Jumping down from the back of the white wolf, the young girl approached the witch and desperately clung to her.
“Please stop, please just stop it already, Hime.”
“There’s no need to care about these guys. We can just make them go away. Just please return to your usual self, Hime.”
The witch silently looked at the pleading Suzu, an expression of bewilderment on her face. Homura called out to Suzuran.
At that instant, Suzuran seem to unconsciously react to those words, and she turned to look back at Homura.
“Eri-chan. You have the name Suzuran now, right? I won’t tell you to give that name up. But your real name is Ono Erika. Your mama called you Eri-chan.”
“What are you… Stop it…”
Suzuran vexingly tried to brush away the small feelings that were starting to bubble up inside her.
“I don’t know you! Ever since you people came, Hime has become strange. Just disappear from here already! Leave me and Hime alone!”
Suzuran pushed Homura away.
Even so, Homura didn’t stop calling out to her.
“That thing on your arm, yes, that—you’ve worn it and cherished it all this time, right? That was given to you by your mama.”
Taken aback, Suzuran grabbed her own arm.
“This… I had it when I was picked up by Sekkachimaru…”
Suzuran looked up at the witch.
Standing there dumbfounded, the witch seemed to be fighting against some inner anguish.
Even in her confusion, Suzuran whispered that.
The white wolf growled and glared at Homura’s back.
“So you managed to talk to them, huh.”
Kamikoma and Taga arrived, having finally caught up with Homura.
Taga, having undone his Were-Form, was carrying the unconscious Touya on his shoulder.
Both boys were greatly wounded, but they appeared to be healthy and intact.
Kamikoma warily gazed at the witch.
“…So it is just as Suzuran said,” the witch murmured lowly.
For an instant, Homura’s expression turned joyful, believing that the witch had finally understood.
However, she soon widened her eyes in shock as she once more sensed something strange in the exhausted witch’s behavior.
“Why will thou not leave us alone…?”
The witch glared at them coldly.
“Those who has’t chanced upon the Tengu Kakushi cannot obtain happiness if they returneth to their homeland.”
“That’s not true, Subaru-san,” Homura resolutely rejected the witch’s claim, adding, “‘A mealy primrose’s heart knows the season and waits for spring’, you know.”
The witch repeated Homura’s words in a whisper, and then she made a frightening sneer.
Even Suzuran froze in fear with a stiffened expression at the sight of it.
“That is the traditional warning, the motto of mine family. Those words refer to the isolation of the mealy primrose hidden beneath the snow. It means to simply covet ease and idleness and not achieve anything, thereby not losing anything, or experiencing pain, or realizing that the cold is cold and the darkness is dark.”
As if agreeing with her quiet anger, the wolves visibly increased their blood-thirsty hostility.
Both Kamikoma and Taga became even more on edge and put their hands on their respective weapons.
But Homura restrained them and resolutely continued to try persuading the witch.
“I… I know that girl’s mother. I know how long she’s been continually thinking of her baby.”
Homura held out her hand, and Suzuran looked at her keenly and painfully before turning to look at the witch questioningly.
“Spring shalt not come. It hath already passed. If Suzuran also says that she will leave me, I will tell her that tis better to simply remain in winter—”
Homura squared off against the witch without looking away.
“Even so, spring will come. Spring will come. Even if winter continues for a hundred or a thousand years, spring will definitely come!”
“Why dost thou say that? Tis futile to wish for a chance that shalt never come. Tis an act of folly with no reward. So why dost thou say that?”
“It’s because… I’m an idiot who doesn’t know anything. But!”
Despite her awkward words, Homura’s eyes remained earnest.
“She’s been waiting all this time. Even if several decades pass, if she can meet her child again, her painful feelings will also be negated at that instant. If the flower blooms there—”
“Art thou saying to forget about winter?”
The witch’s cold tone clearly told Homura that her words hadn’t gotten through to her.
“Hime… I want to meet my mother. I want to meet my real mother.”
Suzuran tried to implore to the witch, but she shuddered at the freezing aura she emitted.
“Do not casually call me Hime.”
Suzuran trembled with a start.
“I am Subaru—Iotsumisumaru no Hime. Mine clan’s fate is to protect and pass on the Misasagi bloodline and bonds in this land. If thou would abandon the name I bestowed to thee and leave, do not act friendly and yearningly towards me anymore.”
“Hime…… I’ll come back. After I meet my real mama, I’ll definitely come back to you, Hime.”
“I didst not need thou from start.”
The witch’s sleeve hems fluttered and her fingers suddenly slashed through the air.
At that instant, lightning swelled and burst forth like a whip, attacking the nearby Suzuran and Homura.
With a low yell, Taga jumped forward in front of the two girls as they fell and swung his gauntlet at the witch to push her aside, and the witch jumped back to dodge.
