, though… Huh, weird. I thought that joke would get some laughs for sure.”
The fiercely undulating flame said this to Puck who had been taking advantage of their silence to say whatever he wanted.
A low voice that sounded like a flame burning the world away. The fluctuating voice emanated from within the flame as it roasted the atmosphere while changing its form.
“That’s a very nice manifestation, but did you really need to add the hooves too?”
“Thou, Why, I, Here, Observation, Inference Possible―”
“You’re asking questions even though you haven’t bothered to answer mine. Great personality you’ve got there… I don’t think your search is as secretive as you think. Just showing up here causes this to happen, after all.”
The horse of flame whose entire body was blazing asked this of Puck, and Puck responded by indicating the ruined forest with his jaw. And then he continued, “On top of which,”
“You’ve sent your eyes so many times, so I’ve taken some countermeasures. I’ve placed a barrier around the forest that detects your Od. But if you’re sending parts of yourself with this much power, I don’t really need a barrier or anything to sense you.”
“I, Observe. Balance Collapse, Danger, Power―”
“Not even a thank you even though I answered your question, huh? Be it an eye or part of yourself, you’re as rude as ever.”
Puck went to the trouble of giving an explanation and received no reaction whatsoever, causing him to drop his shoulders in dissatisfaction.
The flaming horse definitely had the intelligence and self-awareness necessary for conversation, but it did not possess the amiable disposition required to do so. Just a powerful ball of power, that was all it was.
It was that very disposition that would prove most troublesome right now.
“This Forest, Frozen Land, Magical Power. Countless, Destiny, Ice Flowers Blooming―”
“Don’t make such a big deal of it. I got a little angry when my territory was disturbed, so I punished them. I won’t do it again.”
“All, Thou, Deed. This, Speak Falsehood―”
“I’m not lying or whatever, it really was me. To begin with, who besides me could do something so extreme? ― Who besides me, a spirit on par with the Four Greats?”
The flaming horse’s face was a wavering blaze. It was not possible to glean its expression. On the other hand, Puck who was aware he was normally rather rich in expression was now intentionally expressionless as he confronted the flame.
Expanding cold and piercing heat, these two extremes of temperature swirled between the two spirits.
“If you’re that suspicious, why not try asking around? You could try the forest’s lesser spirits, and there might be some kids who know me in the village near that huge mountain to the northeast of the forest.”
“Unnecessary, Fully Understood―”
“… You know everything?”
The after-effects of last month’s disturbance, he tried to offer this information, but the flaming horse rejected his proposal. Puck narrowed his eyes at their attitude. However, the flaming horse suddenly increased the heat of its burning mane in the meantime.
His field of view was dyed red in an instant, and as Puck put his guard up, the flaming horse spoke in a more powerful tone.
“I, Arbiter, Melakuera―”
“Balance Collapse, Anticipate, Evil Being. Escape Forbidden, Eradication Inevitable.”
Giving their name, the flaming horse― The Great Spirit Melakuera kicked the ground with his burning hoof, covering the evaporating ground with white smoke. The aftershock of this overwhelming power was such that even the mana comprising Puck’s body trembled.
Showing no sign of his inner turmoil, Puck waved his tail left and right as he glared at his opponent.
“Thank you for announcing your incomprehensible convictions. The world in crisis or helping an evil person or whatever, the stuff you’re saying doesn’t really ring any bells, but… If it’s a fight you want, you’ll get one.”
“Fight, Denial. Holy Crusade, Acceptance―”
“This is my first time meeting someone who actually uses terms like holy crusade. Isn’t it embarrassing?”
Despite Puck’s provocation, Melakuera continued to maintain his silence. This was not a silence intended to hide a disadvantage, he was silent because he had no intention of talking to Puck.
He had declared conversation unnecessary, and indeed he did not seek to converse. He had an unshakeable goal, and was not interested in anything other than fulfilling it.
It could be said that it was very much like a spirit to be so extremely self-centered.
The natural beings known as spirits did not need any reason besides their own will for their actions and their results. The only exception being a contract with a spirit arts user, in which case they may prioritize the will of their contractor.
In any other situation, a spirit would place its own convenience above all else.
If fellow spirits came into conflict due to their differing goals, it would only result in battle.
When this happened, the only solution was for one to wipe out the other, and thus it could probably be said that spirits were savage beings much more simplistic than humans.
“Recent, Calamity, Magical Power. Truth, Thou, Power, Truth Or Falsehood―”
Asking this, Melakuera steadily raised his firepower as his burning mane grew. The flaming horse’s surroundings were gradually scorched by the intense heat, and the frozen forest started losing its shape as it was forcibly thawed. Depending on Puck’s answer, that firepower would probably be directed at him instead of the forest.
But that was what Puck was hoping for, the next best thing.
“How many times do I have to tell you, that was my doing, I even apologized for it. Or―”
Consequently, Puck halted his words midway and brought forth a colossal amount of magical power. The cat spirit had produced innumerable icicles around his small body, and their sharp tips were all pointed at Melakuera.
“Would you perhaps like to confirm for yourself whether or not my power is a threat to the world?”
Puck showed his intention to oppose Melakuera with his provocative words and attitude.
If Melakuera went along with this, the forest would inevitably become the stage on which the two great spirits would clash. However, Puck was confident this wouldn’t happen.
In truth, Melakuera lowered his head, rapidly dropped his fire power, and reduced the heat.
“Understood. I, Forest, Departure―”
“Yeah. I’m glad you understand. I’m really sorry too, for causing this misunderstanding. The next time someone enters my territory, I’ll scare them off just like I did to you.”
When Melakuera displayed the intent to leave, Puck provoked him even further under the guise of an apology.
The massive power the flaming horse had sensed― In order to convince him that the source was Puck himself and that he was the only powerful being residing in this forest, that was why he did it, to keep the Great Spirit’s attention on him alone.
So that the flaming horse before him would not take interest in the girl living in the forest.
“Forest, Thou, Dwelling, Understood. I, Thou, Warn―”
In response to Puck’s smiling distraction, Melakuera’s form which was wavering like a shimmering heat wave dispersed. Having lost the shape of a blazing horse, with its hooves and mane and the like gone, all that was left was a round, red ball of fire.
“Balance Collapse, Omen. I, Arbiter Melakuera. Carry Out Judgement, Execute Arbitration―”
“Your vague standards and views are pretty hard to comprehend. Simply put?”
In response to Puck who had one eye closed, Melakuera uttered this word in a voice that one couldn’t discern the slightest bit of emotion from. Puck did kind of expect this, so he tried hard to suppress a sigh.
At the very least, he couldn’t show such a reaction in front of this flaming horse.
“I understand your concern. I’ll send you a letter if I see anyone like that, so it’d be a great help if you could tell me your address… Ah, too bad.”
Before he could finish his flippant response, Melakuera had vanished from the forest. Like a candle’s flame being blown out by the wind, the way he gracefully disappeared in an instant caused Puck to fold his ears.
He then took a deep breath and scratched his head.
“That Melakuera, the one he sent was strong even for a part of himself. He was probably annoyed because I kept destroying all of his eyes, but… To retreat like this, he’s not very perceptive, huh.”
The Great Spirit Melakuera― He called himself the Arbiter, and was one of the extremely powerful ruling spirits known as the Four Greats.
The Melakuera that Puck had just faced was some power split off from the original, and was nothing more than an inferior copy of the real thing. But even so, it possessed enough power to match Puck since he was currently in an incomplete state.
