Chapter 1: The Forest Parade

The beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning. My story opens its act at the end.

 

It was a beautiful spring afternoon where the flowers and trees were budding.

“Are you going out, Hibiki?”

A sudden voice called out to me as I tried to leave the silent guestroom while holding my bag.

“Oh, you’re awake.”

I turned around and stuck half of my body out from the narrow space where you put on your shoes and into the hallway and smiled.

In the guestroom was Uncle Miharu, who was using our luggage as a pillow as he slept. He languidly got up, sat crossed-legged while facing me, and yawned widely.

“I’ll go with you. Wait a few minutes while I get ready.”

“Take your time and rest, Uncle. You were always working late for today’s trip, right? Thanks.”

“Nah, I don’t mind pulling all-nighters if it’s for making my cute niece happy……and stop making me blush right after I wake up. I can’t let you walk around alone in an unfamiliar area, Hibiki.”

“It’s okay, I’m just going to look around the ryokan1 for a bit. But I’d like to see the candle parade later tonight together.”

I waved back at Uncle Miharu, who still looked like he was worrying over whether he should accompany me or not, and hurriedly left the guestroom and headed for the hallway downstairs. The ryokan was built in the Meiji Era with a western exterior, and its interior design was old-fashioned and extravagant.

A refreshing breeze slipped in from an open window in the hallway and made me smile because it felt nice.

The town of Sarumi, which I am currently visiting during my spring break, was located in south-western Honshuu around a prefectural border. While the town itself was rather small, it was surrounded by the grace of nature and was considered to be a great sight-seeing spot that was only known to a select few. It was only about two and a half hours away from the heart of the city by shinkansen2.

The manager of the ryokan was Uncle Miharu’s friend from high-school, and he’d apparently been inviting Uncle Miharu over since way back. That’s why we decided to come to here this time.

“I’m glad I came here,”

I whispered as I walked through the wooden terrace built in front of the main entrance.

The ryokan was built on top of a hill road surrounded by an abundance of trees. Behind it was a stream. I heard that, depending on the season, you could find rare wildflowers in the area. On the other side of the terrace was a stone path about four meters wide that curved gently along the way.

I stopped there for a moment and placed my hands on the decorated wooden guardrail. I saw the aging townscape before me. Many of the buildings, which had been built in a radial fashion, had vividly colored roofs and were adorable.

The buildings were particularly densely populated around the center of town, which was probably a shopping district. Scattered about a little way from that area were larger facilities like supermarkets and factories.

A thick forest surrounded the almost illusion-like town as if it was a miniature garden. Light pink was mixed into the green. It looks like there were sakura blossoms sprouting here and there. It might be nice to walk over there.

I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and headed down the path. The scenery really was nice.

“We should take pictures later.”

This was about my fifteenth trip with Uncle Miharu. We’ve filled our fair share of albums too.

“Our first trip was to the park two stations away, right?”

A gentle feeling spread inside of me as I recalled my memories. Of our extended vacations in spring, summer, and winter. We’ve even went during Golden Week, when it worked out.

I was quite spoiled by Uncle Miharu’s kindness. He’d carefully planned out each trip for me as I spent my days stifling. My parents hadn’t talked to each other beyond the bare minimum for the past several years. Every day, our dining table was filled with an unnatural silence and fake smiles.

I don’t even remember when the last time my parents looked each other in the eyes was.

I think they want to get divorced on the day that I graduate from high school and move out to live on my own. That’s in three years. They don’t know that I’ve realized yet and are patiently waiting for the time to pass.

It’s not like they’ve abused or neglected me. I know that my parents are sincerely trying to fulfill their duties as parents. I know this so well that I’d almost rather that they’d coldly push me away.

“Then I wouldn’t have to keep hoping that they’ll reconcile one day.”

If I really wanted to wish for my parents’ happiness, I should tell them that they didn’t need to hold back for my sake.

——After this trip is over. I’ll definitely say it then.

I dropped my gaze down to my feet. I had slowed down without thinking. I promised myself this during every trip, but I’d never actually put it to words. I think it’s because I’m afraid of seeing what kinds of faces they’ll make after I tell them.

If they end up looking relieved like a great burden fell off their shoulders…… It made my heart feel like it was sinking in ice-cold water just by thinking about it.

I straightened up and shook my head. This time for sure. It’s not like I’ll never see my parents again.

When I looked up, I noticed that a strange group was crossing the crooked crossroad at the end of the hill path.

“Eh……did the parade start already? Wasn’t it supposed to start at night?”

I moved my feet in a panic and got off the stone path. When we were checking in, Mr. Kenji —Uncle Miharu’s ryokan manager friend— had let us know that, “there’ll be a candle parade tonight. The town will be lit up brightly, so you should enjoy it.”

It was a festival with an old history to it, which had originally started so that the bride to Sarumi’s local god wouldn’t get lost or stumble on the road during her bridal procession. Today, it had changed into a lively parade with people in costume.

I looked for the procession I’d seen earlier after I arrived at the crossroads.

“They’re already at the next intersession.”

They were moving pretty fast. They seemed to be moving in the opposite direction to the center of town for some reason. There weren’t really any buildings there and the forest started not too far away.

I suddenly heard the echoes of cheerful laughter as I was chasing after the procession next to a line of retail stores beside me. A man in costume accompanied by several children appeared from the side road looking like they were going to join the procession.

The man, who was dressed up like a clown, was playing the trumpet off-tune as he danced with springy steps. The children were laughing like they were having fun as they surrounded him.