“This is the end for those who would disturb mine heart’s balance.”
The lightning attacked Suzuran even more intensely.
Homura, having barely managed to stand back up, glared angrily at the witch.
The witch’s finger flashed, and there was a spirit stone tied to a cord and hanging from it, which now began to shake and sway.
Seeing that and understanding what was about to happen, Kamikoma gulped.
Not giving anyone the time to look closely at the jewel, a fireball appeared right in front of it.
It was a gigantic fireball like none that Homura had seen before—
And peculiar metallic sounds rang through the air like an orchestra.
“Get back, Homura, Taichi! She’s boosting it—”
Kamikoma yelled while trying to forcefully lift up Touya from where he had been put down on the ground.
As if intending to burn everything to ash, the fireball continued to swell and grow larger.
The fireball eventually became enlarged to the point where its bottom touched the ground, immediately gouging into the ground and burning away all grass and flowers in an instant.
Taga grabbed Homura’s shoulder and urged her to run away.
“I can’t—leave that girl behind!” Homura shouted and pointed at Suzuran who had collapsed on the ground in front of the witch.
Throwing off his gauntlets because they were in the way, Taga lifted Suzuran up into his arms, and meanwhile Homura took short yet deep breaths and prepared to use magic.
She no longer had the spirit stone that senpai had entrusted to her.
The fireball, having reached several times the size of Taga’s body, shot forth to attack them.
It burned away the air and released heat hot enough to make Homura’s chest burn just by opening her mouth.
There was no longer enough time left for her to form a hexahedron-level pattern and chant the incantation.
“The incantation isn’t necessary—”
Senpai’s words rose back up in Homura’s mind.
“What’s necessary is the image you imagine. The incantation is merely an aid.”
Frantically holding out her hands towards the giant fireball, Homura unconsciously completed the step-by-step process that senpai had taught her by the river and simply imagined the pattern in its entirety all at once.
To give an example, it was like grasping the entire process of a seed budding and growing into a large tree and eventually decaying away as having all been part of that single seed—
Or like grasping the cycle of water evaporating from the sea and turning into clouds and rain that then poured down on the mountains and followed the rivers to return to the sea as a single cycle without impairing the details of the gathering and dispersing process—
She made and repeated that single image and that instantaneous aria countless times in her mind.
It filled the entirety of Homura’s consciousness.
Faster, faster. That was all she thought of.
With a pop, a fireball appeared before her overlapped palms. It was a tiny flame1 that couldn’t even be compared to the witch’s.
The next instant, the small flame multiplied infinitely in numbers and became a wall of neatly lined-up fireballs that blocked the path of the approaching threat.
Just when it seemed like the wall had stopped the giant fireball, it wrapped around it like a net and kept it stopped in place.
The witch’s fireball and Homura’s wall of fireballs merged together into a simple lump of flames, standing still in the air between the two of them.
Along with the positive feedback of controlling their spells, the recoil from the two spells warring against each other hit the two spell-casters right to their core.
Losing herself to her burning anger, the witch tried to overpower Homura.
But something strange happened as her lips tried to say the incantation phrase.
“Mine control of the stone… is being stolen away…”
The spirit stone visibly resonating between her fingers was glowing contrary to the witch’s will and becoming incandescent.
“Wake up and… come to your senses already!”
Letting out a howling cry of anguish, Homura forcefully pushed back the fireball.
The fireball shrunk and converged to a single point, and then exploded right before the witch’s eyes.
Color disappeared from the world, leaving only a primeval fire to light the area.
The fragment of true flame that ruled this blank world alighted there for just an instant, and then it became a violent, explosive blast that scattered apart and returned to its place among the world’s components.
The afterimage burned into their eyes gradually faded.
The outline and details of the land near the valley castle returned.
After having prostrated on the ground while buffeted by the raging wind, Kamikoma finally stood up and spun her head this way and that in search of her comrades.
“H-Hey… those burns of yours—!”
Regaining consciousness after having been covered and protected by Kamikoma, the girl in the blue kimono—Suzuran—crawled out from under her and desperately dashed ahead.
She headed straight for Homura, who was standing stock still while grasping one of her arms uncertainly, and the witch, who had collapsed and was lying stretched out on the ground without even twitching.
“…Really, that girl…”
Kamikoma pulled her lute, which had broken several strings, close to her and looked around, and she immediately found Taga as well.
Taga was silently kneeling down on the ground and examining Touya.
They had been blown far away in that brief explosion.
Seeing that the two boys seemed to be safe and unhurt, Kamikoma approached them, but was rendered speechless.
Taga had taken out a handkerchief from his chest pocket and was wiping Touya’s face with clumsy fingers.
