The cold fog pervading the forest brushed against Homura’s cheeks, flush with tension, and stole the warmth from them.
It felt like it was even surreptitiously stealing away the courage she had managed to muster.
—They were just about to reach the witch’s valley.
Though they weren’t yet close enough to hear the echoes of the waterfall, their surroundings had already become familiar terrain for Homura.
Three days had passed on Nutella time since Homura and Misasagi’s escape from this land.
Homura and the others had once more plunged into the witch’s valley on a forced march, not even giving themselves time to sleep.
Just in case Touya had managed to successfully escape capture, they had briefly stopped by the destroyed Seiran High base camp and the encampment Homura and Touya had set up in the rocky area, leaving behind messages and a minimal amount of necessities such as food at each location while they were at it. Unfortunately, they had found no traces that Touya had been at any of those locations, and so they had continued on to the witch’s valley.
“…It feels like rain could fall at any moment…”
Homura peeked at the sky through the spaces between the broadleaf branches above her.
The current time should have been just past noon, but it was already as dark as evening. The fog, which had been cleared away when she last visited here, was now blocking her entire field of vision.
Though that fog did make Homura and the others uneasy, it was also convenient since it helped hide their presence as they moved.
Walking at the head of their group, Kamikoma spoke up in a low voice.
“From here on, we’ll do exactly as we discussed last night. If we end up in battle, don’t get close to Taichi. Listen, make sure you don’t no matter what. This is an order.”
“You’ve told me that several times already… By the way, what are you capable of doing in a fight, Koma-senpai?”
Kamikoma smiled smugly.
“A bard’s abilities are basically all-purpose, capable of adapting to any situation.”
“My only weak point is—doing things quietly, I guess.”
“Isn’t that no good in this situation? You’re completely unsuited to covert activities, aren’t you?”
“Muh, you have a point. Also, I have a hard time running away from pursuers as a bard.”
“Can you really call yourself all-purpose like that…?” Homura asked doubtfully.
“No prob, we’ll be leaving all the direct fighting to Taichi anyway.”
Puffing up her chest proudly as if she were lauding herself, Kamikoma looked back over her shoulder, and Taga firmly nodded and pulled out his personal equipment from the sack on his back.
He equipped on his arms a giant pair of overwhelmingly thick and heavy bear claws1—a form of close-quarters weapons also known gauntlet claws—which extended from their folded-up state with a clang.
Combined with the attached metal arm guards which extended up to his elbows, it made for a pair of specialized weapons that combined offense and defense in one.
These were dynamic weapons that, with Taga’s giant build, made it seem as if he could blow away Homura’s body with a single swing, making the harsh warning not to get near him understandable.
Homura gulped at the sight of those dully shining claw tips.
“…I know full well that close-quarters combat is dangerous… but still, I have magic. I was even able to make a barrier against one of the witch’s fireballs!”
“Seriously? But it really is dangerous, you know? Stick close to me as much as possible, and if you can’t, go hide in the rear behind the frontlines.”
“But then there’s no point in having me here!”
“Just guiding us was more than enough. Thanks to you, we managed to get here without getting lost. And you worked hard on cooking our rice too.”
Coming to a stop, Kamikoma turned back to face Homura.
“Listen well, Homura. I’m saying this seriously; avoid any fighting. Our top priority is to rescue Touya Takumi.”
“O-Of course—but please, don’t forget that little girl either.”
Homura recalled what she had heard just before they had departed for Nutella:
The detailed report provided from the authorities which Ameno had recounted to them.
The missing baby was a year and one month old at the time. An investigation was started under the assumption of a kidnapping.
Three months after the baby’s disappearance, a pair of criminals who were arrested in a drunk-driving accident in a separate incident emerged as the kidnapper suspects.
The suspects were an elderly married couple, and they confessed to kidnapping out of a desire for a child.
However, long before their confession, when long term restrictions of news on the incident was being imposed, information on the police’s investigation unexpectedly managed to get on the internet through the people that the detectives had interviewed. As a result, the leaked information reached the suspects themselves and, out of fear of public attention, the couple abandoned the child deep in the mountains during winter.
Though a large-scale search was conducted in the specified region, the child was never found.
From clues such as strands of hair discovered in the suspects’ home, the certainty of their guilt was confirmed. However, the male suspect of the couple, who had been personally responsible for abandoning the child in the wild, was attacked by a nervous disorder soon afterwards, and the defence appealed that the abandonment of the child was a mistaken assertion by the suspects. Thus, the case was currently being treated as a double missing person’s incident.
The baby’s mother, not trusting the suspects’ confession, believed it to be a lie and had started her own independent search.