He’s like the “pied piper of Hamelin” who enticed children with his tunes—— a chill ran down my back as the silly idea crossed my mind.

They seemed to be heading for the forest as well, just like the procession ahead of them. I followed them slowly after a moment of hesitation.

The road ended and the number of trees lined up around me increased rapidly.

I became discouraged after spending ten or so minutes in the woods as the sunlight filtered through between the leaves. I wasn’t familiar with the area. I might get lost if I wandered too far in.

I stopped for a moment to take in my bearings and looked back to the direction the clown had gone.

“……Huh? They’re gone.”

I couldn’t find the clown or the children anywhere even after looking this way and that in a panic.

I found something strange instead.

“A bench? Why’s there a bench here?”

There was a simply wooden bench with a backrest in between the trees. I didn’t think that it had been abandoned there illegally. This was because there were several of them installed in the forest at irregular intervals.

“Are they supposed to be rest stops in the forest?”

My cheeks loosened before I realized it. I drew closer to the nearest bench and sat down on it after making sure that it wasn’t broken. My legs were a little tired. I let out a short sigh. I’d lost sight of the procession from before, but leisurely enjoying the ambience here wasn’t a bad idea. The old trees were covered in moss, and it smelled luxuriously of the earth.

——This feels nice.

I closed my eyes. The spring sunlight that covered my body was nice and warm. And still, the air was pristine. I should bring my uncle here later.

I slowly opened my eyes, and——.

“——!?”

The scenery had changed completely.

It had changed from a gentle sunlight-filled evening to a world of night with a dark presence in the air.

I felt goosebumps appear all over my body. I hadn’t even been asleep, I’d only closed my eyes. And only for a minute or two. So how…?

“……!?……!!”

I tried to raise my voice. Then, I tried to get up. I couldn’t do either.

I’d been bound to the bench at some point.

——No……! It’s not a bench! Its shape changed!

I desperately moved my head in deep confusion.

I couldn’t determine what I was sitting on because my eyes had not gotten used to the darkness yet. But I was absolutely sure that it wasn’t a bench. The places that were touching my hips and back weren’t flat and smooth anymore, and it was responding to my movements like it was alive. There hadn’t been an armrest before, either.

And what was the hairy thing that was coving my mouth so hard that it was biting into my cheeks? I didn’t think it was any ordinary cloth because its thickness was irregularly distributed.

——I feel something like body heat. Is it someone’s hand……?

I got goosebumps again. I have to get rid of these restraints and run away fast——an urgent thought flashed in my head and I was assaulted by an uneasiness stronger than fear. I didn’t know what was going on. But, for now, I felt like I absolutely shouldn’t ignore what I was feeling.

I struggled fervently. The restraints on my wrists and ankles became stronger as if they were trying to keep me from moving. My bangs threatened to poke my eyes, but I couldn’t brush them away.

I started sweating buckets. Blood rushed to my head and my breathing became ragged. If I could at least get rid of the thing covering my mouth, I could scream and call for help. Thinking this, I poured more strength into my trembling body.

Suddenly, a candle flickered on before my eyes.

“!?”

——There’s someone here!

I forgot to blink as I stared fixedly at the figure that was loitering in front of me.

“Oh, have my successor candidates finally been decided? Still, this chosen lady is rather young.”

The voice, which didn’t suit the ominous darkness of the area, was disconcertingly bright.

The candlelight dimly lit the figure of the suspicious person who had said those cryptic words.

——Is he in costume……?

The person who appeared before me was dressed in strange clothes.

For a moment, I forgot about the inexplicable situation I was in and the fear that I felt because of it as I fixedly observed the stranger. The stranger, too, shut his mouth and gazed back at me.

He had waist-long silky white hair that reminded me of winter. It didn’t seem unnatural enough to be a wig. He was covering the top half of his face with a dull grey mask. His attire looked almost like a kimono, but not quite. His jacket sleeve was long enough to reach the ground and flowed freely. The hem of his clothes looked like it was longer in the back. Multiple layers of thin chains bearing small jewels were coiled around the sash at his waist, which was stitched with fine embroidery. His undergarment was comparatively slender and was of a similar color to the jacket. The light didn’t really reach his feet, but he was probably wearing high-rise riding boots.

What kind of costume was that? It looked like an ethnic piece that was neither eastern nor western.

——Who is this person? And what does he mean by candidates?

It was vexing that I couldn’t say a word when there was a mountain of questions I wanted to ask. I moaned in an attempt to signal that I wanted him to remove my bindings, but the suspicious person in front of me simply placed a finger on their lips and smiled.

“Silence! You’ve only been selected as a successor candidate as of yet. If you speak, the shell of protection I granted you will weaken and break.”

——What do you mean by candidates and shells?!

“Your world, and our world of Evelier. This forest was transfigured into the “interworld” where both worlds have melted together due to the selection of the <Dark Seat>. Without my protection, you’ll be crushed by the distortions of the interworld and trampled.”

The world of Evelier? What country is that? I grew impatient at their incomprehensible explanation.

Maybe this is a part of the parade……like I was chosen to participate in a test of courage or an escape game or something. I knew that something was off as soon as I thought of this.

There was no way that they’d tie up an ordinary traveler like this.

Glossing over my growing fear, I looked up at the person who was smiling and looking like he was having fun. I couldn’t guess his actual gender, let alone his age, because of the mask was covering half of his face and their peculiar dress. His voice, too, could have belonged to both a man or a woman.

“You’re looking around like a curious little kitten, but listen quietly to what I have to say without making a sound.”

