“This is no good.”
“We’re lost. Completely.”
The next morning.
Luckily, the rain had stopped, but the two of them had been wandering through marshy grasslands for several hours now. They had lost more precious time here than anywhere else. Just when they thought they had gotten out of that bleak rocky area with its lingering snow, they found a huge expanse of wetlands beyond it.
They couldn’t see anything like a path anymore. Though their stamina had recovered after a night’s rest, impatience filled the forefront of their minds. The two of them searched for a path out of this place while wading knee-deep in the mud.
The landscape, a mix of black mud and sponge-like grassland, didn’t seem like a terrain that the wolves would like at all.
As she quickly got tired of having her feet catch on aquatic plants, getting drenched in mud and freezing in place at the sight of a salamander the size of a large dog, Homura grumbled out loud.
“Wasn’t there supposed to be a lake in the unexplored area?”
Touya replied as he walked while measuring the water depth with a stick.
“Calling these wetlands that extend as far as the eye can see a lake—Mori-chan’s briefing really was a bit lake-adaisical1.”
“…All right, try saying something a bit funnier, at least.”
Homura followed behind Touya while carefully wading her legs through the marsh.
After having tripped and pitched face forward once, she had resigned herself and picked up a stick to help her.
“Ah, even if you say that, I’m feeling really swamped right now.”
“If Tsuyu were here, she’d punch you.”
“What a harsh critic.”
Touya sometimes stopped and jotted down notes on the map, but he had no experience in mapping, so he was doing it based mostly on guesswork. Even if he had a wide field of vision, there was nowhere high up with a broad view within the wetlands, and the bird-like small trees that dotted the area made it hard to get an unobstructed view.
Meanwhile, Homura took out the analog camera, the most experience and burdensome item among her belongings on hand, and took pictures of the surrounding scenery. Her plan was to capture the Bagel in the sky and the distinctive mountains with the same angle and use the pictures as material to help deduce the terrain here.
However, that only lasted until fog started to enshroud the area.
Water birds swam beside Homura and Touya on the water surface along with their young offspring. It was a sight that seemed to completely change their feelings of impatience.
Homura couldn’t help getting very irritated at her submerged shoes and the coldness of the snow-thawed water which numbed her toes.
“I want to go to a spa resort and eat sweets…”
“That’s quite an escape from reality.”
“Coffee milk at the Benten Hot Springs would also be great…”
“No, Benten is a public bath house. How about you wipe your face? It’s pitch-black.”
Touya held out his canteen, which brightened up Homura.
“Is it all right…? Isn’t this our precious drinking water?”
“The water around here seems quite clean. There’s probably a source of spring water nearby.”
“Though it’s quite muddy in exchange.”
“That’s because of the rain. It’ll become clear after a while, and we can use a water filter too. Even the water in this canteen came from the river we passed yesterday.”
“In that case, I can wait to wash up a little longer until we find some water.”
Touya nodded in agreement.
As they advanced further into the woods to find better footing while avoiding the places where the marsh became deeper, they eventually lost their way in the depths of the wetlands.
After cutting back and changing their path several times, the two of them came to a standstill on something like a peninsula that protruded from the marsh.
Snow-thawed water gently flowed through the field of water that didn’t qualify as either a river or a lake. The marsh’s depths exceeded two meters everywhere, making it impossible to get good footing.
While surveying the water surface and the reeds that swayed within it, the two of them stood there, stupefied and lost for words.
They finally had to accept the conclusion they had been trying to avoid—the fact that, as expected, the wolves had likely taken a wide detour around these wetlands to reach the other side.
Even for wolves, it wouldn’t have been easy to march through the chilly rain at night. Animals usually stayed put during bad weather, and all the more so when carrying someone injured like senpai. Touya had desperately hoped that they could still catch up if they could somehow find any traces of where they camped out, but…
With no option left, Touya gritted his teeth at the frustration that rose up within him.
“Is this as far as we go…?”
Touya gripped a reed stalk and hung his head.
“Damn it… am I going to fail to do anything again…?”
Despondent tears gathered at the corners of his eyes.
The shining ripples they made on the water spread out into the distance and faded into the streaming fog.
Homura could only painfully watch Touya’s back on the shore as she was crushed by her own sense of helplessness.
Touya stuck his stick in the water and began searching for a path again, stubbornly not willing to give up.
“Hyah, uu, wah, wah.”
He heard Homura’s frenzied voice behind him.
“What is it? Did a pink platypus appear this time—uwah!”
When he turned in the direction Homura’s disgraceful voice, Touya almost fell over in shock.
Homura, who had stepped onto a floating mass of reeds slightly, was now being carried away from the peninsula’s shore.
“What the heck are you doing!?”
“I was wondering what to shout when I started drifting away…”
“Shout for help, obviously!”
“He… Help… D-Do you have rope?”
The twig that should have been in her hand was now floating on the water and drifting away from her.
The floating mass of reeds, captured by the flow of an unseen stream, gradually picked up speed.
When Homura tried stepping forward, the floating mass of reeds shook and tilted beneath her feet.
“Crouch down! Don’t stand up!”
While following Homura with his eyes, Touya searched through his sack and headed for the tip of the little island he stood on.
“This is seriously bad… I won’t make it in time.”
Unable to immediately find something to use in place of a buoy, he had no choice but to tie his multi-tool to the end of his rope and then he threw it with all his strength.
However, the end of the rope hit the water a distance away from the floating mass of reeds and began to sink down.
The rope was out of Homura’s reach even if she stretched out her arm and fingers.
“I can’t reach it!”
“Damn it, no good, huh… Listen, Hinooka! Stay there!”
