A note from the author:
There may be some grotesque moments, so those who are squeamish have been warned.
It was a deep sleep, one without even dreams.
As if realizing it were an illusion, Kei suddenly awoke with a short gasp.
There was a sensation as if he’d been dragged up from the bottom of the ocean all the way to the surface at once. Above his narrow bed, the first thing he saw was a plain wooden ceiling. He quickly sat up straight, trying to shake off the remaining drowsiness.
The room he was in was cozy.
Gentle sunlight shone in from the open window. The room was spotlessly clean; there wasn’t even a speck of dust. However, it was packed so full with bundles of bug repellant herbs, chests, and other various everyday commodities that it gave off the impression of a storeroom.
Somehow—it looked familiar.
Huh? Isn’t this the room Aileen was sleeping in?
Yes, this was definitely the house of Cronen, the village leader’s second son. However, he was monopolizing the only bed in the room as if it were his.
“…Where did she go?!” He tried to jump out of bed as he shouted, but he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his left cheek. “Agh…” he groaned and stopped, timidly reaching a hand to his face. It felt rough and ached. It seemed that there was some sort of compress stuck to his cheek like a scab. It’s where he was cut during his fight with the bandits last night. He recalled leaving it untreated.
I guess someone treated it…
The tips of his fingers gave off a smell of medicine that tickled his nose. The village shaman Anka probably doubled as their medicine woman and did this. Once again met with pain when he touched the inside of his cheek with his tongue, he got a little depressed thinking that it would be hard to speak or eat for a while.
But that didn’t matter, not right now.
Aileen. Where did she go?
Kei slipped out of bed, opened the door with a heavy thud, and left the room. On top of being small, the structure was simple, the door opened to the living room. In the center was a dining table, at which sat a little girl going, “Aaah,” with her mouth open and a spoon full of soup in hand. Their eyes locked.
Kei remained in the doorway and she froze with her spoon still in front of her face.
She was a cute little girl, probably around three or maybe four years old. She stared with wide, reddish-brown eyes at Kei. Her chestnut hair fell to her shoulders and her lightly freckled face radiated innocence. She was frozen stiff as if she had run into a bear or something.
“…Hi,” Kei awkwardly smiled and tried to start a conversation to relieve her nervousness.
However, he had completely forgotten his own appearance.
He was wearing armor that was painted with his own and others’ blood, his muscular body towered over others in this world, and because of his wound, his smile appeared crooked and menacing. Of course an innocent little girl would be scared of such a villainous looking character.
“Kyaaaaaa!” A beat late she screamed cutely. She jumped out of her chair and ran outside, still holding the spoon, as she yelled, “Mama—!”
The steaming soup on the dining table was the only other thing there. Dejected, Kei lowered his hand.
After a short time, the sound of small footsteps running came from outside.
A young freckle-faced girl came into the house. “Good morning. I see that you’ve woken up.”
Her hands were wet, perhaps from doing laundry, and she wiped them off on her apron as she looked down.
Kei thought that he had seen her somewhere before. He remembered the young freckle-faced girl giving him a warm welcome last night and telling him the news of Aileen nearly dying while he was at the village leader’s house. Considering the situation, she was probably Cronen’s wife.
“Morning. And sorry, it seems that I frightened your daughter.” Kei shrugged, looking towards the doorway.
From outside the little girl was peeking in the door, but she quickly hid.
“No, she just isn’t used to people from outside the village… She’s probably just nervous. Jessica, come on out.”
“No!” She responded to her mother from outside.
Kei gave a wry smile, Well she doesn’t seem to like me.
“Ah, I’m Tina, Cronen’s wife.”
“I’m Kei, nice to meet you. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask, the person that I brought was left here for care. Do you know where she is right now?”
“Your friend is at the village leader’s house.”
Kei sighed in relief after hearing her brisk reply.
“I see, so she’s awake again…”
“Oh, no, she’s still sleeping.”
Kei thought that because she was awake she’d been invited to the village leader’s house, but it seemed that assumption was wrong.
Then, to answer why he had taken her place here, Tina said, “Yesterday, my husband and some others tried to carry you when you collapsed, but you were too heavy for them to move you far. Your friend was very light, so we thought it would be easier to move her to the village leader’s house and have you stay here…”
“Oh… Sorry, I suppose I gave you some trouble.”
