At last, Homura and the others departed from the old castle base camp.
“My first mission… my first expedition…!”
Homura was enthusiastic as she looked up at the sun high above and the white ring encircling Nutella.
The old castle, far behind them now, was the only sign of human habitation amidst nature as far as the eye could see. Homura couldn’t even begin to guess how many months and years had passed as it overlooked this valley from high up on that hill. She suddenly felt lonely and painfully reluctant at the thought of it.
But the climate of the valley was so splendid that it blew away such forlorn feelings, and if it weren’t for the obstructive baggage on her back, it would be the ideal weather conditions for hiking.
The Exploration Club had Touya as the vanguard and Misasagi-senpai taking up the rear, and they had descended the faintly visible and gently sloping path down the slanting meadow of the hill.
Homura soon noticed an abnormality about her body which hadn’t been clear inside the castle.
It was a strange feeling, like the springs in her knees were many times tougher and more flexible than before, as if she were walking above the clouds in a dream.
“Senpai, does Nutella have much weaker gravity than Earth or something?”
“The planetary gravity at this latitude is pretty much the same as Earth’s.”
“Then, this is…”
Homura hopped extra high as she walked as if she were bouncing on a cushion.
“Hinooka-san’s physical abilities have improved.”
“Wow, amazing… my body feels like a balloon.”
As a test, she took a running start of several steps and jumped off the ground with all her strength, crossing over her intended destination by several meters and landing right next to Touya who was walking up ahead.
If Touya hadn’t heard Homura’s shout of glee and dodged to the side, it would have been a full-on collision.
“Hey, that’s dangerous, you know?”
“Can I try running for a bit!?”
Ignoring Touya’s warning of restraint, Homura started running at full speed and had her heart swept away by the sensation of the surrounding scenery blurring past her all at once.
The cool wind blowing through the valley and the daytime heat beating down on the grass mixed together and caressed her cheeks. Each time Homura took a stride across the ground, she accelerated like a multi-stage rocket. The headwind passing over her head and making her hair flutter all over the place was so strong it hurt.
Even the feeling of all her weight shifting onto her feet with a bow-like curve was comfortable, and she couldn’t help laughing as she marveled over how running could be so enjoyable.
She ran across the meadow in the blink of an eye and quickly approached the edge of the forest.
Like a flying boat landing on water, she suddenly put on the brakes by kicking the ground with her heels, and then a shouting voice approached from behind her.
“You, acting so spontaneously again—!”
After approaching from behind her, Touya showily pitched forward and shakily fell to the ground next to Homura.
“You okay, young man?”
Homura peeked down at Touya’s grimacing face as he lay with his body spread out on the grass.
“…I’m the not issue here. I’m more worried about whether your head’s okay, suddenly running off when you don’t know the route.”
“That was amazing. I can’t believe I can move like this! I have to tell everyone about this sensation!”
“Well, I understand how you feel there.”
Lifting himself up, Touya sat crossed-legged on the ground.
Misasagi-senpai soon approached, smiling with no sign of being particularly worried.
“There are no distinguishable roads past this forest. Sprinting is even difficult for veteran investigators, so please maintain a set pace.”
“At least you reply well.”
“Touya-kun, you also ran around until your shoes wore out on your first expedition, remember?”
“Heh? Your shoes? The ones procured through tax money? The precious shoes whose importance is only beneath that of our lives and food?”
Giving a sidelong glance at Homura as she made fun of him, Touya scratched his head.
“Senpai, don’t mention that…”
While watching the river stream beside them as they walked, Homura and the others reached the forest.
At consistent intervals, conspicuous red ribbons tied to tree trunks appeared and showed them the correct path.
Their path was obstructed by rotten and hole-filled fallen trees, scree slopes with rocks scattered about where the river level became low, and bamboo grass thickets so high that only one’s fingertips could reach past the top—for Homura, who was an innate napper, the hike would normally make her throw in the towel right away, but now she was able to finish it like a walk in the park.
Even so, the eeriness of the spider webs, which persistently twined around her hair, and of the anthills, which were so high she had to look up at them, left her dumbfounded.
“Phew… This truly is a primeval forest.”
“Right? Apparently Earth was like this in prehistory.”
While stuffing their cheeks with nuts and sugar-hardened taffy, Homura and Touya once again spoke out in awe and admiration.
Within the dim conifer forest, the chirping of birds could be heard to the point of being annoying.
Misasagi-senpai also surveyed their surroundings while putting her canteen to her mouth.