As Touya stirred slightly as if beginning to awaken from a terrible nightmare, Taga carefully wiped the tears flowing out from the corner of the younger boy’s eyes. His face looked serious and sad as he did so—
Kamikoma timidly approached, as if she had just seen something she shouldn’t have.
She pulled on Taichi’s sleeve with her fingers, and he raised his head in surprise.
Seeing Kamikoma’s slightly pouting expression, Taga hurriedly offered his handkerchief to her.
Kamikoma just stared at him, her pouting face unchanging, so, taking the hint, Taga gently held out his palm.
Putting his palm on her head and practically hiding it beneath his hand, he scrubbed her face and the rest of her head without minding how he further ruffled her disheveled hair from the earlier blast.
Kamikoma let out a shudder and slapped her cheeks, and only then did she regain her usual dashing smile.
And then she turned to look down at Touya along with Taichi.
“I guess we all pulled through safely.”
Taga nodded in agreement.
Noticing that the melody of healing was being played, the golden-haired princess tried to get up from the ground.
Subaru, having just regained consciousness, let out a groan.
Homura was looking down at her with a complex expression, despite the fact that she had suffered severe wounds of her own on her hands.
Subaru looked up at her dazedly and murmured.
“So I wast too slow with mine Mathematica…”
As Subaru lay kneeling on the ground, Suzuran clung to her chest.
Kamikoma, Taga and Touya all watched the scene from the sidelines.
Subaru gently placed a hand on Suzuran’s head.
“Though tis gone now, thither used to be a bell attached to that bracelet… Tis where I got thy name from, Suzu2.”
Subaru’s voice was gentle, having regained her reason, and her expression as the witch was completely gone now. She then turned to Homura.
“Are thou a descendent of the Misasagi clan…?”
Homura shook her head slightly.
“No. Misasagi is my senpai. I heard about that family motto from her as well.”
“By senpai, thou mean that girl Suzu brought here?”
While lovingly caressing Suzuran’s head leaning against her chest, Subaru focused her attention on the hairpin in Suzuran’s hair.
Eventually, she seemed to pull herself together and spoke again.
“When the times change, even the family motto that we hath passed down without alternation shalt change as well, huh… Perhaps tis time for me to change as well.”
After saying that, Subaru let out a deep sigh.
With help from Homura and Suzuran, she stood up and sat back down on a nearby chair.
Suzuran was continuing to cling to Subaru as if she was a part of her foster parent, showing concern for her and not even trying to move away.
Homura and the others anxiously exchanged looks.
With no help for it, Homura and the others reluctantly promised to visit again and left the castle for now.
—One week later.
On a clear day after a month had passed in Nutellan time.
While still hartboring some considerable nervousness, Homura and the others visited the witch’s valley.
The present members were Homura, Touya and Misasagi-senpai.
The reason they were able to visit Nutella again in such a short amount of time was because they had specially borrowed the Transport Ring at Hiyoshizaka High and shortened the interval between transport opportunities by distributing the necessary magic power cost between the two schools.
“Thou art—a descendent of our clan—”
Subaru and Mayo. Both members of the Misasagi clan.
Seeing them standing there facing each other, a resemblance between them could be clearly seen.
Subaru strongly sensed that herself, not needing any words to be said to understand.
Ties of blood connected these two across different planets.
“I am Misasagi Mayo. I am the eleventh generation descendant of Misasagi Yoshizumi’s younger brother, Misasagi Yoshinao.”
“Then the Misasagi clan managed to revive and rebuild?”
“Yes. After the end of the Edo era, Japan was opened to the world and our family lost their position as samurai, but we have strived with each generation to never forget our family founder’s lessons and dignity.”
Senpai timidly held out something.
“This is the heirloom passed down in our family—a short sword left behind by Yoshizumi-dono. As his direct descendent, it rightfully belongs to you. Please accept it.”
“Mine father’s… memento.”
Accepting the presented short sword reverently, Subaru hugged it preciously to her chest.
“It hath not rusted at all. It still looks so new…”
Tears streamed down Subaru’s cheeks.
“All mine father’s mementos has’t decayed and rusted away with the flow of time, until all that wast left were pointless graves and the memories within me. Protecting the way of life hither that mine father loved and tracing the feelings he left behind wast the only source of peace for me, but…”
Subaru looked at senpai and then at Suzuran next to her.
“Both Suzuran and the visit by mine family’s descendent make me feel unexpectedly glad to has’t lived so long.”
She then turned to face Homura and Touya and dignifiedly corrected her sitting posture.
“Even if I has’t declined with age… tis no excuse for behaving shamefully and attacking those who bear no sin and mine own descendent. I beg thy forgiveness.”