If he had on his full armor on top of his large, muscular body, then of course he’d be heavy. His bracers, shin guards, helmet, and other small pieces of gear were removed, but with just his leather chest piece and chainmail he would still be quite heavy.
But, where did his armor and Dragon Stinger go?
“Ah, your armor is with our village’s leatherworker. Fathe— The village leader asked for him to look at it.” She said, anticipating his intention, when she saw Kei feel for the scabbard on his waist and casually look around.
“I see, thank you.” He thought that maybe they had stolen his stuff, so knowing exactly where it all went relieved him. Well… I guess when I went unconscious, if the villagers were all evil, they would’ve stripped both me and Aileen of all our belongings.
A village-wide robbery. There wasn’t such a harsh trap in the game, but the world did reference such acts often in documents. A cold sensation ran down his back when he considered Tahfu to be one of those villages. And then he realized that he was only thinking of such possibilities now, even though he was so calm last night.
After explaining the situation, Tina’s expression grew confused when she saw Kei’s face turn serious as he got lost in thought.
Before the silence grew too long, “Hey, I see you’re up.” Cronen spoke from outside the door, holding four or five pitchforks on his shoulder. A thin sweat coated his forehead, it seems he was doing some farm work.
“Yeah, thanks to a good rest I’m much better now. Sorry for the trouble.”
“What are you talking about, it’s not a problem at all.” Cronen smiled in response to Kei’s gratitude.
Kei tilted his head and thought that Cronen was much more friendly than last night.
“Oh yeah, now that you’re awake, my father wanted to talk to you. Are you ready?”
“The village leader’s house?”
He also wanted to check on Aileen so he replied without hesitation, “Yeah, let’s go.”
Kei gave a serious nod. And then his stomach gave a magnificently loud growl. He failed to understand what just happened and Cronen blinked in surprise. A small giggle escaped Tina before she spun around with her hand over her mouth, trembling slightly.
At some point, Jessica must have hidden behind Cronen because she came out and asked in a nasally voice, “Are you hungry?”
“So it would seem.” Kei answered as if talking about a different person, causing Cronen and Tina to laugh loudly. He had admired the phenomenon of one’s stomach rumbling when they were hungry since he was young, but he said it so seriously that he inadvertently made it even funnier.
“Tina, there’s still some soup left, right?” Cronen asked through his smile.
“Yes, there is.”
“Give our starving guest some lunch. I’ll call my father here.” He ruffled Jessica’s hair and quickly left the house. He laughed unrestrained outside.
Jessica was left standing and staring up at Kei with big round eyes as she licked her spoon like candy.
“Please, take a seat. It’s just normal soup, but I hope you’ll like it.”
In a wooden bowl, she served Kei some soup from a ceramic pot while smiling.
Finally getting embarrassed, Kei sat down with a, “Thanks.”
Jessica sat down across from Kei and kicked her legs back and forth under the table as she began to eat again.
Now that he had soup, he also began to eat. It was a viscous yellow soup. It had a rough texture and it gave off a faint sweet aroma. It seemed like the only thing used to season it was salt; perhaps the ingredients were good, but it really brought out the vegetables’ flavors.
“…It’s good. What is it?”
“It’s pumpkin porridge. Try dipping some bread in it,” she suggested as she picked up a basket with some hard bread.
The bread was pretty hard, but it looked like it would be easy to eat if it soaked up some soup.
After taking one taste of the relaxing vegetable and grain meal, Kei became aware of just how hungry he was, and he began to eat enthusiastically. He thought it was weird that Jessica didn’t reach for the bread at all, but it was probably difficult for a little girl to eat the hard bread. Instead, it looked like some rice was mixed into her soup to make a risotto.
Tina continued to stir the pot with a big grin, periodically refilling the bowl that Kei emptied apologetically, as she watched over the two of them.
“I’m back!” Bennett’s house and Cronen’s house weren’t that far apart. The timing seemed almost intentional, but Cronen came back after just long enough for Kei to start feeling relaxed.
“Kei-dono, I’m glad to see you’re awake.” Bennett’s cane thumped as he came in.