Shouting that, Touya threw his baggage down on the shore and jumped into the huge river of the marsh.
While clinging to the unstable floating mass of reeds, Homura tried to peer into the water.
Touya’s face briefly surfaced, but suddenly disappeared from her sight during the short time when the floating mass of reeds spun as it moved.
She hurriedly swivelled her head and searched for her partner, who showed no indication of surfacing.
“No way… No… Touya-kuuuuuuuuuun!”
Homura shouted in a trembling voice while leaning forward to peer into the water.
The roots of the floating mass of reeds she was gripping onto came apart, causing Homura to plunge headfirst into the water.
The strong currents, which acted like the wetlands’ arteries, pulled on Homura’s body and tried to drag her away.
The chill of the water made her chest tighten and quickly robbed her limbs’ freedom of movement.
Homura grappled with her own hair, which stuck to her face, and desperately tried to search for the surface in the water where she couldn’t tell up from down—
And then, she felt arms wrap around her back.
She felt the recoil of the person who held her kicking off the ground at the bottom of the water, and her face quickly breached the surface.
“Idiot, don’t jump in!”
As Touya supported her from behind, Homura repeatedly sank into the water and kicked off the bottom to surface, until they finally managed to catch up to the floating mass of reeds.
Touya helped push Homura up onto the floating mass, and then he clung to the roots of the reeds in the water.
While dripping water from her body and breathing heavily, Homura stood up and reached a hand out to Touya.
Touya took her hand and tried to climb onto the floating mass, but then he stiffened and stopped.
When he put his weight on it, the floating mass of reeds began to sink. Homura was startled when she saw the water suddenly rise up to her knees again.
“It’s no good. I’ll move it over to the shore bank like this.”
As he spoke and lifted his shoulders out from the water, Touya’s lips were becoming increasingly blue.
Soaked and trembling herself, Homura shook her head.
“No, it’s too cold in the water. You’ll die.”
“I won’t die—Could you take these from me at least…?”
Touya plunged his arms back into the water and brought out his specialized weapons.
“Your swords!? You kept hold of them!?”
“Of course. Though, they were heavy, admittedly. I wasn’t able to swim well because of them.”
Touya smiled mischievously.
“Are you stupid? You really are a sword fanatic—”
Smiling while crying, Homura picked up the swords from Touya and then gripped his ice-cold fingers.
The floating mass of reeds flowed along the water at a fixed speed. The shore they were originally at became smaller and smaller in the distance as the fog shrouded over it.
“We’ll have to give up on warm meals. Yours is all we have left.”
Touya pointed at Homura’s sack lying next to the drenched longsword beside her leg. Besides her camera, there was only a single sleeping bag and the barest of truly essential items inside the sack. They didn’t even have the map anymore.
“I’ll act as a motor and push it, so you direct it towards the shore.”
Though Touya’s voice trembled, he still spoke as brightly as he could.
Homura stood up half-risen on the floating mass of reeds.
No matter how hard she looked around, the only things she could see were the fog and clusters of reeds protruding from the water; the shore bank was nowhere in sight. She couldn’t catch sight of it even on top of this huge mass of reeds.
Touya’s body temperature was draining away while she hesitated. The water temperature wasn’t even 10 degrees Celsius. It was as cold as a winter morning.
“Which way, for the time being?”
“…Uh… T-That way?”
“All right. Keep pointing out directions to me like that.”
Just as if he were using a swimming board, Touya began to vigorously paddle his legs.
The floating mass of reeds gradually deviated from the stream’s main current.
While her chest felt like it was about to burst open from anxiety, Homura desperately continued to search for the shore.
“…Hey, wasn’t there a scene like this in a movie…? That luxury passenger boat one.”
“Haha… are you trying to kill me here… *cough*… *cough*…”
Homura bit her lip at the sound of Touya’s choked breathing.
Wrought by impatience, she could only curse the time calmly flowing by. She gripped her drenched charm.
After paddling and aimlessly drifting through the water like that for over ten minutes—
Homura felt a strange discomfiture in her chest that was different from her feeling of impatience.
She turned her head around as if guided by something, and she felt like she saw a small sunlit shore amidst the fog.
It might have been an illusion. But Homura immediately followed her instincts.
“Touya-kun, that way! Turn left, towards 10 o’clock!”
“…You said turn right a minute ago.”
“Just do it!”
They changed course and continued on.
Meanwhile, the mass of reeds began to lose its buoyancy and gradually began to sink into the water.
—Eventually, the fog drifted away, and the shore appeared faintly in front of them.
What Homura had thought was sunlight were in fact yellow flowers blooming across the shore.
“Shore… It’s shore, Touya-kun!”
The dimly conscious Touya didn’t respond, with only the sound of his weak paddling to be heard.
Homura picked up his long sword and stuck it into the water, and she desperately began to row with it like on a ferryboat.
“…Hey, don’t use my weapon as an oar.”
Thanks to Homura’s vigorous rowing, the unstable mass of reeds began to collapse even further.
Touya mustered the last of his strength and put it into his feet as well.
“We’re sinking! Row… Row!”
Just when the floating mass of reeds came apart and Homura and Touya were thrown back into the water, they were already within walking distance of the shore.
“We made it! It’s shore! It’s solid ground!”
Touya’s voice was too hoarse to form a proper response.
Seeing that, Homura quickly moved.
Lending a shoulder to Touya as he lay there ghastly pale, Homura carried him up to the rockface further up from the shore and sat him down. She gathered dry leaves to use in place of a towel and stuffed them under his clothes to suck out the water. She took out her sleeping bag from her sack, which had just barely avoided being submerged in the water, and put it over Touya’s shoulders to wrap him up.