He was able to drive him away with words alone this time, but there was no guarantee that that would work next time. Anyway, even among spirits who generally had fairly liberal principles, Melakuera was a spirit who followed extremely rigid rules.
The flaming horse’s goal was as he stated, to protect the balance of the world, and to deliver arbitration upon any unnatural distortions.
However, the basis for this was a scale known only to Melakuera himself, and was unfathomable to anyone else.
If you caught his eye, you were out of luck, such was the general sentiment around him. If this were someone else’s problem, Puck too would probably just laugh irresponsibly and tell them to do their best, but just this one time he couldn’t do that.
“If I and the lesser spirits act as a cover, he shouldn’t notice Emilia, but… If he comes at us for real, we’re finished. How long can I drag this out I wonder…”
He had already crushed Melakuera’s eyes which held suspicion toward the forest many times now. His secret operations behind the scenes were effective, Melakuera was most likely uncertain as to Emilia’s existence.
However, that magical power she released last time served to rouse him, and made him seriously suspicious of the forest.
―Emilia needed time. Time to confront the power lying within her, and to learn about the situation she was placed in. If she just had that, she could definitely overcome this.
“But it’s not like that stubborn fellow will just give her that time.”
So she needed someone to stall until then, and Puck decided he would be responsible for this.
“I sure am noble, huh. If there were some worldwide prize for nobility, I would surely receive it.”
Cracking a joke as if he’d forgotten how serious the situation was, Puck surveyed the burnt forest. It’d be a big problem if Emilia was drawn here by the burning smell and ended up seeing all these trees that were turned into carbon.
“Cover up, cover up…”
Uncrossing his arms, Puck started freezing the burnt forest so it would look like it did before it was defrosted.
Emilia seldom came to the southern part of the forest. Seldom, but not never. So that she wouldn’t feel uneasy when the time came, Puck painted the forest white.
The spirit continued to freeze the forest in secret, so Emilia’s heart could remain at ease.
There was the concern that he was clearly being overprotective, but there was no around to point that out.
―At the same time, in the northwest region of Elior Forest, in a coniferous area.
Emilia nimbly dashed through the gathering of sharp foliage, having finished taking care of the ice sculptures.
No, it wasn’t quite right to say she was dashing through it. Exhaling white breaths, Emilia wove her way through the trees on a board made of ice as she skated through the forest at high speed.
Emilia rode over the uneven snow beneath her with a superhuman sense of balance. Her board took to the sky with her yell, and she looked down at the frozen forest beneath her as her body was bathed in wind.
On the surface of the snowscape she was looking down upon, she could see a number of unnatural pits and felled trees scattered about. These must have been the result of a witchbeast’s actions, or perhaps they were victims to the mana storms that occasionally appeared in the forest.
Mana storms were a natural phenomenon that occasionally occurred in areas filled with dense mana.
Mana, required for the use of magic and for a spirit’s activities, was ordinarily nothing more than a harmless, colorless power.
However, the conditions would occasionally line up in areas filled with mana, and mana close to activation would spontaneously discharge. As a result, a power with neither aim nor outlet would end up destroying nature.
This was the phenomenon known as a mana storm, and was the reason she had to alter her map on a regular basis.
“But it’s especially bad around here…”
With her tied up silver hair flowing in the wind, Emilia muttered this as she observed the ground from midair.
Mapping things out in her head, Emilia compared the scene before her against the blank spots on her map, she could easily guess the dangerous areas―
She landed on the snow on the rapidly approaching ground, turning her board sideways to kill her momentum.
Producing a large spray of snow, Emilia stopped on the spot as if piercing into the ground. However,
“Ah, it broke. Looks like I can’t match Puck after all…”
Unable to withstand the rigorous use, her broken ice board turned back into mana particles. This caused Emilia to drop her shoulders lamenting her inadequacy, due to which lesser spirits gathered around to comfort her.
She had borrowed the lesser spirits’ power to form the ice board she was skating on. She was lacking in experience and her connection with the lesser spirits wasn’t very deep, due to which the strength and durability were both inferior to the things Puck made.
“But every little bit counts… Even if it’s slow going, I’ll keep advancing step by step, no point rushing.”
Smiling at the lesser spirits gathered around her, Emilia admonished herself for making comparisons to Puck.
It was absurd to compare their bond of hardly three weeks to a great spirit that had lived such a long life. If she was going to lament her inadequacy, it should be after they’d spent that much time together.
“But I’ll be a granny by then… Ah, focus, focus.”
Rather than setting very patient goals, she had to prioritize copying what she’d just seen onto her map. Pulling the rolled up map out of her bosom, she untied it and unfurled it over the snow.
On that faded paper was the map Emilia had been drawing up on her own for more than half a year now. She would have to redo it whenever she realized the forest was larger than expected, so even its current incomplete state was actually the eight incarnation thus far.
“There’s pits here and here… Let’s call this the Thorny Thicket’.”
Thinking back to what she’d seen from the sky, she filled in the blank spaces on the map with a rough draft. She would name the place whenever the inspiration struck, but making a fair copy would have to wait until she got home.
“Alright. It looks like it’s nearing completion now. It was a real pain back when I first started, though…”
Reviewing the unfurled map, Emilia praised herself, it really did look like a map now.
Naturally, it was most accurate in the eastern region where she lived, but thanks to the cooperation of the lesser spirits, her investigation of the northern and western regions was going especially well this past month.
“At this rate, I might end up finishing it waaaaay sooner than expected.”
As she admired the map, the anticipation of completing it lifted her spirits a little.
Mapping the forest was something she spontaneously decided to do while tending to the ice sculptures.
When she was first released from the ice, Emilia didn’t know anything about the garden or what she was supposed to do. As she aimlessly wandered through the treacherous forest, she encountered the ice sculptures of her companions and understood. ― There was a connection between her ceaseless guilt and the ice sculptures.
From that point onward, Emilia decided that she would live in the forest and watch over them until they woke up, this would be her atonement.
In order to do this, she noted down the positions of the ice sculptures scattered around the forest on a handmade map, and then started working on the map when she decided to learn more about the garden. This was a habit that persisted even now.
“Doesn’t look like Puck’s too happy about it, though.”
Overlapping with the map before her was the face of the spirit who had always been by her side ever since she woke up.
To Emilia who had been left alone in the forest, Puck was always a source of emotional support.
However, for some reason he would always become apathetic whenever the topic was the forest or the ice sculptures.
It was as if he was telling her to forget all about the guilt in her heart.
“Even though I can’t do that… Puck, you dimwit.”
Emilia gently whispered this in her heart, rebellious words she could never say to his face.
That she was so intent on completing her map was also partly an act of resistance to Puck’s proposal― She wanted to show that there were still things she had to do in the forest, so she could not leave.
But what if she covered the entire forest, and finished her map―?
When that happened, she would probably look for another excuse and continue to wait in the forest for her companions to wake up. And Puck would probably continue to stay by her side as she did this.
―The answer was forever beyond her.
“Ah, no, what’s wrong? Are you mad I’m ignoring you?”
While she was absorbed in thought, the lesser spirits gently touched her hair. The sensation surprised her, but she immediately sensed the reason for their appeal.
They were warning her. Holding her breath, Emilia promptly lay flat on the ground. As she put her map back in her bosom, she felt a stinging sensation against her skin. The source of this ferocious pressure was down the slope right next to her, in the cluster of trees on slanted ground.