Danny was just behind him with his insincere smile.
Jessica had just finished eating and she put down her spoon, yelling excitedly, “Grandpa!”
“Ooh~ Jessica~, full of energy today, as usual?” His usual kind old man smile was replaced with a rare, overly careless broad grin. “Grandpa’s here~,” he said as he covered her forehead with kisses.
Bennett’s beard seemed to tickle Jessica making her giggle and yell playfully. Cronen and Tina smiled quietly, watching the two of them.
However, even in this gentle atmosphere, Danny wore a dry, fake looking smile. It made a strong impression on Kei.
“Now, Jessica. Since you’re all full, go play with your friends.”
“What about you, Grandpa?”
“We’ll play together later. For now I have to talk with this young man.”
She was surprisingly understanding. She jumped out of her chair and scurried outside.
“…She’s such a cute granddaughter.”
“She certainly is,” Bennett nodded vigorously and grunted in approval.
Tina quickly cleared the table. She then used water she’d boiled in advance to pour everyone a cup of tea before excusing herself. “I’ll go wash the dishes.”
Only the men remained. The gentle, happy atmosphere naturally turned tense.
“Now then, Kei-dono. How are your wounds?” Bennett inquired as he sat down across from Kei.
“Much better now. Tina just treated me to a delicious meal and it seems that Anka treated my wound here,” he said, rubbing his injured cheek, recalling the pain.
“I’m glad to hear it. Her special salve works wonders. However, it certainly can’t compare to your potions.”
“I’ll have to thank her later then… Oh, village leader, I heard from Tina that you’ve even made arrangements for my equipment to be repaired,” Kei looked over at Cronen as he spoke.
Bennett smiled, “It would have been a shame to leave blood on such magnificent armor. I asked our village craftsman to take care of its maintenance, I apologize if it was presumptuous of me.”
“Not at all, I appreciate the help. Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure. We should help each other out in troubled times… Ah, how about we also have your leather chest piece repaired later, too?” Bennett graciously offered.
Bennett didn’t seem to have any ill intentions, so Kei forced a smile. “About that… I had something I wanted to talk about.”
“Oh, I see.” Bennett hit his palm with his fist as if he’d just remembered something, but it looked scripted, as if he’d entirely anticipated this. “Does it have to do with the bandits from yesterday? You were too exhausted for me to ask for details last night.”
“Don’t worry about it. Please let us hear what happened.”
Kei told Bennett and the others of what happened after he left the village. How he’d spurred Mikazuki to the campsite that he and Aileen were first attacked at, attacked the thieves, and how he wiped them all out in exchange for Mikazuki’s life.
“Wiped out…” Bennett mused over Kei’s words. To not only win a fight against that many, but to entirely annihilate them was an unbelievable story. However, just by looking at Kei, it was obvious from the amount of blood that he had killed a number of people.
“I see. I understand… That place is near the Rocky Mountain, correct?”
“And what of their bodies?”
“I just left them. It looked like they had some valuable things, but I didn’t have time to grab anything.”
Danny and Bennett’s eyes sparkled and they involuntarily grinned for a moment after hearing that. Kei understood what direction this conversation was taking.
“In that case, we should most definitely go and retrieve their things, shouldn’t we?”
“…Yes, probably. I’ll guide you there.”
“Good, however, Kei-dono, you’re probably tired from your fight last night. We should let you rest peacefully today.”
“Yes, since we know that it was around the Rocky Mountain, there’s no need for you to come help out yourself,” Danny continued Bennett’s thoughts.
“My horse is still there too, so I’d like to go so I can mourn properly.” Now they wouldn’t be able to tell him not to come.
“I see. Well, if that’s the case…”
“Oh my, then we’ll be relying on you to guide us, Kei-dono.”
“Of course. I’ve caused plenty of trouble for the village; I feel obligated to do at least this much.”
Everyone laughed merrily together before dispersing to prepare for the recovery.
Cronen went off to gather helpers. Kei visited the village craftsman to pick up his armor and equipment.
“…’I’ve caused plenty of trouble for the village.’ Humph. You can say that again,” grumbled Bennett as he followed Danny to his house.
Danny shrugged his shoulders slightly, “I don’t know, he might really just want to mourn his horse, father.”