“Pull yourself together, Touya-kun. I’m going to light a fire right now.”
“…You’re going to use smoke magic…?”
“Die! Freeze to death!”
After she used their emergency matches without hesitation to light a fire, Touya started shivering again.
After that, Homura could finally sit in front of the fire as well and raise her hands to it, and she could now tell how much her body had been chilled.
She took off her shoes and socks to become barefoot, and dried them in front of the fire.
While gazing at the yellow flowers, Touya murmured.
“I’ve seen these flowers before… But I don’t think they’re suited to such high wetlands, if I remember right…”
“…Now that you mention it…”
Homura also tilted her head in puzzlement.
“Aren’t these flowers that grow in paddy fields?”
“Yeah, that’s right. These are the kinds of flowers you see in unplowed fields.”
Touya put the sleeping bag down next to him and stood up, looking carefully at the rockface he had been sitting on.
“—This is a stone wall.”
“A highway…? No, the remains of a cultivated field?”
It wasn’t just a natural rockface. The arranged stones were crumbling away and covered in moss, but it was definitely something assembled by human hands.
Homura and Touya were standing on one end of a stone wall that encircled the shore bank.
Homura surveyed their surroundings as she stood barefoot on the stone.
As the fog gradually thinned out, she caught glimpses of the white line of the stone wall amidst the thicket of blooming yellow flowers.
“How does it look?”
“It seems to continue all the way to the other side.”
“Bingo, huh—fuah, ah, achoo!”
After drying themselves sufficiently, the two of them packed up their now decreased baggage and left the shore.
Unlike their previous vague search, the remains of the stone wall clearly showed them a direction to travel in.
They regained confidence in their footsteps.
The two of them didn’t even need to mention out loud between each other the probability that such clear remains of civilization implicitly might lead them to the den of that girl with the wolves—to a community of Nutellans.
Their surroundings continued to consist of wetlands, but trees started to stand out more and more as they followed the stone wall. The stone wall and the roots of the trees seemed to be keeping the soil of the field in check.
The sky cleared up and the temperature gradually rose, making it possible to see their surroundings better.
The sunlight illuminated a vibrant green shore and clumps of fog drifted over the ground like small clouds, the exact kind of scene that Homura would want to put as the background image on her cell phone.
“That was really dangerous, earlier.”
Homura said that as she poked Touya’s shoulder in front of her, and Touya nodded.
“…You didn’t mention doing an emergency withdrawal,” Homura added.
“Yeah. Sorry, for forcing this on you.”
Homura shook her head.
“I’m quite fine and lively now. It was all because I blundered in the first place.”
“Don’t worry about it. As Mori-chan would put it, it was all right in the end.”
“My stomach is hungry now, though.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
As Touya laughed, Homura asked another question in a slightly meek manner.
“…What would you have done if I had said we should do an emergency withdrawal right away back then?”
“Haha, another what-if? Sorry, but I would have refused.”
“I thought so.”
“I can’t return without getting any clue to senpai’s whereabouts.”
Homura felt the same way.
However, in the worst case scenario, Touya would have probably made Homura return by herself.
Even if he didn’t do that, they had virtually no food left. The few pieces of candy they had left had been divided between them and eaten during their rest earlier.
Touya, who was now lightly equipped without his baggage, showed no signs of caring about it and walked casually in front of Homura.
He suddenly started talking while facing straight ahead.
“You were right. I fell for senpai at first sight.”
It was the topic that Touya had said he would talk about when all three of them returned to Earth in the tent last night.
“I instinctively felt that senpai was special. It’s that simple. That’s the kind of guy I am.”
“…Was it at the school entrance ceremony?”
“A little before that. It was during the autumn of last year. When I went to Seiran on a school visit, I met senpai for the first time while she was helping the student council president Rokujizou and acting as a guide for us.”
Homura trotted over to walk beside Touya.
“Seiran’s entrance exam was a bit hard for me academically, though I would have gotten in safely thanks to the sports recommendation I received. When I visited the school, I didn’t like the atmosphere of Seiran’s Kendo Club and wasn’t that interested in entering Seiran. I thought it’d be fine if I went to another school.”
“But you decided on Seiran…?”
“I was interested in senpai.”
“That’s all? That’s the reason you rejected your recommendation and went out of your way to pass the entrance exam with your own ability?”
“You’re quite well informed.”
True, he couldn’t have used the sports recommendation to get in and then not join any sports club.
“…Senpai was still in her second year and not the club president yet, right? What was she like then?”
“Let me see… She was a bit… no, completely unsuited to act as a guide. You know how she is normally, right? But she still explained things enthusiastically. She even passionately explained the details of the Kendo Club that I had disinterestedly come to see, as if it were her own club. I could tell that she really loved this school. All the others who came on the school visit with me probably thought the same thing.”
“I see… I only went to the school for the first time on the day of the entrance exam, myself.”
“So you jumped in without prior preparation, huh? That’s just like you, Hinooka.”
“Grrr. Anyway, what happened next?”
“…So, I searched for and found senpai one more time before we left, and asked her what club she was in.”
“Kuh… I couldn’t help it, I was interested in her.”
Touya’s face clouded over.
“Of course, she was a member of the Exploration Club. But back then, she didn’t guide us to the club building. Because apparently, the club itself might have suspended its activities next year.”
“Eh, it might have? You mean the club really was in danger of being disbanded!?”
“Not disbanded, suspended. A temporary pause in activities. As if it could simply be disbanded with such a big building and so much equipment. However, since there was only one club member, the Exploration Club couldn’t remain active.”