She saw a squirming shadow through the gaps in the trees, causing her to mouth the general term referring to the forest’s greatest threat.
The northern region of this forest was originally the territory of that Snow Blight. Now that he was dead, many witchbeasts were competing for control over this territory. There were even witchbeasts on par with Orthrus and the Snow Blight participating in this struggle for territory, so even Emilia would be in danger if she accidentally encountered them.
The witchbeast she found today was also a formidable opponent, it would be wise to avoid a direct confrontation.
“That is, I believe… Guiltylaw?”
Searching her vague memories, Emilia muttered the name of the giant black beast prowling around downhill.
The witchbeast trampling on the piled up snow as its large, awful frame swayed― Guiltylaw, also known as the Shadow Lion, a powerful being that dwelled in dark forests.
With the head of a lion, a torso resembling that of a horse, and a tail equipped with a snake’s fangs and venom, its ferocious and brutal nature caused Puck to warn Emilia of its danger, a truly terrible beast.
“The Jet Black King of the Forest…”
Swallowing her breath, Emilia concluded that it would be unwise to fight and that she should withdraw. If she did fight, it wouldn’t end very well for her. Erasing her presence, she retreated, gaining distance―However, the witchbeast moved first.
As she lay atop the snow while on high alert, Guiltylaw roared beneath her.
This roar filled with hostility caused Emilia to shudder thinking she had been discovered. However, that wasn’t what happened. The witchbeast’s giant body nimbly spun around in the air, and furiously charged the ‘enemy’ behind it.
“―What, is that?”
The appearance of this ‘enemy’ was completely unexpected even to Emilia.
Its approach and presence were so quiet that she may not have even noticed it if Guiltylaw hadn’t sensed it.
But even so, its bizarre appearance was such that one look would sear it into your mind permanently.
―To Emilia, it looked like a mass of black water.
But its body seemed too elastic to be a mass of water, so it might have been more accurate to describe it as slimy instead. Its size dwarfed even the four-meter long Guiltylaw, it probably measured around five meters. Obviously, the round mass of water possessed neither eyes nor ears nor fangs.
Guiltylaw’s attack hit the mass of black liquid so easily one would hesitate to even call it defenseless. Torn apart by the talon-like claws, its viscous body burst open with no resistance.
It was definitely dead. Emilia and Guiltylaw itself probably thought this.
The next instant, it was Guiltylaw who screamed in agony.
The strange phenomenon began from its right paw that had dealt the deadly blow. Its leg which had touched the viscous liquid produced a festering sound as it rotted away, and the Shadow Lion writhed in unfathomable pain. This reaction wasn’t merely from losing one limb. In truth, the erosion had only just begun.
“――?! That water…”
As Emilia looked on in surprise, the viscous liquid which had been torn apart squirmed as it started to move again.
Even those claws that would have dealt a fatal wound to any other organism could not physically kill this entity that she was unsure was even a living thing. The viscous fluid closed up its cut, and then its colossal body sprang up. It then landed on the writhing Guiltylaw, completely absorbing the witchbeast’s entire body.
With even its head swallowed up, Guiltylaw’s shrieks spouted bubbles as it convulsed. However, the viscous liquid would not let its captured prey go. The witchbeast’s body slowly rotted away, and then dissolved.
In just a few dozen seconds, the Shadow Lion had been completely dissolved to the bone and had now become part of the viscous liquid.
This act of predation that had occurred right in front of her left Emilia speechless. This went for how easily Guiltylaw was killed as well, but she did not understand what just happened.
But there was one thing she understood immediately. ― That viscous liquid wasn’t done just yet.
Having consumed the witchbeast, the viscous liquid’s mass had gone up a size― Right as she thought the black liquid’s slimy surface seemed to be bubbling, she sensed something flying at her and leaped out of the way.
Right in front of her, there was a violent explosion where she had just been lying, the result of the black liquid firing part of itself at her, an attack that could perhaps be called a slime bullet. The viscous liquid pierced the snow and the ground, leaving her in shock. That black liquid was definitely intelligent. It also had the cruel hunting instincts necessary to bring down prey.
Having analyzed that far as she landed, Emilia’s eyes widened at the black liquid’s next action.
The viscous liquid that was downhill crawled up the snow toward Emilia with unbelievable speed. Its movements as if spreading out over the ground were such that it easily overcame the poor terrain and the obstacles in its path.
She couldn’t outrun it. Making this judgement in an instant, Emilia summoned her lesser spirits and was surrounded by light―
“I can’t touch it. So I’ll be counting on you guys!”
Considering how Guiltylaw met its end, coming into contact with the black liquid would be no different from suicide. Physical attacks could not repel it, she had no choice but to use magic in order to face it.
Perhaps sensing her will to fight, the black liquid’s surface started bubbling again as it crawled. Emilia prepared herself for another slime bullet, and the viscous liquid changed shape before her very eyes and pressed the attack.
But it did not attack by firing a slime bullet―
Parts of the viscous liquid stretched out thin and long, the black liquid waved them like whips to attack. There were six in total, a fierce offense.
“But if that’s all you’ve got… This is going to be easy!”
This attack that snapped fallen trees, disrupted the snow, and mowed through the cold air boldly flew toward Emilia.
Emilia slipped past the approaching attack, and the viscous liquid was unable to keep up with her as she dodged. The strangeness of its attack definitely surprised her at first, but as long as she was careful not to make contact it was possible to fight at close range. Guiltylaw was unlucky.
Though it had offensive instincts, it seemed to lack survival instincts. The black liquid kept trying to attack Emilia as she approached, and made no attempt to retreat. Consequently―
Once she was close enough to be certain she wouldn’t miss, Emilia invoked the spirit arts with an order to the spirits. She thrust her palm forward, and the white light released from it pierced the atmosphere and scored a direct hit on the middle of the defenseless black liquid. Although it hadn’t taken any damage from the claws of a witchbeast, its movements rapidly dulled and then to a stop before long.
The viscous liquid had been frozen from the core, and that freezing damage spread to the rest of its body. It rapidly lost its amorphous nature that had been its specialty, and was reduced to a lump of ice sticking to the slope.
“It really… Can’t move now, right?”
She cautiously approached the frozen black liquid, and tried poking it with a rod of ice she had manifested. No reaction. At the very least, she seemed to have forced it into an immobile state.
“There was no horn either, so it shouldn’t be a witchbeast, but… Was it even alive?”
It was unclear. There was also some doubt as to whether she could say it was dead now that it was frozen.
But this viscous liquid had dissolved and consumed Guiltylaw, and then directed its hostility toward Emilia. It was unreasonable to say it wasn’t a living thing considering these facts. She couldn’t come to a conclusion either way.
She probably wouldn’t find an answer to this no matter how much she thought. She probably wouldn’t, but―
She knit her brows, unable to take her eyes off the frozen black liquid. It wasn’t the cautious gaze of someone looking at an incomprehensible life form. She was feeling an entirely different, strange emotion.
“Somehow, this doesn’t quite feel right…”
Now that she’d frozen it, the battle was over. Despite this, Emilia’s body was still stiff with tension and caution, and she couldn’t help but keep her focus on the black liquid..
It was if instead of her memories, her body itself knew the true nature of this black liquid―
“But I can’t remember anything.”
As usual, Emilia couldn’t find the memories she desired no matter how much she looked around in her mind. No matter how much she worried, no matter how much she thought, she never made any progress and remained as lost as ever.
But if she just stood around fretting like this, she would only be wasting her time. She understood that much. It was almost evening already, it was about time she wrapped up her investigation.