He may have spent many years happily with his horse, however Danny couldn’t take Kei’s reason at face value.
“Well, at any rate, I don’t expect he’s up to anything.”
“Agreed.” Bennett smiled bitterly, though it appeared just a little too forced. Unlike common bandits, the Ignaz should have had reasonably good quality equipment. He thought about deceiving Kei for one or possibly two swords, but it wouldn’t be an easy feat.
“What happens will happen. Just get what you can, Danny.”
“I know. I’ll bring a cart, father.”
Father and son snickered together. Their bodies were different, but their faces certainly looked the same.
† † †
Kei went to retrieve his leather chest piece from the village leather worker, but instead received his helmet, bracers, and greaves before returning to the village leader’s house.
When he stopped by for his Dragon Stinger, he saw the old leather worker admiring the bow. The leather worker eagerly asked, “What sort of sinew does this bow use?”
Kei answered honestly, “It uses the membrane of a wyvern’s wing.”
The craftsman burst into laughter and nodded many times as if Kei’s answer should have been obvious. “I’ve never seen the likes of it!” shouted the craftsman, apparently amused. He didn’t seem to believe Kei.
However after that, when the craftsman handled Kei’s leather set made from green salamander skin, he treated it carefully with nervous hands.
Kei chuckled to himself, to frighten someone they need to have some sense of reality it seems. The craftsman must have thought it was too absurd.
By the way, green salamanders were high level, large reptilian monsters that live deep in forests. If someone ran into one solo, the best option would be to run away.
They had a deep blue-ish green skin, as their name suggested, and could reach a body length of seven meters once fully grown; the incomparable kings of the forest.
Their maneuverability was a point that deserved special mention. Despite appearing slow-witted due to their freakishly large bodies, they were very fast runners in the woods. It went without saying, but if a tree could support their weight, they could even climb it and move around that way. At the very least, they weren’t something that Kei would be able to keep up with on foot.
Their tough skin protected them from most attacks and their thick muscle protected them from impact damage. Everything about them was dangerous. They had large arms, sharp claws, a long, serrated tail, and pointed teeth. However, their most dangerous quality was their massive size. No matter how strong the player, if a green salamander rammed them or leaned its weight on them, they would suffer instant death. In addition, they secreted poison containing a blood thinning agent from the gaps in their teeth, so if bitten, a player would not be able to stop the bleeding and would die. However, due to the size of their mouths it was more common to be ripped to shreds before the poison could take effect.
At any rate, unlike wyverns, the green salamanders lived even in areas close to human habitations, so they were more commonly recognized as a threat. Although, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call them ground-crawling dragons; they possessed that much power.
It wasn’t impossible to hunt them as long as the player set traps on the terrain, because once they began chasing their prey, they did so with reckless abandon. In the game, it became relatively popular among high level players to kill them for raw defensive materials. Although hunting them was possible, even carefully prepared parties often suffered accidental deaths.
Back then it would’ve be fine to end it with a laugh, but as the rear guard, Kei wouldn’t want to challenge one of them now that it was reality.
“Kei-dono, I see that you’re back.” Neither Danny nor Cronen had returned to the house yet. Bennett was alone with a ledger spread open on the table.
“Yeah. I’ve left my leather chest piece with the craftsman for now.”
“All right… Your chain mail is also quite impressive,” Bennett said in admiration of Kei’s outfit of bracers, greaves, helmet, and chain mail.
Now that the blood had been cleaned off his chain mail, it appeared even more splendid.
“This chain mail has saved my life many times.” Kei rubbed the cold material, causing a pleasant metallic jingle.
“By the way, while everyone is still preparing I would like to check up on Aileen. Is that okay?”
“Why of course! Follow me.” Bennett got up out of his chair with a grunt.
Kei followed Bennett through a door on the far side of this room. The room had bookshelves filled with scrolls and books. There was also an ornamental wooden chest. Spread out on the floor was a rug of a soft green hue, and a much higher quality bed than in Cronen’s house.
Atop the bed lay the sleeping beauty.