The hint of laughter in his tone ticked me off. I hated how he brushed off my feelings with a word as harmless as ‘curious’. I was obviously scared out of my mind. I raised a moan in protest and pushed my body harder to undo the restraints binding my hands and feet. I kicked at something with the tip of my shoe, which I had managed to move just a little.

Then, I suddenly remembered about my bag. I pulled my gaze off of the stranger and turned to look at my feet——.

“!?”

All the hair on my body stood up at once. I was finally able to see what I was sitting on thanks to the candle that the suspicious person was holding. But, I would have been so much better off not knowing.

——The chair, it’s alive!

That description might be a little off. It was alive……in that it was made up of small monkeys, no larger than cats, densely packed into the shape of a chair.

The thing that was wrapped around my waist wasn’t a rope, but the little monkeys’ long tails twisted together. The things binding my wrists and ankles were, like I’d guessed earlier, their fingers. As was the thing covering my mouth.

“……!!”

When I struggled harder, moved by my fear, the little monkeys turned their eyes, which looked like they’d spill out of their heads, to me and screeched in sharp, judgmental voices. The entire chair shook.

Then, as if they were punishing me for resisting, they scratched at my butt and pulled my hair…….

“……!, ……!”

——What is this……? And what are you planning to do with me?! Who are you!?

My panic was apparently comical to him. The suspicious person held his hand at his mouth and stifled a chuckle. The candle moved with him and flickered unsteadily.

“You wish to know of my identity? Let’s see, shall I name myself Fortune? I am one who will change your fate.”

This person……Fortune calmly circled around me as if he was trying to fan the flames of my fear.

“You were thus acknowledged by the <Dark Seat> which I have prepared and have earned the right to reach greater heights.”

——Dark Seat? He said something like that before, too.

I desperately thought amidst my confusion. I couldn’t grasp the precise meaning of his words. But, from what I could guess from the impression his words left me, I understood that he was talking about the chair I was being made to sit in.

“Indeed, girl. You sit upon the Dark Seat which fathoms life,”

Fortune said with such good timing that I couldn’t help but think he’d read my mind.

——Can he read my mind?

“The name of the power I hold is <Infinity>. It is a great power beloved by the gods at the heights of Evelier. Become my successor, and all things will bow down before you. Haha, the gods will never meddle, so there is nothing to fear. The covenant of inviolability holds between myself and the gods still.”

Fortune looked down at me as I shivered uncontrollably, unable to get rid of my chills, and slowly circled me again.

“For many long years have I endured this anguish! I should have had a wish and a vow I could never lose sight of when I was still human. But I was robbed of my past, robbed of my name, and what ultimately remained in my hands was the emptiness of a ‘determined future.’ Even time itself yields to me. I no longer feel mystery in the future, for I see through everything.”

He circled me one more time. The candlelight flickered like an afterimage.

“As such, what did I need to do to regain an ‘undetermined future?’ I know the answer, for I am who I am. I simply need to cede to another the entirety of this revolting power that even the gods acknowledge. This transition of power will surely distort the determined future.”

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Fortune peered into my face when he returned in front of me and tapped steadily at my cheek.

“And thus, you were selected. As one of my successor candidates.”

There was a hint of allure in his voice. Fortune’s lips curled up in a bewitching manner in the dim light.

“One man and one woman were chosen by me. How amusing it is that two such vessels that I’ve painstakingly awaited appeared at once. I wonder which of you two will inherit my power?”

Evelier, and the power of infinity. I had no idea what he was talking about. He didn’t seem to be talking about something along the lines of handing down a company or personal property like normal people would. In any case, I was barely able to understand that this suspicious person who calls himself Fortune had chosen me and another person as some kind of special successor.

“You may wield the power granted to you as your greed and wishes desire. Will you become the conqueror of the world, or will you become its glorious ruler? Or,”

will you create a new world and become its god? Fortune whispered.

“All shall be at your fancy. There is no limit to my power. But do keep in mind: the greed of man is an untamable beast. It never runs dry no matter how much it wants and wants and springs up endlessly like an ever-flowing fountain. There exists both infinity and space within man. It is unfathomably vast and deep. So vast, in fact, that it will inevitably lead to demise.”

Fortune absentmindedly caressed my throat with his fingers as if he was amusing himself.

“I see, so it was inevitable that I would lose myself in my power of <Infinity> and willingly chose for destruction. Indeed, I was unable to abandon my hopes for the future because I was once human. Though I knew that miracles don’t exist——it was undoubtedly my hope which became the despair that invited ruin!”

There was something truly pressing in his gloomy laughter, but that didn’t mean that I was about to take his words seriously. A glorious ruler, the god of a new world. It’s not like I was the main character of a game or something. I was put off by the exaggeration and the absurdity of what he was saying.

My only wish was for him to take off my restraints. I wanted to return to the ryokan and make sure Uncle Miharu was safe. I believed that he was, of course……but it’s not normal for the sky to suddenly become dark in a matter of a few minutes. That bothered me, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it.

Did Fortune have something to do with that natural disaster?

There’s no way that’s possible! This wasn’t something you could do with petty tricks.

“How rude, to call it a petty trick.”

——Huh?

My heart leapt from my chest. He’d guessed what I was thinking even though I hadn’t said anything out loud. There’s no way……that’s not possible.

“And about this natural disaster of yours as well. It’s only natural for the sky to darken. I’ve already told you that this forest is the ‘interworld’ where the two worlds fuse together. Even you can at least feel the distortions in the atmosphere.”

——Wh……what the hell?! I have no idea what you’re talking about! Explain it to me more normally so I can understand!

I groaned. My fear for the inexplicable Fortune increased rapidly.