Even if she waited here, the answers she wanted would not manifest. She agonized for a while, unable to come to a conclusion, and then made a decision.
“So you brought it back to the garden so you could show it to me.”
“I thought you might know something because you’re so knowledgeable… Was I wrong?”
Back at home base in the garden, at the spot where she dried her laundry, Emilia looked up at Puck who had come back having finished his business and tilted her head apologetically.
By her feet was the frozen black liquid they were talking about. As one would expect, she couldn’t bring back the entirety of its five-meter body, so what she returned with was a fragment that she had broken off.
“It was a weeeeird liquid. I mean, that witchbeast you told me about before… Guiltylaw, you said not to approach it because it was dangerous, even it ended up getting dissolved easily.”
“You’re confusing it with another witchbeast. Guiltylaw’s definitely strong, but it’s lacking in a number of ways so you can deal with it fairly easily, I said something along those lines.”
“Eh, was that how it was…?”
She was under the impression that it was a formidable foe, but thinking about it clearly she felt like he did say that after all.
Regardless, it was a fact that the black liquid had dissolved Guiltylaw. The mere sight of it was horrendous, a death that could make one end up feeling pity for it.
“But I mustn’t pity it or anything of the sort, huh.”
“It’s a witchbeast, after all. No matter how they die, they’re just reaping what they sowed. Rather, what I’m worried about is the wound to your heart from witnessing that… Anyway, about this pile of ice.”
Immediately tossing aside any concern for the pitiful Guiltylaw, Puck observed the pile of ice on the ground.
Carefully looking it over, Puck blinked his big, round eyes several times. In the meantime, Emilia’s eyes were on Puck’s tail which was swaying from side to side as she obediently waited for his conclusion.
“By the way, did your business go okay?”
“Yeah―Hey, I’m busy investing this right now.”
“That’s true, but… Anyway, what were you up to?”
“I went to play with some fire for a bit― Hey, quit interrupting. You said you wanted to confirm what this thing was, yet you keep getting in my way. What a naughty girl.”
With his investigation constantly being interrupted, Puck said this in a huff as he turned around. In response, Emilia lowered her eyes slightly and apologized, “I’m sorry.”
“Are you perhaps depressed? Was Guiltylaw that pitiful?”
“No, that’s not it. He was certainly pitiful, but I’m not thinking about Guiltylaw… I can’t properly explain it, though.”
She herself could not grasp the true nature of the discomfort lurking in her heart. It was for the purpose of understanding it that she asked Puck to analyze the black liquid. Yet she kept bothering him despite this, she was basically only hurting herself. She did not understand why, though.
Emilia fell silent, and Puck sighed in response. And then―
“Emilia, you said this was part of the black liquid you defeated, right?”
“… Yeah, that’s right. The real thing was much bigger, but I couldn’t bring it all back. This is, right… Just the tip of the iceberg.”
It was a lump of ice only around thirty centimeters in size, but it was still quite the pain to bring it back here. Rather than the weight, it was her feelings that were the problem. Her answer caused Puck to take on a troubled expression,
“Emilia, it’s hard to say this, but you haven’t finished it. It’s still alive.”
Emilia’s eyes widened in surprise at Puck’s words.
Immediately after, a crack appeared on the lump of ice on the ground. Black slime poured out of the crack as if overflowing and expanded in the blink of an eye, after which it immediately threw itself at Emilia who was standing nearby.
“―Well, I can’t let you do that, though.”
But that was the end of its comeback.
Before the leaping slime could attack, Puck clapped the paws of his hands. In an instant, particles of light flowed in and surrounded the black liquid, causing the atmosphere to creak as the slime was frozen and compressed.
Its formerly thirty-centimeter diameter was now reduced to just two by Puck’s power. The sphere then cracked from its core and was smashed into pieces, scattering like grains of sand.
“Seems rather resilient, so you have to go this far at least to finish it off. The ideal would be to freeze it to the core and smash it apart. This, in other words.”
Puck spoke as though it was the simplest thing in the world, but this was a technique that employed a high degree of magical power. At the very least, Emilia as she was now could not easily do it even by borrowing the lesser spirits’ power.
But rather than her surprise at this technique, something entirely different had a much greater impact.
“Wait, if the black liquid just now wasn’t dead…”
“The big part you left behind is probably running around right now.”
With her fears confirmed, Emilia reflexively turned to the north of the forest.
The part she’d frozen and left behind was well over ten times the size of what she’d brought back. If that part was also released into the forest, there would be a lot more damage like what happened to Guiltylaw.
“You won’t make it in time even if you go.”
“Maybe so. That might be the case, but I can’t just leave it be!”
When Puck coldly called out to her, Emilia responded with a face that looked like she was ready to dash off at any moment.
There was no guarantee that only witchbeasts would fall victim to the black liquid. It had even turned on Emilia. Meaning that to the black liquid, even the animals in the forest and her frozen companions in the garden were prey.
And that might not just apply to this forest. Even the village nearby―
“Setting aside the village you can trade with now, didn’t you already cut things off with those other guys? I don’t think you have any obligation to worry about them.”
“―Still, that’s no good. I still can’t let that happen.”
Puck read her feelings from her expression as he muttered this, and she shook her head in response.
She had sworn to never approach that village again. There was an unbridgeable gap between her and the villagers. But that didn’t mean she wanted anything bad to happen to them.
If it was possible for her to stop it, she wanted to do so.
“You’re going so far for people you’d be better off ignoring. Your kindness is a serious illness, huh. Someday, it’s going to backfire on… Oh, it already did. But you’re still not reflecting on it in the slightest. What a troublesome girl.”
“Say whatever you want. I’ll go have another look at the ‘Thorny Thicket’. Puck…”
“―Alright. I’ll go in your place, so you wait here.”
Emilia was expecting to have to persuade him somehow, so this caused her eyes to widen.
“You won’t stop me…?”
“I am stopping you. And in exchange, I’m offering to go in your place. If you just tell me the place, I’ll get there much faster than you, and I won’t fall behind that filthy liquid either. Am I wrong?”
“You’re not wrong. You’re not wrong, but are you okay with this?”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t particularly care about this forest or the people in that village, but… I’d much rather do this than let you face that filthy liquid again.”
Speaking in his usual unlikeable manner, Puck winked. Blinking at this human-like gesture, Emilia spread her map of the forest in a hurry.
“It’s still a rough draft, but the Snow Blight’s territory went from here to here. I met that black liquid around here… Over here, because the frozen trees are all thorny.”
“So that’s the ‘Thorny Thicket’. Easy to understand, huh. Alright, I’ll have a look.”
Having received her explanation, Puck nodded as his form dissolved into the freezing air.
Releasing their manifestation and then manifesting anew at their destination, a form of teleportation characteristic of spirits.
The accuracy seemed to depend on the spirit’s ability, but since it was Puck he would definitely make it.
Before she knew it Emilia had closed her eyes and joined her hands as if praying.
The bud of unease growing within her heart had not disappeared even now. Rather, now that she knew just how dangerous the black liquid was, her wariness toward its contamination was strengthened even further.
She opened her eyes slightly, the scattered remnants of the black liquid were within view. The appearance of the black liquid was clearly the cause of this sense of tension that made her heart race.
And she had also experienced that sensation accompanying pain. Many times, in fact.
So many times, every morning, the feeling brought about when she would wake from her bad dreams―
But before she could find an answer in her memories, the light of mana took the form of a cat.
