After scouring every corner of the village and asking the local militia, no one has seen, let alone heard, of Sepesh Balaur. It’s almost like he never existed, and yet my lighter wallet and cursed blade thirsts for his blood.
“Please put that away, Enbos! Are you really immune to the curse?”
“Don’t worry, Takashi. I haven’t noticed a thing. Still, I want to shove this cursed blade down his throat!”
“Should I take this as a sign, father?”
“No, he just needs to cool his head! Enbos, you will not be joining us on the second trip!”
We’re now returning to camp with only half the agreed cargo, but we’ll pick up the rest in a few days time. More importantly, once the exchange is finished we’ll be heading into the mountains, where Takashi will finally begin my training.
On our way out the two guards, with the approval of the village head, gives me a permit for unconditional access into any village within this province. Of course, I’m grateful to them, but I’ve never held a heavier slip of paper in my life.
“Enbos, just accept their gift with good grace. After all, they’re doing this out of their own compassion and not how pitiful you are.”
“That’s a nice sentiment. I’ll have to visit this place again in future.”
“It seems you have overcome your trauma. By the way my daughter, how did you find today’s trip?”
“I’ve found this excursion quite enlightening. With regards to Mr Duwick, I’d say…”
While listening to Chiyoko’s response, her voice suddenly trails off. I turn my head to find she is staring into the distance with a grave expression. Both Takashi and I follow her gaze and spy a red object fluttering in the wind. No, it’s actually gliding towards us.
Takashi stops the Yagi and waits for it to land. The red thing drops in his open palm, and I realise it’s a small paper man.
“W-why would Hachirou send a red Shikigami?”
“Eh, Hachirou sent that? What’s wrong, Chiyoko?”
“The Shikigami spell was created by father to send messages across long distances. The caster imbeds spiritual energy into the Shikigami to activate it. But the spell isn’t the issue! The colour red is a sign of an emergency!”
“… It seems four kobolds have snuck out of camp,” answers Takashi.
He seems to have finished reading… wa~it a second. Four kobolds?
“Don’t tell me… It’s Yuki, Shou, Kaito and Izumi, right?”
“… Yes, it is.”
What the hell are they thinking!? Granted, I said not to join us, but that doesn’t mean they can go off on their own!
Oh great, Chiyoko is already making a beeline for the village.
“Enbos, follow my daughter to the village! I don’t know what Chiyoko plans to do, but she may sow disorder amongst the villagers. Your number one priority is containment!”
With a firm salute, I immediately give chase. Please Chiyoko, you human-hating shoto clone, don’t do anything stupid!
As expected of Takashi’s daughter, she’s ridiculously fast. I reach the village gate and discover she hasn’t asked the militia or village head for help. To avoid causing a ruckus, I inform them of the situation.
I trace Chiyoko’s tracks, which naturally lead to the kids’ footprints. Surprisingly, they haven’t snuck into the actual settlement and are still in the outskirts. I thought for sure they would bypass that small wall, especially given Yuki’s <High Jump> skill.
Spotting a tall tree, I use <Shadow Step> to spawn at its peak. Unfortunately, I find it’s already occupied, judging by the knife pressed against my not-throat.
(Oh, it’s only you, skeleton.)
(What are you doing, Chiyoko? Have you found Yuki and his gang yet?)
She remains silent and continues looking through the canopy.
Despite pointing a blade at my vertebrae, I’ve never seen her look so uncharacteristically mild. Confused by her new expresssion, I redirect my attention below to find the source of her troubles.
(Are they playing… kick the can?)
(Yes, they are…)
Obviously, it’s not an aluminium can but a small bucket, but that’s not the amazing thing here. The four runaway kobolds… are playing with four human children around the same mental age. Instead of splitting into teams of humans and demi-humans, they’re playing together without a care in the world.
“The one with the white speckles, I found you!”
“Um, Kaito? I think he’s talking about you.”
They don’t even care about language. How did Yuki ever manage to teach them?
Chiyoko is still at a loss, as she quietly slinks away from the site. I decide to do the same and follow her to a nearby fence where she rests against it.
“… Well? Are you here to mock me?”
“No, but are you okay? You seem pretty conflicted on what to think of the villagers.”
“They’re only children, Enbos. They’re still innocent, still free from the darkness that will come to be. To think they will grow up to become so different from our own.”
“You can’t one-sidedly blame humanity. You never could. After all, would this game ever occur if you told them the truth about Hayate?”