If, immediately after the baby was abandoned in the mountains, she was transported to Nutella through some means, it would match Homura’s eyewitness testimony of the girl having grown to the age of twelve or thirteen.
However, neither Kamikoma nor Taga gave an immediate reply to Homura’s words.
It wasn’t like they didn’t understand Homura’s sincere wish to rescue the missing child, but…
“…Rescuing her will be difficult if she takes hostile action towards us. The Transport Ring doesn’t work well if the person doesn’t wish to be transported. It greatly lowers the odds of successful transport.”
Recalling her earlier return to Earth, which was no better than a rushed emergency landing, Homura winced and faltered.
Even so, every time she recalled that girl, it brought up the memory of that woman who continued to wait at that station entrance even now.
“I’ll convince her. She treated senpai’s injuries. She may be rough and wild, but she’s not a bad girl. If we could just properly talk with her—”
If they could just get her to listen to their explanation of the events that had befallen her and brought her here.
If they could eventually teach her the common sense and rules of modern Japan.
Even if it would be a mountain of work, Homura wouldn’t budge on this.
“Still, I don’t think you’ll be able to communicate with those wolves. Rather, this guy here would probably be better suited for that.”
Kamikoma gave her lute a few hard taps. Homura wondered if the reason it got out of tune so easily was because she treated it so roughly.
“T-That’s why I’m asking for your help here, Koma-senpai.”
“Hey, hey. And there’s also the witch to consider.”
Kamikoma kept a watchful eye on their surroundings, never lowering her guard.
“Frankly speaking, the witch is an opponent that’s out of our league. The two of us have had experience in magic battles against hostile beasts at most.”
“Yeah, Misasagi-senpai mentioned that there were rare beasts like that.”
“This will be our first time fighting a human. Actually, no investigator has ever fought one before. We have a manual for making peaceful contact, but no one ever imagined a case like this.”
“My club’s advisor is quite laissez-faire, though… What about your advisor Professor Tanakura?”
At that question, Taga was the one to speak up for once.
“—Don’t be impatient. Don’t think of forcing others to change. Wait for the right chance.”
Kamikoma nodded in agreement.
“…Taga-senpai really talks like a missionary, doesn’t he?”
“But he’s right. This will turn into a long mission that requires patience. It might not even end in our generation and take several decades to complete.”
Homura was flabbergasted by the scale of Kamikoma’s prediction.
“We’re lucky just for the fact that we can communicate with the people here. That alone is amazing enough to be considered a miracle.”
“Then—we’ll manage to get through to them somehow! Right?”
As Homura sought agreement, Taga made a troubled expression.
“…Homura, you’re really incredible, you know that?”
The two senpais laughed in disbelief.
In the end, they crept further into the valley without Homura being able to completely rid herself of her ill feelings towards Misasagi-senpai.
Relying on a river that seemed to lead towards the waterfall as a guide within the thick fog, they advanced deeper into the valley.
Their path was in the exact opposite direction of the route she had taken with Touya before, but there were more intact remains of what appeared to have been a stone-paved road. This seemed to be the proper path to reach the castle.
In other words, they were heading straight towards the witch’s castle.
The three of them hid their main equipment further back away from the castle in order to move more easily and quickly.
“I hope we don’t run into another trap…”
“You mean that magic-detecting bomb that hit Mayo? Yeah, I agree with you there…”
Taga silently bent his back and presented his wide shoulders to Kamikoma.
“Huh, ride on you? No, it’s fine. We’re about to prepare for battle. We should each move on our own two feet.”
As Taga made a worried expression that didn’t suit his large body, Kamikoma smacked his arm to soothe him, looking like the very image of an upperclassman as she did so.
“Homura, you too. Use your magic as sparsely and efficiently as possible. The two of us can’t protect you now.”
Her face tightening with tension, Homura double-checked the tear gas spray hanging from her hip.
When the sound of the waterfall finally neared and they’d gotten close enough to start seeing the castle—Taga grabbed the two girls’ shoulders to stop them.
There was a person standing alone ahead of them on the moss-covered, stone-paved road.
It was a barefoot girl.
Kamikoma instinctively bent forward in preparation for a fight.
“Is that the witch—? Guess not. The missing child, right?”
Homura nodded, and then she tried to step forward, but Kamikoma stopped her.
“We’re in luck. We have a better chance of talking with that girl than the witch.”
Even so, Homura was clearly nervous.
The young girl wearing a blue kimono, Suzuran, looked over the three of them with a cautious gaze.
She widened her eyes in apparent surprise as she looked up at Taga’s huge body and quickly went on guard.