Homura nodded in understanding.
Homura had already painfully come to understand the difficulty of investigating this huge planet all alone—and the danger and overwhelming loneliness that came with it.
“…So Inari-senpai’s skipping club and school was…”
Touya nodded at Homura’s murmur.
“Senpai told me that, even if she ended up being the only club member, she would transfer over to Koma-senpai’s Exploration Club at Hiyoshizaka High and continue there.”
Homura was astonished.
“Isn’t that… basically a club takeover? It was that bad?”
“Yeah. I couldn’t stand that. Even if she were with Koma-senpai and her friends, it would have been too lonely.”
Touya’s cheeks burned red a little.
“—So, in the heat of the moment, I said that I would join the Exploration Club.”
That moment was the instant he so easily gave up on practicing kendo in high school.
Senpai and Touya really were the same in that regard.
Homura couldn’t help being shocked by the strength of their wills.
As someone who had enrolled at the school by chance and had joined the Exploration Club merely because she was scouted, Homura had no words to reply with.
“So… what did senpai say?”
“She said, ‘I’ll be waiting for you.’”
Touya’s eyes were gentle as he gazed down in reminiscence.
“That made you happy, didn’t it?”
“Yeah. I was happy. So much so that I thought I didn’t care if I died right then.”
Touya murmured that embarrassedly and scratched his head.
Next to him, Homura took a breath and let the tension leave her shoulders, before crossing her arms.
“I see… If this were a TV drama or movie, Touya-kun would be an excellent protagonist. Senpai would be the heroine and I’d play a supporting role.”
“What’re you talking about? You’d definitely be the protagonist. If this were an absurd gag manga, that is.”
“Hey, hey, I was trying to encourage you with the greatest respect in my own way! What’s with that attitude!? Just when I try to be nice, this is what I get!”
As Touya laughed, Homura indignantly drew up to him.
“At least call me the heroine of a cell phone novel, okay? Didn’t you say I looked like someone straight from a movie scene before?”
“I did, but it’s impossible for me to imagine you in that way anymore. You talk too much. And you reveal what you think too much.”
Homura became completely miffed at those words.
Touya unconcernedly encouraged her.
“Don’t undervalue yourself too much. I won’t say something meaningless like everyone’s a protagonist and first place in their own lives, but there’s at least one time in every person’s life when they can become a protagonist.”
“…It’d be nice if that were the case.”
While continuing to walk along the stone wall, they finally left the wetlands and approached the entrance to a forest filled with many diverse kinds of trees.
There, with his sharp sight, Touya found a rotten and deserted house.
It was a cabin that had almost entirely lost the form of a house and was filled with vines and leaves. They realized that it was a deserted house because there in the corners of the room lay the exposed keystones of what probably used to be pillars.
Homura picked up and stared carefully at a piece of wood that seemed to have been a fragment of a pillar.
“It’s all crumbling and in pieces… like it’s been abandoned for dozens… no, hundreds of years.”
“Decomposition doesn’t advance quickly in this cool climate, and since the humidity is strong due to the fog in the area, this place was probably abandoned since it wouldn’t pose a risk of forest fire.”
At the very least, there were no signs that anyone had visited this place recently.
Touya surveyed their surroundings further.
“It feels like a fishing cabin… Could there be a boat nearby?”
There wasn’t any water, but there was a creek-like depression running towards the wetlands.
“A boat, huh… Things would have been so much easier earlier if we’d had a rubber raft…”
While thinking about such things, Homura felt some unknown discomfort in her chest once again, and she turned her camera downwards at the cabin ruins.
She turned her head as she felt her heart strongly pulled in a certain direction, and when she pushed her way through the nearby thicket—
Shocked, Homura drew back and hid behind Touya’s back.
Touya immediately readied himself in stance to fight, and Homura pointed over his shoulder at the interior of the woods.
“T-There’s… a person over there…”
“…It’s not a fallen tree or something?”
“No. It’s a person. They’re standing there supporting their body with something.”
Indeed, there was a silhouette standing pitched forward with their feet buried in the dirt beneath the shadows of the trees.
“Don’t they see us? They couldn’t be… dead, could they…?”
The human figure didn’t move at all.
“Is it… a scarecrow?”
“If it were a scarecrow, it would have a better pose to scare off birds.”
“Just what kind of pose is that?”
The two of them timidly approached while stepping on fallen leaves.
It was a wooden puppet whose original color had completely faded away and grown dull.
It was wearing ragged clothing and was leaning against a farming spade.
“So it’s a scarecrow, just like you thought, Touya-kun…”
“……It’s quite elaborately made.”
The puppet had joints just like a human and, most surprisingly, looked much more recently made compared to the deserted house.
Homura took up the camera, while being cautious about not using up too much of her scarce remaining film.
“Ah, I know. Touya-kun, take the picture.”
“Look, I’m the first one to discover this, so don’t you think I have the right to take a picture with it?”
“Your heart’s self-possession is like concrete. Well, I’ll take the picture since it’s an important item of reference, though.”
Shrugging, Touya took the camera from Homura.
Homura adopted over-familiarly stance next to the puppet and made a peace sign.
Suddenly, she noticed the pendant hanging from the puppet’s neck.
When she pulled up the strap, a small bead-sized jewel inlaid in an almond-shaped wooden object appeared from the puppet’s chest.
“…Hmm? What a fashionable puppet.”
“…Ah… Hey, that’s…”
Touya sucked in a breath and brought his face close to the jewel, a mysterious green glow being reflected in his eyes from it.
“…Isn’t that a spirit stone?”
“Huh? Now that you mention it, it is a beautiful green…”
As Homura blinked and brought her face closer to inspect it, hard and rough fingers grabbed her arm.