“You! Where did you learn about that!? Was it Hachirou?”
“No, I heard it from Daichi.”
After Yuki spilled the beans, I later ask Tsubame, his guardian, for more details. From her I discovered Hayate was the former leader of the hunting party, so I decided to ask one of the current members. It wasn’t easy for him to tell me, given the fact few outside the Nomura family know the tragic truth. Strangely though, it wasn’t Takashi’s idea to hide it but Chiyoko’s.
“I see… Everyone has already accepted you, huh? Despite being an undead, an offence to our teachings and a complete stranger, you still managed to find a place in our clan. Honestly, I don’t know what to believe in anymore.”
“Still, I can at least understand why you came to hate them, Chiyoko.”
“Don’t say it. You don’t know anything.”
“Maybe not, but I know Hayate wouldn’t have wanted to see you like this. Haven’t you realise? With your distrust, you’re no better than the people who shot him.”
“How dare you say that! I told you not to compare me to those… those…”
“Those what? Those human kids laughing in the distance? Chiyoko, it’s time for you to let it go.”
Chiyoko goes quiet as she tries to find the words to refute me, but she can’t. While she does so, I review the facts I had heard from Daichi…
When her brother snuck out of camp, he actually succeeded in finding a merchant. But before he could negotiate… he was attacked by the caravan guards. He escaped with grievious wounds, and was discovered days later by the hunting party… including Chiyoko.
“… I can’t. I will never forget what they did to Hayate. When we found him, he was dying. He told us to leave him, to find the cowardly filth that shot him in the back! He wanted us to keep trying!”
“D-did you ever find the merchant?”
“… Even if we wanted to, they were already beyond our reach. Do you know what it was like for me- for all of us to comfort Hayate with nothing but lies!? He was not just my brother, but an older brother to the entire hunting party… W-we couldn’t bear to tell him he had accomplished nothing! He died for nothing, and it’s all because of vermin like them!”
Chiyoko suddenly swings at the fence out of sheer frustration and easily pulverises it into splinters. Though her fist is unharmed, her emotional scars are starting to reopen. She falls back on the grass and curls herself into an upright ball.
“I-I just don’t understand. Why big brother… Why didn’t you resent them, even with your last breath? How can you possibly expect me to forgive your killers? Even mother had… had…”
She takes a few moments to compose herself, suppressing her rage and sorrow. I’ve never seen Chiyoko look so vulnerable or so lost. It pains me to see someone as proud and as capable as her reduced to this state. I’m almost tempted to pat her head, yet I’m too afraid it’ll trigger something other than wrath.
Deep down, she understands why they attacked her brother. However, because she understands, she can easily apply that logic to any human, or rather, anybody outside her life. The fact she hates them for never giving him a chance has turned her into the same, isolated kind.
So, what do I say to help her?
“What if it never happened? What if Hayate had succeeded?”
“… Then mother may have lived. Hachirou would finally smile. We wouldn’t have buried big brother in such a lonely grave. If it never happened, none of us would have to endure this agony…
But it did happen, and because of them, I lost both my esteemed brother and my one and only mother.”
“Then look at it this way: if Hayate hated humans as much as you, would such a happy ending even be possible?”
Hearing this, she raises her head to read my implacable face. She looks just as surprised as when she was watching the kids.
“What I’m trying to say is if neither side has the intention, then nothing will become of it. Trust me Chiyoko, I don’t think Hayate regretted his decision. I know because I would have done the same. By reaching out to those loathsome humans, he created a better possibility…”
As I say these words, I find myself clutching my chest.
Yes, if you keep trying there is always hope.
“Think about Yuki, Kaito, Izumi and Shou. If anyone of them ever bore resentment, then that spectacle you witnessed would never have happened. The same also applies for the villagers. Both sides worked to create that miracle.”
“But it’s all a lie. One day… they will come to know.”
“Then why did you bother hiding it?”
“That’s because I didn’t want them to suffer like I have!”
“Then keep protecting them, Chiyoko. By the time comes, they’ll be ready to handle the truth.”
Chiyoko looks at me in stunned amazement. I’m not surprised; this is the first time I’ve meddled in her problems. Well, for better or worse, Chiyoko and I can no longer be called strangers, and I would rather not hate her. As she digests my words, I patiently wait for her response.
“… Are you really the same numbskull? Did you literally switch it, or is your sword’s curse finally kicking in?”
“What the hell Chiyoko!? I was trying to cheer you up!”