This, this wasn’t possible. If it wasn’t a nightmare, then surely——maybe Fortune hypnotized me and warped my sense of reality? I could accept that explanation!

“Foolish girl, do you think that anything that doesn’t fit into your narrow definition of common sense is a silly illusion? Do you think that all of creation sits within the well of your knowledge without fail? To think that you wouldn’t even try to use your head.”

I don’t need to listen to him, Fortune’s the one who’s not making sense. I started to feel guilty as I thought this, as if I was losing some kind of mental battle.

“You believe without a doubt that there will always be an answer to every question you have. You are so firm in your belief that calamity will never befall you and in your ability to overcome any hardship that you don’t even think to question it. You believe that there is no way that an unrealistic problem, a scary situation, will befall you. But listen, is your blind acceptance not the most unrealistic thing of all?”

I got pissed at his suddenly frigid voice. It was only natural that I wouldn’t be able to keep my thoughts calm and composed when faced with his terrifying eyes, which held neither justice nor censure.

——You’re just criticizing me on your own! What did I even do to you, it’s not like I want to become your successor what whatever it is!

Fortune tilted his head sideways as if he heard the outcry in my heart and looked intrigued……and somewhat disappointed.

“Hmmm, it seems like you’re quite the contradictory selectee. The other successor was quicker on the uptake and expressed his interest in my power. And yet, in contrast, you would reject it altogether?”

The other candidate. It’s possible that he was being bound to a creepy chair nearby like I was. I quickly looked around, but it was difficult to determine my surroundings with just the light from Fortune’s candle.

——I’m begging you, please let me go! Let me go back to where Uncle Miharu is!

Was he safe? If he was in a worse situation than I was in——I found it hard to breathe as I thought about my uncle’s gentle smile and my face crumbled. I couldn’t stand the anxiety. I had to hurry and go back!

“Will you truly not wish for my power?”

——I don’t need it!!

“……I see. It is a thoughtless decision, but it is the path you’ve chosen nonetheless. I don’t mind letting you go. I did not appear before you to kill you.”

Fortune lightly placed his fingers underneath my chin. His cold fingers made a chill run down my back.

“Look over there. You see the candlelight, no?”

A line of small lights had appeared in the direction that Fortune was pointing at some point.

“You will be able to return to your world once you leave this forest.”

——I can go back to where my uncle is!? This isn’t a trap or anything?

“However. Do not forget my warning. This forest is the ‘interworld.’ It is only because of my protection that you, a normal person, can be here without getting crushed. Additionally, the Dark Seat will condemn you the moment you cease being my successor.”

My uneasiness grew stronger. So, in the end, was he trying to say that I wouldn’t be able to go back after all?

“You must not speak a world until you clear the forest. Ignore my warning, and the path will close and you will be met with a long road of great suffering and the pain of loss.”

——Huh……? So, all I need to do is to be careful not to say anything?

It was quite a let-down. I’d been worried that there would be more bizarre conditions than that.

“You look like you think this will be easy. But I doubt that you’ll be able to heed even this simple warning with how shallow you are. What will you do? Will you still return? Will you deem my power unnecessary?”

I didn’t know if he was just being whimsical or not, but it looked like he was seriously going to let me go back.

“A truly foolish decision, Hibiki.”

I jolted. Did he just call my name? How did he know?

“You will surely regret it when you realize what you’ve thrown away ——now, go.”

Fortune nonchalantly waved a hand. Immediately, the restraints binding my arms and legs came off without a sound. I hurried up and cautiously gauged Fortune’s reaction. He looked like he was simply watching me off. He didn’t feel like he was about to reach out for me anytime soon. It hadn’t been a lie; he really was going to let me leave.

Just as I was about to run, I remembered that my bag had fallen by my feet and picked it up in a hurry.

The light that Fortune had been holding vanished at that very moment.

“……!?”

Fortune! I covered my mouth before I called out to him. I mustn’t speak a word. Something might reach out from the darkness to restrain me again the very moment I did.

I hugged my bag to my chest and kicked off against the earth as hard as I could. This forest, in which the moon did not shine, was pitch black. The only thing I heard was the loud noises I made as I kicked aside the wild flora. I almost tripped countless times because of the ruggedness of the ground. The insides of my nose burned. I was on the verge of tears from fear.

——I don’t want to cry.

I roughly wiped the tears from my face with one arm. My pain wasn’t something simple enough that a few tears could make it go away.

No matter how hard I cried, it wouldn’t bring back my parents’ real smiles. That’s why I loathed tears.

I steadied my breathing and started running vigorously again. Eventually, I realized that the darkness was lightening. It had changed from the darkness of midnight to that of dusk……as if time had flowed backwards as my field of vision opened up and I could clearly see the outline of the trees again.

——I can see the ryokan!

I could faintly see the building on the slope peeking out from the top of trees. A line of small lights was lighting the path as if it was guiding me there. It was probably the candle parade.

I could finally leave this nightmarish forest. This made me so relieved that I almost sank down to the ground.

It’s okay, everything’s okay now. Fortune and that creepy chair were probably a part of the parade’s program. That’s what I wanted to write it off as, ignoring how bizarre that would be if it was true.

I readjusted my bag and looked to the ryokan colored by the candlelight.

Just a little more. Just a few more minutes and I can leave this forest——.

I heard something like grass being trampled on from past the trees to my left as hope spread across my chest.

I stopped in my tracks and looked in the direction the noise had come from while clenching my teeth in fear.

——What was that? A wild animal?

Or, perhaps it wasn’t a wild animal and Fortune had secretly followed me here. I stealthily snuck under the shadow of the trees before me to see what was going on.