Calling to the spirit who had returned, Emilia was relieved that nothing strange had happened to that small body of his.
To begin with, Emilia trusted that he wouldn’t lose no matter who he was facing. But still, an opponent was an opponent. Now that her anxiety which was like grains of sand was negated, Emilia sighed.
However, considering Puck’s downcast expression now that he’d returned, she got the feeling she was about to get some bad news.
“I’ll start with my report. At that ‘Thorny Thicket’ place you spoke of, the frozen… Black liquid, was it? It was gone after all. So I looked around for a bit.”
“―. So, did you find it?”
“Relax. I found it. I took care of it properly, so you can go ahead and praise me.”
Ehe, Puck puffed his chest with pride, but contrary to his attitude his ears and tail were still drooping. Noticing her gaze, the cat immediately continued, “However,”
“With my report finished, I’m going to move on, but… Emilia, don’t go to the north of the forest for now. If possible, try to avoid going deep into the forest at all.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? For you to say something like that.”
He spoke in a joking tone, but Puck’s black eyes wordlessly conveyed his seriousness. In response to his attitude, Emilia asked for an explanation and Puck fell silent momentarily,
“―I took a look around the area to find the black liquid that ran away, but I didn’t find just one. I finished off the three that I found, but it seems to me there might be a lot more.”
He forced these words out with a sigh, and confirmed Emilia’s unpleasant premonition.
Puck’s eyewitness testimony and Emilia’s unpleasant premonition were soon proven true.
The reason was simple. Ever since their first contact, the black liquid had infested the entire forest, the entire area had become their territory.
In response to this large scale outbreak, Emilia followed Puck’s advice and temporarily suspended her mapmaking.
However, it couldn’t be said that this guaranteed her safety.
Rather, the level of danger to her was much greater than before. The reason being―
Yelling this loudly, Emilia skated across the snow to engage the black liquid that she just found in close combat.
The enemy was around one meter in size, rather small for the black liquid. The undulating black slime produced protuberances across its entire body in order to intercept Emilia who was rapidly approaching.
But before it could ready its attack, Emilia’s drove her palm into its core.
Her palm glowed blue as mana surrounded it, and the venomous viscous liquid was unable to harm her. On the other hand, the ice magic Emilia fired froze the black liquid from its core, causing it to shatter to pieces in an instant.
Looking back at the scattering ice fragments, Emilia used the edge of the ice board she was skating on to come to a sudden stop, her lovely profile was filled with caution, and she sharpened her senses of sight and smell as she searched for her next opponent.
―In accordance with Puck’s warning, Emilia had suspended work on her map.
But rather than reducing her trips into the forest, she greatly increased them as she proactively continued to battle the black liquid in order to exterminate them.
Over these past two weeks, she had already battled almost a hundred, and her link with her lesser spirits had also improved greatly.
As you just saw, if her opponent was simply a black liquid, she could safely deal with it.
Of course, the risk was never zero when it came to battles, but―
“Even so, if I can reduce the damage by even a little…”
Fighting wasn’t pointless. That was what Emilia thought.
‘Unless you strike at the source, there will most likely be an almost limitless number showing up. No matter how many branches or leaves you bring down, the tree won’t fall. In much the same way, it will be necessary to cut this off at the source.’
That was what Puck said to her as she ran around dealing with the constantly appearing black liquid. That was probably his frank advice to her now that she’d gone as far as to directly disobey his warning in order to run around the forest. No matter how hard she worked bringing the black liquid down, it was all futile unless she exterminated the source. She figured that that was what he was trying to say.
However, despite telling her this it only had the opposite effect.
“Even if my method is missing the point, even if I’m doing this in a roundabout manner, there’s still meaning in fighting like this. So the fact that I want to do it won’t change.”
She understood that he was concerned for her. Out of both sincerity and stubbornness, the cat spirit would keep talking her head off trying to keep her out of danger.
She understood that she was the worst for ignoring all of his consideration and selfishly continuing her pursuit.
‘I don’t really get what it is that drives you to try so hard.’
Since Emilia would not listen to his warnings, Puck powerlessly dropped his shoulders and said this.
―What was it that was spurring her on? Emilia herself did not know the answer to Puck’s doubt. Perhaps it was because she didn’t know that she was trying so desperately, so she could find out.
“―Feels kind of itchy in my chest.”
Whenever she came into contact with the black liquid, she felt something ache at the bottom of the memories she could not access. That’s why she thought there was no way she could stop―
“―There’s the next one!”
When the cold odor brushed against her nostrils, Emilia discarded her thoughts and began the chase.
The ice board accelerated rapidly as it received the force of her kicks, her skill with it had increased dramatically. Only in actual combat can your skills truly be polished, it was an example of that sort of saying.
She went up the slope, bursting into a cluster of trees, going up the hill as frozen foliage grazed her skin. Pursuing the slight odor reaching her nostrils, Emilia found it down the cliff in front of her.
She saw the undulating black liquid flowing down a slope so steep it was as if the hill had been cut down. Since it was sliding down bare rock, it would not be possible to pursue it unless she was prepared to fall to her death.
Though the mere sight of this precipitous cliff would paralyze most people’s legs, Emilia dived down with no hesitation. With her ice board against the almost completely vertical rock surface, she chased after the black liquid with her world tilted ninety degrees.
In response to her feat that was both skillful and daring, the black liquid further down the cliff started firing slime bullets to intercept her.
As the attacks flew toward her one after another, Emilia swung her body from side to side to dodge them.
As she slid down the cliff, she adroitly handled acceleration, deceleration and turning simultaneously. She then evaded slime bullets blocking her path by leaping over them― And fired magic while gliding through the air, freezing the surface of the fleeing black liquid. However, the black liquid took a tumble, ripping the frozen portion off, ensuring the safety of the rest of its body. The chase would continue.
“You don’t even have a head, why are you so crafty…!”
It was now somewhat smaller, but Emilia bit her lip as it continued to slide down.
In the meantime, the black liquid had not let up on its counterattack. Emilia easily dodged, and then increased her speed. She would close the distance in one go, and then pierce it at full speed―
“If magic won’t work, how about… This?”
Her declaration accompanied their collision, she raised the underside of her board, crushing the black liquid into the cliff from above. The direct contact caused the underside of the board to turn black as the venom corrupted it, but at the same time the surface of the black liquid turned white as it froze. The black liquid tried to escape the freezing the same way it did just earlier, but this time her freezing did not let up.
It continued to lose mass as it ripped off parts of itself, and finally exhausted itself before it could fully corrupt the ice board. Its slimy body scattered into fragments of ice which made it impossible for it to do anything further, it was completely finished.
But she was still sliding extremely fast. The ground beneath the cliff approached rapidly, at this speed she would definitely die from the impact. Emilia overcame this problem through a rather forceful method.
In response to her brief call, her lesser spirits put out all the power they could.
As the wind whined, they formed an ice ramp at the base of the cliff. The hastily built ramp could only withstand a single use. But that was all she needed.
She took the ramp at high speed, and her body flew high into the sky. In the air so chilly it was practically cutting, Emilia carefully examined the ground as her silver hair fluttered.
360 degrees, her field of view covered everything, and within it she discovered several of the black liquid she could after right now.
She aimed at them and fired off some ice bullets, the aerial attack destroying them one after another.
“Two, three, four… That’s five!”