“Apparently, this place isn’t completely untouched either.”
“You mean there were vestiges of lumbering?”
“We’ve found traces of forest fires near this mountain stream, and they seem to have occurred periodically at a different place. It’s too unnatural to be natural fires, so we think it was probably due to slash-and-burn agriculture being done in the area. We’ve also found grains that have returned to being wild in the vicinity.”
“Then, people lived here? Nutellans!?”
“—Huh? Hey, hey, did you forget about our base camp?”
Homura pressed her cheek in realization.
“That’s right… There’s no way that that decrepit castle was made by our seniors in the Exploration Club either… Then, there really were Nutellans…!”
“It’s certain that there were people here who possessed civilization,” Misasagi-senpai said. “But we can still only guess what kind of people they were… Ruins like the one we use can also be found all over the place.”
“Amazing, that’s so romantic.”
Misasagi-senpai smiled happily.
“It’s considered a distinguished achievement if you can find a graveyard in good condition that no one has reported yet, you know?”
“I see… a graveyard or a tomb, huh? Like the pyramids, Taj Mahal, or Indi Jones…”
As Homura murmured as if daydreaming, Touya glared at her dangerously.
“Don’t unnecessarily instigate her, senpai. She’ll immediately get carried away.”
“Aspiration is never a waste. It’s the energy behind each and every one of our steps—Here.”
As she said that, Misasagi-senpai took out some taffy from its paper wrapping and then pressed it into Touya’s mouth.
Touya quickly became red-faced.
“Me too, feed me too.”
“Sure, Hinooka-san, here you go.”
As Homura pestered her like a baby chick, Misasagi-senpai offered her taffy while smiling.
Touya remained red-faced as he pressed his lips.
As they traversed the forest while talking like this, thick clouds began to obscure the blue sky that peeked through the tree canopy.
Homura regretfully looked up at the sight of the Bagel covered over by clouds.
When they finally made it out of the forest, they came out onto a small ridge. It was a suitable place to look over the surrounding area, but the blowing wind had chilled in the afternoon weather.
“It’s gotten a bit cold…”
When Homura tried to close up her chest buttons that had been open until now, she realized that they were fake buttons, and instead she once again zipped up the fastener hidden beneath the front of her outfit.
“How far have we come?”
“Let’s look at the map.”
Misasagi-senpai quickly spread out the map and changed its orientation according to the cardinal directions.
“This is the base camp where we started from… The river we’ve constantly seen to our right is this line. Our destination is the summit of this ridge—”
Homura peeked down at the map along with Touya.
“—Do you understand where we are right now?” Misasagi-senpai asked.
While recalling their path until now, Homura traced the route on the map with her finger.
“…Here… no, here?”
“How about you, Touya-kun?”
Touya silently pointed with his finger. His designated location was quite a distance away from Homura’s.
“Touya-kun got it right.”
“You’re like a lost child.”
“…This is the notification of a lost child. From beyond the Earth, that is…”
“You have general grasp of distance, Hinooka-san. We always choose a route with as little difference in elevation as possible, so you can judge our location and distance with the map’s contour lines if you understand that.”
“…Then that means we’re still only halfway there, huh…”
“If you consider our return course as well, it’s a fourth of our journey.”
“Uwah, please stop.”
Homura once more surveyed their surroundings.
And when she thought of how they still had to cross several mountains that lay ahead, she felt fatigue for the first time.
“We’re moving at a good pace. There’s no need to rush.”
Misasagi-senpai carefully folded up the map so it wouldn’t be blown away by the wind.
“We’ll be going up and down slopes a lot from this point on. There are also some sharp ascents on our path. Hinooka-san, are there any problems with your physical condition? We can take a rest, you know?”
“I’m perfectly fine! …That’s what I’d like to say, but the truth is, I’m a little tired.”
After Misasagi-senpai exchanged a look with Touya, they moved towards a rock face under the shadow of the ridge where the wind wouldn’t reach.
The Exploration Club group sat down against the rock face and took a breather.
“It really would be the best if there was a hot spring waiting for us at the end of all this walking, though,” Homura grumbled.
Touya spoke up in agreement while stretching his knees.
“Yeah, a hot spring really would be nice! But I suppose that’s asking for too much… There aren’t any here, right, senpai?”
“None have been discovered in this vicinity.”
“How unfortunate,” the other two despondently replied at the same time.
“Hot springs are always accompanied by volcanoes, so they come with the danger of gas, and of course volcanic eruptions too. As such, places with hot springs are unsuitable for the Exploration Club’s activities and bases.”