“—Hi, hyah, gyah!”
The puppet moved towards Homura as she panicked and toppled over.
Touya immediately threw the camera behind him and took out the swords at his hip.
The cord of the pendant around the puppet’s necked was pulled along by Homura when she fell backwards, causing it to stretch and then finally snap.
The puppet’s deformed amorphous and expressionless face came towards Homura.
Touya’s vigor-filled sword stabbed its tip into the puppets neck, and it stopped moving as if it were sown in place.
He shook it off his blade with all his might, causing it to slam into a tree bunk with a bang.
Touya thrusted his sword forward and mercilessly gazed at the puppet.
“Get back! It’s dangerous!”
“It probably acted because I took this stone—”
Forgetting herself, Homura tried to step towards the puppet, but Touya desperately kept her back by blocking her with his arm.
The puppet let out a strange creak and stretched out its fingers as it lay against the base of the tree.
Homura reached over Touya’s arm and held out the pendant.
“I’m sorry… Here.”
However, the puppet’s form had started to rapidly change.
Just like a piece of time lapse photography, it rotted away at an impossible speed.
Cracks spread across its entire body loudly, and its clothing became a lump of frayed dust and scattered to the ground.
“Oh my, oh my oh my…”
As Homura watched wide-eyed with her hand covering her mouth, the puppet shattered into pieces of wood chips until it no longer had a distinguishable human form.
The pendent in her palm shone brightly for an instant, but the light soon faded and disappeared.
“Aah~… What should I do? It feels like I did something bad…”
“…To think it actually moved. Now that was a shock. Was it something like a robot similar to Ameno?”
Touya swiped through the wreckage with his sword tip, but there was no longer any trace of the puppet that had stood there. It had completely decayed away along with the farming implement it had held.
The only traces left of its existence were the photos of it stored in the camera and the stone in Homura’s hand.
“Compared to the appearance of the deserted house and the fields, this puppet was the only thing that seemed like it was recently made to me.”
“D-Did it have some self-destruct spell cast on it…?”
“Self-destruct… No, it seemed more like a result of preservation magic. Like to prevent it from decaying. That’s only if this this was a robot that was made to serve some purpose, though.”
“I see. It was made from wood, after all. So they’d have to stop it from rotting, huh.”
Homura once more looked at the supposed spirit stone in her hand.
“What should we do with this? Isn’t it valuable?”
“Of course, we’ll add it to the Exploration Club’s materials—is what I’d like to say, but…”
“Do what you want with it, Hinooka. Right now, searching for senpai takes priority.”
She looked down at her palm, conflicted.
In the end, she decided to bury it in the ground there.
She placed a branch she found to act as a gravestone amidst the tree roots where the puppet had been standing.
Touya also helped her set it up without saying anything.
As they left the puppet’s grave site, Touya grumbled.
“It’s a bit of a waste.”
Homura gave a disappointed smile in return.
“…Yeah. But, I think the fact that it wore clothes means that someone had probably given it a name. It was surely treasured a lot.”
Until it had been forgotten by that person.
“I see. Maybe so. By the way, what do you think its name was?”
“Eh… err… Yosack… II, or something?”
Touya burst out laughing.
Homura kicked his leg with a miffed expression.
“Hey, I tried not to think about it as much as possible, but that valley of fog that senpai spoke of…”
“Don’t say it. It’s just a fake ghost story, right?”
“Maybe the people who got lost here were all turned into puppets…”
Eventually, the two of them ran into a small river that flowed out from the wetlands.
Further downstream, the river’s current became stronger and turned into a mountain stream that flowed through the bottom of the valley.
As they followed the riverbank while looking down at the river, they noticed that they were walking down a clearly artificially-made path.
When they crossed a suspension bridge made of creeping plants over the rapid torrents, they arrived at a well sunlit mountain ridge.
When they strained their ears at the top of the small and quiet mountain summit, they could hear the sound of a waterfall flowing down into a basin.
After listening carefully to the mountain echoes and searching for the location of the waterfall, the two of them found the pointed end of what seemed to be a roof made of wood beyond a ridgeline hidden by trees.
“That! Isn’t that the roof of a castle!?”
Homura pointed excitedly, and Touya nodded.
Homura hurriedly held up her camera, but Touya reprovingly told her not to waste film, so she gave up on taking pictures for now.
The two of them walked down a moss-covered forest road that was composed of smooth stone.
Before they reached where they believed the roof to be, they came to a plaza filled with orderly lined-up stone monuments on a gentle slope.
“…These are graves.”
“…There’s no mistakes. This is a graveyard.”
Several stone huts were situated on the slope, and thin trapezoid-shaped tombstones were lined up in front of the stone doors.
The tombstones were colored a deep blue, like Nutella’s evening sky.
The two of them found brand-new flowers that had just recently been picked placed in front of the graves, causing a shiver to go down the back of their necks.
They instinctively lowered their voices and ascended the path towards the center of the graveyard.
There were various silver-inlayed patterns or letters carved into the tombstones.
As he looked at them out of interest, Touya suddenly noticed a small gravestone at his feet.
It was clearly different from the other graves. It consisted only of a stone placed at a small gap of a side road, but there were small wild flowers placed on it; someone had clearly come to mourn here.
“—T-Touya-kun! Come here! Look at this!”
Touya reluctantly stood up at Homura’s voice from further ahead.
When he caught up with her, he found her at the stone hut in the center of the graveyard, in front of which there was a conspicuously large tombstone which seemed to be the grave of someone important.
However, Homura was paying attention to the gravestone that had been discreetly placed beside the door of the stone hut.