When she confirmed that she had wiped out all five enemies in her inverted field of view, Emilia performed a somersault. The sky and the ground were back in place as she slipped down the snow, gently reducing the impact as she slowed down. Slower, slower, the snowy mountain before her approached―
Unable to stop, she ended up crashing into the snow facefirst.
“Ah… My nose, hurts…”
Pulling her buried upper body out of the snow, Emilia stroked her nose as her cheeks reddened. Even though it was a pile of snow that she crashed into, an impact was an impact. She felt somewhat dizzy even now.
“But I was able to take them all out in one go, huh?”
Still pressing down on her nose, Emilia sat on the snow and looked back at what she’d just accomplished with one eye closed.
Black liquid extermination had become her new daily routine, taking the place of mapmaking, but today’s results were quite a bit higher than anything else in the past two weeks.
It was just past soon, and she had already disposed of ten of them. Up until now, her daily average was around five, so this number was unusual.
“Looks like most of the black liquid is around the northern area after all.”
The rate at which they appeared backed up her hypothesis, and she was now sure it was correct.
Right now, the black liquid was appearing all over the forest, but she definitely encountered it more frequently in the north. Even her first meeting with it had occurred in the north, so it was probably safe to assume this was true.
“I’ll have to tell Puck…”
About this too, she thought, but her words stopped midway.
The image of Puck being displeased at her leaping into danger appeared in the back of her mind. If she revealed this to him, he would happily work toward a solution. Leaving Emilia behind.
She would once again be making him clean up her mess.
She thought of it as far too cowardly an act.
“I can’t just have Puck do everything for me. He isn’t some doll who exists to follow my orders―”
Even though she ignored Puck’s warning, she was going to rely on him when it mattered. That was cowardice. She was taking him for granted. And also―
“I don’t want to give up just yet.”
If Puck was the one dealing with this, he would definitely distance her from the matter. If that happened, she wouldn’t be able to find the answer to the unease that she had been hunting to this day.
Her most important memories that were supposed to serve as her starting point were sealed away from her even now.
She was already suffering not knowing them, she couldn’t bear the idea of having even more things she didn’t understand
As if building her resolve, Emilia clenched her back teeth and looked up into the sky. It was hidden by thick clouds, but the sun was still high. She still had plenty of time.
“Please, lend me your power once more.”
If they couldn’t rely on that kind and overprotective spirit, they’d just have to do it on their own.
Answering her call, the faintly glowing lesser spirits emerged around her. Surrounded by the bluish white light, Emilia proceeded further north into the forest.
Filling in this unexplored region that wasn’t on her map felt very much like filling in her missing memories.
Right now, Emilia was unsure as to whether or not she should tell Puck about what she was doing, and ultimately decided not to. But even supposing she chose the other option, she probably wouldn’t have been able to do it.
The reason being that while this was going on, Puck was also facing an enemy unknown to Emilia.
―This was around the same time Emilia resolved to head north.
“Well now, I’ll hear you out if you’ve got an excuse?”
Two spirits positioned some ten-odd meters apart― A gray cat and a crimson horse of flame confronted each other.
Each was a great spirit bearing its own name, these being Puck and Melakuera. They each beheld the other head on, continuing their standoff with an atmosphere that definitely couldn’t be called reasonable.
That was a natural confrontation. This was a chance meeting that shouldn’t have occurred.
They both understood that they were in conflict. This forest was Puck’s territory, and Melakuera was an uninvited guest― That was the conclusion they had reached in a previous conversation.
Despite this, they had once again encountered each other in Elior Forest.
“The black liquid… No, the Black Serpent’s poison, isn’t it. I found you while searching for the source. Come to think of it, its first appearance was right after I met that part of you― What do you have to say about that?!”
Puck knew the true nature of the strange viscous liquid that kept appearing. It was the after-effect left behind by a certain witchbeast, an evil poison that would never disappear, possessing the will to harm the living―
He knew what it was. The problem then was the source, and the flaming horse was definitely related somehow.
“I’d like to hear your opinion. Whether you have something to do with it or not.”
“Thou, Dialogue. Answer Denied―”
“You’re not saying you don’t know, you’re outright refusing to answer, huh. Guess you’re honest to a fault as usual. But you’d best keep your resemblance to a horse to your appearance alone. When you immediately forget what you’re told, we call that being birdbrained.”
[T/N: The resemblance to a horse bit is because the ‘honest to a fault’ part contains the character for horse.]
Melakuera refused to answer in a low voice, and Puck continued onward mixing hostility and ridicule.
“Where are you finding the poison? And you shouldn’t be able to release it into this forest. If you were to try to enter this forest, you’d immediately be discovered like you were just now. What sort of cheap trick are you using?”
“Answer, Denial. I, Reason, Visit. Thou, Falsehood, Excess.”
“You’re accusing me of lying? On what basis?”
“Mining Town, Recent, Criminal. Thou, Ice Flower Seed, Destiny―”
The flaming horse’s blazing reply caused Puck to narrow his eyes, “Fmm”
Melakuera was referring to last month, when he intimated those scoundrels in the mining town Ganacus. Puck had given the man who hurt Emilia and his boss a fitting punishment.
It was all to set an example, a trap to draw Melakuera’s attention toward himself, but,
“If you made someone talk, I suppose it must have been by intimidating the sensible one. What a pity. He was a believer of Gusteco’s sacred teachings which hold spirits in reverence.”
“Petty, Trifling, Insignificant―”
“How cruel. Well, I suppose unlike Odglass you don’t have that kind of sensibility. I’m of the same opinion, but even I feel like offering a little sympathy.”
Since his deed could bring harm to Emilia, he was probably an ice sculpture by now.
Threatened by a flame spirit, and ultimately frozen solid―Truly pitiful.
The Great Spirit who called himself the arbiter was sure of Emilia’s existence― Strictly speaking, it was not Emilia herself but her ‘Power’ that he regarded as dangerous.
“Her rampage that day ended up drawing his caution, after all…”
That was as bad as it could get. In order to deceive him, Puck used various tricks to pretend that that day’s events were the work of his magic, but he was unable to fool Melakuera’s prejudice.
If the Great Spirit of Judgement learned of Emilia’s existence, he would definitely deliver a prejudiced judgement.
So if he was unable to deceive said prejudice, Puck’s stance was obvious.
“No matter how much you doubt it, my answer won’t change. Leave this forest, Melakuera ― Forget about this place and go arbitrate for a married couple in a rut or something.”
“Contempt, Scorn, Firm Refusal. Arbiter Melakuera. Derision, Grave Sin.”
“Ah, you’re mad? How troublesome. Sorry, sorry. Let me rephrase then.”
Puck directed an embarrassed grin at Melakuera who was in a rage, scraping the ground with his burning hooves.
Still smiling, the cat tilted his head and continued,
“―Turn around and trot away like a good little horse.”
“Declaration Of War, I, Accept―”
Taking Puck’s provocation exactly as stated, Melakuera prepared for battle.
Leaning forward, Melakuera’s flaming body billowed as it produced wings so hot they warped the atmosphere behind him― Wings of flame. Melakura dashed forward as he produced waves of heat.
His sprint burned the ground below him, and his heat waves so hot as to sear any eyes looking at him razed the terrain. The frozen forest was unable to withstand the high temperature and was vaporized despite the frost as it was blown apart.
“All Creation, Ash, Carry Out―”
His fluttering wings produced wind that was both hot and extremely destructive. The scorching wind would burn throats that breathed it, eyes that looked upon it, skin that felt it, and ultimately even burn away souls themselves.