“There’s no need to be so disappointed. There’s something better than hot springs waiting for us ahead.”
“What is it?”
“Look forward to it as a surprise.”
Homura began to protest grumpily, though Touya managed to console her, and then he began to move the contents of her baggage to his own backpack.
“I said I would carry it myself, you mountain monkey…”
“It’s because the footing is apparently bad up ahead.”
“…Touya-kun, is it also your first time coming this far?”
“Yeah, I’ve only been as far as the forest earlier. I only know the rest by map. By the way, senpai… You figured out the cardinal directions without looking at a compass earlier. Are you familiar with this area?”
“Yeah, you figured it out right away.”
True enough, the terrain was covered with many similar-looking ridges and the cloudy sky right now made shadows fainter and less distinguishable, so Homura hadn’t been able to tell them apart at all with her amateur eyes. Furthermore, when an overwhelming landmark like the Bagel that cut a white path across the sky disappeared from sight, it made her feel quite anxious.
“Yes, that’s right—This is a familiar route that I’ve passed through many times while setting up the relay base. Look, the mark on that rock is something I made with paint. It’s become quite faded now. I should repaint it soon…”
Misasagi-senpai wore a nostalgic expression as she gazed at the path along the ridge ahead.
Homura suddenly looked over at Touya, and he was painfully watching senpai’s face from the side next to her. It was as if Touya was sorrowfully reading something within senpai’s mind that Homura knew nothing about.
Noticing Homura’s gaze, Touya frantically looked away towards the scenery and scratched his head.
“Haha… When you’ve been in the Exploration Club for three years, I guess you can tell which direction you’re facing even without a compass.”
“I can tell, too.”
“As if—wait, you actually can?”
Touya was startled. Homura raised her hand smugly.
“Yes! You know, you infer it based on the narrowness of a tree’s annual rings—”
“That method doesn’t work in places where the north side is slanted or strong wind makes the branches tilt to one side, you know? I tested it out myself.”
Nodding at Touya, Misasagi-senpai pointed at her eyes.
“My eyes seem to be able to grasp geomagnetic lines. Only roughly, though.”
“M-Magnetic lines?” Homura repeated confusedly.
“Geomagnetic lines… what do they look like?”
“It’s hard to explain in words, but… It’s kinda like a moiré pattern that’s overlays my vision,” Senpai murmured while focusing, and then her strangely-colored eyes clearly changed even further.
“Ooh… Can you avoid losing your way even on a pitch-black night?”
“No, that’s beyond my abilities. But I can distinguish the direction at least.”
“That’s amazing enough on its own.”
Though she acted embarrassed as Homura and Touya openly admired her, Misasagi-senpai still managed to gently chide the two of them.
“It’s true that this is a wonderful gift on Nutella. But you mustn’t overestimate your abilities and rely on them too much. You should think well and hard to ascertain what is your true power.”
The two juniors continued watching her with even stronger admiration, causing Misasagi-senpai to turn increasingly red and shy away.
The three of them walked along the ridge.
They were walking on a long rocky path that Homura wasn’t used to.
When she was having some trouble traversing the path, Misasagi-senpai called out to her from behind.
“Hinooka-san, please use this pole.”
Senpai took out a light yet solid foldable cane. The pointed end was made so that it wouldn’t slide across a rock surface. It was one of the tools whose use Homura couldn’t figure out earlier.
“It’s quite convenient. It makes walking much easier. You lightly grip them with both hands like you’re skiing and…”
“Umm, I’m fine, really. It looks like it’d be hard to keep my balance while gripping it.”
“Hey, Hinooka? You should properly listen to senpai and—”
Interrupting Touya as he tried to reprimand Homura, Misasagi calmly continued speaking.
“In that case, how about putting on some gloves? It will get rid of the friction while you use both your hands.”
Homura reluctantly nodded.
Truthfully, her main reason for refusing the cane was that it had a clumsy image as something used by old people to her.
The gloves that Misasagi-senpai next took out were thin, but they fitted Homura snugly and perfectly protected her hands when she lightly hit them against a rock. The finger sleeves were also made to resist slipping.
These items were too uncouth to Homura’s aesthetical senses, but their functional beauty put them in permissible range for her.
“Touya-kun, it’s time to switch the vanguard position.”
“…Ah, sorry. I unconsciously hurried too much.”
Touya shamefully apologized, but Misasagi-senpai shook her head.