——Huh……?

I almost voiced my surprise and covered my mouth again in a panic. It was neither a wild animal nor Fortune before my eyes. It was a man I’d never seen before. Restlessly, I blinked.

Was he Fortune’s friend? He probably wasn’t Japanese, at least judging by his face and physique. He was really tall. What color was his long hair, which was tied nicely in the back? Platinum blond? It was extremely pale. His tanned skin was darker than his beautiful hair color. He was toned like a sports athlete.

My doubts grew as I stared at him, completely at a loss. Even if I had meant to be sneaky, the forest itself was too quiet. I’d stepped on twigs and pushed aside grass. It was weird that he didn’t turn around even though he definitely should have heard me.

I steeled myself and stepped out of the shadows while purposefully making noise.

——Can he not see me?

The man ignored me as if I was just a part of the scenery. He looked like he was on guard against something and looked around his surroundings with an awful tension.

His strange swordsman-like clothes were in tatters. His bare, thick arm was riddled with scratches and covered in blood. It looked like he had just fought through a number of harsh battles.

He was holding a giant sword in his hand as if to prove it. The sword was large enough that it could probably crush me easily. I knew with one glance that it wasn’t just for decoration.

Sticky clots of muddy, blackish blood were stuck on its glimmering silver blade.

The man slowly moved forward while looking around the area with upmost caution. His sharp gaze somehow seemed to pass right through me, so I guess he really couldn’t see me.

His clear, captivatingly beautiful golden eyes caught my breath for a moment. I reached out a hand to him and was about to call out to him before I abruptly stopped myself. Fortune had warned me not to say anything. In other words:

——does that mean that no one can perceive me as long as I don’t say anything?

What else had Fortune said? I think he’d said that I’d be crushed by the forest if the shell protecting me broke.

——I probably shouldn’t talk to anyone then.

It was the rule I had to follow if I wanted to return to the ryokan. I hated the idea of doing what others told me to do, but it’d probably be better to do as Fortune said for now. The moment I stepped back, the man painfully dropped one knee to the ground. He probably had more injuries other than the scratches on his arms.

I held back the urge to run to him and hugged my bag closer.

It wasn’t that I believed Fortune when he’d said something as crazy like this forest was an ‘interworld’ where two worlds merged together. But……what about the one in a million chance that it was true?

Couldn’t it be that the scene before my eyes was some kind of illusion created by the distortion in space? That this scene from a world called Evelier, apparently from another dimension, was being projected to me like a heat haze? It wasn’t fake, but it wasn’t fully real either. I recalled that a science fiction novel I’d read before had a similar setting.

I’m sure this was it.

——That’s why I don’t need to worry about his wounds,

I whispered silently to myself. A small part of my heart stung.

The man suddenly braced himself and clicked his tongue quietly. He looked frustrated as he turned around. The feeling soon disappeared and he returned to his former, quieter expression. I felt his vigor prickling on my skin.

I couldn’t help but hold my breath even though I knew he couldn’t perceive my presence.

The man swiftly readied his sword evenly at the horizon without stirring the air around him.

At that very moment, molted white beasts that I’d never seen before jumped out of the grass.

They had the limbs of a tiger and the face of a fox. A line of light ran across the first beast that stepped forward with a grating growl——the man had cleaved it in two within the blink of an eye.

——Amazing!

I trembled, though I didn’t know if it was because I was terrified or because I was impressed.

The man cut down the beasts in movements so agile that I hadn’t believed that he could make them with his large figure. It was as if I was watching a sword dance. He was finishing each beast one by one without hesitation.

But then, he suddenly staggered. The movements of his sword dulled even as I watched.

“!”

My shoulders stiffened. Now that I thought about it, he had been kneeling on the ground looking pained just moments ago. He was leaping over the bloody carcasses as he fought even now, but there were still five beasts he needed to defeat.

His rough breathing was audible even to me and made my chest hurt.

——Is this really just an illusion?

I didn’t know if it was the beasts’ blood or if the man himself was heavily wounded……but the red blood dripping from his arm concerned me. I didn’t know if I could let myself simply remain as a bystander forever.

I fretted as I looked back and forth between the beasts, standing still and brimming with murderous intent, and the man, who was having trouble breathing.

The smell of blood that permeated the air. The bloodlust radiated by the beasts. It was all so raw that I found it difficult to believe it was just an illusion.

The man clicked his tongue after finishing off another two beasts. He looked irritated at his inability to move as nimbly as he had before. I clenched my fists. He was having trouble finishing the beasts off in one blow, and the number of times his attacks missed were increasing. There were three left.

“!!”

I gasped.

A beast had managed to shred the man’s left arm with its long, sharp claws.

The man made his next move even as his face twisted in pain. The tip of his sword gouged into the beast’s eye. The beast jumped away with a fierce howl that hurt my ears. Capitalizing on that moment, the man closed the distance between himself and the beast as if he was rending through space itself and relentlessly thrust his sword into the beast’s back as it attempted to fight back. Just two more.

He looked like he was pushing himself just to stay up. But still, he didn’t have the time to rest. He pulled his sword out of the beast he had just stabbed and used it to prop himself back upright. He turned his eyes to the remaining beasts and readied himself to charge at them again.

——Oh, look out……!

He slipped on a clot of blood on the grass and lost his balance. He righted himself immediately and swung his sword around recklessly to keep the remaining beasts at bay.

I turned my gaze to the beast on the ground from before and was promptly shocked. He hadn’t finished it off. It was gathering the last dredges of its strength to lift its head and bite off the man’s ankle.