The purest form of destruction of all swept through the forest, and instantly burned away everything in a radius many times larger than the wings, reducing it all to scorched earth.
This space of death that had been formed in the blink of an eye would not allow the existence of even a single living thing.
―Unless that thing possessed power matching that of the flaming horse.
“Good grief… If you go that far, it’ll be a real pain to hide it from Emilia later on.”
In the middle of this space of absolute death that burned everything, an unharmed cat muttered this completely unfazed.
Within swirling red heat waves, a few dozen centimeters surrounding Puck were unaffected, completely isolated from the effects of Melakuera’s inferno. It was simply the result of magic colliding with magic and canceling it out, but of course, in order to actually do it was necessary to have fine control over an amount mana rivaling that of a Great Spirit.
This too was an ability only held by transcendent beings.
“But since you’ve got a fancy title like arbiter, surely that’s not the extent of your power?”
“Thank goodness. If that was the best you could do, as a fellow spirit I wouldn’t be able to show my face in public.”
“Shame Unnecessary. Thou, Here, Annihilation―”
In response to Puck who always had a comeback, Melakuera fired flame bullets from his mouth. The balls of fire collided with Puck’s magic barrier with tremendous force and shattered it.
“Persist, Continue, Sustain―”
Having been expelled from his shattered barrier, Puck was now assailed by relentless attacks from the wings of flame.
Puck waved his tail to intercept this, producing a white wave of cold. Tyrannical heat collided with absolute zero and the clash produced an explosion of steam which covered the burnt terrain in the blink of an eye.
Aiming for Puck who was engulfed by the white curtain, Melakuera fired a barrage of small flame bullets. The flame bullets scattered the steam, vaporized the trees that ended up in their path, and turned the southern region of the forest into a wasteland in mere tens of seconds from when the battle began.
The clash of just two spirits caused this.
“Not bad.― Now it’s my turn.”
Puck countered the flame bullets that were destroying the forest with bluish white ice bullets.
The flame bullets and ice bullets collided head on, and their perfectly equal powers immediately canceled each other out. The countless blasts of fire were countered by ice bullets of equal quantity, producing a chain of vaporization, extinguishment, and mutual cancelation.
It sounded like pouring water, but the attacks canceling each other out possessed truly dreadful power. Everything the fire touched was vaporized, and all that was covered by the light was doomed to remain frozen at absolute zero for all eternity.
They exchanged countless fatal attacks, the shockwaves of which were steadily shortening the forest’s lifespan. It didn’t seem like there would ever be an end to this exchange. It was only natural that both would conclude this.
“Judgement Of Evil! Judgement Of Criminals! Carry Out Arbitration―”
As he fired flame bullets, the flaming horse roared for the first time as he closed the distance between them in one go.
Mowing through the atmosphere with his wings of flame, Melakuera ferociously charged Puck who was still mid-air. The cat placed one paw atop the other and caught the blow by forming an ice shield right in front of him. The resulting shockwave contained waves of both heat and cold, causing the terrain to crack as it was scorched and frozen, ruining it even further.
“This is… Even more of a problem than I thought.”
Tossed about by the shockwave, Puck grimaced with his ears and tail shaking.
The forest around them was now completely unrecognizable, but Puck who was at the epicenter didn’t appear to be wounded at all.
To begin with, the concept of injury itself was meaningless to spirits. To spirits, damage was something that only occurred when something tore through the defenses of their materialization and harmed the Od that was the core of their being.
Unless they lost their Od, spirits would not die no matter what happened to them. Or to put it another way, in a battle between spirits, the goal was to rip through the opponent’s mana and crush their Od.
In that sense, it could be said that Puck and Melakuera were both in good health.
“Doesn’t look like I have much leeway.”
Even though spirits used atmospheric mana to perform magic, there was a limit to how much they could control. Although Puck possessed extraordinary power compared to the average spirit, he too was no exception. To say nothing of the fact that his opponent was a fellow great spirit, meaning his mana expenditure in battle was much higher than usual.
“Furthermore, I’ve got to finish this before Emilia shows up…”
It wasn’t as if his forehead could produce sweat, but Puck wiped his forehead in a human-like manner.
They had fought this much and caused this much destruction. Emilia had disobeyed his instructions today as well and had gone into the forest, working hard to exterminate the black liquid. He just wanted to avoid having her show up here.
She was a gallant and noble girl. If she understood Puck was caught up in this, she would probably join the battle with no hesitation. And that would be just as Melakuera planned.
“Brethren. Thou, Conclusion, Hasty, Desire―”
“It’s not just me. I don’t think either of us wants to look at the other’s mug for too long.”
“Falsehood Unnecessary. Thou, Impatience Unnecessary. Reason, Already Discovered―”
The wings of flame spread out over the ashen ground as Melakuera took a low stance, and Puck’s eyes narrowed in response to his words.
The flaming horse wasn’t the sort who would resort to provocation. His statement did not have any ulterior motives. He had spoken his thoughts directly, conveying a fact. He was announcing that Puck had no need to rush.
“Thou, Falsehood. Thou, Secret. Thou, Protect. All Unnecessary―”
“Hoho. And why would that be?”
“Thou, Conceal, Half-Devil―”
“Half-Devil, Silver, Witch. I, Already In Hand―”
Puck’s narrowed eyes widened at Melakuera’s declaration, witch and half-devil.
At the same time, Puck realized. Between the rampaging waves of mana formed by the clash between fellow great spirits, he could feel waves of a familiar mana flowing in from afar.
It was coming from the northernmost region of the forest― This sensation caused Puck’s fur to stand on end.
“―Melakuera, what did you do to her?”
“… That’s true, isn’t it. There isn’t room to talk. Nor is there room for mercy or holding back.”
The tone of Puck’s voice dropped, and the mana enveloping the area transformed with a violent noise, forming countless icicles that seemed to cover the sky. Their sharp tips were all aimed at the flaming horse on the ground.
“I’ll kill you, and then bring her back. There’s probably no point hiding it anymore, right?”
In response to the icicles covering the sky, the ground beneath Melakuera started emitting flames all at once. The roaring blaze and absolute zero dominated the skies and the earth as they faced each other.
Clash, at the same time, it all happened in an instant.
However, the destruction brought about by this colossal power completely annihilated the southern region of the forest.
The white forest had vanished completely with not a trace left. And what was left was―
―The northern region had turned into a hell infested with black liquid, there was even more than Emilia was prepared for.
Drawing ragged breaths, Emilia fell to her knees on the snow as she gasped. She had been running around the mountain non-stop, and the lack of oxygen caused her ears to ring incessantly.
The reason for all of this was the fierce attacks from the black liquid that just wouldn’t end.
“Finally, calmed down a bit…”
Wiping off the sweat running down her eyelids, Emilia sat down while making sure to keep her guard up.
It had been about an hour since Emilia challenged the north seeking to find the source of the black liquid. Emilia spent all that time fighting, they kept coming at her so fast she did not even have time to breathe.
“I lost count at twenty…”
Small and large, the black liquid came in a diverse range of sizes. It couldn’t be said that any one of them was particularly hard to deal with on its own, but having to fight battle after battle drained her willpower and stamina more than expected.
Perhaps Emilia was being conceited when she thought she could go further.
“If it weren’t for you guys, I would have been completely finished. Thank you.”
As she spoke her thanks, faintly glowing lesser spirits appeared on her shoulder. They couldn’t encourage her with words, but they supported her through their sensory connection. This made Emilia smile.