“No, not at all. I’ll be taking a route that’s as easy to walk through as possible, so make sure to follow while carefully watching my footsteps.”
They returned to a single-file procession and started walking once more.
Their pace went down a bit, but the fact that they were advancing in bent-back postures didn’t change.
The winding slope gradually became sharper, forcing Homura to almost crawl on all four limbs. The gloves unexpectedly helped a lot here.
“What is this, rock-climbing? But it’s more like I’m crawling than climbing, right? Then is it rock-crawling? Am I a rock-crawler?”
Though Homura joked around like that, no retorts came from Touya.
When Homura couldn’t vent herself by talking, her thoughts turned in unpleasant directions.
She felt as if her lump of stamina, which she had thought to be bottomless, had greatly diminished and become cold.
In her mind, Homura had imagined the Exploration as a group that gallantly conquered meadows while being caressed by a gentle wind beneath Nutella’s majestic view, yet what was this?
What lay before her eyes were perfectly ordinary rocks, and dried earth in every direction.
Above them was just a dull cloudy sky, and furthermore the surroundings were covered in fog, spurring on the oppressive and suffocating feeling that gripped Homura. So plain; it was all completely plain.
Her hair became coiled in the damp air. Speaking of which, she hadn’t looked at herself in a mirror since they had departed. The most she had done was wash her face in the river as they walked.
Up ahead, Misasagi-senpai’s hair was beautifully smooth like a delicate doll’s as usual, so much so that she could immediately appear in a cosmetics commercial just as she was.
Misasagi-senpai turned back to look at her.
“We’ll be coming out onto a flat ridge just up ahead.”
It would be a lie to say that Homura wasn’t irritated at how Misasagi-senpai regularly turned around to confirm her pace.
Homura still couldn’t believe her earlier words about how this was the easiest route. She felt like she had been deceived simply because senpai wanted to get her excited.
Simply because she wanted to see Homura’s ungainly form as a result—
As expected, Homura’s thoughts didn’t turn that mean and unpleasant, but she could clearly tell that Misasagi-senpai was lowering her usual pace. For some reason, Homura couldn’t honestly accept the sight of her doing that.
They finally passed over the sharp slope.
The natural path bored into the ridge turned flat and level.
The fog turned into a distinct lump and passed over Homura and the others.
To the right was a rock wall that was at last too vertical to climb—
And to their left was a cliff. The bottom was far out of sight. The width of the long and narrow foothold they stood on was, at most, equal to the average height of a person. In some places, it was only a few dozen centimeters. Small enough to cover by stretching one arm.
However, it wasn’t that shocking if you compared it to a small and narrow subway station platform.
There was a firm wooden bridge built across the places where the path was cut off here and there.
Obviously, it was constructed by previous members of the Exploration Club. Homura couldn’t possibly understand the effort and passion that had gone into bring the necessary materials here using their own strength.
They crossed over the bridge without tasting any thrill.
They could just quickly pass over something like this without fear.
“If they went to the trouble of making these, they should have adding railings to them as—”
Suddenly, her feet lost the sensation of touching surface and her body was in the air.
She might have heard Touya dumbly say, “Ah.”
She wasn’t able to let out a single noise.
In movies and dramas, this would be a scene where the person screamed as they fell. Definitely.
But Homura couldn’t let out a single breath from her stiff and frozen body.
I’m going to die.
That fear alone ruled her entire body.
When she came to, she was lying face up.
She could only hear the faint thumping of her heart, as if she were at the bottom of a pool.
She didn’t understand where she was.
Within her narrow vision, there were only the cloudy sky and black pine branches that covered her view of the sky.
There was no sign of Misasagi-senpai or Touya nearby. She was alone.
“Rope! Be careful of falling rocks! I’ll secure her!”
Hot. Her back was hot.
When she thought that, she realized that it was the sensation of rock pressing against her through her backpack.
It was slightly painful when she stirred.
Her palms, creeping down either side of her rear, touched a rough surface, but the heels of her feet didn’t touch anything and seemed to be suspended in mid-air.
Speaking of which, immediately after crossing the bridge, she had stepped on a clump of grass, but beyond that grass had been a pile of unstable rocks… and she had no memory after that.
“—Don’t move, Hinooka-san.”
As she remained lying face up, she heard a voice from above her head.
It was senpai’s voice. She sounded like she was somewhere very far away.
Sounds increasingly got closer, until finally they reached right beside her.
Senpai’s face peeked down at Homura, looking upside-down from her perspective.