On second thought, hating parts of her is perfectly fine!
“I was only joking, Enbos. Still, you started sounding like my father for a moment there. No, it’s hard to admit it, but you remind me of big brother Hayate,” Chiyoko says with a…
… a smile? Come to think of it, this is also the first time she’s ever told a joke. She suddenly stands with renewed strength and begins making her way to the others. She then stops with her back turned towards me, as if waiting for me to follow.
“Enbos… I don’t think I can ever wash away this hatred, but you’ve given me something to think about. Thank you.”
“… Tell me, Enbos. Even if you’re from the same world as father… Just what are you?”
For a moment, I lose sight of her and find myself staring into the clouds. It’s the same question I ask myself almost every night. Am I a man or a monster, or am I…?
“I… I don’t know. For now, I want to try being… human.”
“I-I see… Come along now. I’ve wasted enough of our time. We need to fetch Yuki and the others while we still have daylight.”
“Sigh, then allow me.
While Chiyoko stares at me in confusion, the pitter-patter of four little kobolds is soon heard in the distance.
“… DUCK… DUCK… DUCK…”
“We’re coming, we’re coming! We’re sorry for sneaking out!”
In no time flat, the four mischievous brats line up in front me, before dropping on their knees and prostrating themselves.
“Please Big Bro! Anything but that!”
“What the hell did you do to them!?”
“… and that’ll be enough, for now.”
While it’s nice to have some discipline around here, I may have overdone it. Yuki, Izumi, Kaito and Shou are now quaking in their boots relentlessly. Can they even walk in that state? The only reason I didn’t say “Goose” was to avoid carrying their unconscious bodies.
All of a sudden, Chiyoko places one hand on my shoulder with a brilliant expression stretched across her face. T-that’s funny. I can’t feel anything remotely comforting from such a wonderful smile.
“Clench your teeth and pray!!!”
She steps in and performs a powerful uppercut, and sends my head flying back to square one.
“I’m glad I disconnected my skull in time. That was less of a SF move and more of a fatality.”
“Oh come on, please say something already. It’s getting lonely over here with Yuki and the rest all clinging to you. And when can I get back my arm!?”
Many hours have passed, and the sun is well below the horizon. I’m currently taking the lead using my <Night Vision> and <Conjure Flame> skills. We’re taking our time to reach camp as the children are huddling up to Chiyoko for peace of mind. Still, she didn’t have to take my left arm hostage! I hope I get it back soon, as it may crumble without my mana reinforcing the bones.
“Look, we’re home now. May I have my arm back? I never did anything to them since. I swear!”
“That will depend…”
I take one look at the children’s merry eyes to realise I better start finding a replacement. Having claws instead of fingers will be an pretty interesting.
I then redirect my attention to the perimeter guard awaiting our return.
“We’re back, Sousuke. Sorry for the delay.”
“Welcome back everybody! As for you four, what were you thinking trekking so far by yourselves!? Everybody was worried! With your return, maybe Hachirou can finally recover…”
“Wait, what happened to my brother!?”
Sousuke’s relief suddenly takes a turn for the worse. I feel a terrible sensation creep up my neck as Chiyoko presses him for answers.
“W-when Hachirou learned of the children’s departure, he collapsed. We had to send the Shikigami in his stead. Master Nomura is now with him, but last I checked he was still…”
Chiyoko has already left and is now running back to camp. I leave the guilt-ridden kids to Sousuke and likewise run to Hachirou’s side. I lose speed running without my arm, while Chiyoko has already entered the tent. But as I approach the entry, I freeze upon hearing Hachirou’s miserable cries.
“… I’m so pathetic… I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t… anything…”
“It’s alright, Hachirou. Everything is fine now. They’re already safe and sound.”
“I c-can’t… do anything right… I-I don’t… I don’t deserve to be…”
“Please listen, my son, your place is right here. No one is perfect.”
“… se-second time… for the second time! W-why am I so… useless?”
… I can’t enter. I have no right to console him. For the past six months, I’ve been right next to him and yet I didn’t notice a thing… No, I’ve always known. I just didn’t care enough to help. Now that Takashi’s attempt to build his confidence has backfired horrendously… it may be too little, too late.
“… Hachirou would finally smile…”
I finally understand what Chiyoko had meant. His mask is far thicker than my own, designed to put others at ease while he suffered alone.
I’m such a loser. I was just feeling good about helping Chiyoko too, and yet I ignored my closest companion.
But now that I know all this… what can I do to save him?