She calmly breathed in and out, in and out. She looked like she was sleeping peacefully. Her hair, usually kept in a ponytail, lay unbound around her like golden threads. Someone must have changed her out of her dirty black clothes into the thin, clean, white clothes she wore now. Her complexion was no longer pale and there were no hints of pain. With the calm sunlight peeking into the room it almost looked like a beautiful painting.
Kei walked up to the bedside and then knelt, stroking her head. She looked like she stirred slightly, but that may have just been a delusion brought by Kei’s desire for her to wake up again.
“This morning, I heard her mumbling something,” a delicate voice suddenly said.
Startled, Kei looked across the bed and saw a girl quietly standing there.
She was beautiful. Her body curved gorgeously. Her glossy, flaxen colored hair was kept trim and her skin was so white that one wouldn’t think she was from an agricultural village. Her nose ran in a gracefully straight line. A gentle smile spread across her face. A beauty mark was beneath her gentle and seductive eyes. Perhaps that’s why she was so beautiful, but some part of her slender figure gave off a feeling of melancholy.
“It was a foreign tongue, so I could not understand what she said…” the woman elaborated apologetically. She looked at Kei, who stood there silently, and politely said, “…I’m sorry for the late introduction. I am Cynthia, Danny’s wife.”
“O-oh. I’m Kei. Nice to meet you,” Kei regained his composure and returned her greeting clumsily.
Cynthia giggled quietly.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were there.”
In the quiet room, Cynthia gently spoke, “It shows how much you worry for your friend.”
“Yeah… I suppose. I guess you’re right. Are you the one that’s been taking care of her?”
“Yes, but only since this morning.”
“I see… Thank you.”
In response to his heartfelt gratitude she replied with a somewhat expected, “It was no trouble.”
The sound of heavy footsteps approached from the other side of the door just as she finished speaking.
Danny opened the door and came through in a good mood. “Kei-dono! The preparations are finished! Let us be on our way!”
After seeing Danny’s large stomach jiggle around in his high spirits, Kei thought to himself that no matter how hard he tried Danny would never pull off a convincing jolly fat man.
“Oh my, your friend—Aileen-dono is certainly beautiful, isn’t she! She looks as if she could be a goddess…! Ah, Kei-dono, I understand wanting to stare at her forever, but we should get going before it gets dark!” Excited for some reason, Danny gestured a lot as he spoke loudly.
Kei thought that he shouldn’t be openly praising another girl right in front of his wife, but Cynthia didn’t react to it as she kept stroking Aileen’s hair tenderly.
“You’re right, let’s go,” said Kei as he stood up and fixed his chain mail.
“Cynthia-san, I’m leaving Aileen in your care.”
She nodded, “Okay.”
Kei looked over at Aileen and murmured, “I’ll be back.” He pulled his mantle over himself and left the room.
The recovery team was composed of eight members.
Kei, Cronen, Danny, Mandel, and four men from the village guard. Kei rode on Sasuke while a few others, including Danny, rode in a cart and the remaining members walked.
After his reins were unfastened from the pole Sasuke gave Kei a questioning look that seemed to ask, ‘Where are we going?’ In response, Kei said, “We’re getting Mikazuki.”
Kei earnestly felt like running away when he saw Sasuke look happy and flick his tail, possibly from hearing ‘Mikazuki’.
They exited the forest and continued out onto the grassy plains.
It was completely different from last night. The journey to their destination was rather peaceful.
The weather was nice and there was a gentle breeze. Small puffy clouds dotted the blue sky.
Sasuke’s hooves making a slow clopping sound as Kei matched the pace of the villagers that were walking. They slowly followed the rarely traveled path, and it felt like they were going out on a picnic.
However, as they approached the rocky mountain the peaceful delusion dissipated.
The piercing sound of the incessant cawing of birds gave him an unpleasant feeling. There sure are a lot of them. Where did they even come from? Kei thought to himself.
The ground was covered with birds eagerly pecking at something.
Once they got closer to it the air was mixed with the presence and stench of death. In the middle of the gently sunlit plains their sense of sight, smell, and hearing were all thrown into disarray just like a flubbed note in a symphony. It reminded Kei of a sky burial.
“Hey, shoo, shoo! Get out of here!” Danny dismounted and swung around a rod to chase off the birds. The birds jumped up and flapped their wings noisily as they vocalized their spite to the intruder who suddenly interrupted their meal.