“Can you breathe? Do your lungs hurt?”
What should I say in reply—Even as she thought that, Homura only managed to half-open her mouth and slightly nod.
Misasagi-senpai quickly confirmed the state of Homura’s body and then gently helped her sit up.
She gripped Homura’s fingers with one hand and stroked her back with her other hand as she held her.
“You’re okay,” Misasagi-senpai whispered in her ear.
She could finally speak again.
Senpai didn’t move away as she continued holding Homura.
“Umm… I’m fine now.”
“I’ll stay like this a little longer until I calm down.”
Homura could hear senpai’s heartbeat as their chests were pressed together. It sounded so clear to her that Homura wondered whether it was pumping far faster than her own.
While embraced by a warm body, Homura looked at their surroundings over senpai’s shoulder.
They were on a small ledge that butted out midway down the cliff. Several big and small rocks were scattered about. Beyond that was once again the seemingly bottomless cliff precipice.
She had fallen about six or seven meters. The fact that she had fallen on her back and been cushioned by a thicket of creeping pines as she fell seemed to have reduced the damage to her body.
They remained there like that for about ten minutes.
While being pulled up by the rope from the top of the cliff, Homura was assisted by Misasagi-senpai from behind and managed to return to their original path. Climbing up the rock face with the rope had been anticlimactically simple.
Touya greeted her with a blood-drained face.
“Can you walk?”
“Yeah. My back was struck a bit, but my feet are completely fine.”
“I see. Thank goodness.”
It was then that Homura bowed her head deeply to the other two.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
Touya patted his chest in relief.
“I was shocked when you suddenly disappeared.”
“No, I’m really sorry about that.”
While Misasagi-senpai reconfirmed the location where Homura had fallen, Touya diligently cleaned the dust off the rope and stowed it away.
Afterwards, their group resumed traversing the ridge while exchanging few words between them.
“…What did you shout before?”
“Ah, I said ‘Fall’. It was in order to inform senpai that you had fallen. Well, senpai seemed to have already noticed, though.”
“Heh, ‘Fall’, huh? It doesn’t seem like I’ll ever have the chance to say it myself.”
“…No, there’s no way to be sure. Also, we use it to warn of falling rocks as well.”
As they walked for a while exchanging bits of conversation, the path turned into a gentle descent and moved away from the precipitous terrain.
Suddenly, the memory of the precipitous path until now vividly rose up in Homura’s mind.
A chill reasserted itself through her body and her knees felt like the strength had been drained out of them.
If there hadn’t coincidentally been a ledge there back then. If the branches hadn’t broken her fall and she had hit the stone surface on her head. If she had been injured and left alone on that ledge. All alone, on this uninhabited planet.
She discreetly hugged her cowering body.
But at the same time, Homura only remembered the warmth of Misasagi-senpai, who was leading them down the path in front right this moment.
She wasn’t alone.
By the time the clouds broke and an interval of clear weather seemed to peek down on them, the sky had become a deeper blue and soon became completely darkened.
The madder red sunset dyed the thin clouds, and the spectacle reflected by the lake below was too majestic to put into words.
There was also something abnormal about the wall in the sky that had appeared once more.
“The Bagel’s been eaten away…”
On the opposite side of the horizon from the setting sun, a certain section of the Bagel was completely cut off.
“That happens when the Bagel enters Nutella’s shadow. You can see it again at night.”
The stars were twinkling above.
Among them, the ones that glittered the most brightly and noticeably were Nutella’s satellites.
“Hinooka-san, you’re also tired, right?”
“Yes, the truth is, my feet are completely worn out… Are we almost at the relay base?”
“It’s not that far away now, but we’ll arrive at the base tomorrow. Tonight, we’ll camp outside. There’s a good place to camp nearby.”
“So hungry,” Touya groaned out.
Misasagi-senpai let out a giggle and lifted up the bow on her back for a bit.
“I was going to cook a bird or rabbit as tonight’s treat for dinner if I could catch any, but they’re a bit far from here… Please make do with preserved food and soup for tonight.”
“That’s more than enough! Ah, so you have found wild animals. Anything like deer for example!?”
“Well, they’re similar to deer, but they’re an endemic species to Nutella,” Misasagi-senpai explained. “They’re quite tasty.”
“So you’ve eaten some before.”
“Senpai, enough with the talk of meat. It’s making me even hungrier.”
“But what are even more delicious are the ground mice lookalikes…”
Chapter 11 END