The small gravestone she pointed at was made of a different kind of stone, and most noticeable of all, it was shaped like a short rectangular prism.
It was just like the kind of old-fashioned gravestones found at Japanese temples.
The gravestone, which had become completely moss-covered after years of exposure to mist, had many flowers placed on it that were even more beautiful compared to the others.
Touya’s eyes widened, and he sat down to bring his face close to the gravestone.
“It has kanji characters written on it…!”
“Right!? They’re quite old and faded so it’s unreadable, though… Let’s try removing the moss a bit.”
“Stop it, stupid. This is someone’s grave, you know?”
Touya tried partially reading the writing carved onto the gravestone beneath the moss.
“Bunsei… Year… 7… 9… huh? Bunsei Year 792!? …Tengu Kakushi…”
“You mean like Hidden Tengu3?”
“This is… a family crest…? Late… Layman4…”
Though the unaccustomed writing was all gibberish to Homura, she undauntedly peeked down at it next to Touya.
“Whose grave is it?”
“Probably some adult man… Though it only has the posthumous Buddhist name5 written here. Does Buddhism exist on Nutella?”
The two of them followed the writing that was vaguely visible through the moss and tried to do their best at a mock translation.
They were so focused on it that they didn’t notice the footsteps approaching from behind them.
“—Suzu, is that thee6?”
The two of them jumped and turned around at the sudden sound of a young woman’s voice.
On the road that weaved through the center of the graveyard, there was a woman with fluttering light golden hair dressed in a kimono.
There was the sound of footsteps on the stone pavement, and a giant white wolf followed behind her.
It was an extremely dreamlike sight that hardly felt real.
“…T-The witch…!?” Homura reflexively whispered.
The wolf had pure white fur with a grey patch on its brow. It was unmistakably the wolf that that girl from before had called Sekkachimaru, which had left a strong impression on Homura.
The woman stared dispassionately at Homura and Touya with emotionless eyes while keeping her hands within the sleeves of her kimono.
“Hoh, thieves, huh?”
The woman lightly raised an eyebrow, clearly surprised.
“I hath been called a paramour, but never a witch before7.”
As she spoke, the woman scowled at the two of them as if appraising them, and the white wolf sensitively responded to the change in his master’s demeanour by sinking down and growling.
Homura shuddered at the sight of its bared fangs.
“W-Wait a minute.”
Both Touya and Homura unconsciously prepared themselves to fight in response to this dangerous development of events.
“We aren’t anyone suspicious or dangerous,” Touya insisted.
The woman turned to glare at Touya with a distrustful expression.
Homura was shocked as Touya put his hands down at his waist.
However, Touya threw away the swords at his waist into a nearby bush along with his belt and showed his empty hands to the woman.
“We apologize for rudely trespassing in this graveyard. But please listen to what we have to say.”
The woman spoke calmly yet forcefully.
“I shan’t listen to the pleading of cowardly grave robbers.”
“We aren’t thieves. We’re searching for someone. Has one of our comrades come here?”
“…Comrade, huh. So thither still be another of thee? Truly only one?”
“She was taken away. By that wolf there.”
“I asked if thither was another of thee.”
Grasping that part of Touya’s words, the woman took a step forward.
“A-And there was also a child! A girl with black hair and about this tall!”
When Homura interrupted and tried to explain with gestures, the woman visibly reacted.
“Are thou speaking of Suzu?”
The woman’s half-lidded gaze became even colder.
“Not only do thee desecrate these graves, thou intend to spirit away my only family as well…?”
“We already said that we aren’t thieves. But you really do know that girl! …Hey, what does spirit away8 mean?”
Homura asked the last part to Touya in a small voice.
“She’s mistaken us for kidnappers.”
“Kidnappers? That’s also a misunderstanding!”
Homura stepped towards the woman in protest, but the white wolf growled at her.
Homura froze at the sound of that deep snarl.
“Hinooka, right now the priority is senpai—”
The woman held back the white wolf, which looked about ready to jump at Homura, with one hand, and looked from Touya in front of her to the swords he had thrown away.
“Take thy blades.”
“Wha… You’re going to kill me for offense9? But aren’t you barehanded?”
“I shall not repeat it twice.”
Undaunted, Touya didn’t move from in front of Homura.
After letting out a large sigh, he lowered and relaxed his tense shoulders.
“We came here from Earth, from Japan. Could it be the same for you as well? Do you know of Tokyo—no, of the town of Edo10?”
Touya spoke as calmly as possible, but his voice still shook a little.
However, as if to completely reject all of Touya’s words, the woman’s expression twisted and became painfully strained, and she pressed one hand’s trembling fingers to her forehead.
“There are other people living on this planet, right? We’ve been searching for you people for more than ten years now—”
The woman held out a trembling finger, and purple lightning began to form and crackle loudly at the tip of it.
It was a thick concentration of light consisting of several filaments of electricity that weaved together and changed form as it flashed.
—It was magic.
The flash of electricity that couldn’t even be compared to the illumination spell used by Homura and Touya shone brightly even in the daylight.
“Be gone… thou wretched thieves who would disturb the sleep of mine ancestors…!”
The woman muttered while in clear anguish, her long hair stretching and spreading out.
Perhaps that was also magic, or perhaps it was a result of the pressure from her anger—
Purple lightning weaved and converged around her raised arm in a spiral.
When she heard the woman’s first mutter, Homura had forcefully grabbed Touya by the nape of his neck and ran away pulling him as fast as she could.
Though he resisted for an instant, Touya immediately understood the danger and began running with her.
A blast of lightning shot out from her finger, tearing straight at Homura and Touya right on their heels.
