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No matter how you looked at it—the town was in decline.
Deep in a cleared-out section of a forest far to the south of the Dariya plains, the village Laneza was hidden away.
Its population had fallen to less than fifty, with most of the remaining people being seniors. The younger villagers who were conscripted for the war learned of the mysterious outside world and grew to dislike their secluded hometown, so most of them did not come back.
The only things that returned were the people that didn’t discover the outside lifestyle and the articles of the deceased.
There were limits to what the remaining villagers could do to revive the town. There wasn’t anything special about the village and it was far from the highway. Before you knew it, the town had died out.
It was a village that time had left behind.
It was so remote that even tax collectors could forget about it.
Within ten years of the decline, over half of the inhabitants grew old and the death of the town was just a matter of time. With terrible financial standings and no convenience of transportation, no one even came on a whim out of curiosity.
—Except for them.
The two of them held each other, almost dragging themselves along the single path through the forest. One of them was a man whose right shoulder was bandaged and dark with blood. The other was a haggard man wearing a dark bandana and a hood. One of his legs was limp, so he walked clumsily clinging to a stick he was using as a crutch.
They were both covered in black from head to toe. They wore black leather shin guards and the same leather for their bracers. The boy with the bandaged shoulder carried a long sword at his hip, while the other had a bloody short sword at his. Aside from their swords, they had no other belongings. It looked like they came running for their lives.
The two of them moved through the dimly lit woods, trying to go unnoticed. They hardly saw anybody in the village. However, some villagers saw them—the ones that did looked away and pretended that they weren’t there.
The two men paid the villagers no heed as they kept walking. They made their way out of the woods and finally back into the sunlight.
It was a cemetery.
The hill was dotted with patches of flowers. They picked their way through sticks that were hammered into the ground in place of headstones, heading for the grave keeper’s house.
The house was large and sturdily built. Unlike the small wooden homes in the village, this one had a well-made foundation of good stone. It was quite luxurious for a grave keeper in a dying settlement.
The bandaged man mustered what feeble strength he had left and used the knocker on the door.
The rhythm he knocked with was clearly a special, secret knock. The sound of a chair scraping the floor came from inside and, before long, the door opened a crack.
An old man with a long beard and gray hair peeked through the crack. He looked like a hermit. As he let them into the living room he said, “You look like shit. Is it just you two? Where’s Morissette?”
“He’s dead… We’re the…only ones left,” the bandaged man with short hair whispered his answer.
“No…” the old man furrowed his brow.
The man ignored him, leaned against the wall and slowly slid down to the floor. The one with a limp walked to a chair, clutching his stick, and lowered himself down with a groan.
“I don’t believe it… So, Morissette kicked the bucket…” the old man continued after a moment, “Pavel, what in the world happened? He didn’t seem to be the foolish type. Did he pick the wrong opponent? Or maybe, did he get attacked instead?”
The short haired one, ‘Pavel’, hung his head in silence.
The slightly panicked old man squatted down and brought his face close to Pavel’s, it seemed that he had lost consciousness. He placed his hand on the man’s neck to check if he had a pulse and was breathing, but they was very faint. He suddenly stood up, “This isn’t good. Romeo!! Get over here!” he yelled as he clapped his hands.
A reply came from the other side of the room, “Yes, sir!” a servant, a young boy with frizzy brown hair, came rushing over.
“Romeo, go get Ghislain-sensei. Tell him we have two emergency cases.”
His face turned to one of shock when he saw them, “Y-yes, sir!” and ran out the door.
“However… Morissette died…” said the old man as his gaze grew distant and he stroked his beard. He sat down in silence and his eyes fell on the other man.
The man was haggard and gloomy, and he wore a black bandana to hide his face.
“You… You’re Rat, right? Ratrand?”
The one called Rat slowly lifted his head.
“Looks like they got you good… I didn’t recognize you at first. Where are you hurt? Your legs?”
Rat slowly removed the bandana, revealing his ‘wound’ and causing the old man to gasp and stumble backward.
It was a dark red mushy mess of blood and barely attached meat. It took several moments for the old man to realize that the white in the mess were bits and pieces of broken bones and teeth. The bottom half of his face was gone.
All the way from his oral cavity to the back of his throat were completely exposed. His tongue wriggled around like a snake and his words came as garbled groans with saliva dripping out in long strands.
—He only looked exhausted before, thought the old man. You couldn’t even call his ‘mouth’ a mouth, he couldn’t possibly eat with it. Especially not provisions for travel like hard biscuits. Even a mashed rice porridge would be tough.
“How the hell… What did you fight?” the old man muttered to himself.
“Aihuaaaaaah!” Rat screamed. “Aihuaaaahaaaaah! Aihu, oohieee!” The remaining part of his face became red and saliva dripped out again. “Oohieeuu! Eeahiiaeii!”
His useless voice mixed with his screams and shrieks as he pulled his short sword from his hip. The old man stiffened. Bam! Rat smacked the table with it.
It was a dull silver with a dull edge to match and was coated in dark dried blood. The blood of a hound wolf.
“Sorry… I don’t know what you’re saying,” said the hunched old man with a perplexed expression as he shook his head.
“Oheea, aiiiuoo… aiiiuoo, aiiiuoooiiioooo!! Oooooooaaaaaooo!!” He screamed like a spoiled child and beat the table as if he were crazy. “Ooiiau! Ooiiau! Ooe, ooieauu! Ooieu!! Ooieau, ooiau! Ooooiauuuuu!!” Before long, Rat’s constant shouts lost their strength and turned into mere whispers as he sullenly stared at the floor.
The old man watched with a stiff face.
Then, the young servant came back with the shaman and the old man sullenly confined himself to his room, leaving them to the expert. He sat in front of his desk and with his hands to the sides of his head, heaved a sigh and swayed in his rocking chair. “Really now… Morissette-sama is dead, Ratrand has gone mad, and Pavel, the only one who knows anything, is in critical condition.” Just when he thought it had gotten quiet recently, this happened. He sighed again. He didn’t want this kind of trouble. “Well, for now I should just send out the report…”
He pulled a small scrap of paper from the desk drawer. The old man squinted and used a feather pen to record what happened. “Hm…”
When he finished, he placed the pen back in the ink, folded up the paper, and drew a geometrical shape on it.
He pulled a piece of parchment from the drawer and began to scan the contents, comparing it to that of the scrap of paper.
“Okay.” Once he finished, he took a whistle from the breast pocket of his robes and faced the window before blowing it.
Piiiii! The high-pitched sound traveled out into the thick woods.
Soon after, a large crow flew out of the trees. It landed on the windowsill and looked at the old man with its blood red eyes.
He fastened a small leather pouch to the bird’s right leg. “Alright, it’s time for work.”
The old man picked up a small piece of salami from his desk and the crow clicked its beak. He fed it to the crow, and as it ate, he put the scrap of paper in the pouch on its leg.
“That’s that. Now then…”
The old man coughed and held the bird up in his right hand.
『—Al la kastelo.』
The crow’s beady eyes lit up and it spread its wings. It cawed with its grating voice as it flew into the sky.
The old man watched and sat back down in his rocking chair.
He had seen the crow fly high into the sky two or three times.
It circled in the sky and turned to head south.
To the old man, it was so high that it looked like a grain of black sand.
Just like that, it flew out of sight.
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