As the veil of feathers lifted, the corpses came openly into view. Everyone was at a loss for words.
It looked as if someone had thrown dark red paint all over the place. Human bodies looked like they’d exploded into pieces. The corpses were too damaged for just one night with the birds.
One body was pinned to a rock by an arrow through its skull.
Another had his neck almost entirely ripped apart.
A third corpse’s chest collapsed in on itself with an arrow stabbing through its ribs and into its heart.
Another corpse’s right foot was torn to shreds and his head resembled the inside of a pomegranate. The men there had not the slightest idea what happened to cause such a scene.
They couldn’t grasp it. Their feelings were all jumbled up.
The corpses’ eyes were pecked out and their skin and muscle were ruthlessly torn apart by the birds. It was so bad that you could only guess at what their expressions had been when they died.
However, everyone was equally exposed to the brutality. It was almost as if they could still hear the bandits’ dying screams.
The birds noticed the people weren’t moving and a number of them came back and began to feed on the bodies again.
One large crow bit a hole into a corpse’s stomach and pecked around inside the wound before it smoothly grabbed and dragged out the large intestines.
The intestine plopped onto the ground, and even with the blood mostly drained it appeared red and wet. With its black eyes the crow stared at Kei on his horse while it sloppily ate.
Kei resisted the urge to vomit. The strong stench of the corpses along with the black and red bloody spectacle alone were enough to make one nauseated.
What’s more, he was the one that killed them. Now, Kei saw the reality of the situation.
Pale-faced, Kei sat on his horse and stared up at the sky. He didn’t feel any regret, nor any guilt. He was a victim himself. There was enough reason for him to righteously kill them. In Kei’s mind, they sincerely deserved to die and no one should condemn him for doing it.
That’s what he told himself.
Nevertheless, it was still gross.
One of the younger villagers couldn’t bear it and fell to his knees as he threw up. The others put their hands over their mouths, but some couldn’t hold it back and they, too, vomited.
Of those who didn’t vomit, Danny’s face was pale and Cronen didn’t look too good. However, despite the conditions, Mandel seemed to be fine.
“Kei,” Mandel looked at him and said quietly, “Next time, try to do it a little cleaner. It’s easier to take care of afterwards.” Without waiting for a response, Mandel approached one of the nearby corpses that was less damaged and began searching it.
Following that, Danny raised his voice to the other villagers, “Hey, let’s get it together!”
“…All right.” Kei mumbled and quietly dismounted Sasuke before approaching it.
It was terrible. After only one night Mikazuki’s body was only a shadow of his former magnificent fur and sturdy muscles.
Starting with the arrow wound in his stomach, the birds picked and tore at his guts. Cynically, but still ironically, a number of bird corpses lay scattered around Mikazuki. They were killed by the poison left in his body. Once Kei got closer, he could see that the ground was actually covered in insects such as ants and small beetles that swarmed to the meat. The only saving grace was that Mikazuki’s headgear kept most of the damage out of sight.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Kei as he stroked Mikazuki’s nose. “I’m sorry, Mikazuki.”
Next to Kei, Sasuke snorted and flicked his head several times as well as nudging Mikazuki’s body with his nose.
After closing Mikazuki’s eyes Kei stood up and gently patted the nape of Sasukes neck. “Now then…”
A bird does not foul the nest it is about to leave — that is, he can’t leave cleaning up to the others when he caused the mess. He thought to himself that even though others may have felt sinful or responsible, he would only bear the truth as it was.
Kei passed by a body that was near him and approached the body the skinny man with the pomegranate like head.
He started by pulling off the greaves that the man had worn on his shredded legs.
“Don’t leave anything that looks valuable behind! And make sure you handle the leather goods carefully, don’t damage them anymore than they are! Check their necks and their hands well, jewelry can fetch a good price—“
From the background Kei heard Danny do the only thing he was good at—giving direction —as the mechanical collection of items continued.
The spoils were leather armor, long swords, the golden short spear, rings, necklaces, and other jewelry. They also grabbed their purses before they turned around to head back to the village, now covered in blood.
—The eight bandits’ bodies were left as they were.
 Sky Burial: “Sky burial is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposed to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially carrion birds.” —https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_burial