The man hadn’t noticed the beast lying by his feet because he was focused on defeating the two beasts in front of him. He had neither the leeway nor the stamina to divide his attention.

——Please, look down! Please!

I clenched my bag harder. If he overlooked the beast by his feet, it’d definitely rip off his ankle. And then, once he was brought down to his knees, the beasts in front of him would roar with glee and overwhelm him.

But all of this was just an illusion.

Besides, even if I wanted to help him……it’s not like I can cut down and kill these beasts like he can. And my mental condition is reaching its limits too! And so, I continued to repeat excuse after excuse in my heart.

The line of lights flickered in the corner of my eyes. As did the ryokan atop the hill. If I made it out of the forest without saying a single word, I could go home to Uncle Miharu.

In other words, I mustn’t influence the ‘interworld’ in any way.

——Then, should I just……let him die?

I was horrified at the question I had asked myself. Would I really not regret it if I averted my eyes to his plight? Could I really live with myself without feeling the slightest tinge of guilt if I said there was nothing I could do and simply walked away?

——No, but! What should do!?

The beast aiming for the man’s heel bared its fangs. Its thick, sharp teeth would easily rip off his foot, boot and all.

Argh, I can’t do this, I really can’t! I ground my teeth and steeled myself. I’d definitely regret it if I abandoned him. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.

It might just be an illusion. It might even be Fortune’s trap. But there was also the chance that it wasn’t. So, I couldn’t just quietly stay still.

Uncle Miharu would surely be disappointed in me for being cowardly too!

“——Behind you!!”

I cried out.

The man looked astonished as he turned around. He twisted his body reflexively and struck the beast that was still trying to bite off his ankle in the face.

“Look out, in front of you!”

The two beasts in front of him froze for a moment as they waited for an opening when I first cried out, but they immediately lowered their bodies and prepared to jump at the man, who had turned his attention to the beast at his feet.

The man stared at me even as he righted his posture. His eyes were a vibrant gold, as if they had the light of the moon sealed within them.

——I’m glad I made it in time.

This was fine. I was glad from the bottom of my heart.

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Since they responded to my voice, it means that this isn’t an illusion……that all of this is real, right?

The man, the beasts —they were all alive. There were so many things I didn’t understand, like how I didn’t know why he was dressed that way or why he had a sword, or what the beasts even were to begin with——.

The man regained his momentum and jumped in between the two remaining beasts. His sword twirled like it was tracing a circle. He gave the beasts no time to jump away and tore open their flanks. Then, he twisted his body as if he was about to spring up and cut off the head of the beast that had drawn too close to him. He flicked away the beast’s decapitated head with the tip of his sword and hit away at the remaining beast.

The man ran across the ground like he was gliding. He dispatched the final beast, which had slowed down considerably, head-on.

——He defeated all of them.

The final beast fell into a puddle of blood with a thud. A sudden silence fell over the area. The man’s rough breathing echoed around us. A violent presence still lingered in the air. As did the thick stench of blood which pressed against my chest.

“……”

The man moved restlessly, as if he didn’t have the time to waste waiting for his breathing to calm down. He looked more flustered than when he had been facing off against the beasts, and his blatant change of attitude surprised me.

We looked at each other for a while in silence. I didn’t know what to say to him, and I felt really guilty for watching him for so long before finally helping him.

His eyes were fierce. Traces of his fierce battle lingered on his body. I was suddenly afraid that I, too, would fall prey to the giant sword in his hands.

The man blinked awkwardly, perhaps because he noticed that I had flinched.

He looked at me with a million complicated feelings flashing across his eyes, as if he was looking at something that couldn’t be possible——as if he thought that I was the illusion. I simple continued to gaze back at him at a complete loss.

I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I was supposed to do in this extraordinary situation.

Eventually, the man lowered his sword, looking troubled as he did, before returning his gaze to me. He looked like he had resolved himself for something as he took a step closer to me. Immediately afterward, he suddenly fell heavily on his knee.

——Now that I think about it, he was hurt!

I broke free from my imaginary binding spell and hurried to the crouching man’s side.

“Oh, um, are you alright?”

It might have been a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to say.

The man snapped his head up and fixed his gaze on me. He was covered head to toe in blood, but I wasn’t scared when I saw him up close for some reason. Maybe it was because I could tell that he had no intention of hurting me.

And, his clear eyes felt like they were pulling me in. I was certain that he wasn’t Japanese. His chiseled features had a distinct masculine beauty to them.

He looked to be in his mid-twenties. His looks matched the description of a good-looking man to the letter.

I slowly and steadily grew more embarrassed. I didn’t know how to react because he was staring at me so ardently.

“Um……”

The man hurriedly looked away as he regained his senses. He opened his mouth to say something but scrunched up his face and let out a short breath instead.

“Oh, right, your wounds! Were you hurt!?”

I checked over his body in a panic. He was really covered head to toe in blood. His clothes were dyed black as well. I continued checking over him, ignoring his discomposure, and found that, as I’d thought, there was a deep wound on his bare arm.

“This……was this from the beasts earlier?”

He tried to reply, but he began coughing before he could. I saw his cracked lips and abruptly remembered that I was holding on to my bag.

“I had water with me!”

If I remembered correctly, I should have a partly-finished plastic water bottle with me.

Uncle Miharu had always said that my bag was “connected to another dimension.” I knew that I had a lot of extra stuff in my bag that I might need at some point that I didn’t normally use. I’m sure most girls are like that, though.

I searched around my bag and finally found the water bottle.

“Here, drink this.”