“So you brought comrades with you…”
“Thank goodness you’re here. I was worried that—”
When Homura tried to approach her, Suzuran suddenly glared at her.
“I won’t reproach any of you. So please leave and go back where you came from.”
“Hime isn’t normal right now. And I can’t hold back the wolves anymore either.”
“…Hime? Hey, wait, we came to meet you and—”
Shaking off Homura, Suzuran jumped several steps back, and the fog parted to suddenly reveal the white tip of a nose.
It was the huge white wolf, Yukiwarimaru. It appeared out of nowhere, as if the fog itself had condensed and formed it in an instant.
Taga put himself on guard as he stood facing Yukiwarimaru, whose body was just as huge as his own.
Jumping onto the wolf’s back, Suzuran shouted.
“Sekkachimaru says you people smell. It’s that ring of yours. And not just that. You also have stones of power. You damn thieves!”
“Wait! What about Touya-kun!? What happened to the boy who remained behind here!?”
“You mean Takumi? You should give up on him at this point.”
“Ah, hey! Wait! Is Hime the witch!?”
“Step back, Homura.”
Just like their arrival, their departure was also like that of a mirage—
The white wolf and girl suddenly turned around and left and Homura watched their departure unhappily. The howling of wolves reached her ears.
Homura noticed that Kamikoma, standing beside her with her lute ready, was now smiling boldly.
“It’s time to rampage, Taichi.”
“Roger,” Taga replied.
“Senpai. Saving Touya-kun takes priority. We should avoid conflict as much as possible—”
“It can’t be helped now that it’s come to this. Rather, this was within the bounds of our predictions, you know♪”
Kamikoma’s fingers moved to the twelve strings arranged in six courses on her lute and began to play a solemn melody.
Each tune, amplified by magic and resonating with the surrounding space, pierced Homura’s body like a heavy wedge.
The skin all over her body thrummed and became keen and sensitive, a feeling similar to the instant of transportation.
Grey wolves sluggishly appeared from within the fog while growling.
“Homura, cover me.”
Kamikoma sharply gave Homura directions while concentrating on her magic.
This is the battle march of a Bard—! Homura murmured to herself mentally.
She was surprised as she felt her fear lessen and her discernment sharpen even with so many enemies facing them. She was filled with a sense of exaltation and enhancement she had never felt before, greatly expanding her field of vision.
Taga stood firmly in front of the two girls like a wall to protect them.
The wolves, which the little girl had said that she could no longer restrain, drooled saliva and approached with vacant gazes as if they were infected with rabies.
For an instant, Homura absently thought that she was lucky to have already taken her rabies vaccine shot, but she changed her thinking when she saw the wolves’ fangs.
As the wolves began to surround them in a circle, Homura readied the spray can in her hands.
Then, she heard an even more ominous growling than the others. And it was coming not from the wolves, but from Taichi in front of her.
With a clank, the folded claws on his hands extended out.
Not ending his battle preparations there, his hair then seemed to bristle noisily, and a visible change came over Taga’s body.
Taga now looked like the kind of caricature bear that appeared in the nightmares of infants.
He had become a half-human, half-bear monster.
His howl shook the forest, and Homura’s body froze in shock.
“He’s gone into Were-Form2.”
At the same time, the melody that Kamikoma was playing became deeper and graver.
In fact, it acted as a pressure over the rampaging berserker by holding back his surging power.
“Don’t show any hostility. He’ll attack even allies in this state.”
“Hiii, what is this!?”
One of the wolves, having been agitated by fear, forgot its hunting instincts as part of the pack and jumped at Taga’s neck by itself.
—With a flash, his claws seized the wolf’s body from the side and then hurled it far over the treetops.
Howling together, the rest of the wolves then jumped at him one after another like a dam had burst.
The berserker knocked down the wolves one by one as he tore off the stone paving and ripped them apart along with nearby tree trunks.
However, the wolves, attacking craftily by each aiming for Taga’s blind spots while surrounding him, managed to steadily deal wounds to him.
As she stood to protect Kamikoma behind her, Homura immediately emptied two canisters of tear gas to repel the wolves which came to approach them and pulled off the safety pin of her spare canister while she was at it.
She coughed and her eyes watered at the intense stimulation of the bits of spray that drifted towards her on the wind.
Even so, the tear gas worked well at its purpose, making several wolves lose the will to fight the moment it hit their nostrils.
The ten-odd wolves present had their numbers halved in a short time.
“*Cough*, we can do this, Koma-senpai.”
Kamikoma nodded as she concentrated on playing her lute, seeming to control Taga with her fingers on the strings.
Taga suddenly looked up from glaring at the wolves.