Part of a tombstone was burst apart in its path.
As they were showered in flowers petals that were sent flying and fragments of debris that were scattered through the air like bullets, Homura and Touya ran and escaped from the graveyard.
If it weren’t for Homura’s quick judgement, and if their leg strength wasn’t enhanced on Nutella, they would have definitely been hit by the lightning spell.
Showing no signs of paying any consideration to her violent actions which had destroyed the graveyard, the woman—no, the witch—didn’t pause in her attack.
“Bite them to death.”
The white wolf howled and leapt forward.
“Damn it, what’s with that woman!? She didn’t listen to us at all!”
“She really is the witch!”
“This is the worst possible first contact… damn it.”
Homura gasped as she ran.
There was a scorch mark on Touya’s back from not having completely escaped the lightning.
A painfully red burn was visible on his skin beneath his burnt and torn clothes.
“Touya-kun… that wound—”
Ignoring Homura’s words, Touya suddenly came to a stop.
“…Kuh… This path is no good, huh?”
The stone-paved forest path they were on was a gentle curve that was almost completely straight, offering an unobstructed view down it.
Even in the short time they stood still, they could tell that the wolf’s howls were getting closer.
Touya grabbed Homura’s arm and leapt into the grove of trees beside the road.
They ran to the point of tumbling down the steep slope.
As they went down several dozen meters, they collided with trees on the way and their hands came apart.
Even when she tumbled down to the ground beneath the slope, Homura immediately got up and searched for Touya around her, shouting.
“Touya-kun—! Where are you!?”
The reply came from within the grove of trees behind her.
“Hinooka, escape by yourself! I have to find senpai and—”
Touya’s sorrowful shout was drowned out by a blood-chilling wolf howl.
The sounds of violent treading through leaves and Touya’s battle cries got further away from Homura.
“Wait! Touya-kun, Touya-kun!”
Homura’s desperate cries were absorbed by the forest, its heavy foliage making it hard to see through past the trees.
Having truly become alone on Nutella for the first time, Homura silently stood there.
The scent in the air was different from the graveyard, and the roaring of the waterfall could be heard from nearby amidst the silence of the forest.
“Am I supposed to do an emergency withdrawal—?”
Her heart throbbed painfully.
“After—After coming this far—?”
Cold sweat ran down her entire body, and the sensation of the Transport Ring on her left hand’s middle finger once more felt foreign and conspicuous to her.
Even that momentary hesitation wasn’t permitted for her, as a raptor-like silhouette crossed the space between the trees towards her.
“Are thou finished running?”
The owner of that voice from above skillfully landed on the ground with the sleeves of her kimono fluttering.
Homura stood face to face with the witch, who didn’t seem even slightly out of breath.
“Don’t trouble these old bones of mine. Sooner or later, thy will inevitably be turned to cinders.”
With mysteriously glowing eyes, she gazed down at the pitiful victim who had wandered astray into her domain.
Her red lips smiled, spinning words filled with magic power.
A familiar line of fire appeared at the tip of the witch’s finger as she turned it around through the air.
The line of fire released a strange chafing noise—to be precise, it sounded like glass being chopped apart by scissors—and it turned into a whirling and bulging fireball.
The flames, which reflected the patterns the witch folded together within her mind, steadily grew while overlaying with each other in geometric shapes, becoming huge in Homura’s eyes as she stared at it.
She knew that, even if she immediately started running away, the fireball would chase after her according to the witch’s will.
What Homura could do right now was limited.
She had two choices.
One choice was to not do anything. To just wisely and swiftly give up to despair.
And the other choice was—
“…H… Hi (Hydrogen)……!”
Looking at the small embers that appeared at Homura’s fingertip, the witch’s eyes narrowed.
However, she didn’t stop increasing the size of the fireball.
“Ox (Oxygen)… Ph (Phosphorous)…”
Homura desperately drew the pattern in her mind just as senpai had taught her and tried to catch up with the witch’s incantation.
She gathered her concentration on a single point and weaved her trembling line of fire into a blazing flame.
With the last part of the witch’s chant, the fireball, which had swelled to half the size of her body, was fired from her fingertip.
Homura’s fireball, whose chant had finished just a second later, swirled in place right front of her palm.
Homura fervently watched the approaching fireball, no, the coil of flames as it turned the daytime forest to night and cast a huge shadow over the trees behind it.
It was a scathing volley hit back with a racket.
She raised her palm overhead at a slant and then swiped it down as she stepped forward to repel the witch’s fireball.
The instant the edges of the two fireballs touched, a crushing impact hit Homura to her core and pushed her back.
Even so, she knew that if she loosened her concentration on this pure white light, she would simply die worthlessly without getting to meet anyone.
Within an instant that seemed to stretch unto eternity, Homura vividly felt the scorching heat licking her skin and her body’s weight vanishing beneath her feet, but she kept concentrating—and compressed her fireball even smaller to drill it deep into the opposing fireball.
The fireball, having compressed to the point of becoming pure white heat, finally caused a crack to run through the other one.
The match of power crumbled away, and the witch’s fireball swelled and became distorted.
Both the fireball’s existence and Homura’s restrained breath reached their limit and came apart.
Like an iron candy bursting out from the melting pot of a blast furnace, a wave of fire was sent flying across the surrounding area and, in the next instant, turned to smoke and dispersed.
Just like what had happened that time when Homura tried using magic by the riverbed some time ago, the whole area was wrapped in smoke and turned dark as if it were evening.
The witch protected her face from the smoke with her sleeve.
“This is unexpected…”
Though her attack had been parried, her tone as she murmured somehow seemed happy.