The man stared back and forth between me and the plastic water bottle, startled, even as he coughed.

I grew impatient because he didn’t seem like he was about to accept the water any time soon, so I forcefully placed the bottle up to his lips.

He looked incredibly flustered for a second, but he soon began to drink ravenously once he realized that it was just water.

“Oh, wait, don’t drink all of it.”

He squirmed when I stopped him by raising my hands. He stared at the almost-empty water bottle looking sorry from the bottom of his heart.

I took out a handkerchief from my bag and wet it with the remaining water. Then, I placed it on his arm, which looked like it hadn’t stopped bleeding yet. Next, I took out the complimentary towel I had received from the ryokan and wrapped it around his arm like a bandage.

I took great care to make sure that my facial expression didn’t change, but my heart wouldn’t quiet down.

It looked like it hurt a lot. He should really get this treated at a hospital.

The man had become so docile as he accepted my clumsy treatment that I couldn’t believe that he had been fighting so fiercely just moments ago. It felt like he was a little nervous.

“Er……what next…”

No matter how ‘inter-dimensional’ my bag was supposed to be, it wasn’t like I had an infinite supply of handkerchiefs and towels.

I worried for a moment before deciding to wipe down his face with tissues. He looked a little uncomfortable while I did it, but I couldn’t just leave it be because his face was red all the way down to his neck from the beasts’ blood. It might have also been because I’d been moved to action by the guilt I felt in my heart.

“Now, what else do I have?”

I didn’t need the digestive medicine or the vitamins I had bought from the convenience store right now. I didn’t see anything else I could use. What should I do?

The man stared at me so seriously that I was losing my nerve. He was looking at me so intensely that he may as well have never seen another human being before. I couldn’t help but lose my composure because I’d never been stared at so earnestly. His gaze bordered along romantic zeal.

It probably wasn’t something as simple as love at first sight, of course. It felt more pressing than that.

“Uh, um, sorry that my treatment was kinda poorly done. ……I wonder if I have anything else…”

I rummaged through my bag again to hide my timidity. Oh, right, sweets are the best curing fatigue. I always carried around marbled chocolate with me.

“Here. Try this.”

It’d looked that he had been surprised by the plastic water bottle. It was entirely possible that he’d never had chocolate before.

I shook out several marbled chocolates onto my hand and showed them to him. Then, I ate one to show him how it was done and gently pushed one into his mouth.

“……It’s so good. Wait, what am I getting so happy for?”

My shoulders relaxed as the sweetness melted in my mouth. He had stiffened up a bit at first, but his facial expression relaxed a little after he nervously bit into it.

“Great. Chocolate is good, right?”

His previously gallant visage changed into an unbelievably delicate smile. He was taller than me by far, and was undoubtedly older than me, but he was kind of cute.

I recalled the bigger problem at hand right as I smiled along with him.

Crap. I completely forgot, even though Fortune warned me about it so many times.

“Wha, what should I do?”

It wasn’t the time to be so calm about everything. He’d said that my shell of protection would break and I’d be crushed by the ‘interworld’ if I spoke——but nothing’s happened as of yet. Had it just been an empty threat?

“No, I doubt it…… I mean, this wasn’t an illusion either…”

“————”

“Huh?”

I returned to my senses upon hearing a gentle low voice nearby. Naturally, I knew that it belonged to the man.

……But, what did you just say?

I stared at him. He, too, looked back at me with a strong gaze and repeated himself slowly so that it was easier to understand.

“————”

I was at a loss for words. I’d never heard this language before. It wasn’t English, and it probably wasn’t French either. The words sounded similar to English, but it also didn’t. No wonder he had looked so strange when I was talking to him. Or rather, his chiseled facial structures were so shapely that it should have been obvious that we wouldn’t speak the same language right from the start.

“————”

“Wait, I don’t understand. I don’t know what you’re saying.”

I shook my head to indicate that I didn’t understand. He understood my intent and looked aside while furrowing his brows in deep thought.

Suddenly, he moved to stand up.

“You’re hurt, so you probably shouldn’t move……”

My words trailed off mid-sentence as the blood and the beasts’ carcasses entered my line of sight. I felt like all of the heat had left my body. It had taken a while to hit, but I felt fear at how raw everything was —the kind of fear that could never have been brought about if it’d all been fake. Everything, right down to the smell of blood, was far too real.

My vision suddenly went black. Then, I brushed against an anxious pair of golden eyes. A beat later, the man used his body to shield me from the scene of carnage.

“Th——thank you.”

The man turned his hand to the ground for a moment and pointed deeper into the forest with his thumb. He was probably signaling that we should leave. Certainly, I didn’t really want to stay near the beasts’ corpses any longer. That, and other beasts might be drawn to the thick stench of blood. Actually, this was the bigger problem.

“But what should I do? I really wanna go back to the ryokan, but……”

I looked up at the man, troubled. To be more precise, I looked up at him as he re-sheathed his sword. The first thing that came into my mind was that he would be in violation of the Swords and Firearms Control Law.

“I, I can’t bring him back with me……”

Still, I couldn’t just abandon him here either. I knew by the air around him that he wasn’t a bad person.

——Nothing particularly bad has happened even though I’ve spoken quite a bit……so I guess I’ll just do as he says for now.

After coming to a decision, I put the empty water bottle back in my bag and slung it across my shoulder. The man was waiting for me to finish my preparations from a distance that wasn’t too awkward. I was silently impressed.

He was like those honor-bound knights from the Middle Ages. All gentlemanly and dignified. Plus, he was really tall.