Touya still bore vivid marks all over his body from the severe injuries he had sustained in that chaotic battle. He wore an expression of clear regret, and his eyes as he gazed at Subaru’s hanging head clearly showed that he had already forgiven her.
The same went for Homura.
Misasagi approached Subaru and spoke while placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Please raise your head. Though there was an unfortunate series of event, I believe that this meeting between us is a miracle of good fortune. May I ask you to watch over our activities on Nutella and for your guidance and blessing?”
Subaru gave a small but firm nod.
“I shalt assist thee to the best of mine ability. Tis mine duty as one who bears the blood of both planets. Tis also an act of filial piety towards mine father.”
“I-If possible, would you like to come to Earth too, Subaru-san? W-Won’t you come with us?”
“…Earth… mine father’s homeland, huh…”
Subaru responded with a fleeting smile at that suggestion.
Homura and the others couldn’t possibly fathom Subaru’s heart at that moment. Deeply nostalgic feelings were contained in that smile.
“I am grateful for thy proposal, but… I cannot go to thy world. No, tis not a matter of how I feel. The ancient blood of this planet that flows through my veins dost not allow it.”
“The blood of… your mother…?”
“Just once, mine father recounted to me in a lonely manner of how the People of Sagacity could has’t returned him to Earth through the use of Mathematica—however, he didst not choose that path. He chose to remain on this planet with mine mother and mine infant self. Unfortunately, that method of return hath already been lost as well.”
Clearing away her gloomy expression, Subaru turned around brightly.
“Suzu, thou are different. Have no fear.”
Suzuran anxiously looked up at Subaru.
“…I don’t want to be separated from Hime.”
She lightly clung to her foster mother’s kimono sleeve.
“Please understand. Thou have someone waiting for thee and a place to return to.”
Subaru took the girl’s fingers and gently guided them to her palm.
“I have already received plenty from thee. Too much so.”
Suzuran began to cry and clung to Subaru.
“And tis not an eternal farewell. You can visit anytime, as mine Suzuran again.”
“Yukiwarimaru and the others shalt also be awaiting thee.”
Caught up in the mood, Homura wiped away her own tears and muttered to herself.
“Uugh… N-No way, it’s like I’ve come to collect a child hugging her beloved babysitter.”
Touya dug his elbow into Homura’s side.
In contrast to Subaru’s words, Touya and the others could imagine that this might be their final farewell.
Considering Suzuran—Ono Erika’s future after returning to Earth and the different flow of time between the two worlds… the chance was small, but that didn’t mean that the possibility of their reunion was absolutely zero.
“I heard that the castle thou all used as thy headquarters here wast terribly destroyed by Suzuran playing around with fire.”
“I-I don’t think it can be brushed off as just playing with fire, though.”
“Mine raising of her wast insufficient. It shalt probably cause problems for her true mother as well. My, my…”
Saying that, Subaru patted Suzuran’s head as she continued to cling and press her face against her foster mother’s chest. Subaru let out tearful laughter.
“How about it? Why not move thy—what was it again?—base camp to this castle? It would be more convenient that way. Tis not much as recompense, though.”
Homura’s eyes widened.
“Thou can spend time to gradually rebuild the castle over there while basing thyselves here.”
“How wonderful! That would be great! That way you won’t have to be lonely either, Subaru-san, and we can inform you on how Suzuran-chan is doing as well.”
“I can also bring you some new Rakugo stories as well,” Touya added.
“That would be delightful.”
“Wow, how nice… Huh, but what about the Transport Ring’s restrictions…?”
“I also think it’s not a bad idea, but I don’t know how we’d accomplish it, practically speaking,” Touya mused. “Is there a way to change the transport location?”
Senpai crossed her arms and considered Touya’s question.
“Readjusting the Transport Ring might require recalculating everything and rebuilding it from scratch, but… I don’t think it’s impossible.”
For the sake of Suzuran’s mother who was waiting for her daughter’s return, Homura and the others didn’t waste any more time at the castle and departed.
Suzuran was still forlorn as she accompanied Homura and the others, and when she turned to look back at her accustomed home, Subaru-hime was standing at the base of the castle, seeing Suzuran off with a small wave of her hand.
The wolves were gathered next to her and were clearly restless, seeming ready to chase after Suzuran at any moment, but the giant white wolf, Yukiwarimaru, firmly held them back.
Both the castle and Suzuran’s foster family grew distant, and when she could no longer see them anymore, a single wolf’s howl heartrendingly echoed through the valley.
Chapter 23 END
(1) Here, the word for “flame” is pronounced the same way as her name: “Homura”.
(2) In Japanese, “Suzu” means “bell”. On a side note, her full name “Suzuran” means “lily of the valley”, a flower which notably looks like a bell as well.