She had presently battled more than twenty, almost thirty of the black liquid. Counting the ones from before she reached the north, it was almost fifty in total.
She had to run around in the snow as she battled, and the fatigue was definitely building up. However, using the spirit arts didn’t particularly tire her. This too was probably thanks to the lesser spirits.
“But I can still go on… Hah, didn’t Puck once say this was dangerous?”
Opening and closing her fist, Emilia remembered Puck’s lesson as she confirmed her level of exhaustion.
It would be ridiculous to follow his teachings even though she ignored his warning not to enter the forest. Furthermore, Emilia still felt a certain sense of antipathy toward the option of retreating.
The entire northern region of the forest had fallen under the black liquid’s control, over this past hour Emilia hadn’t seen a single other living thing, be it animal or witchbeast. The black liquid had probably already eliminated all of them. And when a hunter runs out of prey, it changes its hunting grounds―
“Even if I withdraw from here, they’ll probably approach the garden sooner or later.”
Even if she resolved to fight back when that time came, it was doubtful whether she would be able to reach the main part in the north. Perhaps this could be her one and only opportunity to reach the source.
Crossing her arms, Emilia pondered with a troubled expression. She still had some willpower and stamina left. One more step, if something just gave her a little push― It was at that moment.
Her lesser spirits’ sudden reaction caused Emilia to narrow her amethyst eyes and adopt a half-standing position. Since her lesser spirits sensed something approaching, Emilia started weaving mana in preparation for the arrival of some black liquid.
However, that preparation was pointless. The reason being that what appeared in front of Emilia was not some black slime, but―
“―Red, lesser spirit…?”
―Emilia whispered this as she looked at the crimson ball of light that appeared before her.
Particles of light gathered in the air and fused together, Emilia initially assumed the being that hence manifested was a lesser spirit like she was familiar with, but she immediately retracted that thought.
From her connection to the lesser spirits, Emilia felt the emotion of reverence flow into her. As the sensation surprised her, her lesser spirits all jumped and flickered as if they were afraid of the red spirit.
―She knew this reaction. It was a scene she saw every morning in her room.
“The way the children are reacting, it’s the same as when Puck shows up, meaning… You’re a spirit, right?”
Emilia carefully called to it, but the red spirit remained silent, giving no response.
Unlike Puck, the red spirit did not possess a true form, much like a lesser spirit. If it did not have any way to convey words or feelings, then perhaps it just couldn’t be helped.
“But it’s not like you showed up just to float there without saying anything, right?”
The spirit must have had some reason for showing itself like this.
Emilia held that sort of expectation towards the spirit. In a certain sense, it was natural for Emilia to have this trust. To her, spirits were all like Puck or her lesser spirits.
As far as she was concerned, spirits were all forces for good.
Consequently, Emilia had hope for this red spirit as well. ― Emilia who could not place her faith in other people, her companions, and most of all herself, only believed in spirits unconditionally.
That was the sort of relationship she had cultivated with the spirits around her as she lived in the forest.
“―! Where are you going? Do you want to tell me something?”
It did not have a voice with which to answer her question, so instead it started moving as if to answer with its movements.
The red light swayed over the snow as if dancing, and started swimming through the air as if guiding Emilia. Emilia widened her eyes at the suddenness of this, but she immediately ran after the spirit.
“Wait, hey, wait! Where are you going?”
Surmounting snow paths, slipping through the frozen roots of giant trees, Emilia chased after the spirit in front of her. The spirit matched Emilia’s speed, maintaining a reasonable distance between them as it continued to lead the way.
There was something conclusive wherever the spirit was leading her. This belief drove her legs. She continued to run through the snowy forest, and the instant she came out of a cluster of trees―
Perhaps her impatience had chipped away at her concentration, Emilia raised her voice as her footing unexpectedly crumbled.
A natural trap that would occasionally appear on snowy paths, overhanging snow. Her foot went right through the snow when she stepped on it, and she lost her balance as she slipped down the white slope.
“―, This is bad!”
She let out a small scream, but fortunately the inclination of the white slope wasn’t very steep. She immediately used her limbs to correct her posture and stand up, and then slid all the way down to the very bottom.
“W-What a surprise. That was reeeeally startling…”
Looking up at the crumbling overhang of snow, the unexpectedly long distance she slid caused her to break into a cold sweat. She then remembered her objective, chasing after the red spirit, and restlessly looked around her surroundings as she searched for it. Then―
“―This is, a lake? So there was a place like this in the forest.”
Emilia’s eyes reflexively widened at this scene she was only just now discovering.
Before her was an immense lake under violently undulating snow. Of course, this was a place even Emilia did not know about. It was also the case that she’d left the northern region mostly untouched during her investigation, but considering the obstacles such as dense thickets and ravines, she probably couldn’t have made it far enough to confirm this.
However, this was Elior Forest, an eternally frozen land. Even this lake that appeared to be several dozens of meters in radius was completely frozen, and was like a huge ice making spot.
The red spirit that led Emilia here was floating at the center of the lake.
“A place like that… Umm.”
Having found the spirit, Emilia tried to run over to it, but stopped at the edge of the lake.
The surface was frozen, but she was a little unsure as to whether or not it would break if she stepped on it. There was also her experience with crumbling overhanging snow just now, so she cautiously placed her foot on the ice to test if it would break.
Fortunately, the frozen lake could easily support her weight. The frozen lake’s water was stained pitch-black so she was anxious about falling in, but it seemed there was no need to worry.
“So, I followed you, but… Is this the place you wanted to show me?”
Rapidly sliding over the lake’s surface to reach the middle, she called out to the floating spirit. The red spirit was silent as usual, but now it did not even move and simply continued to float there.
“As I thought, there’s something here… That’s how it is, huh.”
Interpreting the red spirit’s behavior this way, Emilia carefully examined her surroundings. It was an open space, under her was a lake, and in front of her was the spirit who vexingly could not speak, she had to find the answer.
She was currently in the northern region which had endless black liquid crawling all over the place, if she stayed here too long, the slime would approach―
“… How strange.”
Thinking that far, Emilia realized how odd the situation was.
There was no sign of the black liquid anywhere around her. That also went for the path she took to get here. Within an hour of entering the north, she was attacked by more than thirty of them. Compared to that frequency, her journey here was miraculously peaceful, too peaceful.
―No. There was one possibility that did not require a miracle.
―It wasn’t that she hadn’t encountered the black liquid. It was already here.
“… It can’t be.”
She suddenly felt her hair stand on end and was frozen in place as her eyes widened. She then slowly lowered her gaze, down to the lake she was standing on.
The lake that should have been frozen white seemed to contain something that dyed it black. ― As if a familiar black contaminant was hidden there in such a large quantity as to fill the bottom of the lake.
The instant she sensed the colossal danger in the frozen lake she was standing on, something strange happened. Turning toward the intense waves of mana, she found that it was her contracted lesser spirits that were calling her. The blue lights flew around at high speed, fervently trying to tell her something. What she felt flowing into her from their connection was fear, panic, anxiety― And anger.
Knitting her brows at this sensation, Emilia immediately noticed that the red spirit had disappeared. Right now, only Emilia and her lesser spirits were left on the lake.
The moment she realized this―
“… No way.”
As if to affirm Emilia’s dumbfounded mutter, a thunderous sound burst out from beneath her. Cracks formed on the lake’s surface, and evil poison poured out of the ice like a volcanic eruption.
And then the contaminant gushing forth turned toward Emilia, and mercilessly rained down on her.