Uncle Miharu and Mr. Kenji were of the taller build too, but he was taller than either of them by leaps and bounds. He was easily over 190 cm. In any case, he was extraordinarily tall and his chest was exceptionally thick as well; it was almost like he was a solid wall standing in front of me. His arms had muscle on them too, giving me the impression that he was well-built all around.

The reason why he didn’t look thickheaded despite that was probably because he was also well-proportioned.

At about 155 cm tall, I’d probably only barely reach his chest if I stood next to him.

——…….I wonder if I’ll grow any taller……. I’d still like another 10 cm or so.

The man tilted his head to the side in puzzlement upon seeing how depressed I’d gotten. I forced a smile on my face and moved to walk next to him.

“Kyah……!”

I’d made the same mistake that he had a while ago. I’d lost my footing on the bloody grass and lost my balance. Unlike him, however, I was seriously lacking in the motor reflexes department and, unable to straighten my posture, fell spectacularly on my butt.

The man, who had been about to walk ahead, looked back in surprise and stopped moving. I was so embarrassed.

“I, I’m okay!”

It was only when I tried to get up that I noticed that something was wrong. I hadn’t fallen over because I was clumsy.

A tepid wind blew over like a wave and made the leaves flutter. The color drained from the man’s face as he placed a hand on the hilt of the sword he carried on his back.

“What’s going on……?”

I stared blankly at my boots. Goosebumps rose all across my body. The blood was writhing as if it had a will of its own and had latched on to my ankles.

“——And I’d given you so many warnings, what a troublesome girl you are.”

——This voice.

“Fortune!?”

I turned around in a panicked surprise. Fortune was stepping on a puddle of blood across from me. Only, he looked strangely transparent, like a ghost. And that wasn’t the only thing that was strange. The entire forest had frozen in time. Even the man, who had just been about to draw his sword, had frozen still.

——What’s happening? I have a really bad feeling about this.

“It seems that you don’t understand how thoughtless your choice was yet.”

“Don’t say I’m thoughtless, that’s mean……”

“You abandoned your right to be a vessel to inherit my powers. And now, you’ve even cast aside the protection I’d given you. Know how truly foolish you are.”

A sudden chill ran down my back. I felt like something terrible was about to happen.

“It’s not like I ignored your warnings because I wanted to, that man would’ve died if I hadn’t said something!”

“This is why I call you a fool. A decision, once made, beckons fate. Yet, you’ve tightened the noose around your own neck. You will not be able to make your wishes come true unless you overcome love, hatred, and anguish.”

“E, even if you say that, it’s not like I could just leave him to die, and……it’s not like I had any idea what you meant when you suddenly chose me as your successor candidate or whatever!”

I started to regret my choice, despite how unrealistic and unbelievable I thought everything had been. I started to think that I should have accepted the ‘power’ that he offered, even if I didn’t understand what it was.

“Are you starting to regret it? But it’s much too late. You’ve already made your choice.”

“……It’s only natural that I refused! Anyone would, if you tied them to that creepy chair……!”

“You would put aside your powerlessness and blame another when reality doesn’t go your way?”

Fortune apathetically ignored my protests. He continued,

“you are worthless to me——ugh, gracious, am I to swallow this disappointment yet again? How tedious……”

——Again?

The blood clinging to my ankles grew stronger just as I was about to ask him what he meant.

“No, no way, what…..!?”

The blood swelled up like leeches and transformed into the little monkeys that made up that disgusting chair.

“That hurts!”

They jumped at me as I sat there, shocked. They scratched at my skin, tore my clothes, and tried to rip out my hair. Countless claws bit into my skin. Their saliva dripped down their mouths and their eyes were bloodshot.

——No way, this has to be a nightmare, or an illusion.

My mind went blank and I couldn’t fight back. I mean, it’s too weird; there’s no way that something as bizarre as this would happen to me. This has to be a dream; this isn’t possible……

I suddenly recalled what Fortune had said. That I was so firm in my belief that calamity would never befall me and in my ability to overcome any hardship that I don’t even think to question it——.

No, he’s wrong. I just…

I unconsciously reached out for Fortune. I blindly believed that he would save me. But Fortune didn’t move a muscle. I then understood that he would abandon me. A sharp pain ran across my chest. It was cold. He’d said that I was worthless. ……Had my parents stopped smiling because I was worthless to them too?

——Then what else should I have done?

I’d do anything if it meant I could go back in time!

I desperately reached out to Fortune. Then, at that very moment, all of the little monkeys that had swarmed me were repelled at once. A clear, gentle breeze circled the area. As if it was protecting me. What on earth——?

“……You would interfere? For Hibiki’s sake?”

Fortune lifted his head and whispered at the empty space above. He sounded unexpectedly lonely.

He hadn’t been talking to me. But then, who was he talking to?

Fortune returned his gaze to me and opened his mouth. But, in the end, I didn’t hear what he had said. The wind blowing around me had grown stronger. It made a tremendous noise as it did.

Suddenly, a red sleeve came fluttering from behind me. I turned around in surprise.

“——”

He was standing behind me. He was hazier than even Fortune, who was transparent, and I couldn’t see his face even when I squinted. I only guessed that he was a man because if his height.

That blurry image of a person held me from behind, enveloping me, as I sat there blankly.

As soon as he did, the wind that had gotten rid of the monkeys suddenly and vigorously changed its path. I found myself unable to keep my eyes open because the resulting wind pressure was too strong.

And, as the wind’s howls pierced my ears——my consciousness drifted into a gentle darkness.



Ryokan: a traditional Japanese inn
Shinkansen: Japanese bullet train


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