A silhouette jumped down from the trees and aimed to lop off his head, but Taga managed to cover his upper body with his gauntlets at that very instant.
As Taga grunted fiercely, the silhouette was thrusted away, but managed to quickly stand up from rolling on the ground, revealing itself to be a familiar boy.
“…Damn it… Stop, Taichi! It’s Touya!”
Taga stopped for an instant when he heard Kamikoma’s restraining shout, but his opponent didn’t leave him any time to rest.
It was definitely Touya.
Wielding a long sword and a short sword in his hands, he wordlessly attacked Taga.
Taga had no choice to fight back with a growl.
Clicking her tongue, Kamikoma changed melodies.
It was a melody of indiscriminate healing that enveloped the entire surrounding area. Naturally, that meant that it healed the enemy wolves as well, but it was the only desperate measure she could choose right now.
“Do something, Homura!”
“What’s wrong with you, Touya-kun!? That’s Taga-senpai! Stop!”
Ignoring Homura’s voice, Touya stoutly devoted himself to attacking, his vigor so great that it even overpowered Taga’s huge body.
“It can’t be helped. Homura!”
Guessing Kamikoma’s plan, Homura aimed a spray can at Touya, but then he immediately glared at Homura and bent over before starting to run towards her.
Homura faltered, unable to say anything.
Kamikoma promptly tackled Homura out of the way.
The spray can fell out of Homura’s hand and flew through the air while spewing red smoke from its side.
“A-Are you for real, Touya-kun?”
Homura was shocked and became teary-eyed at the sight of Touya’s complete change.
After the two girls had fallen to the ground, Touya approached them to finish them off, but Taga pinned him from behind his back and lifted him up.
Touya resisted, but Taga barely managed to maintain and tighten his grip.
Touya’s swords fell from his arms to the ground.
The restraint marks left on his wrists and legs were painfully visible.
“All right, don’t let him go! Keep going until he faints!”
Though she was shocked from seeing Touya try to stab her and now struggle desperately to escape, Homura stared straight at him in focus.
“Is he being controlled by the witch……?”
“Homura, activate the emergency withdrawal! Hurry!”
Kamikoma pulled Homura to her feet.
“Kamikoma-senpai, that girl said to give up on him. We have to undo the spell on him.”
“We can do that after returning to Earth.”
“That will probably be too late.”
Homura picked up the short sword Touya had dropped.
It was an unfamiliar sword. He had probably received it from the witch.
As the wolves surrounded them from a distance, Homura came to a decision and started to run off towards him.
“Homura! Come back, idiot! Wait, uwah!”
Kamikoma hastily picked up her lute as Taga’s foot was about to trample it.
Red-faced from being constricted, Touya had managed to escape from Taga’s hands and began attacking him again.
Homura ran intently until she reached the point where the familiar roof of the castle was in view.
The witch was sitting calmly at a table placed in the courtyard in front of the castle.
However, the wolf girl, who Homura had expected to be there, was nowhere in sight.
After catching her breath with her hands on her knees, Homura appealed to the witch.
“Please give Touya-kun back.”
The witch spoke dispassionately while glancing over Homura.
“Hoh… The one who hath used Mathematica—”
At first glance, the witch looked as if she was just spending a peaceful afternoon outside. However, her smile was cold and tinged with a dangerous aura.
“I believeth I already gaveth him back.”
“What did you do to him?”
“What, thou ask… I greeted him as a guest…”
The witch narrowed her eyes as she recalled what had happened.
“Though I hadst to shut that noisy mouth of his a bit.”
“In that case, please return him to normal. You can do that, right?”
The witch quietly stood up from the table.
“It seems thou hadst no intention of acting as a guest from the start… If thou impudently trespass on these castle grounds, thou must obey the master of this place… The wolves art also greatly perplexed.”
Homura froze in shock.
The wolves that had chased after Homura arrived to surround the witch.
Her eyes tinged with even deeper madness than before, the witch gazed at the wolves.
Her madness riled up the wolves, and they once more bared their fangs at Homura.
Her hands unconsciously tightened around the short sword she had picked up earlier. However, what on earth could Homura do with a weapon like that?
“You say master… so the only humans here are you and that girl?”
“Thou speaketh of Suzuran? She hath not shown herself around hither the past few days. How deplorable. Perhaps tis because thou has’t all been so loud and rambunctious? Dear me…”
She gently pulled up her sleeves.
“Shalt thou also becometh a puppet? Or—”
Lightning danced around the witch’s finger.
It was the re-enactment of the lightning attack she had fired at Homura and Touya at the graveyard.
Responding to the hostility in the air, the wolves growled at Homura with bared fangs.