“To think thou would also use Mathematica12—in that case, thy have greater potential worth nurturing than Suzu.”
On the other hand, Homura had been harshly thrown to the ground.
As the pungent smoke hung thickly in the air, Homura looked up at the human silhouette that had swiftly grabbed and hugged her when she fell, and she widened her eyes.
“Senpai! Thank goodness, you’re safe…!”
It was definitely Misasagi-senpai.
Senpai nodded, old-looking manacles on her wrists with severed chain links hanging off them. Bandages had been awkwardly wrapped around her abdomen. A bow she had obtained from somewhere unknown was resting on her shoulder.
Without wasting time, senpai questioned Homura.
Homura was rendered speechless.
Misasagi-senpai had apparently figured out Homura’s location from the explosive sound of the magic battle and the rising smoke.
However, even Homura only vaguely knew which direction Touya had headed in.
“When we were running from the wolf, he acted as a decoy for me…”
Senpai’s expression clouded over in anguish at Homura’s words.
In a brief instant, Misasagi ascertained the degree of Homura’s injuries and glanced at the Transport Ring on her finger.
“Can you stand?”
The two of them stooped low and left the area.
Homura asked senpai anxiously.
“…Senpai, what do we do?”
“This place is too dangerous.”
Senpai’s voice was cold, sounding like a completely different person to Homura.
“We’ll return by ourselves. We can’t join back up with Touya-kun.”
Homura’s feet came to a stop at a point close to the river bank where the sound of the waterfall could be heard.
“No… I’ll stay behind.”
Homura shook her head, but senpai stepped up to her.
“He’ll surely understand.”
“No! After coming all this way—”
“Keep your voice down.”
Senpai grabbed Homura’s arm and pulled her close.
“This place is extremely far from the base camp, and we don’t have sufficient magic power to return. An emergency withdrawal will be unstable, and it’s uncertain whether even the two of us will be able to get back—”
At first, Homura was speechless.
“We won’t know until we try!”
Homura protested and threw off senpai’s hand.
Homura’s cheeks were swelled and stuck out.
As Homura tried to restrain her hot cheeks, dumbfounded at her own reaction, senpai spoke with a severe gaze.
“If we fail, we’ll all die. We won’t be able to save Touya-kun at another opportunity either in that case.”
Though she spoke firmly, senpai’s expression was distorted and seemed ready to cry at any moment.
“I’m sorry for arriving so late.”
Gritting her teeth, she placed a hand on Homura’s shoulder.
“It’ll be okay. He’s strong. Even I managed to survive here.”
Homura nodded in mortification.
“—So thither thou are.”
A sneering laugh rang through the forest.
The witch had appeared in pursuit of them.
“I had intended to burn thee until not even thy bone remained, but tis seems to have been insufficient.”
Both her voice and gaze emitted a strong madness that hated and rejected all outsiders.
She didn’t even seem to care that the person now standing next to Homura wasn’t the boy Touya.
The witch once more took a stance to use magic.
“Thou shalt pop and burst apart, like roasted chestnuts.”
Homura and Misasagi-senpai turned around and desperately ran away from the fireball that was loudly swelling up behind them.
The forest came to an end, and they found themselves at the bank of the river which ran from the basin of the waterfall.
“We’re withdrawing! Form a strong self-image and concentrate on it!”
Senpai’s hand grabbed Homura’s hand which had the Transport Ring on it.
As the sound of trees being mowed down came from behind them and the fireball quickly approached, the two of them jumped towards the water basin.
Chapter 18 END
(1) This is another of Touya’s bad puns that doesn’t translate into English, so I had to change it to better fit the translation. Thanks go to reader dbm for suggesting the lake pun.
(2) Bunsei: This is a specific era in Japan’s traditional calendar scheme which changes era according to the enthronement of a new emperor. The Bunsei era went from about 1818 to 1830. Most likely, “Bunsei Year 79” was written on the assumption that the Japanese calendar system didn’t change eras, so from the perspective of whoever wrote it, it was around 1897 AD when the gravestone was placed there. (Though this might not be accurate in actual historic time, considering the time distortion between Earth and Nutella.)
(3) “Tengu Kakushi” literally means “Tengu Hidden/Hiding” (a tengu is a mythological creature/deity in Japan), but I wrote it as “Hidden Tengu” when Homura said it, since that phrasing makes more sense in English.
(4) The actual term used here is grhapati, which is a Buddhist term for householders/laypersons, and is sometimes used as a posthumous suffix.
(5) A tradition to give a new name to the deceased upon their death, shared by Buddhism and many other religions.
(6) This character speaks in an old dialect of Japanese, so I’ll try my best to do the equivalent in English, but I’ll be putting more priority on making it understandable than being linguistically accurate.
(7) Once again, this is a sentence whose meaning cannot be properly translated in English. Homura calls her a witch (maho), which sounds similar to paramour (mao).
(8) Here, a less common and older word for “kidnap” is used, so the best equivalent I came up with in English that Homura might not know is “spirit away”.
(9) This is a Japanese term dating back to the feudal era, referring to how samurai had the right to kill any commoners who were perceived to have offended their honor in some way.
(10) Edo: old name of Tokyo.
(11) The witch’s incantations consist purely of independent kanji characters that make no sense combined together, and they’re more like fancy phrases than anything with deep meaning, so don’t try to read into it too much. (Think something similar to the attack names that appear in a lot of manga and anime.)
(12) Here, it says Mathematica in furigana, while the kanji beneath it basically translates as “Dust Threat Technique”.
(13) Beneath the furigana “Disengage” is the kanji for “emergency withdrawal”.