Homura gulped. She really wanted to run away, but that would just be repeating what happened before.
Restraining her fear and holding her ground, Homura threw the short sword to the ground.
“Suzuran—that’s the name you gave that girl. You saved and raised her, right?”
Twitching in unease, the witch glared at Homura with suspicious eyes.
“My name is Hinooka Homura. I came here from Japan on Earth. Are you the one that Suzuran called Hime…?”
“I am Subaru—Iotsumisumaru no Hime. However, I has’t no intention of letting thou calleth me that, nor of remembering thy name.”
“Subaru…san. I have a request. Please let Suzuran—”
“I hath said I has’t no intention of letting thou calleth me by name,” the witch said coldly, interrupting Homura’s supplication.
Her golden hair suddenly lifted up and spread out in the air.
The temporarily constrained lightning once more flashed and swirled along her fingertip as she raised her hand overhead.
“Subaru-san… Please listen. You must have a kind heart to have raised Suzuran. We didn’t come to steal anything from you or to fight!”
“Then thou must has’t cometh hither to die.”
The witch’s red lips pronounced the final word of destruction.
Regretting her own naivety, Homura wasn’t able to even stir from where she stood.
The magic blast, fired by the witch without bothering to speak any further, cut through the air and struck Homura.
When the retina-burning flash of light receded—Homura was crouching on her knees on the ground, and she raised her head to look at the witch again.
The witch gritted her teeth at the unexpected situation she was confronted with.
“Another counter with Mathematica…? No…”
A thin veil of water had surrounded and protected Homura and was now dispersing into mist.
As an out-of-place burning smell reached her nose, Homura placed a hand to her chest, where the charm around her neck had been scorched and the spirit stone within it was quickly losing its glow.
“This girl… blocked the lightning with a wall of water… using a stone of power…”
The spirit stone, having completely lost its light, cracked and snapped in two on top of Homura’s palm.
“Senpai’s spirit stone…”
The witch approached Homura.
“Whither didst thou get that stone?”
“This was given to me by senpai—”
“No, no need to even bother asking! Thou got it from a graveyard belonging to the People of Sagacity somewhere. Thou pillaged their graves and stole it! Unforgivable.”
“No way… this… is…”
Not knowing the truth of the matter, Homura couldn’t deny the accusation.
Even so, she stood up and once more faced the witch.
“Damn thief, if thou dare imperil the sleep of mine ancestors—”
At that moment, a voice called out to the frenzied witch, taking her by surprise.
The joy and fear of truly appropriating one’s body and removing one’s shackles to wield power freely.
Even while giving in to his animal instincts and turning into something inhuman, a thread of reason persisted as if frozen in place in the depths of Taga’s heart.
In his pin-hole-sized narrow vision was a small swordsman.
No matter how much Taga swung his burly arms and sent the boy flying high in the air—
No matter how much he kicked the boy down against bare rock ground while violently dragging torn tree branches around in the aftermath of his attacks.
The boy, Touya, kept challenging him without paying any attention to his own pain.
He was the embodiment of another kind of madness, different from Taga’s.
Taga’s howls were strong enough to scatter the fog in the air and make the wolves bristle and falter for an instant, but Touya simply continued to charge at him with glazed eyes.
Their blades repeatedly crossed and slid apart numerous times in the space of just a few seconds as they sought the right angle and balance to overwhelm each other.
When Taga tried to suddenly do a full-body rush with weight equivalent to several tons, Touya shifted the trunk of his body and sidestepped with etched footwork, and even in the midst of that he freely manipulated his blade and slashed like releasing a bow with all the power stored in it.
Not letting his guard down, he dodged the arm bind that immediately followed and jumped back to take some distance.
Readjusting his posture while sensing the heat and dripping life that was running down his chest in great amounts, Taga looked at Touya’s wavering eyes.
Reflected in Touya’s eyes was a figure that was both Taga and yet not Taga, the fear that slept at the depths of Touya’s heart—such an illusion was overlaid in his eyes.
Taga understood that instant impression he felt in those eyes that was hard to put into words. He understood that that illusion wouldn’t disappear and was tormenting Touya.
Even if Taga was defeated here, that illusion wouldn’t fade and would project onto Touya’s vision of Kamikoma behind him and even Homura, acting as a curse that endlessly spurred him to fight his perceived enemy—
Such a sorrowful end was the one thing that Taga would never allow to happen.
Chapter 22 END
(1) Bear Claws/Gauntlet Claws: They’re claws like the kind Wolverine has, but attached to gauntlets/gloves you place over your hands.
(2) Were-Form: the kanji beneath this English word reads “Berserker transformation”.